Albert Borgmann

science and theology

Many of us live in advanced industrial countries that enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity. “A crucial part of our freedom, of course, is political. [That is to be sure]. But,” as philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann has commented, “what is truly novel and unique is the liberation we owe modern technology—freedom from hunger, cold, disease, ignorance, and confinement. Just as remarkable is the positive counterpart to liberation, namely, enrichment—the immense prosperity of goods and services that [science and] technology has delivered. We are doing very well [for ourselves].”[1]

The precedence of science and the concomitant pledge to technological resolutions to human problems are bolstered by our well-being. And such well being—to emphasise the circular feedforward mechanism at work—is further safeguarded by the advance of technology and “the scientific form of knowing that is its twin.”[2]

But Christianity, or religion more generally, as it has been argued, is not doing as well. ...

 

As the story of secularization tends to be told, the sacred is being ursupred by the secular. As the advance of scientific knowledge and corresponding technology continue to present tangible advantage, there is, as it is often argued, a seeming retreat of theology—of faith. Thus, by the advantage proffered by modern will, reason, and technique, we mere mortals have proven ourselves self-sufficient, solitary, and strong.

As Max Weber has suggested, authoring the principal narrative for the secularization thesis, modern societies are disenchanted when the ultimate values withdraw from public life into the private spheres, leaving public life to be organized around notions of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic efficiency.[3] Put differently, when considering die Entzauberung der Welt stripped bare of the ethereal and the mysterious, rendered a mere problem to resolve by scientific means of knowing, everything becomes capable of being explained.[4] Everything is reducible to mere and meaningless object, awaiting meaning-making discovery, and capable of being mastered, mutilated, surveiled, and subdued.

In the spheres in which the topic of science and theology/religion are discussed, the secularization thesis is a theory of profound impact. It has influenced the way(s) in which scholars in the field have positioned the discourse, as we saw above. But there are those who view the narrative with relative ambivalence, which is indicative of Weber, himself. Other still read it with positive affirmation; for example, Jürgen Habermas has read this theory as a very progressive achievement of human rationality and Enlightenment convictions.[5] Yet the secularization thesis as introduced here also has its critics; those critical of the modern turn see it as a “fall into darkness.”[6] I too have previously recorded this thesis, and read it with a critical tone as an exercise in hubris and the sin of solitude and self-sufficiency, of dehumanisation, aiming to claim the world (and the adjudication of ethics) by the ingenuity of reason, will, and technique.[7]

Such a narrative has contributed greatly to the antagonistic and military metaphors that serve to illuminate disciplinary boundaries and hostility between science and theology. It has labored to press theology to the margins, forcing a retreat of the transcendent in favour of the immanent and instrumental.

Again, the argument is as such: “[N]ature in the modern age seems to present itself to us in very different ways. Nature is mathematical—something to be counted, measured, and mapped. Nature is immanent—it operates according to its internal processes, rather than being shaped or guided by a supernatural hand. It is mechanical, behaving according to cause and effect, not seeking teleological goals. It is a resource, to be owned or held in common, to be used or preserved. It gives up its meanings to careful observation and scientific theory, not to mythology or divination. This is the nature of scientific, industrial modernity, the nature whose being is mastered by science, whose value is measured by economics, and whose potentiality is determined by technology.”[8]

Put differently, with modern science, and the corresponding promise of Baconian progress—i.e., the pursuit of power by epistemological means—we have killed the gods, the sacred retreats, and we have no need of faith:

The following poem is fitting [From Matthew Arnold’s (1867) Dover Beach, quoted in part]:

The sea of faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold presents to us a beautiful metaphor for the waning of religion and the disenchantment of the world. The close of this poem, if I might suggest, though, is rich with grief.

Responding to the poem, however, and in opposition to Arnold’s grief (or pessimism), William Butler Yeats penned the following:

[This comes from Yeats’ (1929) The 19th Century and After]

Though the great son return no more

There’s keen delight in what we have:

The rattle of pebbles on the shore

Under the receding wave.

I quote these poems here to highlight a particular, and interesting exchange. The latter offers a quintessential, or familiar, posture that applauds the advantage of the sciences to buffer ourselves from the threat of the gods and the folly of faith. The former, however, is much less pleased with that state of things. I am less pleased with the states of things, where the narrative of retreat and irrelevance masks the essential nature of the religious habitus of modern secularity.

Put differently, the secularization thesis following after Weber, and his interlocutors, disguises the ways in which religion and science interpenetrate one another—and continued reference to consonance, dialogue, intersections, and the like, will only perpetuate such dichotomous and contrary treatment of science and theology for such language assumes the delimitations and boundaries of the fields of study as essential.[9] Instead, under the rubric of coinherence, science and theology are to be thought of as “not [being] separate.”[10]

Accordingly, sociologist Bronsilaw Szerszynski has argued in his vitally important book Nature, Technology, and the Sacred [which also recited Dover's poem], “Science and technology have not so much desacralized the world as they have become the instrument for sacralizing the world in new ways. [In fact], It is not too much to say that science and technology express the ways we are religious today—science sketching the overarching order, technology focusing on how we ought to live; science assuming the status of ‘new revelation’ and technology becoming the religious way of life.”[11] Thus, “Sacral ordering of nature is the ongoing process, … Religious meanings do not disappear; they just alter, and new forms of treating nature as sacred are generated.”[12] Such alterations, however, may be heterodox or heretical.

Nevertheless, as Szerszynski has rightly instructed, it is important to understand, and to remind ourselves again and again, “Nature is not a blank slate that can simply have a theology and liturgy inscribed on it. For it is already under an enchantment, … And technology, far from being an instrument of desacralization that strips meaning from nature, itself serves ceremonial functions maintaining a particular sacral ordering of nature. The goal of achieving a right relation to nature and to technology is thus only possible if we engage at the level of the sacral meanings—both benign and malign—that inform our current relationships with them.”[13]

 

[1] Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity and the Culture of Technology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003), 7.

[2] Bronislaw Szerszynski, “A reply to Anne Kull, Eduardo Cruz, and Michael DeLashmutt,” Zygon, 4, no. 46 (Dec. 2006): 819.

[3] Weber, 1989, p. 30.

[4] Ibid., p. 13.

[5] Jurgen Habermas, 1984.

[6] Bronislaw Szerszynski, Nature, Technology, and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 6

[7] Ashley John Moyse, Reading Karl Barth, Interrupting Moral Technique, Transforming Biomedical Ethics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

[8] Bronislaw Szerszynski, Nature, Technology, and the Sacred, p. 5.

[9] Philip Hefner, “Religion and Science: Separateness or Co-inherence?” Zygon, 41, no. 4 (Dec. 2006): pp. 781.

[10] Ibid., 781.

[11] Ibid., 781.

[12] Anne Kull, “Mutations of Nature, Technology, and the Western Sacred,” Zygon, 41, no. 4 (Dec. 2006): 786.

[13] Szerszynski, Nature, Technology, and the Sacred, p. 172. For Szersynski, the modern habitus has ushered in a radically immanent form of the sacred, which took over life itself—ushering in the barbarism that Michel Henry lamented. Szersynksi writes,

“But with the collapse of the transcendent axis in modernity, a profoundly immanent form of the sacred took over, the sacrality of life itself, whether the subjective life of the Romantics and postmodernity, or the biological construal of life that lies at the heart of biopolitical society. And it is with the biopolitical ordering of the modern state that technology becomes not simply the soteriological project it was in the Reformation period; as the goal of technology comes to be rendered in technical terms, technology starts to order the ends of life in its own terms. And finally a postmodern sacred, constituted by a plurality of meanings grounded in individual subjectivities, further overalays this modern biopolitical ordering of society” (Nature, Technology, and the Sacred, p. 172).

Continuing, Szerzynski comments further:

“[P]remodern ideas of technology were much more restrained in their claims to be able to produce predictable and certain outcomes. It was not until the Reformation and Enlightenment periods that technology in the modern, sublime sense emerged, that is, a technology promising an overcoming of contingency and finitude. And it is in this very same context that countertechnological discourses emerged which claimed that it is not technology but its withdrawal that can offer the certain characteristic of reason” (p. 173.)