The late Owen Barfield, remembered chiefly for his friendship with C. S. Lewis, was a remarkable thinker in his own right. In his 1957 book, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957), Barfield noted that "physical science has for a long time stressed the enormous difference between what it investigates as the actual structure of the universe … and the … appearances, which are presented by that structure to normal human consciousness." Even when our attention is explicitly drawn to this "gulf," he added, we choose instantly to forget about it, carrying on with business as usual.

Perhaps it is the sheer difficulty of sustaining such willful forgetting that accounts for the extraordinary flourishing of science writing as we approach the century's end. The picture of the universe as seen by science simply forces itself on our attention, and we must come to terms with it. Hence also the growing number of conferences devoted to the relation between science and religion—many of them sponsored by the John M. Templeton Foundation, which has also funded innovative curriculum proposals—and the steadily growing stack of books and journals devoted to the same topic.

Simply to list the most important books on religion and science published in the last year would exceed our space. Quantum physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne is among CT's 1999 Book Award winners; the title of his book, Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale Univ. Press), might serve as a generic title for the field. Alister McGrath, a leading evangelical theologian with advanced scientific training, has published the first two volumes of an ambitious multivolume work (Blackwell) and is directing a major research project funded by Templeton. Philip Clayton's prizewinning God and Contemporary Science (Eerdmans) seeks to reconcile panentheism—defined by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as "the belief that the Being of God penetrates the whole universe"—both with the Christian tradition and with contemporary science. To these names a distinguished and ever-expanding list could be added, including John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, Stanley Jaki, Nancey Murphy, Ted Peters, Holmes Rolston III, J. Wentzel van Huyssten, and Keith Ward.

But if there is a consensus that the relation between science and religion is a pressing concern, there is no consensus on how exactly the two are related. Broadly speaking, there are two camps. The first is well represented by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (published this month by Ballantine). Gould argues for what he calls "the Principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria," the notion that—with some exceptions—science and religion properly operate in different realms and thus should pursue a policy of "respectful noninterference" toward each other.

Article continues below

Gould is an agnostic, but his view here is shared by a wide variety of theists writing on science and religion. The contrasting viewpoint is well represented by the recently published anthology Mere Creation: Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design (InterVarsity), edited by William Dembski, with contributions by Michael Behe, David Berlinski, Phillip Johnson, and others, which argues that science, properly conceived, can provide compelling evidence of intelligent design in the universe. In short, these thinkers reject Gould's principle of NOMA; science and religion, they argue, do not operate in separate realms. And it is important to add that this camp includes militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins—who argues that science has decisively disproved and discredited religious belief—as well as Christians and other theists. Neither of these contending camps easily accommodates thinkers such as Clayton, Murphy, and Ian Barbour (see p. 18 of this issue), who, with differing emphases, argue for a close and complex relation between science and religion.

This crude summary suggests the prime difficulty with much of the current science-and-religion talk. Fundamental differences in definitions of key terms, in background assumptions, and so on result in frustrating exercises in which opposing parties simply talk past each other. Following many of these debates is like trying to grab a wet bar of soap.

That is why I was particularly grateful to come upon a book that was first published in 1966 and reissued in paperback by the University of Notre Dame Press in 1998: The Lord of the Absurd, by Raymond J. Nogar. Nogar, a Dominican priest and scholar, had published a book entitled The Wisdom of Evolution, offering a defense of what came to be called "theistic evolution." In the wake of that, he embarked on a lecture tour of ten elite universities. The Lord of the Absurd consists not of the lectures themselves but rather of Nogar's reflections on the experience of giving them and the responses they provoked. He concludes by affirming the radical autonomy of God.

Article continues below

Writing long before the current flowering of science-and-religion talk, Nogar detects in advance why much of it is unsatisfactory. He wonders whether ("as the writings of Father Teilhard and others suggest") Jesus Christ is best understood as "the God of order, emerging as the ruler of the harmonious, dynamic evolutionary epigenesis? Does He come as the expected one to the scientist, the philosopher, the wise man? Or does He come as an Intruder, the Uninvited Guest upsetting every expectation?"

Given the vision of God's relation to nature and the cosmos advanced by many Christian scholars today, Nogar's question is quite timely, and his answer is provocative:

I cannot help but reveal my hand. Each time I return to the question of how Christ presents Himself to the decisive spirit as an inescapable datum, the wedge is driven more deeply between the world of cosmic law and the unforeseen intrusions of God. So crushing was the absurdity of Christ's coming into the world to those who first witnessed that visit, that, from the vantage point of the Cross upon which He met disaster, no man could tolerate His oppressive presence. They all went away. From that time until now, men slowly straggle back to Calvary, and He must repeat the same unbelievable story. Man has found a way to listen to this terrible tale, but he never gets used to it. How any man can find in Christ the Lord of cosmic order is totally beyond me. He has always presented Himself to me as the Lord of the Absurd.

By all means let us probe the secrets of the quasar and the quark; let us marvel at the intricate order of living things. But let us also give thanks that our God is the Lord of the Absurd.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.