Revelation (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Prior to the twentieth century, it was usually assumed that revelation was received in two modes. "Special" revelation represented communication of knowledge about God through supernatural agency. "General" revelation consisted of what could be known of God through either abstract philosophy or reflection on the nature of the universe.
In the twentieth century, however, there were strong challenges both to the concept of revelation as disclosure of propositional knowledge and to the validity of a "natural theology" based on general revelation. The work of the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886968), in particular, had led, by the middle of the century, to both a new emphasis on the centrality of special revelation for theological thinking and a perspective in which theological propositions represented no more than human reflection on God's historical acts. This emphasis on "revelation in history" had a major influence in making propositional understandings of revelation unfashionable.
This tendency was subsequently reinforced, for some, by instrumentalist understandings of religious language, such as those associated with existentialism, with "linguistic" understandings, and with more specifically postmodernist approaches. As a result, except in neo-orthodox circles, which still looked to Barth for inspiration, the focus for many shifted from historical revelation towards existential criteria and existing religious communities. Despite the ways in which this gap was bridged by the work of people like Yves Congar, on revelation, and of Janet Soskice, on religious language, these perspectives resulted in a widespread belief that theological reflection was essentially unaffected by scientific understanding.
Perspectives from science and religion
The dialogue of science and theology during the second half of the twentieth century was based, in large part, on a reaction to this "independence" thesis, as Ian Barbour called it. The simplistic separation of science and religion that had arisen from seeing the one as based purely on empirical problems, and the other as based purely on special revelation, was strongly challenged. Beginning with the work of Barbour himself, it was increasingly stressed that science itself was more complex in its rationality than was commonly understood, and that there were important parallels between the ways in which religious and scientific languages were employed.
Two factors were characteristic of this phase of the dialogue of science and theology. One was that the dialogue was often seen in apologetic terms, its goal being to vindicate the consonance of scientific and theological worldviews. This consonance was interpreted, however, largely in terms of the way in which both disciplines could be seen as using revisable models of reality. This owed much to Karl Popper's (1902994) analysis of the sciences, and manifested little recognition of broader, postfoundationalist perspectives. The other, and related, factor was that theological language was often approached from a perspective that stressed the more conservative aspects of the sort of "critical realism" that had become, among philosophers of science, the dominant understanding of scientific language.
Modifications that might have been made to this position, through an awareness of recent thinking about revelation, were conspicuous by their absence. At the level of epistemology, dissenting voicesuch as that of Thomas Torranceended to look back to Barthian viewpoints. Only in the last decade of the century were there significant challenges based on new perspectives, which attempted either to modify the realist position in a major way (Christopher Knight), to dispute realism in favor of an emphasis on methodological parallels (Nancey Murphy), or to emphasize the importance of postfoundationalist insights ( J. Wentzel van Huyssteen). Despite these challenges, however, the older, quasi-propositional approach remained influential.
One of the more fruitful aspects of this approach was, even for some who were otherwise critical, the attempt to challenge the Barthian rejection of the concept of "natural theology." Few attempted to defend its historical formsecognizing, for example, that neo-Darwinian understandings had rendered design arguments such as William Paley's (1743805) redundant. Nevertheless, although it was acknowledged that no "proof" of God's reality could now be provided, people like John Polkinghorne advocated a "revived and revised natural theology"ersuasive but not logically coerciveased on issues such as the anthropic cosmological principle. Similarly, people like Arthur Peacocke urged the relevance of the concept of inference to the best explanation.
The propositional understandings of revelation implicit in these approaches were, however, further undermined by another issue that took on new importance towards the end of the twentieth century. It was the question of whether, and how, religious faiths other than one's own can be seen as having arisen from God's revelation of himself within different cultures. Keith Ward, in particular, attempted to develop an understanding of revelation that took up the pluralist insights of earlier investigators into the relationship between different faiths.
One of the most comprehensive responses to this issue from within the science and religion debate was that of Christopher Knight, who advocated a pluralist understanding of revelation based on an essentially naturalist understanding of divine action. Using the experiences of the risen Christ as his prime example, Knight explored the psychological basis of revelatory experience to affirm what he called a psychological-referential model of revelatory experience. As Ward's own position indicated, however, Knight's type of naturalism was not the only approach through which a pluralist understanding could be affirmed. A more conservative understanding of divine action can also give rise to a pluralistic position.
It is perhaps in the context of postfoundationalist understandings of rationality that the concept of revelation will most markedly affect the dialogue of science and theology in the near future. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen's approach, for example, is one that assumes, in the views of some, too great a distinction between theological and scientific rationality. Nevertheless, his way of acknowledging crucial areas of overlap provides a challenge to the simplistic distinction between empirical problems and God's revelation, which is often still held to separate science and theology. This acknowledgement is likely to be of considerable influence in an era profoundly influenced by postmodernist perspectives. A more subtle understanding of revelation than is yet common can, arguably, allow the implications of his insights to be fully explored.
See also ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE; CRITICAL REALISM; DIVINE ACTION; EPISTEMOLOGY; LANGUAGE; NATURAL THEOLOGY; POSTFOUNDATIONALISM; POSTMODERNISM
Barr, James. Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: The Gifford Lectures for 1991. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Brook, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Congar, Yves. The Revelation of God, trans. A. Manson and L. C. Sheppard. New York: Herder and Herder, 1968.
Henn, William. The Hierarchy of Truths According to Yves Congar, O.P. Analecta Gregoriana 246. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 1987.
Knight, Christopher C. Wrestling With the Divine: Religion, Science and Revelation. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Peacocke, Arthur R. Intimations of Reality: Critical Realism in Science and Religion. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Polkinghorne, John. Faith, Science and Understanding. London: SPCK, 2000.
Soskice, Janet Martin. Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
Torrance, Thomas F. Reality and Scientific Theology. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
van Huyssteen, J.Wentzel. "Postfoundationalism in Theology and Science." In Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue, eds. Niels H. Gregersen and J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.
Ward, Keith. Religion and Revelation: A Theology of Revelation in the World's Religions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
CHRISTOPHER C. KNIGHT