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The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science

The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science

by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen
In the proliferation of new books on theology and science, this book is unique in its special focus on the problem of rationality in religion and scientific reflection. Confronting head-on the intellectual challenges raised by postmodern thought, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen argues forcefully for the interdisciplinary nature and public status of theological


In the proliferation of new books on theology and science, this book is unique in its special focus on the problem of rationality in religion and scientific reflection. Confronting head-on the intellectual challenges raised by postmodern thought, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen argues forcefully for the interdisciplinary nature and public status of theological reflection.

Building on the line of argument pursued in his most recent writings, the author develops his notion of "postfoundationalist rationality," finding within the rich resources of human thought the possibility -- and vital need -- for interdisciplinary conversation between theology and science.

Editorial Reviews

The book's highly technical presentation is not for the fainthearted, but the determined nonspecialist will learn much about contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science.... The book does open up new ground in the burgeoning theology and science discussion and its proposals deserve serious consideration.

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
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5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Why rationality? The answer to this question has not been an easy one. I do know, however, that writing this book on the problem of rationality has been a life-changing experience that started a long time ago with a lingering fascination with a rather abstract, theoretical problem, and ends now with a profound and humble awareness of the deeply spiritual nature of the human self as embedded in the complexities of everyday life. My initial and ever-increasing fascination has been with the sheer fact of human intelligence, and with the spectacular difference its presence and almost limitless achievements have made in our time. As time went by, however, the contours of the problem shifted as the theologian in me pushed further and started wondering about the relationship between intelligence and rationality, and about how the uniquely human ability and skill of being rational in belief and action could ever be brought to bear upon what seemed to be a distant and remote world—the world of faith and religious commitment. From here it has been a short step to what has become one of the most pervasive and exciting problems of our time, the relationship of life-changing religious faith to the overwhelming and ongoing successes of contemporary science. It took me a long time, however, to grasp that in trying to understand what scientific reflection is about, and in trying to understand what theological reflection is about, the answer lay hidden in the understanding itself.

So, I do want to attempt an answer to the perplexing question why rationality? I now believe that the problem of rationality holds the key to understanding the forces that have shaped the radically different domains of theology and of the sciences, today widely regarded as two of the most enduring, but also controversial, cultural achievements of our species. I also believe that the problematical relationship between these two cultural forces should be seen as the contemporary form of the age-old "faith and reason" problem par excellence. We are indeed the children of modernity, and the often stellar performances of the sciences in our time have again managed to elevate this mode of human knowledge to a status so special and superior that it just had to emerge as the paradigmatic example of what human rationality should be about. In stark contrast to this, religious faith, and theology as a reflection on religious faith, seems to be sliding down the lonely road toward irrationality as it increasingly has to come to terms with a breathtaking and bewildering pluralism of faiths, churches, doctrines, practices, and theologies.

Has science then finally claimed rationality, that most unique of our human abilities, at the expense of religious faith and theological reflection? This book will answer this question with a resounding "no," and will point the way to an unexpected, if not startling, discovery: rationality is alive and well in all the domains of our human lives. Rationality may turn out to have many faces, but rationality also ultimately defines who we are as a species, and rationality will hold the important and only key to bridging the different domains of our lives responsibly. In fact, rationality is all about responsibility: the responsibility to pursue clarity, intelligibility, and optimal understanding as ways to cope with ourselves and our world. The pursuit of intelligibility and optimal understanding will emerge here as possibly the most important epistemic goals that shape the way we interact with others, ourselves, and our worlds on a daily basis. And so we will discover that all the many faces of human rationality relate directly to a pre-theoretical reasonableness, a "common sense rationality" that informs and is present in all our everyday goal-directed actions. It is in the pursuit of these goals and ideals that we become rational persons as we learn the skills of responsible judgment and discernment, and when we articulate the best available reasons we have for making what we believe to be the right choices, those reasons we have for holding on to certain beliefs, and the strong convictions we have for acting in certain ways.

In the course of this book we will also see that we cannot talk abstractly and theoretically about the phenomenon of rationality anymore: it is only as individual human beings, living with other human beings in concrete situations and contexts, that we can claim some form of rationality. In this sense rationality will be revealed as always person- and domain-specific, as we discover it as present and operative in and through the dynamics of our words and deeds, and alive and well in our discourses and action. But as we turn rationality on itself and probe our various forms of understanding, we will find ourselves confronted with maybe the biggest challenge of all: both the traditional domains of science and religion have now woken up to find their identities challenged and changed by a new and pervasive postmodern culture. And in this postmodern world, should we not be taking seriously the "end of philosophy" talk, the jettisoning of all epistemology, and giving up our quest for finding the resources of rationality that our different domains of knowledge may share? More disturbingly, we will discover that it is rationality itself that has been the prime focus of the postmodern challenge. This is a challenge that has to be taken on directly, for if we let rationality slip away, we will be losing that which gives us our identity as human beings. The special focus of the postmodern challenge to human rationality will therefore be found in the challenge to revision the notion of rationality in such a way that all our reasoning strategies will ultimately again benefit from the rich resources of rationality. And it is precisely in trying to detect the presence of rationality in discourses as different as theology and the sciences that we will turn away from overly narrow and "rationalistic" notions of rationality: rationality will indeed turn out to have many faces, and is indeed as many-sided and wide-ranging as the domain of intelligence itself.

In the wake of the postmodern challenge to rationality we will therefore be pursuing the possibility that shared rational resources may actually be identified for the sciences, for theology, and for other forms of inquiry. Then we will proceed to ask what special link this may have opened up between different modes of human knowledge, and especially whether any form of interdisciplinary rationality can be credibly achieved—an interdisciplinary rationality that might finally support the claims by at least some in the theological epistemic community for a public voice in our complex, contemporary culture. On this view both theologians and scientists should be empowered to identify the rational integrity of their own disciplines by offering their own sources of critique and justification, and thereby answer to what will turn out to be one of postmodernism's most powerful challenges: neither theological reflection nor the many forms of contemporary scientific reflection require universal epistemological guarantees anymore. In this book I will therefore focus on the enduring problems resulting from theology's epistemic isolation in a pluralistic, postmodern world. And as we will see, it is the problem of pluralism that will provide us with the key to argue for the interdisciplinary nature and status of theological reflection.

In my recent Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World (1998a) I argued that precisely in the interdisciplinary conversation between theology and the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology there are rich resources for retrieving an integrative approach to human knowledge that would be neither modernist nor foundationalist in nature. Moreover, I argued in this book that theological reflection is not only radically shaped by its social, historical, and cultural embeddedness, but also by the biological roots of human rationality. Especially in contemporary evolutionary epistemology we find surprising, if not startling, attempts to facilitate precisely the most difficult challenge of a constructive form of postmodern critique: the need for a more comprehensive and integrative approach to the problem of human knowledge that will not again totalize our views of human rationality into new and oppressive metanarratives. I will not return here to this line of argument in my current attempt to explore the shaping of rationality, but much of what I argued in this recent book will be presupposed in this text. At this point it suffices to say that the basic assumption of evolutionary epistemology is that we humans, like all other living beings, result from evolutionary processes and that, consequently, our mental capacities are constrained and shaped by the mechanisms of biological evolution. I accept, at least in a minimalist sense, that all our knowledge, including our scientific and religious knowledge, is grounded in biological evolution. And if human knowledge results from, and is shaped by evolution, then the study of evolution should be of extreme importance for an understanding of the phenomenon of knowledge. Various philosophers have argued that it should not at all surprise us that as human beings we could have acquired intelligence, enabling us to secure information and survive in our world. As Nicholas Rescher has correctly pointed out, intelligence naturally arises through evolutionary processes because it provides one very effective means of survival. Rationality, seen in this broadest sense of the word as our particular human ability to cope with our world through optimal understanding, can therefore be seen as conducive to human survival, and the explanation for our cognitive resources as fundamentally Darwinian (cf. Rescher 1992:3f.). In fact, Rescher's observation here is sharp and to the point: the imperative to understand is something altogether basic for homo sapiens. In fact we cannot function, let alone thrive, without reliable information regarding what goes on about us. Intelligence is therefore our peculiar human instrumentality, a matter of our specific evolutionary heritage, and rationality will then primarily consist in the intelligent use of our unique ability for rational judgment, which ultimately determines the life-determining choices we make. We will see, then, that in this sense optimizing our ability for critical judgment regarding what we think, do, and value, indeed forms the crux of human rationality.

In Duet or Duel? I also argued that evolutionary epistemology—in spite of some of its inherent limitations—may facilitate a postfoundationalist notion of rationality that could actually take us beyond the confines of traditional disciplinary boundaries and modernist cultural domains. This notion of a postfoundationalist rationality will emerge as the central theme of this book. But what is presupposed here is that evolutionary epistemology, rightly understood, may indeed facilitate an interdisciplinary account of all our epistemic activities. An exploration into the interdisciplinary nature of specifically theological reflection will not only facilitate the revisioning of the nature and standards of theological reflection, but should also show how firmly religion and religious reflection are embedded in our culture today. Probing the problem of interdisciplinary reflection in a postfoundationalist mode will therefore lead to the important discovery that human rationality can never be adequately housed within any one specific reasoning strategy only. Therefore, to recognize that religious reflection may actually share in the rich resources of human rationality will be to open our eyes to the exciting fact that this rationality itself is operative among our different modes of knowledge and therefore links together the different domains of our lives, and therefore also different disciplines and reasoning strategies. The mere awareness of this fact, of course, already reveals the breakdown of the traditional modernist demarcation between science and religion/theology.

This book, therefore, should be read as an attempt to refigure the interdisciplinary nature and cross-contextual task of theological reflection. This book is also written with the strong conviction that talking about the nature and task of Christian theology today means talking about the complex set of values that shape the rationality of theological reflection. This quest for the rationality of theological reflection will be presented here in terms of two forceful claims: the rationality of theology, first of all, is definitively shaped by its location in the living context of interdisciplinary reflection; secondly, this interdisciplinary context is—epistemologically at least—significantly shaped by the dominant presence and influence of scientific rationality in our culture. Theologians, often focusing on the unique hermeneutics of theological reflection, are notorious for neglecting this profound epistemological challenge, ignoring or failing to recognize the pervasive influence of the sciences on the epistemic and other values that shape theological rationality today.

For theology, an all-important focus of its dialogue with our contemporary culture will therefore be found in two seemingly unrelated issues: on the one hand, the tremendous problems that arise if theology should choose to abandon its interdisciplinary, cross-contextual obligations and retreat to the insular comfort of sectarian notions of theological rationality; on the other hand, contemporary theology's enduring but uneasy relationship with what is often perceived to be a very superior scientific rationality. Both of these challenges, however, look different when we realize that theology and the sciences have also been profoundly influenced by postmodern culture. This gives an unexpected and complicating twist to the centuries-old theology and science problem: not only theology, but also postmodern science and postmodern philosophy of science have moved away quite dramatically from positivist and technocentric conceptions of scientific rationality with its closely aligned beliefs in linear progress, guaranteed success, deterministic predictability, absolute truths, and some uniform, standardized form of knowledge. As we will see, some contemporary philosophers of science now argue for a postmodern philosophy of science, which—along with feminist interpretations of science—rejects all global interpretations of science as well as the power-play implied by scientific progress, and focuses in stead on trust in local scientific practice. As will soon become clear, this kind of postmodernism in science not only sharply deconstructs and rejects the autonomy and cultural dominance of especially the natural sciences as the accepted paradigm for rationality in our time, but will also seriously challenge and deconstruct any attempt to develop a meaningful and intelligible relationship between science and Christian theology today. It is clear that the problem of rationality thus emerges as at the heart of the current dialogue between theology and the sciences. Furthermore, trying to find some kind of meaningful epistemological link between theology and the sciences also directly confronts us with the problem of interdisciplinarity, as we attempt to bring together two modes of knowledge as diverse as theology and science.

I hope to show in this book, then, that the theology and science dialogue today should be a crucial part of the broader discussion of the nature of theological reflection, and as such of the interdisciplinary status of theological reflection. Also, I hope to show that this crossdisciplinary debate is in fact dominated, and, in a sense, held together by what one may call a remarkable mutual quest for intelligibility and optimal understanding. This quest for intelligibility, as will become clear later, is at the heart of what human rationality and our various strategies of reasoning are about. Most of us would agree, of course, that God transcends any final intellectual grasp, and that encounters with God obviously involve deeper levels than that of the rational, inquiring mind alone. As many scientists and theologians today will acknowledge, the quest for intelligibility or optimal understanding will be incomplete if it does not include within itself the religious quest for ultimate meaning, purpose, and significance. This mutual quest for intelligibility has not only created exciting new areas of discussion between theology and the sciences, but also seems to bring these diverse modes of reflection closer together. In this mutual quest for intelligibility each of these modes of cognition will be seen as a very specific and disciplined attempt to understand our world of experience, and in the light of this experience, to identify possible points of consonance, but also possible points of difference between widely divergent reasoning strategies. The current theology and science dialogue, then, will turn out to be at the heart of the debate on the interdisciplinary nature and location of theological reflection, and presents itself as a plausible context for a contemporary apologetics for the Christian faith. As such it should not only fundamentally shape our expression of the Christian experience of God, but will also reveal the shared, as well as the distinct values that shape the rationality of theology and the sciences respectively. This ongoing cross-disciplinary dialogue thus reveals itself as not just an esoteric intellectual hobby of a privileged few, but touches the heart of what theological reflection is about.

Reflecting on the relationship between theology and the sciences therefore reveals an important intellectual and spiritual incentive, which should also shape our reflective expression of the Christian faith, as well as caution us to greater epistemological and methodological sophistication in our reflection on the nature and status of theological reflection. One way to do this would be to first try to find and identify a model of rationality that would not only reveal the possibility of shared resources of rationality between theological and scientific forms of reflection, but which would lure us to move beyond the epistemological dichotomy of foundationalist objectivism and non-foundationalist relativism. This option is what I have called post-foundationalism an option that will reveal the shared rational resources of theology and the sciences, while at the same time creating a space for the very distinct knowledge claims of each of these reasoning strategies. A postfoundationalist model of rationality will take seriously the challenge of much of postmodern thinking, but will carefully distinguish between constructive and deconstructive modes of postmodern thinking. A postfoundationalist model of rationality will therefore especially incorporate into our reasoning strategies the relentless criticism of foundationalist assumptions: we all indeed exercise normative commitments, but the failure to acknowledge those commitments will leave us without any epistemological way of really taking them seriously (cf. Dean 1988:21f.).

A postfoundationalist notion of rationality will therefore provide a quite unique link between theology and the sciences, and will open our eyes to:

first, fully acknowledge contextuality and the embeddedness of both theology and the sciences in the different domains of human culture; second, affirm the epistemically crucial role of interpreted experience and the way that tradition shapes the epistemic and nonepistemic values that inform our reflection about both God and our world; third, at the same time creatively point beyond the confines of the local community, group, or culture, toward plausible forms of transcommunal and interdisciplinary conversation.

As we will see, this move toward a postfoundationalist notion of rationality in theology and science will therefore be held together by a twofold concern: first, recognizing that we always come to our cross- disciplinary conversations with strong beliefs, commitments, and even prejudices; and second, identifying the shared resources of human rationality in different modes of reflection, which allows us to reach beyond the walls of our own epistemic communities in cross-contextual, cross-cultural, and cross-disciplinary conversation (cf. van Huyssteen 1998a). Finally, reflecting on the relationship between theology and the sciences will therefore inevitably force us to reflect on the nature and task of theology as a form of rational inquiry too. We have to ask—also and especially of our own positions—what epistemic and other values lurk in the shadows of our tacit assumptions, and how these assumptions shape our epistemological and other judgments as we try to understand ourselves, our world, and what many of us believe to be God's presence in this world.

If the search for a more integrative model of human knowledge adequately reveals human rationality as our species' most distinguishing survival strategy, performatively present in all the various domains of our lives, then the seemingly remote epistemologies of our various reasoning strategies will be revealed to be integral parts of webs of theories about the world and ourselves. On this view religious and theological reflection can be equal partners in a democratic, interdisciplinary conversation where the voice of authentic religious commitment might actually be heard in a postmodern, pluralist situation. This kind of theological reflection will share in interdisciplinary standards of rationality which, although always socially and contextually shaped, will not be hopelessly culture and context bound; even with widely divergent personal, religious, or disciplinary viewpoints, we still share in the rich resources of human rationality.

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One of the most challenging discussions of the topic at the close of the twentieth century.

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