Can Modern Science be Theologically Salvaged?: Reflections on Conor Cunningham’s Theological and Metaphysical Evaluation of Modern Evolutionary Biology

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Paul Tyson


In Darwin’s Pious Idea, Conor Cunningham dissects a range of popular anti-theological, anti-Christian readings of Darwinian evolution. With knowledge and philosophical sensitivity, he points out their many errors and argues that Darwin’s idea is both valid science and compatible with good theology. Ultra-Darwinism and modern Christian fundamentalism are both ravaged by his assault.

Underlying his analysis is an acute awareness of the failure of modernity to produce a viable first philosophy, which leads to science—a truth discourse after all—falling into this metaphysical gap. Thus, secular ‘naturalistic’ science has become our first philosophy by default. Cunningham argues that this philosophically impossible situation can only be remedied by a return to theology as our first philosophy, and that such a return would make our science better.

This paper finds Cunningham’s arguments against pseudoscience to be both persuasive and timely. Yet, when it comes to Cunningham’s valiant attempt to synoptically align the horizons of Darwinian evolution with orthodox theology, deep difficulties arise. Perhaps it remains the case that there is a profound imaginative dissonance between cosmology and teleology within a modern, naturalistic set of scientific assumptions, and cosmology and teleology are situated within a non-modern biblical perspective. And perhaps this dissonance is an essential one. Further, if modernity as a socio-cultural life-form is now characterised by the deep rejection of any first philosophy—and hence theology—in favour of resting on science itself for its imaginative orientation in the world, then forging an alliance between modern science and Christian theology may not be such a good idea for theology, however carefully it is done. So it seems that even after reading Cunningham’s book, the question, ‘can modern science be theologically salvaged?’ remains live for the Christian theologian.

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