The Two Cultures: a Failure in Intellectual life.


Peter M Sellick. Home Page


This essay was prompted by the funeral of a prominent member of the scientific establishment at which I presided. In my conversations with the widow and her children it became clear that the deceased was an old school scholar who had a passion for learning of all sorts and who was drawn to religious expression. However, despite his love for the arts and language and ecclesiastical architecture he found that he could not make the step into the church that his wife and children made. Reading between the lines, it was apparent that this man found it impossible to come to the Christian faith for the same reasons that so many highly intellectual men and women also find it impossible. There were intellectual barriers that could not be overcome. It is this schism in intellectual life, mostly but not entirely, in the sciences, which prompted C.P.Snow to talk about the two cultures. The debate between science and religion has continued along the same old tired path since the radical Enlightenment and is focused around the nature of matter and of spirit. In particular, the debate has focused on the existence or nonexistence of God as supernatural agent. And this despite arguments from philosophy, natural science and even theology that such an idea of God is untenable. For how can a supernatural entity that is by definition immaterial interact with the material? If there was such an interaction then it could be detected by the methods of natural science. But the most telling point of all comes from theology that insists on a Trinitarian conception of God that can in no way be identified with the supernatural being of the debate. The fact that this conversation has been going on for so long in these terms constitutes a failure in intellectual life. The reasons that scientists, especially, cannot believe in God are fallacious and one wonders at the inability of intelligent and educated men and women to delve deep enough to hurdle the impasse. Could it be that we are dealing here more with prejudice than with honest inquiry? 


Christian theology has survived the onslaught of Enlightenment thought and the triumph of materialism. We all know, or should know, that the supernatural realm does not exist. To many this would signal the end of Christian faith. There can now be no God that looks down from on high, no afterlife, no heaven, no miracles, no resurrection. Jesus becomes the teacher of the moral life. In other words the debate has been decided in the terms that have dominated for the last several hundred years: Christianity is to do with the supernatural and since this obviously does not exist Christianity is forfeit. However, the tradition, when closely examined, escapes this judgment. It does so by shear richness of expression and the provision of a language that penetrates to the depth of human life. Certainly there are descriptions of what can only be called supernatural events but careful exegesis demonstrates that there is more to them than the contravention of the natural order. Other meanings scream out to be recognized. When the evangelists describes Jesus walking on water he is telling us about the overcoming of chaos and he harks back to the waters of chaos that were divided and controlled in the first creation narrative. When the evangelist talks about the resurrection of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church he tells us about the failure to extinguish his words and actions and of their continuing presence in memory and imagination. The writers of biblical texts used the genre of the supernatural not for its own sake as if they wished to provide evidence for the supernatural but in order to raise the salience of their message and so that it would snag in the mind of the hearer.

When we understand that the true task of theology begins with the exegesis of texts we begin to understand that its task is cultural/literate. That is, it does not purport to stand in the same place as natural science. The true task of theology is to explicate the meaning of the literary tradition. In this it is similar to any other literary endeavor except that the object of the endeavor is a nation and a person who existed in history. We must distinguish the difference between the history of Israel and of Jesus and the stories told about them. This is what anchors the tradition in human reality, without these elements we could describe it as a mythology. Thus the ontological status of biblical literature is not that of natural science and the two may never conflict. The schism in intellectual life is based on a mistake that has science and theology jostling for authority over the same aspect of the world. Its solution is simple. When scientists insist that the only true knowledge is that produced by the empirical method then we must ask them how they love their wives and children, why they attend to the arts and read novels or listen to music. Is there not truth here?