After his license to teach as a Catholic theologian in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Tübingen was revoked by the Vatican in 1979, Hans Küng, until then internationally known for his works on ecclesiology, began expanding his research and writing into less “churchy” subjects such as global ethics and interreligious dialogue (to be noted is his recent trilogy on The Religious Situation of Our Time dealing with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
With this present book Küng again demonstrated the catholicity and versatility of his theological interests. It originated from his lecture to the German Society of Natural Scientists and Physicists in 2004 and his five lectures in the Studium Generale of the University of Tübingen in 2005. Published in German as Der Anfang aller Dinge: Naturwissenschaft und Religion in 2005, the book deals with the theme indicated by its subtitle, namely, science and religion. That this theme is currently “hot” needs no demonstration. Recent succès de scandale by self-proclaimed atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have made the debate on the relationship between science and religion more vociferous.
Küng begins his discussion of the relationship between science and religion, or more broadly, between reason and faith, with an assessment of physicists’ attempt to formulate “A Unified Theory of Everything.” After a brief rehearsal of the vicissitudes in the relationship between science and religion through the stories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo; of the triumph of science through the achievements of Newton, Einstein, and Hubble; and of the Big Bang theory and quantum theory, Küng argues that the attempt to construct a “world theory” or a “Ultimate Theory of Everything” or a “grand unified theory” (GUT) combining the laws of gravity and quantum physics, especially as devised by Stephen Hawkins, so as to make GOD superfluous, is doomed to failure. Such a failure, Küng notes, was acknowledged by Hawkins himself in 2004.
Küng’s point is not to deny the enormous advances made by physics and mathematics but to underlie their limitations, the former by Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle and the latter by Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem. They cannot answer questions about the “questionability” of reality as a whole, that is, why is there a universe rather than not? To answer this question, the sciences must yield their places to philosophy and theology. Küng then lays out his epistemological principle for a correct understanding of the relationship between science and religion: neither “confrontation” nor “integration” but “complementarity involving the critical and constructive interaction between science and religion in which the distinctive spheres are preserved, all illegitimate transitions are avoided and all absolutizing are rejected, but in which in mutual questioning and enrichment people attempt to do justice to reality as a whole in all its dimensions” (41).
With this principle as guide Küng examines five clusters of issues: (1) Is there a creator (God)? (2) Can creation be understood in the context of evolution? (3) How does life arise, by chance or by necessity? (4) How do humans arise and what is the relation between body and soul, between brain and mind? (5) How to think of the end of the world?
In answering these questions Küng deftly weaves the findings of cosmology, astrophysics, physics, mathematics, molecular biology, anthropology, and neurosciences (just to mention a few!) with reflections from history, philosophy, and theology to offer a balanced, judicious, and modest view on matters that lie at the borders between science and religion. Fundamental to Küng’s argument is his acceptance of Paschal’s wager, which he calls a “rational trust,” on the reality of God: “Even if I lose the wager in death, I will have lost nothing for my life; at all events, I will have lived a better, happier, more meaningful life than if I had not had hope” (206).
To Küng’s personal wager and testimony, it is of course possible, and arguably equally reasonable, for someone to counter that thanks to his or her wager that God does not exist, she or he has lived a better, happier, more meaningful life than if he or she had wagered that God exists. Küng himself has not considered this possibility, but it is something he would do well to recognize, at least to make his position stronger.
Küng’s book is an excellent text for a course on religion and science. Lucid, well-informed, up-to-date, and attractively written (and, mercifully, not a door-stopper like most of his volumes), it is accessible to those (like myself) who have next-to-nothing background in the sciences. It could be profitably used in conjunction with John F. Haught’s Christianity and Sciences: Toward a Theology of Nature, which provides a more extensive theological elaboration.