Original Research

Theology amongst the sciences: A personal view from the University of Oxford

Susan E. Gillingham
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 32, No 1 | a576 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v32i1.576 | © 2011 Susan E. Gillingham | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 22 July 2011 | Published: 07 December 2011

About the author(s)

Susan E. Gillingham, Worcester College and University Lecturer/Reader in Old Testament, Oxford University University of Pretoria, United Kingdom


The paper focuses on two individuals who have each made a seminal contribution to the debates between theology and the sciences in Oxford - Charles Darwin (in the mid–19th century), and Richard Dawkins (from the 1990s to the present day). It introduces Darwin by way of a more personal and visual view from Worcester College Chapel. The restoration of the chapel took place at about the same time as the debates between Huxley and Wilberforce in the Oxford University Museum over Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. The first part of the paper then traces these debates back: first to an earlier period of disputation represented by Galileo Galilei (c. 1564–1642), and then to a period of greater accommodation represented by Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Darwin represents a third, more controversial, stage. The paper then looks at a fourth period, from the mid–20th century onwards, which is marked by more eirenical attempts to demarcate science and theology by seeing the former again as asking the ‘how’ questions and the latter, the ‘why’ questions. It then focuses on a fifth, more disputatious stage, which was initiated by Richard Dawkins, professor in the Public Understanding of Science until 2008. Professor Dawkins challenges the idea that theology cannot be studied, because its focus is a non-existent object, ‘God’.

The second part of the paper looks at various Oxford projects and Oxford theologians who have risen to this contemporary challenge. They include the work of the Ian Ramsey Centre; Justin Barret’s and John Trigg’s joint £ 2 million project, supported by the John Templeton foundation, which examines scientific ideas about religion and the mind; Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006, who has conducted a number of media interviews with Richard Dawkins; Keith Ward, who has written several books engaging not only with Dawkins but is also the Cambridge Professor of Mathematics, Stephen Hawking; and Alistair McGrath, who has a doctorate in both science and theology, and who has similarly written and entered into public debates challenging Dawkin’s ideas.

The paper ends by referring to John Barton, Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, who argues that provided that theology is a subject which is properly critical, open to alien truth and combines both intellectual and emotional modes of perception, it can set an example for almost any academic discipline, both in the humanities and the sciences. The conclusion is therefore that, far from theology having to become more like another science, the sciences might be challenged to become more like theology.


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