Science and the New Age Challenge

Written by Ernest Lucas Reviewed By Rob Cook

As a former research scientist and current tutor in biblical studies, Dr Lucas is well placed to write a Christian critique of New Age appeals to science as a justification for their ideas. His thesis is that this appeal is usually superficial and often second-hand and that the so-called science referred to is generally muddled and mistaken.

After a description of the main elements of New Age thought, Lucas provides a brief sketch of the main figures in the development of Western science from Galileo to Newton; figures which New Agers denigrate as reductionist, mechanistic, deterministic, dualistic and rationalistic. He then describes the new perspective on the world resultant from the development of the theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Lucas then questions the inference of various New Age theorists that the universe must therefore be a unified, interconnected whole, that human consciousness plays a part in creating reality and that we must abandon formal logic to understand it. If this were to be widely accepted, he foresees that the lamentable result would be ‘that the current scientific laboratory will be replaced by a séance laboratory’ (p. 30)! New Agers tend to argue that the discoveries of modern science provide evidence for the claims of Eastern mystics but Lucas seeks to demonstrate that a poor grasp of science is here wedded to a partial grasp of only one kind of Eastern mysticism.

There follows a more detailed treatment of the questionable theories of Teilhard de Chardin, F. Capra, R. Sheldrake and J. Lovelock. Lucas is not impressed by any of their theories from Chardin’s noogenesis to Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields. He does give guarded approval, however, to certain aspects of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis but maintains that New Age culture has taken it to unjustifiable extremes by postulating a conscious, purposive Earth goddess. Finally, Lucas contrasts the dangers of New Age ecology which so easily slips into animism and even occultism with a healthy, biblical Green Christianity.

There is much of value in this book from a clear overview of the history of science including the new physics of Einstein and Planck to an interesting survey of New Age writings and mentors. Some of the criticisms are impressively astute such as the observation that New Age holism is at variance with the reductionist contention that matter is unreal because it is reducible to energy.

However, overall this book leaves me deeply dissatisfied. While competent as an expositor of science, Lucas is a less sure guide in other aspects of the material covered in the book. For example his chapter on New Age thought assumes a false homogeneity. New Age is a loose term for many disparate individuals who only bear a vague family resemblance to one another. Further, his knowledge of mysticism is superficial and even flawed—he cites Advaita as an example of a non-monist school of Hinduism (p. 55) but the word means ‘non-dualism’!

Theologically too he oversimplifies. Process theism, for instance is summarily rejected because a developing God cannot be eternally perfect and is not the God of Scripture (p. 117) but in what sense can we say that the interactive God of Scripture is timeless? And cannot the incarnate God, while being a perfect boy and then later a perfect man himself not therefore truly develop in some sense? Further, Hebrews chapter two intimates that by incarnating, God was able to develop from divine sympathy to divine empathy through suffering crucifixion. A dynamic panentheist model is possibly more attractive in some ways than Lucas allows and if such a di-polar theism is illogical (p. 155) as he maintains, how is it that the doctrine of the Trinity ‘enables us to hold together God’s transcendence and immanence’ without similar logical problems (p. 157)? Rather strangely, Lucas criticises Lovelock’s definition of life as inadequate because it omits growth as one of the essential characteristics of living entities (and therefore Gaia cannot be truly living) (p. 127). By Lucas’ definition of life then, the God of his definition cannot be a living entity either.

Overall I find Lucas’ approach somewhat entrenched and unadventurous. Many scholars, expert in science from J. Polkinghorne to P. Davies have found the vistas opened up by the new physics awe inspiring and creatively disturbing. Apparently, not so Lucas. He remains attracted to the idea of a rational God who runs a rational universe; not a dice playing God indeed. Having given T.S. Kuhn’s philosophy of science short shrift (p. 24), he rejects the views of thinkers like Teilhard because they fail K. Popper’s criterion of falsifiability. But he needs to meet the objection that the status of their interpretative views is the same as that of evangelicalism. They are neither verifiable nor falsifiable but are explanatory hypotheses. They are models of reality as Kuhn might have said. Is Teilhard offering us physics or metaphysics? Since we now recognise that all truth claims are value laden, the boundaries are indeed difficult to draw. To be fair, Lucas demonstrates some degree of awareness of the problem and he even offers a solution: ‘It does seem useful … to draw a line somewhere between the stage where the element of subjective interpretation is “imperceptible” and the stage where it is dominant, and reserve the term “science” for the former stage only’ (p. 81). Ah, that it were so simple Dr Lucas!

Rob Cook

Redcliffe College