Rev. Antje Jackelén | The Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden, and Primate, Church of Sweden

Science in philosophical and religious perspectives


If basic science is to be an effective force for human development, peace and planetary health, it needs the partnership of a credible hope. In fact, the success of basic science for people, peace and planet is dependent on a wisely grounded hope. Optimism is not enough; we need hope. And hope is a theological category. Given the current crises, vital relationships between science and theology are crucial to human development, peace and planetary health.


Given a comprehensive summary of the planetary crises we are facing, we are at a moment of Kairos, where everything that is an expression of human dignity needs to cooperate – with science and religion having a special role in this cooperation, a given responsibility. We have multiple reasons to fear, to doubt, to resist and to fight as we strive for global sustainability and adaptability, because so many things can make us lose faith in the success of this endeavour, because so much human and non-human suffering is tormenting this planet. The least we can and must expect in this situation is that science and religion get their acts together and cooperate to the best of their abilities.

As we all know, the relationship between science and religion has changed over time – not only since Copernicus, Galilei, Darwin and Einstein. The myth that the relationship between the two is one of conflict has been debunked many times over. Today, we know that the history of science and theology is rather complicated with lots of influences in both directions. Tensions have eventually led to development, as for example concerning evolution. Harmony has sometimes been harmful, for example when race-biologists and theologians in the name of science became co-workers in the colonial oppression of the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, with consequences that up to this day cause shame, pain and conflicts.

The relationship between science and religion has shifted and developed also during the last forty years or so. To put it short and swift: In the eighties, science-and-religion dialogue was pretty much about physicists trying to bring theologians up to speed on quantum theory. Then, microbiologists entered the stage, saying: we don’t really need this religious stuff. Genes, you know! They were followed by cognitive scientists who asked: Isn’t religion sort of natural, after all? And we witnessed a renaissance of the homo religiosus hypothesis. And now climate scientists have knocked at the door, telling theologians and faith communities: we need you, or else… We need both the theory and the praxis of faith, or else we won’t be able to flatten and reverse curves to save the planet for future generations of humans and a host of other species!

Mandated by the accelerating climate emergency, it seems that climate science is faced with a normative turn. The need to connect to politics on the one hand and to spirituality in faith and action on the other hand becomes ever more evident. The dynamics between beliefs, values and attitudes held, behaviours practised, and collective policies developed, can no longer be ignored.

By the way, it may be interesting to note that the term sustainability as we know it from the definition by the Brundtland commission was originally launched in a church context. In 1974, more than a decade prior to the Brundtland commission, a conference organized by the World Council of Churches on “Science and Technology for Human Development” took place in Bucharest. At that conference, the wording “sustainable and just society” was used. There are indications that the use of the term at the Bucharest conference directly influenced the Brundtland commission.

Be that as it may, the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report from 2022 states that religious beliefs impact experience of climate change (p. 1217). The report acknowledges that religious beliefs, values, and practices can be an asset in adaptation, but that they often also increase vulnerability due to discrimination and injustice, especially in minority situations.

Religious beliefs are relevant to awareness, coping and action. By providing a context of interpretation, they offer understanding and possibly even meaning to events that appear utterly harmful and meaningless. They can strengthen measures of mitigation and adaptation. However, they can also hamper and delay action, depending on doctrinal and communal understandings of, for example, punishment, trust, gender roles and eschatology. The so-called prosperity gospel and non-incarnational apocalyptic theologies that interpret the degradation of the environment as a messianic token can be extremely counter-productive.

Thus, mutual critical and self-critical engagement of science and religion is crucial when it comes to human development, peace and planetary health at this time of crises. Faith traditions need to understand the science in order to make their resources available for effective personal and collective response as well as to inform their preaching, teaching and liturgies. Climate science needs to understand the world of religion in order to get hold of what it takes to bring about the social dynamics demanded at this particular point in our planetary history.

When scientists seek knowledge about social tipping processes and look for small interventions that can have large effects in favour of sustainable development, religious beliefs, practices, and communities cannot be ignored. Most likely, social tipping points are connected to spirituality, because: if people are to make decisions that are costly to them (in terms of substantial change of lifestyle or sacrificing/abstaining from cherished things and practices), they will need a spiritual motivation and spiritually grounded coping mechanisms. These are superior to rational self-interest as sole motivator. And let us not forget that 85 per cent of the world’s population are religiously affiliated.

Some relevant theological issues for the interaction between science and theology in regard to the climate crisis would be: informed morality; justice – including the strongest support to the least privileged; hearing both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, as Pope Francis put it in Laudato si’ (§49); sense of wonder, love and beauty in relation to the planet (you protect what you love!); lament; personal and communal resilience; comfort; motivation to sacrifice for the common good; ability to handle sin, guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation and transformation/metanoia; development of a planetary diaconia.

The days should be gone when sermons blurred the difference between justification by grace through faith and the justification of a status-quo lifestyle that is detrimental to the planet and at odds with God’s oikonomia. Instead, we need a spirituality of resilience, a spirituality of co-existence and a spirituality of hope. Let me explain briefly:

With a spirituality of resilience, we will be able to make sense of the fights of women and men for the future of their children, for people, peace and planet. We will continue to do research and write articles, teach and preach, give lectures and act in the public space – for the sake of healing, sustaining and adapting. With a spirituality of resilience, we will be able to confront the trends and powers that hamper our constructive engagement with the greatest challenges of our time. These powers are characterized by what I have called the five poisonous Ps, namely polarization, populism, protectionism, post-truth and patriarchy. With a spirituality of resilience, we will be able to confront polarization that tears apart what should belong together and work together. We will be able to resist populism that pits people and so-called elites – including scientific elites – against each other. We will be able to counteract protectionism that puts one’s own country, one’s own people and one’s own interests first, at the expense of the common good for people and planet. We will be able to fight against post-truth, the contempt of truth that disfigures the vital triad of the true, the good and the beautiful, without which we cannot live. And we will be able to overcome patriarchy, which continues to deprive the world of the full flourishing of women and children, and in the end dehumanizes all humans, regardless of gender.

With a spirituality of co-existence, in both science and religion, we will be able to revisit some of the borders that are harmful to our working and living together. We will be able to foster more adequate views of nature and biodiversity; and we will be self-critical when it comes to our unavoidable anthropocentric lens. We will listen to creation’s groaning and longing for the revealing of the children of God (Rom 8:19-23). With a spirituality of co-existence, we will be more eager to hear the stories of those who are suffering and will be suffering from the degradation of their environments and livelihoods – and to react to these stories with empathy. We will be better at listening to the voices of indigenous peoples. They tell us, for example, that judgment day may mean that the animals will speak with clear voices, while we humans have to shut up. And we will understand with our minds and our hearts that divine justification and global, planetary justice belong together.

And yet, why is action on climate change so slow? Because we need more of a spirituality of hope. There is too little hope that liberates people to give up things for the greater good. Why is there so much fear of those who are strangers or just “other”? Because too many people lack hope that nurtures the courage to think and act outside the box. A deficit of hope combined with a surplus of fear is a serious condition. It can be fatal.

Credible hope, on the contrary, is liberating and empowering. It is hope that does not put bureaucratic processes or prestige first. It puts people first. It does not put human failure first; it puts human rights first. Also, it does not put one’s own interests first. It puts the planet first.

Hope is a tough plant that can bear a whole lot and resist a whole lot. Nevertheless, hope is also vulnerable. Hope is both a gift that we receive and a muscle we need to train. We must cultivate our own hope, if we are to foster hope among people in situations of crisis and need, if we are to work for the well-being of our planet, if we are to care for God’s creation.

Now, hope is a theological category. Hope is directly dependent on our willingness and capacity to bear uncertainty and relate not only to what is not yet known and hence subject to further research in known and yet-unknown disciplines, but also to what cannot be known despite all progress in science.

The relationship between reason and the unknowable was reflected prominently by the fifteenth-century philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa. He is renowned for imaginative and provocative concepts such as “learned ignorance” (docta ignorantia) or “coincidence of opposites” (coincidentia oppositorum). He also speaks of the important distinction between ratio and intellectus. Both words mean reason or mind, but in different ways. Ratio is calculating, planning and controlling reason. After all, in Latin, ratio also means counting. We can get far with ratio. For complete understanding, however, we must also employ intellectus, insight. When our reason encounters the immeasurable and the unknowable, it employs intellectus, which knows that the unknowable is, precisely, unknowable. While ratio must surrender to the unknowable, intellectus can relate to it without reducing it to knowledge. Mastering this difference is what turns a knowledgeable person into a wise person.

In fact, a comprehensive understanding of the future requires both ratio and intellectus. We need to remember that intellectus is not the opposite of ratio. It does not entail irrationality. Rather, without intellectus, ratio is not fully reasonable. Ratio calculates, controls and monitors. The strength of intellectus is to look and listen, inwardly and outwardly, towards the horizon of the unknowable.

Our sense of control has been nurtured by the rationalist tendencies of modernity. With the help of technology, we have extended our human sphere of power and control. This development has led to the perception, partly illusionary but still very vivid, that we can plan, steer and control most events in our life. The Covid pandemic shattered this illusion abruptly and brutally. So do the consequences of climate change. Ratio is now being thrown into a sea of uncertainty. The abilities of our intellectus are in demand, more than before. We need prudent and wise ways to relate to the unknowable and the uncertain.

Ratio is a perfect instrument for making forecasts and extrapolating trends. This is what optimism and pessimism do: extrapolating and projecting based on past and current developments. Hope is more like intellectus. It seems to me that optimism and hope are related to one another similar to how ratio and intellectus work together.

Hope enables us to see broader contexts and relates to the theological category of promise. Rather than just extrapolating, intellectus and hope also focus on how what is coming towards us from the future resonates with our highest values and our fundamental trust. Especially in times of crises, it is essential that both components of reason are actively employed. If not, we will have more or less pious expectations, but the real power of hope will illude us. Counting on the immeasurable and the unknowable is and remains the most sensible alternative, especially when living in a time of crisis. One might say that hope brings ratio and intellectus together in a way that renders an existential surplus.

Hope is a power with at least three different components. Hope does not flee from reality; therefore, hope must be able to harbour frustration, grief and anger at the forces that contradict the true, the good and the beautiful. Hope knows about our human imperfections, our vulnerability and our mortality as well as about our capacities and our responsibility as created co-creators and co-creatures. Hence, humility is another important component of hope. Hope is different from passively enduring the challenges of any given situation. Therefore, together with anger and humility, courage characterises hope. In most situations, we still have the possibility to choose a courageous path forward rather than the opposite.

Hope as anger, humility and courage is nourished by our personal and our collective experience, spanning the centuries of faith and prayer, which we can lean on and learn from. Hope suffers, feels and struggles in the crisis of the present. Hope prevails, because it can see life beyond destruction and suffering, beyond sorrow and pain.

Hope is relational. It consists of interconnections between anger, humility and courage. It faces the past, the present and the future. It nourishes and is nourished by all four basic relationships of human existence, that is, the relationship to God, to the whole of the creation, to all our fellow humans and to ourselves.

Hope empowers our desire for truth, love and justice. Anger, humility and courage provide it with energy. While hope is a gift, the active possession of this gift may imply struggle. On a personal level, we may become involved in the struggle between hope and despair. At the same time, the person who despairs is still within hope’s reach, regardless of the extent to which doubt is pulling them in the opposite direction.

Hope must be understood from the perspective of love, as theologian Werner G. Jeanrond has pointed out. And love drives out fear. We are called upon to transform uneasiness and uncertainty into care and love as much as we can. Jeanrond regards love as the eschatological force par excellence. Hope is curious expectation regarding the outcome of God’s project of love and our participation in it.

From this perspective we can be confident that God is involved in all true actions of hope. The cross of Christ stands at the centre of the universe, his outstretched arms embracing the whole of creation, not merely the Christian church. This way of thinking opens a truly hopeful perspective.