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Beyond conflict: Christianity and the sciences

Tuesday, 6 September 2016  | Mick Pope

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity and the sciences were at war, even though this is an old, tired, outdated view. Scientists don’t do us any favours. Jacques Monod once said that:

The universe is not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man...Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose. (Chance and Necessity, 1970)

Of course, the problem with this quote is that, as a scientific statement, it may be dead wrong. Some think that the universe is abundant with life. We just don’t know yet. Similarly Carl Sagan, in the opening line of his 1980 series Cosmos, said that ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’. How could he know?

Scientists often overreach themselves when discussing meaning. Stephen Hawking may know a thing or two about black holes, but when he says that there is no room for philosophy anymore, he is making a philosophical statement. It gets worse: there is the irascible Richard Dawkins, who says that ‘I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world’. The problem with this statement is that it is not always untrue of Christians. To be honest, though, it’s often not untrue of most people.

But to Christians: do you deny evolution yet happily have this year’s flu shot? Do you consult the weather forecast yet deny climate change? We can be very picky in what we believe, and Christians as much as anyone else buy into the lie that faith and scientific ideas (as opposed to, say, some technologies) are in conflict. This piece is a short rejoinder; a loud ‘no’, to this lie.

St Augustine said that theology was ‘faith seeking understanding’. This tells us that, for the Christian, faith comes first. Note that understanding is not to one side, a nice option or something actively ignored. Our faith seeks to understand. Of course, for some Christians, this is limited to the world of the text. But when I was about 19 or 20, it dawned on me that, if God was the creator of all things, then all things were the proper study of the Christian. This included my beloved science.

So how do scientists view science? Carl Sagan said that it is ‘a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge’. Likewise, author and physicist Isaac Asimov, in a 1988 interview, said that: ‘Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match’. Do we test our faith against the universe? Surely we do! Faith is meant to make sense of the world around us. If it is true, it will make more sense than atheism. As CS Lewis said: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’ (‘They Asked For A Paper’, 1962, 164-165).

Science, though, would claim that it is the best of doubt and freedom of thought. As Richard Feynman said, science ‘teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true’ (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, 1999, 186). The corollary of this would be that religion involves faith and controlled thought. Is this true?

There are a few things worth considering by way of rebuttal. The first is that there can be a two-way interaction between sciences and Christianity. Christianity historically provided the impetus for scientific exploration. As Paul Davies observes, 'in Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we call today the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature’ (Mind of God, 1983, 77). Likewise, when the big bang was suggested as a theory to explain the origins of the universe, physicist Fred Hoyle proposed an alternative theory without the need for a theory, because the big bang smacked of religion! Philosophical presuppositions do influence the practice of science at times. But, before you say it, reproducibility of results shows us that, for example, the planet really is warming. Evolution does appear to make sense of many different facts in paleontology, biology, anatomy and so on. And bad ideas get tested and thrown out.

Can the reverse be true, then? Can science cause us to rethink some of our theology? One would think science has little to say about the resurrection beyond a simple, ‘we never see that happen’. Theologically, that’s the point too: it was a sign from God, precisely because it doesn’t happen on its own. Note carefully that I’m not suggesting that science will challenge what is in the bible per se, but our theological systems, our readings of the bible, are another story. By this I mean, for example, that science cannot possibly challenge the idea that humans are made for a purpose - all it can do is describe how human beings appeared on the Earth. The point of Genesis 1, as John Walton suggest in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, is to describe what the Earth is, a temple for God to dwell in, and that humans are for the purpose of bearing his image. Science may challenge a literal six-day view of the Earth coming into being, but it cannot, as science, challenge the bible’s view of purpose.

Perhaps this two-way flow is made easier if we recognise that science(s) and theology use similar tools – more similar than scientists are willing to admit. This tool or method of understanding the world is known as critical realism, which I will examine shortly. By way of contrast, Richard Dawkins is well known for espousing a philosophy known as positivism. This means that our knowledge of the natural world is some kind of naïve realism. Naïve, in that we can know the truth about the world objectively and directly via our senses (also known as empiricism). And realist, in that, if it can be tested, then it must be true. Hence, aesthetics is just about taste, and religion is about nothing because it contains no reality. Only what is real can be known to us, and we know it directly - naively - through our senses.

Many Christians buy into this philosophy without thinking. They acknowledge that science gives us hard facts, and unconsciously buy the idea that this is the only valid form of truth. This leads to an insistence that, say, Genesis 1-2 must be read as the same sort of truth, which means either having to deny the truth of science (resulting in creationism) or trying to force the narrative into a scientific framework (concordism). Instead, it’s better to approach the text as an ancient piece of cosmology and to understand it from that point of view, and not from our own position, with our scientific questions. A good dose of John Walton will help here, because he looks at the text with an understanding of the worldview the ancient readers had, and the kinds of questions and concerns they brought to the text.

Science often relies on the concept of reductionism. Reductionism says that the things we see are ‘nothing but’: consciousness is nothing but states of the brain, the states of the brain are nothing but biology, which is nothing but chemistry, which boils down to physics. We are just atoms in motion. But theology tells us that there is more to describing the world than reductionism, and for the most part science acknowledges this and operates as if this were true. There are levels of explanation that add useful information to what we see. For example, the brain might be simply an example of physics, but you consult a doctor for persistent headaches and a counsellor for mental health issues. Physics can tell you how a kettle boils, but only I can tell you that the kettle is boiling because I want a cup of coffee.

Either side of the debate insisting there is only one way of seeing the world is manifestly untrue; there are levels of understanding. If science were willing to stop making theological pronouncements such as ‘there is no role for a creator because physics explains everything’, then theology and science could live more comfortably side-by-side. As an aside, simply because the laws of physics describe how the big bang may have occurred does not remove the need for a creator. Laws describe what we see; they have no agency. So, for example, we could say that there is an ever-increasing level of complexity of description from physics to consciousness, and each level tells us something new. Metaphysical questions can be left open as sitting at the top of this hierarchy of description. We can genuinely ask then, whether or not theism or atheism completes the picture. And humility is required from both sides, for even our faith is incomplete now (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What does this humility look like? I suggest it looks like critical realism. While naïve realism says we look straight at the truth via our senses, critical realism says that my science or your theology comes through a lens, a worldview. We all have a position from which we view things, affected by age, gender, race, education etc. This is not to say that all human thinking becomes a phenomenalism, where all I really know is my sense data. What it means is that all things need to be tested and modified against the world around us. My initial observation leads to my scientific or theological theories being tested and challenged by critical reflection. My ideas can survive and lead me to understanding reality more, but not exhaustively.

We’ve learned from Kurt Gödel that any system of thought has axioms or foundations that cannot be proven within that system, and just have to be assumed. We also know from Scripture that God’s thoughts are beyond ours (Isaiah 55:8). We see only dimly through a mirror.

What does all of this mean for the so-called war between science and Christian faith? It means we need to keep coming back to the world around us and test our ideas. It means becoming more familiar with the world around us, and the world of the bible and its human authors. It means to stop assuming we know everything. If the New Atheists can show such humility, the sons and daughters of the Father must also.

None of this is to say that we will abandon our faith. Only fundamentalism is so brittle. But agile minds will seek to know what they can, and not be trapped in ways of thinking simply because it is comfortable. Change is hard, but God is bigger than change. Our faith shouldn’t be rigid; it just needs to be enough to help us take that next step into the unknown of life and of understanding.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014).


Les Percy
September 6, 2016, 6:29PM
Oxford Hebrew scholar, Professor James Barr, says this on the meaning of Genesis:

'Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:
(a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
(b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
(c) Noah's flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.'
- James Barr, Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University, England, in a letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984.

Is Genesis 1 - 11 history or is it "myth"? If it is not history, what is the connection between Adam as the federal head who sinned, and brought death, and Christ the second Adam who brought salvation (Romans 5)?

Is the resurrection history or "myth'?
Ian Hore-lacy
September 13, 2016, 1:42AM
Even if Barr were correct, it still begs the question of whether that was their main purpose, or incidental and inevitable in that pre-scientific age.

I doubt if any of the said professors would doubt that the main message of Genesis 1 was about God's nature and purpose in contrast to prevailing ideas of the era and culture. I also doubt that any would contest the essentially metaphorical nature of that text.

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