Mystery, History, and America: factors behind the science/religion friction

Mark Noll’s essay, “Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture,” elucidates 15 separate factors that have contributed to the current perceived conflict between science and religion. Each of these is put within a historical context, to show us that many of these attitudes and assumptions arose because of particular cultural or political forces in the past. A number of these factors are peculiarly American, which in part explains why this debate is so much more prevalent among American evangelicals than European evangelicals. He does not pass judgement explicitly on any of these assumptions and attitudes, noting that while a few of them seem to be “damaging and mistaken in their entirety,” most of them are much more difficult to evaluate, and many have made significant contributions to the “spiritual health of churches…and the stability of society.” Below I discuss a selection of these factors, though Noll’s essay includes a lot of material that I don’t cover here. Read it yourself, if you’re interested.

The first factors that Noll notes originated in the 13th century, during which Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus posited two different systems of metaphysics (the study of the nature of ‘being’). Aquinas argued that God and the creation have different ‘essences.’ The essence of creation is only analogous to God, meaning that created things are like God in many ways, and God can reveal himself to us, but God’s essence remains inaccessible to all created things, a mystery. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” Isaiah 55:9. A corollary of this view is that while everything in creation has some divine purpose, that purpose may sometimes be inherently inaccessible to us. This calls to mind the closing pages of Annie Dillard’s theodicy, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet.

The opposing view, of Scotus, suggested that all things in existence have the same type of ‘being.’ God’s being and all other things share a common essence.  While human mental resources are limited and God is unlimited, Scotus’s metaphysics suggests that God’s actions can theoretically be understood by men, assuming that we have enough information.  This view of metaphysics has largely dominated western philosophy. When combined with Ockham’s razor, Scotus’s metaphysics suggests the first of Noll’s factors:  “(1) once something is explained clearly and completely as a natural occurrence, there is no other realm of being that can allow it to be described in any other way.”

While this conviction was not originally seen to be anti-Christian, one can certainly see how it could lead to trouble in understanding the relationship between scientific and religious explanations.  Ultimately, these views spurred the development of natural theology, most famously espoused by William Paley, which seeks to understand why God created things the way he did.  The assumption behind natural theology forms Noll’s third factor “(3) not only did God create and providentially order the natural world, but humans could figure out exactly how and why God ordered creation as he did.” One can see how such thinking naturally extends from (1) above, though (1) does not necessarily imply (3). In developing natural theology, Christian thinkers amassed explanations for why things were created just as they are.  The idea of slow evolutionary change over time posed a significant threat to such ideas, as they suggested that the current state of creation was simply a shapshot in an ever changing reality. Not only did evolution provide a mechanism for explaining why things are as they are, its constant flux through different forms challenged the previous explanations for why God created things ‘as they are now.’

After the Civil War, for a variety of reasons the church’s influence on American society began to decrease.  Simultaneously the US poured significant resources into developing and expanding higher education.  Ideas such as evolution, and the growing academic conviction that science and history, done properly, excluded supernatural explanations, resulted in growing friction between American universities and evangelicals.  The evangelical community responded by publishing a set of booklets entitled The Fundamentals, after which Fundamentalists get their name.  These booklets defended conservative Protestant doctrine and laid out what were thought to be the basic foundational truths of Christianity.  However, in The Fundamentals one finds argumentation that evolution and Christianity are not at odds.  One of the authors, B. B. Warfield, spent much of his later career exploring how evolutionary theory could be accepted along side his conservative view of the Bible.  However, in the end, such voices were overwhelmed by a growing attitude among evangelicals that “(9) the modern research university defines enemy territory that can be explored only with the greatest caution and only with defenses constantly on guard for intellectual battle.” This, in turn, has led to a conclusion that “(12) when scientists or the popularizers of science make use of new proposals about nature to undercut traditional belief in God, the problem is almost always with those who make the proposals and almost never with assumptions about the neutral character of science or assumptions about how science and Scripture should be aligned.”

Finally, Noll notes that within America, for complex reasons that I don’t have space to discuss here, the issue of evolution has become conflated with issues of morality, family roles, and political platforms.  This to me is one of the most dangerous ways in which the contemporary evangelical church in the US is interacting with society.  So many positions on faith, science, and politics are lumped together so that, for example, if one believes in the origin of species via evolution, then one is also assumed to be morally and theologically deviant.  A few simple conversations with evangelical scientists will show that this is not the case.  In closing, I will use Noll’s own words, because he expresses my thoughts well.

Progress on this front probably depends most on increasing the number and quality of believers Christians who are willing to enter the world of university level science with commitments to historical Christianity and the modern practice of science firmly in place. It may also be helped by Bible-believing evangelicals who are willing to ask how truly biblical are the convictions, assumptions, and attitudes they bring with them to the consideration of modern science.

-Matt, the elder brother


3 Responses to Mystery, History, and America: factors behind the science/religion friction

  1. James says:

    I have to commend Matt on this post, because this article, while interesting, is very difficult to summarize, because he presents these 15 factors contributing to friction between science and religion, and they proceed in a logical/sequential fashion. Good job on showing the progressive logic, but cutting the article down to its bare bones.

  2. Ann says:

    It is still a little over my head (maybe a lot), but thought provoking.

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