Response to Bursting the Science/Religion Bubble: Layer #1

June 15, 2010

In response to Matt’s post last week (Bursting the Science/Religion Bubble), I wanted to discuss a few of the points both he and Darrel Falk made. This point, in particular, hit home for me and reminded me of several discussions I’ve had with Christians about the gap between evangelical Christians and academia:

Perhaps it is time for us, even we evangelicals, to explore whether we are propping up the layers of a bubble that we, and not God, have put in place and thereby, have artificially isolated ourselves from the world of academics.

While I have had heard of experiences where people studying science came to believe in God as a result of their studies, I have heard more stories, including firsthand ones, that went the other way. The stories I have heard are much the same as the one Falk describes – people who were raised in a Christian home and grew up hearing and believing the gospel abandoned it after experiencing the world of academics and being unable to reconcile their upbringing with what they have learned. While I do think that in many of these cases, these people may have not been true believers – lacking a deep-rooted relationship with God – I don’t think that this is always the case. I do, however, believe that if more Christians raised their children using Falk’s suggestion (quoted below), that there would be fewer cases where people abandon their faith in the face of academia.

I am convinced that we can eliminate the barrier by simply admitting that there are many deeply committed Christians who believe that many elements of the story of Adam and Eve is not historical. I think we need to tell our children that at a young age and I think we need to show them why there are committed Christians on both sides. It also would be good to show them why the historicity of Adam and Eve is not foundational to faith.

I think there is a large disconnect between the evangelical church and the academic world as a whole, and many Christians, I fear, think that this disconnect is necessary. In my (limited) experience, many Christians believe (1)  that  a literal interpretation of the story of creation as found in Genesis is a foundational belief as a Christian, (2) that any other explanation for how the world could have come to be is out of the question, and (3) they seem to have a great lack of reasoning skills when it comes to listening to or even considering any other explanation, whether that comes from fellow believers or not.

Of all of these things I have encountered, the latter is the most frustrating, and I am a believer myself. That alone has led me to the conclusion that these evangelicals themselves are a huge part of the disconnect and, unfortunately for the academic community, they seem to have the loudest voices around. Until something is done about this, I feel that the gap is only likely to widen.

I have also had discussions with Christians who believe that it is their duty as a Christian to go out and try to convert the scientific community using outdated debates against evolution, with just enough ‘training’ in the matter to be very opinionated but without being at all educated about what the academic world actually believes and why. This, too, is quite unfortunate because it only leads to harden more hearts against the gospel message. I think that more hearts could be won with open-minded discussions rather than closed-minded lectures.

If more evangelicals were to read articles like Falk’s and to be ready to realize that some (possibly many) of the reasons for the barrier are likely man-made, I think that this could be a very good start to undoing a lot of the damage done by this particular layer of the barriers Falk discusses.

At the very least, I would like to see Christians who understand science well enough to admit that, scientifically, the best explanation for the world’s beginnings could very well be the theory of evolution. Obviously, a theory isn’t proven, it’s just the best current explanation given the evidence. I know just enough about science to understand that theories have to have evidence in their favor, and that they can’t just be taken on faith like religion is. But that doesn’t mean that to believe a theory, you have to abandon your faith. I think that we need to reach a greater understanding of how to balance the two, but in order to move in that direction, you have to be flexible to changing what you believe about science (and as Falk suggests, also how we interpret the Bible).

Although the historicity of the story was not an issue in Jesus’ day, Jesus called for people to look beyond literality—to seek out the message. Perhaps we, by focusing on the historicity of this story are a little like the Pharisees. We see the words in Scripture, but we miss that to which the words are pointing us.

However, I also think that we cannot discount that many true Christians do believe that the Genesis account is to be interpreted literally. As Christians, perhaps we need to learn better to respect each others’ opinions when it comes to interpreting the Bible and its meaning.

The take-home message:

Let’s do like Jesus did when he tried to get the Pharisees to move beyond the words of the law and to focus on its meaning. Just like the Pharisees who, in focusing on dotted “i’s” and crossed “t’s” had lost sight of what God really wanted to say, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to us.

Let’s learn to figure out what God is saying to us with the message in the Bible, and how that pertains to how we live our lives here on earth; how we treat one another, how we reach out to one another, and how we remember every day how we live each day by the grace of God.

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

February 3, 2010

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

Entre la Espada y la Pared

January 11, 2010

A somewhat whimsical title for a post on faith and science, it translates literally as “between the sword and the wall” – think “rock and hard place.”  However, I feel that it is an apt description for the place that many scientists who are also people of faith find themselves. In popular culture, the advocates of religion and science are often viewed as locked in a mortal battle.  Perhaps this is unsurprising, as in any discussion the shrillest voices are the ones most likely to be heard.  Among scientists, you have the distinctly anti-religious voices who often view science as a replacement for religion.  Among the earliest of such voices was Thomas Huxley.  In an essay on Darwin’s Origin of the Species Huxley wrote,

“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.”

Thomas Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, continued in this vein and writes,

“In evolutionary thinking there is no need or room for the supernatural. Man can no longer take refuge in the arms of a divinized father figure whom he has himself created. Nor can he escape from the responsibility of making decisions by sheltering under the umbrella of Divine Authority.”

“The truth will set us free. Evolutionary truth frees us from subservient fear of the unknown and supernatural, and exhorts us to face this new freedom. It shows us our destiny and our duty. The evolutionary vision is enabling us to discern the outline of the new religion that will arise to serve the needs of the coming era.”

Here we see not only a rejection of the compatibility of religion and science, but also a hint that in the future, he thinks science will take religion’s place.  On the side of religion, we see similarly  confrontational voices, such as that of Henry Morris, one of the founders of the young-earth creation movement, who says,

“There are only two basic world views: the God-centered world view and the man-centered world view, creation and evolution. There is no evidence whatsoever that evolution of one kind of organism into a more complex organism has ever occurred. There is no scientific evidence that the earth is old. Satan himself is the originator of the concept of evolution. Divine revelation from the Creator of the world states that He did it all in six days several thousand years ago. The Bible is a book of science! It contains all the basic principles upon which true science is built.”

The apparent dichotomy that has been espoused by such voices has had a number of negative consequences.  For believers, it may leave them wondering if they have to leave science behind in order to maintain their faith.  I believe that it has fostered an unhealthy distrust and distaste for science within the church.  For non-believers, this dichotomy is likely to push them further from faith.  If they believe they have to reject science in order to believe in a Creator, I think this makes them not only less likely to come to faith, but also less likely to take a person of faith seriously.  A scientist-believer finds himself stranded between these two worlds.  Each regarding him with suspicion, not fully at home in either.

I think it is fair to say that most scientists who are Christians do not feel that there need be a clash between faith and science.  There are many Christian scientists who take both their faith and their science seriously.  The scientists quoted above, and their modern cohorts, are making philosophical or even theological statements, not scientific ones.  It is not clear that these sorts of claims are backed by the science at all, and while they may be some of the loudest voices, they don’t necessarily represent the typical scientist.  On the other hand, the young-earth creationists are also promoting a fairly non-traditional interpretation of scripture, one that I see no need to accept (see e.g. James’s previous post).  In fact, there are strong textual and theological reasons why one might not want to interpret the creation story as 6 literal days.

This post is primarily a teaser, to get people thinking on this issue again (for our previous posts, see here). In the next series of posts, I plan to discuss many more of the details (hopefully with some help from James).  What are the difficult issues in reconciling Christianity and the creation story from science, particularly evolution?  Largely this is spurred by a number of conversations I’ve had lately with a variety of folks on these issues.  Additionally, however, I recently discovered a great web resource on this subject, the BioLogos Foundation website.  Tentatively, I plan on structuring these posts around a set of essays recently released as the product of a workshop they held this fall, which gathered evangelical scientists, pastors, and theologians to discuss many of these issues. It should provide interesting material for discussion.

After quoting some of the extreme voices on the relationship between religion and science, I’d like to close with a few other words for thought, to demonstrate that there is a strong middle ground in this discussion.

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wondrous universe, including man with his capacity of looking backwards and far into futurity, as a result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a theist.” -Charles Darwin, from his Autobiography

“I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. Whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.”  – Billy Graham, from Personal Thoughts of a Public Man.

C. S. Lewis also had no problem with origin via evolution.  In The Problem of Pain he writes,

“For long centuries, God perfected the animal from which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated [. . .] Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past [. . .] We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods [. . . ] They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, “This is our business, not yours.” But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

-Matt, the elder brother