April 17, 2011

A Collisions of Two Worlds

Let me give you a bit of a history lesson to start our time together this morning.  At the turn of the 20th century, there was a lot going on in the world.  This was an era mark by incredible optimism in the ability of humanity to solve, really, all the world’s problems.  We were sailing smoothly into the modern era.  The world was within a generation of the great proliferation of the horse-less carriage, airplanes, radios, televisions, refrigerators, cheap electricity, and many other early forms of the conveniences we couldn’t live without today.  There were no major wars going on anywhere in the world.  It seemed for many that it was a good time to be alive.  Things generally seemed to be going pretty well in the world.  But, from a religious standpoint, things were a bit more complicated.  The lasting impact of the Enlightenment and 19th century rationalism was wrecking havoc on the church.  The church had long since lost its moral authority because of the excesses of the Catholic Church in the late Medieval period and its intellectual authority was slipping away quickly.  It became fashionable to be a critic of Christianity.  After all, with the steady advance of Darwinism and a variety of other scientific breakthroughs, the world really didn’t need religion and specifically Christianity to explain its inner workings.  All of this did not, however, mean that everyone was simply throwing up their hands and throwing in the towel on the faith.   There were still a lot of people for whom that was the only way of life they knew.  There were even still a number of very dedicated (and conservative) believers in teaching positions in many of the most prestigious universities.  In response to the mounting criticism of orthodoxy, many from this group of believers gathered and put together a list of what seemed to them to be the most fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  This list was compiled to give believers an anchor to hold in the growing storm of cultural criticism of the faith.  This group of believers called themselves “Fundamentalists.”

These fundamentalists gradually came to believe that the best way to plug the bulging dike of scientific rationalism and Darwinian naturalism was to establish laws aimed at prohibiting their spread.  One such law, called Butler’s Act after John Butler, a Tennessee state representative and head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, was passed in 1925.  The gist of this bill was that it was no longer legal for Darwin’s theory of evolution to be taught in schools in Tennessee.  Well, seeing an opening to push their own agenda, the ACLU ran an ad promising legal support to any Tennessee science teacher who was willing to commit the civilly disobedient act of teaching it anyway.  Recognizing the potential media storm and the economic increase such a storm might bring for them, a group of businessmen from Dayton, TN recruited a local high school football coach and science teacher to do the deed.  The teacher (who as a point of fact never actually taught evolution in the classroom) was named John T. Scopes and the trial that would stem from his supposed act of lawlessness became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

There has never been another point in the history of our country when the disciplines of science and theology came to a more confrontational head than in Dayton in 1925.  The Scopes Monkey Trial, later portrayed in the spectacularly historically inaccurate 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” set a tone for the dialogue between science and theology, and specifically science and a conservative branch of Christianity, that has come to characterize most of the conversations since.  Now, in the Scopes Trial, as well as in many of the interactions since, the “battle” has been specifically between those who hold to a fairly literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation and those who hold that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the only satisfactory explanation for the current state of things.  The deeper conflict, though, has always been between folks who think the world can be sufficiently described according to naturalistic means and those who don’t.  Today, with the help of the media, any such interaction is always framed as a near epic battle between two irredeemably divided sides complete with good guys and bad guys.  The picture created here is that science has nothing to do with matters of faith and vice versa.  Yet is this true?  Are these two disciplines hopelessly conflicted?  In order to enter the world of science, do we have to check our faith at the door?  Must we give over any hope of credibility in the “real” world of facts and numbers in order to worship God?

Well, given what we talked about last week, I hope you are as quick in answering all of those questions with a resounding, “No!” as I am.  And this morning, as we continue our conversation on some of the reasons why we believe, I want us to think for a few minutes about the relationship between science and Christianity.  How should these two be related?  What should this relationship look like?  This is something worth thinking about because if we don’t have a good answer to this question, the trend of people giving up on the reasonableness of faith (even if they don’t give up on the faith itself) in light of the apparent ability of science to explain every part of this world will continue unabated.  And as the media continues writing narratives that pit the evil, small-minded, unintelligent Creationists against the noble, free-thinking, fair-minded Evolutionists (or whomever the characters happen to be), more and more people will fall into the trap of taking sides—most of them the “good” side in the view of the broader culture.  It reminds me of when Lisa and I went to the Myrtle Beach dinner show Medieval Times.  As soon as we went through the doors we were told for whom we would be cheering without ever being given a chance to think through the pros and cons of each character or to ask whether there was some middle ground on which we could all stand together.  (Incidentally, we supposed to cheer for the evil Black Knight.)  The problem with all of this is that people listen to all the nonsense, take sides prematurely, and go down fighting about issues that are really contrived to get an audience in the first place.  If we can dispel some of the myths here, if we can sort through some of the fog to see what the real issues are, we can open the doors to see that perhaps there’s more common ground here than we’ve ever been led to believe.  So what should the relationship between science and our Christian faith be and why is there so much conflict?

Let’s start with that last question.  Part of the reason for the conflict stems from how we have been culturally conditioned to think about the disciplines of science and theology.  Somewhere along the line of the rise of scientific rationalism (which is the belief that knowledge can only be obtained by the methodologies of science and is limited to what we can experience with our five senses) and Darwinian evolutionary models, a new paradigm began to arise that fanned the flames of controversy brewing between the two areas.  For many, many years the disciplines of science and theology were seen as complementary, as two sides of the same coin.  The best theologians were scientists and the best scientists were theologians.  In this new paradigm, however, objective, factual claims about the nature of reality were restricted to the realm of science.  Claims coming from the realm of theology were relegated to the category of personal opinion or value.  This has led today to what is sometimes called the fact-value divide.  The idea here is that if we want to talk about things which are factual, things which are real, things which are accurately descriptive of the nature of reality, we have to enter the realm of science.  The discipline of theology, on the other hand, has nothing to say regarding these things.  Instead, theology deals with matters of faith, opinion, and personal values.  And these personal values change from person to person making them even less acceptable as accurate descriptions of what the world is like.  The assumption here is that claims about the nature of the world around us can only be made when we have sufficiently examined them to the limits of our five senses—a view called empiricism.  Because theology deals with things which cannot experimentally verified (because it’s hard to get God to participate the way we want Him to), it cannot speak to the nature of the world.

Now, this might seem like a fairly esoteric discussion without many roots planted in the practicality of everyday life, but don’t let yourself be taken in by this line of thought.  Have you ever heard anyone say, or even said yourself something along the lines of, “Well, my faith is a personal matter,” or “I like to keep my religion to myself so that I don’t force it on anyone else”?  If you have done this, you have betrayed your indebtedness to the fact-value divide.  If theology in general and Christian theology in particular cannot make concrete claims about the nature of reality, if it is merely a personal matter, then we have nothing to offer folks who are struggling with the relational emptiness of science.  My friends, this is ridiculous.  Of course we have something to offer them.  We have the only answers that really make sense in the final analysis to all of the world’s tough questions.  Indeed, if Christians can make claims about the nature of reality that are just as objective and reasonable as anything put out by the scientific community—and we can—then the pitiful excuse about theology or faith being a private matter is just that: pitiful.  Our theology is public whether we want it to be or not because our theology is revealed by our behavior.  This is a line offered in hopes of directing attention away from a relationship with God that is in disarray.  It is an attempt to maintain the country club church status quo and keep a genuine relationship with Christ from getting in the way of living life how we want.  It is a smoke and mirrors trick to keep people from peeking behind the curtain and seeing that we really don’t have any idea of the whats or whys of our faith, but are either unwilling or afraid to do the work necessary to figure those out.  The truth is that in reality there is no divide between facts and values.  This idea is a bad philosophical position that leaves many without an anchor in our current cultural storm.  We can give people such an anchor by making clear that there is a way to relate science and theology such that both are affirmed.  Let’s keep going to see how.

Well, there are four major ways that people try and relate these two.  Some people—like hard-line young earth creationists and devotees of scientism (which is a philosophical position that only scientifically discovered truths can be counted as objectively truthful)—really do believe that the two are irredeemably in conflict.  In fact, “conflict” may not be strong enough an adjective.  Open warfare might be better descriptive of the relationship.  I mentioned Richard Dawkins a few times last week.  He would be a great example of one who subscribes to this model of interaction.  Members of this group on either side of the demilitarized zone see absolutely nothing worthwhile in the other.  In general, this position isn’t very helpful for advancing any kind of a discussion with people who understand the world in different ways than we do.  I would advocate against it.

A second position would be folks who see the two areas as simply having no common ground.  There is not inherent conflict for this group, just apathy.  Now, on the one hand, science and theology generally ask very different questions about the world and so they should be free to pursue their various ends.  Indeed, some rightly see scientists as asking “how” questions while theologians ask “why” questions.  But, our minds are not so easily compartmentalized.  We don’t think in such linear categories.  It is entirely natural for a person who has just discovered something startling in nature to ask why it is so.  We might understand in great detail that the reason behind God’s creation of the world was so that we can bring Him glory, but at the same time we also want to know how He did it.  Generally, folks in this category have succumbed to the fact-value split in a significant way.  They forget that form and function very naturally accompany purpose.  There has to be still more to this relationship.

Indeed there is.  A third major way that science and theology are paired together could be called a dialogue.  These folks see a great deal of benefit to be had in the two areas working to inform the other.  Science has a lot to learn from theology and theology can take some of what science has to offer and keep itself from heading in directions that are nonsensical.  Pope John Paul II was an advocate of this kind of relationship between these two.  He said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.  Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”[1] Indeed, when science and theology are asking similar questions but from different sides of an issue, a person who is open to a dialogue between the two positions can learn much more about the issue than the person who has closed off all lines of communication.  It is at this point that we are getting closer to the kind of relationship between these two that will prove the most beneficial for us.

The final way these two are related is called integration.  This approach is similar to a dialogue, but views the relationship as even more intimate than that.  In taking an integrative approach to science and theology we understand that each discipline cannot stand on its own.  On the one hand, the discipline of science must rely on the discipline of theology to offer support or correction for positions which are consonant or dissonant with what is revealed in Scripture.  This position believes that no genuine scientific discovery will ever contradict or supplant truth revealed in Scripture.   On the other hand, theological propositions can be found to be given new life and depth when combined with scientific discoveries.  For example, the science of archaeology has on numerous occasions demonstrated as sound various historical references in the Bible, even many which were previously thought to be inaccurate.  Also, some of the scientific models which hold that the universe began with the Big Bang are consonant with the theological position that the universe had a finite beginning.  So then, putting all of this together, the most ideal relationship between science and the Christian faith is one in which the two disciplines are allowed to work very closely together in support of their respective goals.  Put more simply, science and faith work best when they collaborate.

Let me close our time this morning by offering you an example of how this is so.  Near the beginning of the Enlightenment, before the Christian faith began falling out of vogue, there was a concerted effort to use the new theories and rationalities that some of the great thinkers were discovering to demonstrate the validity of the faith.  This effort tapped into an area of theology called natural theology.   Now, the discipline of natural theology is broad in its scope and has taken on a variety of different forms depending on the particular cultural and historical context in which it has been pursued.  This said, there is a single generalized goal of natural theology: to explore the natural world for the fingerprints of God to be found in it.  This is the point at which science and theology can have the most beneficial overlap.  It is through the disciplines of science that we can explore and discover the natural wonders of the world around us.  It is through the discipline of theology that we can properly recognize those wonders for what they are.  Science and faith work best when they collaborate.  And this cross discipline work is not something that a few folks who have spent some time studying in both areas came to on their own.  This is something to which the Bible itself calls us.

A few weeks ago we took at look at the first chapter of Romans.  Let me read some of those words for you again this morning from the Message translation: “…the basic reality of God is plain enough.  Open your eyes and there it is!  By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.”  But this is not something recognized only by folks on this side of the cross.  King David recognized this and wrote of it in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.  In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.”  He goes on to describe how all of this searching of the natural world leads him to a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s word.

The idea here is that we don’t necessarily need to have some dramatic experience like Paul did on the road to Damascus to discover that we serve a good and glorious God.  All we have to do is look outside.  All we have to do is take a long and thoughtful look at what God has created to recognize it as His handiwork.  A vast amount of this splendor is available to the casual observer—I remember looking off the back porch of some of our members’ mountain house out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and marveling at the majesty of our God—but even more of it is available to the observer who has the tools and methods of science at her disposal.  Take just the human cell for example.  Science has helped us discover things in the cell like the intricate and beautiful shapes of proteins which are the molecules that make you work.  Proteins are formed in the body when the right chain of amino acids is assembled and the long strand of elements pulls itself together into designs which make the most advanced blacksmith puzzles look like mere child’s play.  The human cell is complex in its inner workings far beyond anything we could hope to create and yet each one of the thousands of interdependent systems works with such amazing precision and simplicity that students start learning about its workings in elementary school.  Or perhaps let’s take David’s words in Psalm 19 at face value.  For those of you who use the internet, logon sometime to the website for the Hubble Telescope and look at some of the pictures it has taken.  They will literally take your breath away in their resplendent beauty.  We know all of that from science.  But without theology we are only able to praise some ambiguous nature gods or goddesses and can’t grasp the purpose of all this beauty.  Because of our Christian theology we know that the purpose of all of this is first and foremost to bring glory to God when we look at it and go, “Wow.”  But the purpose is also to draw us in our awe to seek the God who is responsible for it.  Science and faith work best when they collaborate.

So what are we left with at the end of all of this talk of science and theology?  Where we are is at a point we can elucidate another reason why we believe.  We believe because when we look at the world around us, it doesn’t make any sense not to.  Yes, there are significant parts of this world, including nature—Japan, Haiti, New Orleans—that are broken to an extent that God’s handiwork is obscured in other places, but our theology, working with our science, helps make sense of this brokenness.  And ultimately, we know that this brokenness is not the way things should be.  We know it theologically, but we also know it experientially.  We know it because when we saw the images of towns in Japan that were absolutely destroyed by the earthquake-tsunami combo, none of us reacted with indifference.  If this world was as it should be we would see images like that, shake our head slightly at the loss of life, and go on about our day.  But we don’t.  We see those images and others like them and gasp in horror that such devastation should be a part of the otherwise beautiful world in which we live.  Instead, when we look out over the ocean gently lapping at the shore; when we stand and take in the stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway; when we stand in the middle of a fertile field alive with green like the one across the street on a quiet morning when the temperature is just right and the sun is shining, we know.  We know that this is how things should be.  And when science offers us the detailed explanation of how and why it is we marvel even more that God layered beauty on top of beauty on top of elegant beauty in this world.  Science and faith work best when they collaborate.

And so, the next time you are having a conversation with someone and they are at a point in their life where God seems pretty distant, direct them to look at the world around them.  Help them see His fingerprints and remind them that He is a good God.  When you have a friend who is struggling with the reasonableness of the faith in the face of the ability of science to explain an awful lot about how this world works, remind them that this is no barrier to faith in God.  Science can fill out our faith, explaining why it is reasonable, and theology can pick up where fails to offer satisfactory answers regarding the purpose of what it observes.  And when you hear about the next media explosion in response to a perceived butting of the heads between someone who thinks the world can be explained naturally and someone who doesn’t á la the Scopes Monkey Trial, quietly step back and take a look at things from a bigger angle.  Where is the middle ground and how can the side of science and the side of theology work together to offer a better explanation of the facts at hand?  This relationship need not be antagonistic.  When you talk to real scientists who have given up any faith in God, almost none of them do it because of the explanatory power of science.  The simple reality is that in order to get the most out of both, science and theology need each other.  Science and faith work best when they collaborate.

[1]Pope John Paul II quoted in Alister Mcgrath, Science & Religion: A New Introduction, 2nd ed. (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 48.