Four Truths About the Religion and Science Debate
Here are four things you need to know to successfully live in the tension between science and religion.
by John Mark Reynolds
I am a product of a Christian church that was never afraid of any idea. My church taught me church history and that it was okay to ask questions. My church taught me that skepticism was a useful tool in the epistemological toolkit of a Christian. It also taught me that we didn’t have to embrace an idea simply because the majority of people had decided it was true. We were free to wonder about the consensus, both in theology and in science. No one told us that the Holy Spirit of God had to be limited to what a majority of people in any given culture or place in time thought He could do. Instead, we served a God so big that He was bigger than all of our categories.
God calls Christians to love Him and to love others. But to love someone means you must know him or her. I could love my wife, Hope, without knowing the color of her eyes, but I would not want to do so. All lovers by nature desire to know the one they love.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Mark Reynolds’ plenary
session at the Faith and Science Conference, June 27,28,
2011, Springfield, Missouri. Watch the full session below.
As a result, none can say he or she loves God without desiring to know Him and to know about His works. Christians know that God is Creator, so they naturally want to know about His works. Some of God’s works are so particular — so singular — to His nature that He must reveal them to us. Others are part of the regular order of creation that He sustains. As a result, both theology and science will be of interest to those who love God, since theology tells of God’s particular acts and science His general actions.
A person’s heart can grow cold. When true love cools, married couples might try to substitute emotional hype for the deep conversations of their courtship. This anti-intellectualism is a subtle attack on the knowledge on which love feeds.
Anti-intellectualism in the church is unnatural, because it refuses to love the Lord God with the whole person, including the mind. The solution, of course, is not to embrace intellectualism — the error that every problem has a mental solution — but to find wholeness in the love of Jesus.
Today’s culture, including some Christians, embraces anti-intellectualism. We see this in a disdain for experts as feelings trump facts. In reaction, some people worship experts and confuse their interpretation of facts with the facts themselves. Intellectuals and anti-intellectuals justify their existence by pointing to the sins of the other group.
The anti-intellectual sees the sterility of the intellectualist and the intellectualist the madness of the anti-intellectual. The pathway of love refuses either extreme, because love will always demand the whole person. The mind is part of love, but only a part, because it is not the whole person.
Much of the debate that occurs around tensions between religion and science takes place within this cultural problem. “Intellectualists” support “science” while “anti-intellectuals” argue for a role for “religion.” In fact, both end up abusing the nature of religion and science.
As those with the most cultural power, intellectualists are best at marginalizing their academic opponents, but often anti-intellectuals seize power in our churches. This presents the Christian community, particularly those following the Spirit, with a chance to model something better. We can love God with our minds and our hearts. We know, like all those in love, that this journey will always be full of errors and misunderstandings. These “trials” help the relationship grow strong and mature.
The Bible contains information, but getting that information is not always easy. The plan of salvation is plain, but some historical, philosophical, and scientific implications of the message are not so plain.
Why would they be?
The Bible is without error in the autographs when it speaks of history, philosophy, and science, but because that is not the central purpose of the Book, the Bible does not always plainly state those truths. Any literate man or woman can discern the good news, but understanding every nuance of a Bible book requires more training.
In this article I suggest four things that will help us live in this tension between science and religion — four things we should know for sure about religion and science discussions. Any pastor helping his or her congregation with religion and science issues must keep four things firmly in mind. However, before we do anything else, I want to suggest that we don’t try to settle the issue. Keep wondering. We live in a big cosmos, God is a big God, and He does what He wants.
Four Things to Help Us Live in the Tension Between Science and Religion
Since we serve a God who lives and acts, what are the things we need to know to live in this tension between science and religion?
Both science and religion are after knowledge
The first big truth is both science and religion want to know, because God designed us with a desire to know. Science and religion want to know about different things, so they are both after knowing.
Science and religion have other things in common. Both science and theology change over time as we come to understand the world better. One of the most embarrassing religion and science problems we had was when best science taught us 2,000 years ago that women were defective men — men who had somehow imploded. Read Aristotle’s Biology if you want to know more.
When we faced best science at that time, we used Genesis that told us in order to find the full image of God we needed male and female. Best science of the time said that sex was bad. The church, to its regret, was stuck with theology telling them that women are fully human and that sex is good. So however badly the church implemented this teaching, it could never bring it to say that women were not human and that sex was bad. Aren’t you glad? Sometimes best science is wrong.
On the other hand, sometimes theology is wrong. Augustine’s view of the Trinity would probably get you fired at seminary. Though we do not blame Augustine for his view, it was the best at his time. The more we thought about biblical revelation and our experience with God, we better understood the Trinity.
When I was a boy in school, they taught that we first believed in geocentrism — that the earth is the center of the universe. Because it was wrong, we adopted another view — heliocentrism — that the sun is the center of the universe. But both ideas are wrong. The sun is not the center of the cosmos any more than the earth is the center of the cosmos. So we did not pick heliocentrism because it was true and reject geocentrism because it was false. We had two false ideas. If the modern idea is right, what is the point? Heliocentrism was mathematically better. It made better predictions. It fit the evidence that we had better than the previous view. We picked the better of the two wrong answers. Often in theology and in science, we are not presented with bad ideas and the truth. We are presented with a choice between bad and worse.
Both religion and science must make sense internally and externally. Internally, they need to be coherent and not contradict themselves. Externally, they need to attach to the outside world. But in both cases, there is room for error.
If science is not careful, it will ignore beauty and poetry as means to knowledge. If religion is not careful, it will ignore science as a means to knowledge. We need both sense and sensibility.
Both science and religion should be open-minded when it comes to causation
The second big truth we need to keep in mind is that both science and religion should be open-minded, not close-minded when it comes to causation. What do I mean? What causes a thing to be or exist? When it comes to causation, science most often deals with natural causation. But it should also deal with intelligent causation.
You can understand the temperature of a room with very little recourse to intelligent causation. If it is cooler inside than it is outside, it’s cooler for complex, natural reasons. Using physics and chemistry, we can explain why a room is cooler, except we would not have explained exactly why it is cooler. It’s cooler because an intelligent person decided it should be. We will call this intelligent causation. To get a full explanation of why a room is cooler, you need both a natural and an intelligent causation.
Unless science knows that the only intelligent causation is humankind, and unless science knows that human intelligence — which to me does not seem to be reducible to chemistry and physics — can be fully explained by natural causes like chemistry and physics, science is always going to, in principle, need to be open to an intelligent causation and natural causation. But some of my friends in science act as if any natural answer, however convoluted, is better than any personal answer. If I suggest that something intelligent acted in space and time, then I am giving up on science.
I know there are intelligent agents in the world, and that intelligence is not reducible to chemistry and physics. Now this may be wrong, but deciding whether it’s wrong is not a matter for science, but for philosophers and theologians. No matter how much science we do, we will not be able to determine that kind of question.
Religion, correspondingly, most often deals with intelligent causation, but it can and should deal with natural causation. When we talk about things of the Spirit, we are talking about the action of the Holy Spirit, who is a person. But when we assert that Jesus rose from the dead, it is a person who went into the tomb, and a person who came out. There is a personal reason why this person chose to do it, but it also made a difference in space and time in chemistry and physics. The body that went into the tomb came out of the tomb changed, which meant something happened in terms of the chemistry and physics of the moment.
Natural and intelligent causation cannot be closed to each other. But do not expect the tension between religion, philosophy, and science to be solved. A way of knowing that relies primarily on natural causation will always be tempted to overexplain everything in terms of natural causation. And the pursuit of wisdom via philosophy or theology that tends to rely on personal causation will overexplain everything in terms of personal causation.
This is why people in our churches often see a miracle where there is not one. Having learned to explain things in terms of personal action, they may see personal action where it isn’t. At the same time, if we become too close-minded about personal action, we will not see personal action when it does exists.
Theology and science will never be reducible to one another in an ultimate sense
This leads us to the third big truth about science and religion. Neither the personal (theology) nor the natural (science) — used as physics and chemistry — will ever be reducible to one another in an ultimate sense.
Scientists say, “We want to be able to experiment with embryos.”
Theologians reply, “No, we don’t think you should be able to experiment with embryos.”
Scientists counter, “Well, we are just doing science.”
To which theologians respond, “Yes, but you’re wicked men. We’re doing ethics.”
Science describes the world as it is, but it does not tell us whether this is the way the world ought to be. Science requires ethical limits that only religion and philosophy can safely provide. We are a religion that honors science, but does not worship it.
Simultaneously, there is the anti-intellectual, anti-science attitude that fears science. Enlightenment-driven romantics fear science. The romantics fear science because they believe they should have all their wants, and science limits their dreams by telling them the difference between virtual reality and reality, between fantasy and what is possible. If you fall into scientism, on the other hand, because you worship what is, you refuse to note that something else could be within the limits of what science says is.
Only Christianity says the cosmos is good while simultaneously giving us a reason to enjoy studying the natural world. If there are two ways of finding truth — philosophy and science — why do science? Philosophy is a matter of the soul, and the soul is more important than the body.
When Jesus took on flesh — when reason came and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as the only Son of God, begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth — Jesus linked philosophy and science in His own body. He glorified the study of matter, because God forever joined himself to matter. Jesus came fully in the flesh; this meant science was worth doing. We gained a motivation for the pursuit of the natural world that had never existed before. Because the natural world was good, and it had clothed God, and continues to clothe the second person of the Trinity. Yet science is not God.
Christianity is open both to natural and intelligent causation. We can wonder if the planets move in an orderly way because God directly pushes them with His thumb. Or we can wonder if God, as a Good Engineer, chooses to put natural causes in place, so planets move as He wishes, but He need not regulate them daily. Which is true? We are open to either answer.
When I was a boy, was I healed by the spontaneous act of God? I will never know, because there was not a full medical diagnosis. Or did God use natural causation to bring healing? In one way, it doesn’t matter. In another way, it does. Christianity is open to either answer. If I believe something is a miracle and it turns out not to be, it does not falsify my faith. But if one miracle exists, it falsifies scientism. I need only one miracle to believe in miracles, but my atheistic and agnostic opponents admit not one.
Christianity and science need each other to flourish
The fourth, and final, big truth is Christianity and science need each other to flourish. Christianity made science possible in the Incarnation. And science, like all good storytelling, is something that should be commended and encouraged, and is utterly wonderful. Why? Because it is man acting as a subcreator, as he must, in the image of God. When J.R.R. Tolkien creates Lord of the Rings, he acts as a subcreator, creating in literature in a way that describe deeper spiritual truths.
Even more importantly, when a scientist like Newton, or a scientist working at a school like Evangel University, imagines the way the world could be by studying the cosmos, he acts in the image of God. To resist this, to keep him from doing this, to discourage him, is to resist the image of God within him. And to force him to tell a story that immediately comports with our theology is to limit his wondering in ways that are contrary to the freedom he has gained in Christ.
But if he begins to assert that we must believe his story, that it must be the truth, then we need to resist him because we know interpretations may change. We cannot allow this story to close off the wondering of future scientists, theologians, and philosophers any more than Tolkien should have heeded the warnings of his colleagues when they told him he was wasting his time on elvish scribblings.
And yet, contrary to my childhood, I have discovered that many Christians grow up being told to come up with the right answers when they do science, instead of trying to find the right questions, because that is all we are going to get this side of heaven.
Your quest should not be to encourage your parishioners, when it comes to science and religion, to come up with the right answers — but to ask better questions. So what are these questions?
Why do most people think religion is belief and science is knowledge? Hasn’t science progressed while religion stagnates? Why can’t Christianity and science exist in two watertight knowledge compartments? Aren’t ethical concerns just getting in the way? How can I communicate this material to a high school science teacher or professor? How can I live with uncertainty while being certain? This is the life of tension.
I’d like to suggest that the Christian life isn’t skepticism in the modern sense; it’s skepticism in the ancient sense. When Socrates talks about skepsis — inquiry — we need to translate that as wonder. Wonder doesn’t ask any question it can think of, but the questions it has. It asks them in order to know. We have faith seeking understanding, not understanding seeking faith. But neither do we have faith seeking more faith. We have faith, a sensibility, and a sense, seeking a greater sense and a greater sensibility. We are walking in a constant tension between what we think we know and what we are sure we do not know. We walk in wonder.
So, we are stuck between what the Bible seems to say — there was a guy named Noah with a big ark with a lot of animals — and what best science teaches us. I advise my students who are in science not to have two minds, but to realize that their best theological tool set and their best scientific tool set may not comport. They may have one mind with two rulers, and the two rulers use different scales that are utterly incompatible. For all we know, 1,000 years from now, someone will bring them together. But in the meantime, we are going to have to, when we treat humankind, talk about the days of Noah.
For our parishioners and young people, there needs to be the freedom to step back from what best science teaches and what best theology teaches to see if they can try a new way of understanding Genesis that’s faithful to the inerrancy of Scripture without being branded as liberals. Christians have become so uptight that if someone who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture steps back and says perhaps the universe is old and we have misunderstood, parishioners want to kick him out of the church, as if the next step from an old universe is communist dictatorship.
Live a life that’s full of wonder, because at the end of the day, a scientist must be driven by love — love of God’s cosmos — or they won’t do science. Science is like a monastic calling. Who in the world would do it? You wouldn’t want to do it for money. To go into science is to pursue an infinite quest, often with no reward. It’s to get to the end of your life, and having given your whole life to an idea, discover that you were wrong, and that your contribution to the halls of knowledge was to be the guy who got it wrong. That’s a good contribution.
In the same way in theology, you may live your whole life as sure as you were born about some favored doctrine, only to stand before the Lord Jesus and discover there are some Baptists in heaven. If the scientist is guided by love and the theologian is guided by love, it will not amount to sappiness or mere sensibility. But when reason and logic are fueled by passion, then we will have discovered the love that moves the heavens and the furthest stars.