She Blinded Me … With Science!

Yup, totally went to the ’80s with that headline.

Anyway, my good friend and rhetorical sparring partner Adam made some comments to my last post about the Bible and homosexuality that I wanted to address in a more public way because I talk a lot about science on this blog, particularly about how we as Christians do, could or should respond to it.

First, I’m a fan of science. I think it’s cool, and I wish I knew more about it. Second, if you read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m working through rethinking my faith in light of some pretty significant changes in how I view the world. I grew up with the biblicist propaganda of A Beka Press curriculum (Update: This link is better), and the further away I get from its views of science and history – which was a rejection of anything that did not fit a religiously and politically fundamentalist worldview – the more comfortable I feel. It’s your job as an active reader and commenter to make sure I don’t get too far away from A Beka’s more admirable dedication to the truth of Scripture (even if they went about defending it in a horribly false way).

With that said, here’s what Adam had to say:

[I]t seems like science is being used to create an absolute position from which ones theology should always agree. …

[T]here are some areas of faith that simply cannot be over ridden by science. For example I, like many other Catholics, firmly believe in transubstantiation regardless of what science tells us about physiological make-up of the Eucharist. Our belief that the bread and wine actually becomes the Body and Blood of Christ is not dependant on a physical manifestation. We believe that the miracle associated takes place regardless of physical form because of our faith in God and in the Church. So I ask you, should my faith be marginalized because I believe something that science can’t confirm or deny? When I hear arguments about faith and belief needing to be backed or informed by a scientific understanding of our world what I actually hear people saying is that science should be the litmus test on which all religions should be judged. With those who hold on to beliefs that are not supported directly by science judged to be less worthy of an opinion. It’s in this way that science is viewed to oppose religion because if science can be used to validate or invalidate what we believe then what becomes the point of belief.

I think this gets at the tricky part for Christians who love science. In the end, faith requires … faith. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be called “faith.” We don’t need to delve into an issue as divisive as transubstantiation (divisive in this case meaning it’s one of those clear dividing lines between branches of the Christian faith). One thing all Christians can agree on is the resurrection of Christ. Yet science would say the human body cannot be raised from the dead. Death is final.

Does this mean we need to stop believing in the resurrection? No. Because while we affirm that science is correct about the finality of death, we also affirm that God, the creator of heaven and earth, is capable of working outside the laws of nature as revealed through scientific study. Resurrection is a miracle. For that matter, those who believe in transubstantiation consider it to be a miracle, too.

Science cannot confirm or deny the miraculous. We must have faith the miraculous has occurred, and we cannot look to science for proof.

Conversely, the Bible is an ancient Near Eastern document written by ancient people with an ancient worldview for ancient audiences with that same worldview. What worldview is that? Among other things, it is certainly pre-scientific. The earth is described as the center of the solar system, fixed and unmoving, supported by pillars and surrounded by a dome. This is exactly how other ancient Near Eastern cultures describe the earth. We don’t look to them for scientific answers about the structure of our world; neither should we be looking to the Bible.

So we have to acknowledge, I think, the prescientific biblical vantage point and adjust for our post-Enlightenment world. That doesn’t mean science is a “litmus test on which all religions should be judged,” but it does mean if God has revealed something about his universe through scientific study, we should filter our views about the relevant passages of scripture through that new understanding.

In some cases, that means recognizing the poetry, metaphor and mythmaking involved in, say, the first 11 chapters of Genesis. The stories of a six-day creation, Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood and the dispersal of languages at Babel are actively contradicted by scientific evidence. And that’s fine. God has revealed to us evidence of how things actually happened; he did not reveal that to the authors or original audience of Genesis. Some may argue God performed a miracle in which the events recorded in Genesis 1-11 actually occurred but he made the evidence appear differently. That’s certainly a way to reconcile the literal text of Genesis with the scientific findings, but it does so, in my opinion, at the expense of God’s character. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” after all.

In other cases, it gets trickier. Culturally and sexually, the Bible also reveals an ancient outlook. It views homosexuality as purely a choice. Scientific study has revealed a far more complicated, nuanced picture in which genetics, prenatal factors and involuntary reaction to trauma are significant factors, each playing out differently for each person. Should that change our view of how scripture approaches this issue? I think so. You may disagree.

Regardless, the point is not that science is a trump card to nullify anything supernatural in scripture. As Adam says, science cannot prove or disprove the miraculous. But I firmly believe it is a method of divine revelation, men and women using their God-given ability to discover new truths about his world. As such, we should take it seriously, and when its findings seem to contradict our understanding of scripture, we should use the opportunity to reassess whether our understanding is flawed.

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3 comments on “She Blinded Me … With Science!

  1. Matthew says:

    At first, this seems like a good question and response.

    Q: Should we disbelieve miracle X because science says it isn’t possible?

    A: No, because science is unable to prove or disprove the miraculous.

    But after a little thought, I wonder whether the question presents the real issues, and whether the question addresses them.

    I think there are at least two significant questions raised by Adam’s comment. The first is, “What do we mean when we say ‘science’?” The second is, “Can we trust science to tell us the truth about the universe?”

    I think what we mean by “science” is something like “The methodical examination of both empirical evidence and theoretical models, with an aim to understanding how some part of the universe usually works.” The word “usually” is important for a variety of reasons, but in the context of this discussion, it is important because it allows for the possibility of supreme beings who occasionally (and unpredictably) muck about with the way the universe usually works. Some people like to argue that science is incompatible with faith in such a being, but I think this is an unacceptable narrowing of the word “science” and also historically ridiculous. It would probably be smart to also examine what we mean by “faith” (belief in secondhand information?), but I don’t think I’m up to that. My point is that it’s not inconsistent to hold both a belief a god who works miracles and an affection for science as defined.

    But now we get to the second question — can science be trusted — and at this point it seems important to be careful not to cheat. Not to overstep the leeway provided by “usually” in the definition above. Because if I squint just right, Paul’s answer appears to be this: “if your religious belief is threatened by scientific investigation, rather than seriously examining whether your religious belief might be wrong, you should invoke miracles.” And this bothers me a little, because if you’re going to fly in airplanes and use medicines … if you’re going to treat science as if it is a legitimate way of knowing … then you should seriously wrestle when scientific knowledge and religious knowledge come into conflict. It might make sense to always let religious doctrine trump scientific consensus, but if you have to let science trump religion even once (read: Galileo, read: young earth, read: Darwin) you have to wonder if maybe you shouldn’t re-pick trumps.

    To reiterate: I think trusting science also allows for belief in a god who does miracles. But if you’re going to treat science as a legitimate way of knowing, I think you should be willing to allow scientific data to critique (and in some places, correct) your religious beliefs.

    • Paul says:

      I think this is exactly what I was trying to say (my final sentence and yours seem to be different ways of saying the same thing).

      >Because if I squint just right, Paul’s answer appears to be this: “if your religious belief is threatened by scientific investigation, rather than seriously examining whether your religious belief might be wrong, you should invoke miracles.”<

      Gosh, I sure hope this isn't how I came across. That would be an astoundingly lazy way to solve the dilemma. It's a way to solve it, certainly, but it is no better than a "God of the gaps" argument in which God is the answer to anything I can't explain … until it can be explained, in which case, it must not have been God, after all.

      • Matthew says:

        > I think this is exactly what I was trying to say …

        You’re right. You said several of these things already and I should have made a bigger point of recognizing that. It’s just that when I read the post, it gives me the feeling that, while your sacred doctrines are apparently different than Adam’s, you approach them in the same way:

        > One thing all Christians can agree on is the resurrection of Christ. Yet science would say the human body cannot be raised from the dead. … Resurrection is a miracle. For that matter, those who believe in transubstantiation consider it to be a miracle, too.

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