Tag Archives: Science

Conviction and Complexity 3

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 2.”

God is always more than we think we know about him. He is inexhaustible. The Bible is much more than any of our current views and interpretations of it. It continues to speak to people of vastly different beliefs and perspectives, to reveal surprises to receptive readers, both delighting and challenging them. These convictions about God and the Bible govern my approach to science / faith relations, and I commend them to you in these relations as well.

Truth. I believe in the ultimate harmony of all truth. I may or may not be able to see or hear that harmony at any given moment, but I suspect that each of us seeks it out, to bring coherence to the complex dimensions of our lives. Truth is complex, and the pursuit of truth is complex. Different people have legitimate parts to play in seeing and clarifying truth, even as different tools are needed to understand different dimensions of life.

Science reveals truth. As I understand it, “science” is both a process and a result. It is a way of seeing the world, exploring it, analyzing it, and testing one’s grasp of it. It is a way of knowing. It is also a result: the data, the findings, the analyses, the conclusions. In my own engagements with science, I have tended to focus on natural sciences (e.g., geology, biology), as opposed to other fields of study (e.g., social science, political science).

Faith reveals truth. In addition to studies of the Bible and life experiences, the writings of Karl Barth, an early- to mid-twentieth-century Swiss theologian, have taught me much about faith as a way of knowing, especially in his work on St. Anselm. In effect, Barth argues that one cannot fully know the Christian faith until one commits to it and tries living life as a disciple of Jesus. Only then can one know what it is like to see the world and experience it as a follower of Jesus. Only then can one discover whether there is truth in Jesus’ teaching, for example, to love one’s enemies. One cannot try to establish that truth from a different position in relation to Christ. One must love one’s enemy to know if the teaching of Jesus is true. In this and analogous ways, faith is a path to truth.

Science / Faith. Science and faith both reveal truth, and they are both legitimate paths to truth. Some (not most!) scientists and science supporters are inclined to dismiss faith as a legitimate truth pursuit. Now, to be sure, I have witnessed versions of faith that I would consider illegitimate, but one should patiently seek the wisdom to discern good and bad forms of faith, and not dismiss all faith just because some people live theirs rather poorly, or even just fail to articulate their faith in ways one finds compelling.

I also cannot help but wonder, when there are such lashings out at faith, if these reactions stem from frustrations or pains that are not immediately obvious on the surface? Maybe it runs deeper and is more personal than we sometimes realize? Complexity.

On this note, do not buy into stereotypes of scientists. For a more factual, scholarly study of what scientists really think about religion, read Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford, 2010).

On another side, some people of faith dismiss science, even if they claim to support science. Such believers often support a redefined version of science. That is, I have not seen any Christian in my context think of himself or herself as “anti-science.” In my experience, no one wants to be “anti-science.” Instead, some Christians redefine “science” and make their own judgments as to what does and does not count as real science. Convenient.

Many Christians simply do not understand science: how it is done, who is actually doing it, what the results really are, and how to make sense of it. This lack of understanding does not prevent some Christians from forming strong opinions about science, however. A word of caution to Christians who handle science, however: if you misrepresent what science really is and does, is this not a violation of our shared command not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16)?

Real Christian faith has nothing to fear from science. After all, if God is more than even our best and hardest-earned thoughts about him, and if the Bible is more than even our best and hardest-earned understandings of it, then what should people of faith be afraid of? Does God disappear if the earth bears record of things we did not know happened? Should the Bible be tossed in the garbage can if we find that a formerly-clear interpretation is now inadequate, and we find ourselves pushed to read it again?

Christian responses to science should be carefully thought out and provisionally enacted. I might be wrong. You might be wrong. Being wrong may deliver a blow to my ego, but it does not mean that truth is not real, or that my pursuit of truth was not worth it. The relationship is far more complex than this. Truth is far more complex than this. By all means, let people of profound faith explore science / faith relations. Let them proceed with conviction, but let that conviction include the commitment to understanding the complexity of life, of our world, and of what it takes — and whom it takes — to understand our world more faithfully and more truly.

Conviction and Complexity 2

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 1.”

I could describe here my science / faith relationship in terms of specific topics and what I think about them (e.g., climate change). Some blog posts will do this, I am sure. I have come to realize, however, that I have core convictions and assumptions that guide and govern how I think about scientific topics. Everyone has such convictions and assumptions, even (especially!) those who deny that they have them or pretend to be objective in the matter. Here, I offer a glimpse into convictions that guide my science / faith relationship.

God. I believe in God, but I also believe that God is always more than what I think I know about him (I adapt the Bible’s masculine pronouns for God without believing that God is male as such). This belief means that any number of experiences may change my view of God. My understanding of a Bible passage may change my view of God. Contemplating people’s experiences of suffering or claims of healing may change my view of God. And, more to the point here, scientific findings may change my view of God.

Lest this sound like spineless, conviction-less, wishy-washy theology, I contend that true faith admits when it is inadequate, and especially when it has crammed God into something smaller and more manageable. This, of course, is the sin of idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything….” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)

In my experience with Christians, many Christians carry around with them their images or likenesses of God, even if those images have been carved in their minds. If such images influence the way we relate to our world, then they function as idols. God is no idol. He is always more than what we think we know about him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)

The Bible. I have always believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but what these terms mean has changed as I have learned more about the Bible. In my experience, many well-intentioned believers confuse inspiration (how God has related to the production of a biblical writing) and interpretation (how a passage should be read, understood, and appropriated).

Before I ever considered how to read the Bible in relation to scientific findings, I found my interpretation of various biblical passages changing in light of rigorous studies required of college Bible majors and graduate students. In short, my church tradition’s way of reading the Bible turned out not to have exhausted what the Bible actually contained and conveyed. To my dismay and delight, the Bible was much more than what I knew or expected.

This has continued to hold true in my studies of science / faith relations. Some people (some Christians and atheists alike) read the Bible with kindergarten-level maturity. Still, I am repeatedly pleased to find people, when pushed by scientific findings, going back to the Bible to see if there is more to it than they had imagined. Lately, I have seen not just biblical scholars and theologians doing so, but even scientists and agnostics. Again, if we will look and listen, we will find complexity in people’s science / faith relationships.

In the future, I will have more to say about how I read the Bible in relation to scientific findings. For now, I continue to find in the book of Isaiah a helpful way of thinking about our attempt to hear God’s word when we read in the Bible a collection of passages that were not, originally, written to us, but still have something to say to us:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)

Whether God’s word (spoken or written) accomplishes our purpose in the science / faith relationship or not, there is the claim here that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose. The Bible may have for us messages lurking we had not considered because we had hastily committed ourselves to particular interpretations of particular passages. In this complex relationship, my conviction is that the Bible has much more to offer than we often give it credit.

Lastly in this section on the Bible, I contend that changing one’s reading of the Bible in light of scientific findings is not a case of giving up on the Bible, but rather a case of keeping the Bible. It is not a case of losing faith in the Bible’s truth, but persisting in one’s belief that it does, and will always, have truth to convey to us, and that its truth cannot so easily be snuffed out. Some Christians can be made to feel that their change of interpretation is a loss of faith, when, in fact, and quite to the contrary, their change of interpretation is a clear sign of the perseverance of their faith. They keep holding onto these texts for a reason, and their faith may be greater as a result.

To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 3.”

Conviction and Complexity 1

I did not begin encountering nature, science, and science / faith relations with a blank slate. I met them with convictions already sown and growing within me: God had created, was active, and was worthy of worship; I needed to live my life God’s way; the church was supposed to do good in the world; and the Bible continued to speak to me and teach me.

These convictions anchored and oriented my experience of life, giving me a way of seeing. Inherited at first, they would be tested against cumulative life experiences. Naïvetés would mature. Encounters with different people and perspectives would teach me the limits of my knowledge and understanding. Unanswered questions would find a home within faith.

My relation to science / faith interactions grew from mere awareness to inquisitiveness to sustained study. Undergirded by conviction, I have come to understand the complexity of science / faith relations. Although there are definite trends and patterns in the ways people work out these relations, these trends and patterns may conceal the true complexity at work in people’s lives, a complexity that mirrors the complexity and idiosyncrasies of people themselves. This should not surprise us, but it is, in my experience, all too often absent from treatments of the topic. As a Christian who strongly disagreed with me once said to me, “It’s nothing personal, Daniel.” Indeed. It wasn’t. And that was part of the problem.

Perhaps this response reflects a struggle we people often have with the balance between conviction and complexity. We want to live out what we believe to be true, and do not always know how to manage that very natural, personal urge in relation to people who seem compelled to think, see, and act differently. On some occasions, I have managed conviction and complexity poorly. On others, I have managed them well. The challenge is to develop the habit, the discipline, of listening to other people to understand the complexity of science / faith relations in their lives.

As a person of faith, of conviction, listening changed my views of science. In the next posts, and in many posts to come, my specific science / faith convictions will become more apparent, and are already somewhat evident in my Science / Faith Bibliography. (But do not assume you can construct my views from my bibliography.) I make no pretensions of being objective or unbiased. I have convictions, after all. Can you listen to the complexity of my convictions, and of the convictions of others? Can I listen to yours?

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing personal opinion.”
Proverbs 18:2 NRSV

To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 2.”