About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Can Faith and Science Coexist?

"Galileo before the Holy Office"
by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury.
Image from WikiMedia.

Are the claims of modern science and of the Christian faith compatible?  Can a practicing and faithful Christian trust the evidence gathered and digested by biologists and chemists and physicists today?  Or does a narrowly-defined reading of the Book of Genesis demand that any whose allegiance is with God dismiss the conclusions of rational thought?

Let me state at the outset that I emphatically believe and, in fact, know that the truth of the Christian faith and the truth of scientific enquiry can be together held and neither need be nor are fundamentally opposed to each other.  Perhaps I should have addressed this issue before now.  But, prompted by a variety of events in the last few days, I am now beginning what will certainly be a much longer series of reflections on why it is that the gift of faith and the gift of reason are by nature companions and allies, not adversaries.

Last week’s newspaper included the “Kentucky Candidate Information Survey”, a series of questions posed to the Republican and Democratic candidates for statewide office in the upcoming election on November 8.  As my wife and I reviewed each candidate’s answers and discussed whom we should vote for, several things became apparent about some of the Republican candidates.  David Williams, running for Governor against Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear, said that he “STRONGLY DISAGREED” with the statement, “The General Assembly should acknowledge global warming and work to limit Kentucky’s contribution to it.”  Later, he “STRONGLY AGREED” with the statement, “Schools should familiarize students with all sides of scientific debates on issues like evolution and global warming.”

On the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Wednesday, Stewart offered two complimentary segments: first, on the paucity of media coverage of the recent results of an investigation into “Climategate”; and then a segment by Aasif Mandvi exploring in typical Daily Show style the absurd claims of a Republican strategist that scientists are untrustworthy and that ignorance at home should trump knowledge and learning at school.  (Warning to my readers: Stewart uses adult language and sometimes crude jokes in his show.)  In the first segment, Stewart highlights the recent report in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Richard Muller, a physics professor at UC-Berkeley.  Muller concludes that, after conducting a study financed by the Koch brothers, the evidence is clear: Global warming is real.  (Lest you think that this study, like some of “Climategate”, was ideologically influenced: the Koch brothers are billionaire oilmen and ardent supporters of the Tea Party, home to many of the most vocal global warming skeptics.)

Let me say this again: Global warming is real.  The overwhelming weight of all of the evidence is that the world is getting warmer.  This is not something that some liberal scientists are making up out of dubious data.  The data are not dubious, the evidence is clear.  To be skeptical of these claims is to leave the realm of rational human observation and enter the kingdom of ideology and opinion.

Now, Muller is quite clear about the next step: “How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.”  It is certainly still a matter of debate as to how much global warming is caused by human activity (although the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that we are at least partially responsible).  Likewise, what the effects of this warming will be is also not a settled conclusion (though again, the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that some areas of the earth—not all—will experience adverse effects).  What is not up for debate is that global warming is happening, even if David Williams, who wants to be governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, thinks otherwise.

The candidate’s idea about “familiarizing students with all sides of the debate”, while admirable at the initial and literal level, is troubling when we dig deeper.  This idea that “all sides of the debate” hold equal weight is one of the more recent rhetorical moves made by those who question the theory of evolution and want Creationism taught at its side in public schools.  Let me be very clear: there is no scientific debate about whether evolution is happening.  It is.  Every piece of biological data collected over the past century points to one incontrovertible conclusion: organisms evolve.  How precisely this process occurs, and the variety of paths that evolution takes and has taken, are not settled questions.  Indeed, there is not one but many evolutionary processes.  Biological evolution is very complex, involving many factors and many effects.  Yet, the work of modern biologists only makes sense in light of the theory of evolution.[1]

Likewise, the ages of fossils, of the earth, of the universe, can be accurately measured through rational scientific processes.  Carbon-dating and red-shift frequency measurements are not opinions, neither are they “unproven” theories.  These are proven and reliable measurement techniques (within certain parameters of acceptable error).  They show that humanoid fossils date back at least three million years; that dinosaur fossils date back between fifty and two-hundred fifty million years; and that the oldest organic life-forms on earth existed billions of years ago.  Measurements of the light streaming in from outer space indicate that the universe has existed for approximately fourteen billion years.

In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, we are told that God created the universe, the earth, and all life upon it in six days and nights; and on the seventh, He rested.  According to the Word of God, each plant and creature was made distinctly, one after the other; and humans he made in His own image and likeness.  Careful calculations made on the various lifespans and generations given in Genesis and Exodus have produced estimates that the world is about six thousand years old, calculated from the day God created Adam and Eve, the first humans.  At first sight, we are faced with a contradiction: the Book on which our faith is founded, the Book we know to be the infallible Word of God, says one thing; the observations of human reason seem to say something very different.

For more than a century, as scientific evidence has mounted that seems to contradict the literal picture we had long known in Scripture, clashes and battles have raged.  To many Bible-believing Christians, it seems that science is out to persecute them.  Faced with choosing between their literal understanding of Genesis and the human observations of science, many Christians have opted for their faith and denied science.  The more enterprising have tried to promote new theories of “intelligent design” or “natural selection but not human evolution” that claim to offer scientific support for biblical letter.  When these theories try to make themselves out as empirical sciences, however, they betray themselves to be simply bad science.

And when Creationism tries to make itself out as theology, it betrays itself as bad theology.

First, the narrowly literal reading of Genesis that forces us to choose between the six-thousand year-old world of revealed Scripture and the fourteen-billion year-old world that scientific observation reveals, beggars Scripture.  It is either extraordinarily presumptuous or dangerously naïve to presume that there is only one, specific and finite way to understand the Word of God.  Such a method of interpretation reduces God to a level of genius far lower than we ascribe to Milton and Shakespeare, whose works we explore for many layers and profound depths of multivalent meaning.  But to God we will ascribe no such profundity, but only literal boorishness.

God has revealed Himself to us in the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, true God and true human.  The intersection of the Word as God and the Word of God means that Holy Scripture is itself, in every word and every phrase, the most profound bearer of truth and meaning.  The right theologian approaches the Bible in awe because of how much more it is than just human words.  Every word of scripture reveals in its ontological complexity the super-reality of God Made Man.  I’ve alluded to this idea before in discussing the vocation of the translator.  Holy Scripture transcends the textures of human composition by as far as God the Infinite Creator transcends His finite creation.  Yet, when Christ the Word became a human being, He made that Word of God a bridge between the infinite and finite.  Thus, in every word of the Bible we find the depth and height by which we climb from mere creatures to Sons of God.

To reduce the infinite complexity of God’s Word to a simple, literal monotone is to reduce God to the simple, literal, monotonous dolt of which so many atheists are so dismissive.  This is not God the infinite source of all goodness and being, but a tyrannical, limited despot made in our image.  Indeed, such a confined literalness in reading the Bible has only become a widespread phenomenon amongst Christians in the last few centuries.  For most of Christian history, exegetes approached Scripture with a deep respect and awe for how much it contains hidden beneath the literal word.  The fiercest realities revealed in the Bible are precisely those cloaked by the veil of the letter, to be understood in Christ not by that muddied, confused surface but by the spirit hidden beneath.  Indeed, this view of Scripture as a reality hidden by the letter and revealed by Christ is fundamental to Paul’s exegesis of the Old Testament in his letters.  Most succinctly he says of the rules of the Old Testament, “These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)  Paul follows this method of exegesis in Romans, I Corinthians, Galatians, and Hebrews in order to explain how Christ fulfills the words of Scripture, how its meaning so far surpasses the letter because it is spoken by the Word.

To insist that the words of Genesis must be read completely literally and in no other way; to deny any claim that God did not create the world in six, 24-hour days, as the earth made it 1/60 of the way around the sun; to belittle God’s Word by allowing it no depth of meaning beyond the letter, is bad theology.  It’s applying to Genesis the same logic the Judaizers applied to circumcision in the early Church, and we all know how they fared under Paul’s disapprobation (see e.g. Galatians 3-4).  It assumes that one man’s limited understanding of the Bible is the only understanding there can be.  It places feeble and fallible human judgment upon God’s infinite being as revealed in His Word.

The second problem is Creationism’s demand that we dismiss the rational observations of science as misleading and even the phantom delusions of evil.  When Genesis says that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-27), one of the profound implications is that God endowed us with reason.  As medieval theologians were wont to describe, God reveals himself in multiple books: the Book of Scripture is one, but the Book of Nature is another.  We find God revealed to us through the very world he created.  He made in us a deep curiosity and intellectual desire to understand both Him (the impulse of faith) and the world in which we live (the impulse of scientific inquiry).  To claim that we must dismiss all of the rational conclusions that scientific observation leads us to simply because some limited misapprehensions of Genesis seem to conflict, is to claim that we can trust none of our own observations of the world.  Indeed, the claim against science quickly descends into a terrible paradox: for the very rational understanding that leads to scientific discoveries of evolution is also the rational process by which we read the Word of God.  If we cannot trust that our observations of the natural world are, in aggregate and generally, sound (for while everyone makes mistakes, we do not all err all the time), then how can we trust ourselves to correctly interpret the Word of God?

We are guided by the Spirit, the theologians will rightly say.  But how can we be so sure that scientists studying the world aren’t also guided by the spirit of creation’s Creator?

The fundamental principle of this blog is that faith can and should seek understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).  Anselm of Canterbury, like so many of his medieval counterparts, understood intuitively that human reason is a powerful and divinely-given faculty.  Not to exercise it, not to be curious about the world, not to strive to understand, is a presumptuous waste of that gift.  God calls us to join Him in the creative discovery of knowledge.  He created us to explore; it would be cheap and infantile indeed if He then consigned our explorations to the dustbin.

You can be sure by now that this is just my opening thoughts on this complex and thorny issue, even if my position in the debate is quite clear.  With the support of the John Templeton Foundation, the good folks at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Richmond, Kentucky, together with Berea College, will be commencing a 14-month series on Science and Faith this Sunday from 1-3pm.  I encourage all of my readers in eastern Kentucky to try to attend what promises to be a fruitful and faithful exploration of how science and faith can work together to better the world.  For more information, see their website: http://oursaviourky.org/science

Notes
[1] See Dobzhansky’s essay, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, The American Biology Teacher, March 1973.  In this essay, Dobzhansky argues for a synthetic understanding of faith and evolution in which the Bible is not “a primer on science” and science does not presume to explain the relationship between humans and God. 

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Matthew, I was glad to meet you and your wife Wed. night at the Food Pantry at FBC. I just read this entry of yours. You made clear my thoughts and beliefs about creationism and science. Thanks so much. As you have probably discovered, creationism is a popular thing in this "neck of the woods." My daughter Jenny and I look forward to more time with you two!

Florence Young

Gary Whittenberger said...

“Let me state at the outset that I emphatically believe and, in fact, know that the truth of the Christian faith and the truth of scientific enquiry can be together held and neither need be nor are fundamentally opposed to each other.”

GW: What arrogance! You not only claim that the Christian faith is TRUE, you claim to KNOW that Christian faith and scientific enquiry are not fundamentally opposed to each other. By making such arrogant claims, you obligate yourself to provide a rational demonstration for both.

“This idea that “all sides of the debate” hold equal weight is one of the more recent rhetorical moves made by those who question the theory of evolution and want Creationism taught at its side in public schools.”

GW: Your idea that faith and science, two sides of the debate, hold equal weight is one of the more recent rhetorical moves made by those who question science and want theism to continue its stranglehold on public opinion.

“Measurements of the light streaming in from outer space indicate that the universe has existed for approximately fourteen billion years.”

GW: Yes, this is correct and it leads to the falsification of the hypothesis that there exists a god who created the universe roughly six thousand years ago, which is still a belief of many Christians and other theists.

“At first sight, we are faced with a contradiction: the Book on which our faith is founded, the Book we know to be the infallible Word of God, says one thing; the observations of human reason seem to say something very different.”

GW: Wait, let me read that again! You claim that a book written by human persons was really written by God and is infallible! You’ve got a lot of splaining to do.

“To many Bible-believing Christians, it seems that science is out to persecute them.”

GW: To many atheists, it seems that Christians have been out to persecute them. Oh wait, throughout history they HAVE persecuted them (although perhaps less so recently).

“It is either extraordinarily presumptuous or dangerously naïve to presume that there is only one, specific and finite way to understand the Word of God.”

GW: If God existed, wouldn’t he make his Word so clear that there would be only one specific and finite way to understand his Word? And wouldn’t he make it obvious that his Word was his Word so that there would be no doubters?

Gary Whittenberger said...

“God has revealed Himself to us in the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, true God and true human.”
GW: Here you claim that Jesus was a god. Surely you must have objective evidence sufficient to substantiate this claim. No, I see that you present none.

“Yet, when Christ the Word became a human being, He made that Word of God a bridge between the infinite and finite.”
GW: I can hear Andy Rooney, in his distinctive nasal tone, asking “Ever notice how religious people use the word ‘infinite’ all the time? Infinite in application to what continuum? How do they know that something is infinite? They don’t know, but they sure are fond of using the word ‘infinite.’”

“To reduce the infinite complexity of God’s Word to a simple, literal monotone is to reduce God to the simple, literal, monotonous dolt of which so many atheists are so dismissive.”
GW: Yeah, it would just be too much to expect the supreme ruler of the world to be simple, literal, and clear in his communications. It might not be interesting enough for him to do this. Or he might not want human persons to have it so easy and understand what he wanted.

“We find God revealed to us through the very world he created.”
GW: You are obligated to present some extraordinary objective evidence to support this extraordinary claim about objective reality.

“If we cannot trust that our observations of the natural world are, in aggregate and generally, sound (for while everyone makes mistakes, we do not all err all the time), then how can we trust ourselves to correctly interpret the Word of God?”
GW: If we can trust our observations of the natural world and our rational inferences from them, then how can we believe that God exists or that the Bible is his word?

“Not to exercise it [our human reason], not to be curious about the world, not to strive to understand, is a presumptuous waste of that gift.”
GW: You have not demonstrated that our reason is a gift, and it probably isn’t. Since you accept evolution, then you should realize that human reason is a result of mutation and natural selection. But using the natural benefit of human reason leads us to the conclusion that God himself very probably does not exist. And so, it is the greatest of ironies that if God exists, he wants us all to be atheists.

John Ashworth said...

your mention of Kentucky rings a bell, as that was my first real exposure to creationists. I was visiting a Catholic convent and one of the nuns took me to visit some famous Kentuckian caves. The park ranger who was conducting the tour mentioned that certain rock strata were millions of years old, and someone put up his hand and asked how could this be since the world is only 6,000 years old according to the bible. Immediately we heard others muttering all around us agreeing with the questioner. The ranger was obviously used to such questions and deflected it artfully enough, but my colleague and I, good Catholics both and well-versed in biblical exegesis, were quite shocked that people believe in this manner.