Reconciling Science and Religion

This past Saturday, I was delighted to see so many clergy participating in the March for Science in downtown DC.  It is vitally important for the credibility of a 21st century church for people to see the church supporting the work of science.  For far too long, people – for a variety of reasons, many of them deeply suspect – have played off science against religion, as though the two were in conflict.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a person of faith, I believe that God’s work is at the heart of creation, and therefore to understand creation better is to understand God better. 

For some, this may be an interesting juxtaposition to my last post on the reality of the resurrection.  But in asserting that there is no conflict here, I am actually reflecting centuries of orthodox church teaching.  For many centuries, prior to the Enlightenment, what passed for science was actually called “natural theology” (or natural philosophy) – a term used to differentiate it from “revealed theology.”  Revealed theology, of course, deals with what we understand about God through the witness of Scripture and the experience of God in the life of the Church (which itself drew on the experience of God in the history of Israel).  The early theologians of the Church would largely argue that both of these ways of understanding God – natural and revealed -- must be in harmony, since they both pertain to the one God and creator of the universe.

This is not to deny, of course, that there haven’t been significant tensions at various points between the understandings of scientific and religious thinkers (the trial of Galileo and the Scopes “monkey” Trial – though separated by centuries – come quickly to mind).  It is to say, however, that the best and healthiest aspects of church tradition have been flexible enough to incorporate truths from other disciplines.

In fact, we (as the church) have a moral obligation to maintain the flexibility to incorporate insights from other disciplines into how we understand God.  From a theological standpoint, this is important for a number of reasons:

·       It is always important to be mindful of the fact that whenever we contemplate God, we are in the presence of a vast mystery, and that the reality of God will always exceed the scope of our understanding.

·       Analogously, we need to recognize -- humbly -- that we are limited beings and that our ability to understand both God and God’s world (and ourselves!) will always be limited.

·       We also know that growth is part of life, and that our perceptions of God and the world will evolve as we gain more knowledge and more wisdom.

·       Interestingly, there are theologians who argue that God also changes and develops over time (an insight that is at the heart of the school of Process Theology).

·       Faithfulness to God’s call demands that we adhere to truth, as we understand it.  God is truth, and we cannot pursue God without pursuing the truth (and vis versa!).

Science is a great gift in helping us understand and control the world around us.  And while it is a profound source of truth, it is not the source of all truth.  Artistic and aesthetic truths, moral truths, psychological and sociological truths (to some degree), and certainly philosophical and theological truths all fall outside the bounds of the scientific endeavor; and all are essential aspects of the human experience just the same.    

Additionally, absolute truths about even the physical world will lie forever just beyond the grasp of science (as any scientist worth their salt will acknowledge).  Science is a process that explores the truths of the physical world that are reproducible through the rigors of experimentation.  Through that process, scientists test hypotheses about the physical world, some of which are disproven, while others gather support.  But scientists always recognize that they never capture the absolute truth of the physical world.  They develop paradigms that allow us to better understand and control our environment; but those paradigms only hold sway until enough new accumulated data cause a “paradigm shift,” which invites us to look at the physical world in a dramatically different way. 

Many scientists (particularly in the various fields of theoretical physics), are clear about the fact that the more that they learn about the mysteries that they are exploring, the more impenetrable those mysteries often become.  They will additionally acknowledge that the very process of studying natural phenomena can impact the phenomena they are studying (a dilemma known as the “observer effect”) and that there are inherent uncertainties in the process (a concept generally called “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle).   

On the religious front, we also need to acknowledge the Bible is not a history or science text book, nor was it ever intended to be.  The Bible is a book about theology; it is the story of our community’s life with God.  What that means is that we should not look to the Bible to tell us the physical details of how creation evolved: evolutionary biology and related disciplines do a good job of that.  What the Bible does is ground that process in the action of a God who is simultaneously transcendent and imminent: who both commands creation with a word, and who nurtures our own creation with God’s life-giving breath. 

So, what does that mean for a 21st century Christian?  It means that we have an obligation to honor and incorporate truth – wherever it comes from – into our understandings of God and God’s world.  It means that we dig into Scripture with curiosity and integrity, as well as into the insights of science, and then explore ways of integrating those.  For me, it means that evolution is truth.  It also means the resurrection is truth. 

How do I justify that latter claim, when that seems decidedly unscientific?  In part, because scientific understanding is always evolving; in part because science can only comment on physical realities that are repeatable, not those that are unique.  And in terms of the other arguments in favor of the resurrection, you’ll just have to look at the last blog for that.

Lastly, again, it is deeply important for all of us to explore the truth of God and God’s world andourselves, with a profound sense of humility and openness, as we seek to know a mystery that we can never fully understand.