Faith and Science–conflicting or complementary??

 

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With this latest post, I want to address a topic that has evidently been a big source of conversation, and at times even controversy for many of the students I work with at CU-Boulder, as well as students on another campuses around Colorado. And that is the relationship between Faith and Science. Now of course this is an extremely broad topic, and let me just say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to present anything like an exhaustive coverage of this theme, or even a thorough overview of the different issues, debates, and positions. What I do hope to accomplish however is to address this central question—are faith and science inherently conflicting, or can they coexist peacefully, and even complement one another?? Related to this are questions such as—can I believe in God and still believe in evolution? Or believe in God and still believe in a Big Bang?? Or what about the age of the earth—is it “young” according to a literal reading of Genesis 1, or “old”, in accordance with the predominant scientific perspective?? Is the Bible itself meant to be a scientifically-aware text?? These are a few of the questions I want to try to address, and in the process I want to share what I feel are some important general points to keep in mind when we discuss the intersection of science and faith. Because regardless of where exactly you stand on these topics, the fact of the matter is that we live in a world where science, and scientific discoveries are given an enormous amount of credence and respect. But at the same time, as Christians, we hold Scripture and its teachings with the highest degree of reverence. So where is the balance or meeting point between these two positions, if there is one??

 

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The date was December 24, 1968—Christmas Eve. On this special evening, millions of Americans tuned in to witness a live broadcast from the crew of Apollo 8, which was orbiting the moon in preparation for an eventual lunar landing (Apollo 11). This television audience, the largest in history at the time, listened spellbound as astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman took turns reading from Genesis 1:1-10. Now to me this is a remarkable little moment in time from the Space Race. These three men were the epitome of modern, scientifically-educated individuals. They were part of a nationwide effort to utilize the most modern technology of the era in order to reach for goals of interplanetary exploration that the people of Biblical times could scarcely have ever dreamed possible. And yet at this moment when they were orbiting the moon, in a triumph of scientific progress and technological innovation, their thoughts turned back to a book written thousands of years earlier, and the timeless spiritual message it contained. So for me, this moment aboard Apollo 8 symbolizes a harmonization between faith and science—something that I believe is possible, as we will discuss further.

We will investigate some of these questions through a Scriptural lens, as we attempt to tackle a few of the controversies which seem to inevitably arise when the intersection of science and faith is discussed. Specifically, we’ll look a little more closely at the discussion over the age of the earth, and then at evolution. As we talk about learning to balance these two perspectives of science and faith together, it’s my hope that you may find that they can coexist in some harmony with one another. It’s my belief ultimately that science and faith really ask completely different sets of questions, and employ a different set of methods to answer them. Yet in the final analysis, as Christians we should always be defined as a people of faith, and people who are faithful to the teachings and dictates of Scripture. These faith-based principles guide our entire worldview, including our use of science. And so whatever useful knowledge and perspective we can find through science, it should never be prioritized to the point that our faith is marginalized or obscured. After all, as Hebrews 11:6 reminds us: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”

 

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Galileo Galilei

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Isaac Newton

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Louis Pasteur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the first point I want to share is that science and religion do not necessarily have to conflict with one another. Now in our modern society, the media often pits these two like opposing heavyweight fighters, with the assumption that it’s an either-or proposition and that only one can be right. But in my opinion this is setting up a false dichotomy, and leading us to mistakenly believe that science’s aim perhaps is to undermine faith, and that scientifically-minded individuals could never also be people of faith, who hold significant religious convictions. Without belaboring the point I want to highlight just a few of the most illustrious scientific minds in history—Galileo Galilei, Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Carl Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Alessandro Volta, Lord Kelvin, Max Planck, Werner von Braun, Louis Pasteur, Francis Collins…all of whom were Christians, and the list could go on and on. To briefly illustrate the dual perspective that has allowed some of these brilliant scientists down through the ages to maintain both their faith and their scientific outlook, let me just share a couple of quotations from two notable Christian scientists. Werner Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of quantum mechanics. He was once famously quoted as saying–“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you” Current-day scientist James Tour is an organic chemist known for his work in the field of nanotechnology. He is quoted as saying–“I build molecules for a living, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that job is. I stand in awe of God because of what he has done through his creation. Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God.”

 

Clearly then, there have been some very illustrious scientists over the years who have found that their work needn’t prevent them from being persons of faith. In fact, many have discovered that their scientific investigations have actually brought them closer to God. And why not?? The very gifts of reason and intelligence which we use to pursue science and explore the natural world around us are granted by God. In Matthew 22:37, as part of the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” So even the idea that we can love God with our minds, and honor Him through our intellectual achievements helps to endorse the thought that scientific inquiry and study needn’t bring us into inherent conflict with our faith. I also love the perspective we get in Psalm 8:3-4“When I consider Your heavens, and the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him” As you may know, many peoples of the ancient world were very keen observers of the stars, and often had considerable astronomical knowledge. And here, it seems as though the Psalmist is saying that by observing the night sky and studying the heavens, in other words through science, he has arrived at a greater appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of God. Now, changing tack just a little bit here, consider the rubric given to us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12—“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Paul is talking about the liberty we have as Christians, and the fact that we don’t have an intricate series of rules, or laws, or do’s-and-don’ts to govern our moral behavior. I think this perspective is helpful to carry into our discussion about Christians involved in science too. Because science, simply put, is a neutral field. It is neither inherently good nor bad, so it is a lawful thing for a Christian to pursue?? The question is—for what purpose are we pursuing scientific study—for the good of humanity, for profit, for our own glory, or for God’s?? Consider this too—if Christians were to all decide that science was someone a tainted field that could damage their faith, and thus they removed themselves from it, how could Christ-followers maintain an effective witness to the many people in scientific fields of work?? Furthermore, scientific work, neutral though it may be in principle, frequently leads people into areas where there is a need for moral discernment or judgment to be exercised. Cloning, the development of atomic weapons, and stem-cell research are just a few examples of such fields where scientific inquiry and potential moral dilemmas may collide. And so I think it’s clear that we need Christians working in these different scientific fields to help provide some of the ethical and moral perspectives that will guide and underscore the march of scientific progress.

 

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Well if we can accept for the sake of argument that science and faith needn’t inherently conflict with one another, let’s move on now to investigate further one specific area of controversy and discussion within this larger topic—that of Creation, and specifically the age of the earth. Both the way in which our universe was originally formed, and the age of earth itself are subjects which are often cited as examples of the potential conflict between faith and science. We can address both of these questions in closer detail by looking at the Biblical account of Creation, starting in Genesis 1. However, I would like to just point out a few significant things from the story. First, God creates the world out of nothing—or sometimes you will see this Latin term used: ex nihilo. Listen to Genesis 1:1-2—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void.” That God created the universe from nothing is an important fact that makes the Hebrew and thus the Christian conception of Creation very different from some other worldviews. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first I want to address the question of whether Christians can believe in the Big Bang?? The predominant theory accepted by most current-day scientists in regards to the origins of the universe is called the Big Bang. I won’t attempt to explain it in any great detail, but essentially the theory is that the universe was born out of a gigantic explosion of energy some 13.8 billion years ago, and starting from a small, hot, dense core, it has been continuously expanding since. And everything that is in the universe currently, starts, planets, galaxies—our own earth, resulted from this original cataclysmic event. Now most scientists will readily admit that there is much regarding the origin of the universe that remains shrouded in mystery. So the idea of the Big Bang is very much a theory. But the fact is that if you ask most atheists, or secular people about the origins of the universe, since they won’t accredit it to God, they will reference the Big Bang. But as Christians, can we accept that the universe was created in such a manner?? Well I believe that we can accept the Big Bang as Christians for this simple reason. No scientist will claim to truly know why this event happened. They can tell you about the process itself—the how, but not the why. To put it another way, scientists don’t really claim to know what actually caused or initiated this giant primordial explosion. So could God be behind it all—could He be the initiator and the first cause of the Big Bang?? I think it’s plausible at least—and there are other Christians that would agree.

 

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But there is another problem attendant with believing in the Big Bang—the relationship of that theory to the age of the earth. Because if you accept the Big Bang, you’re ascribing to the belief that the universe itself is some 13.8 billion years old, and that correspondingly the earth is around 4.54 billion years old. Some Christians will immediately object to this statement, because with a literal reading of the Genesis creation account, based on God making the world over the course of six 24-hour days, and then following through with the subsequent genealogies you arrive at a much younger age for the earth—around 6,000 years old. But much hinges on the interpretation of the Hebrew word for day, “yom.” Some people may assume that “day” in Hebrew always refers to a 24-hour period of time, but this isn’t the case. For one thing, the sun and the moon, by whose position in the sky we help to measure night and day, aren’t even created until the fourth day, which makes it at least plausible that the days referred to in Genesis 1 are not literally 24-hour periods of time as we know them now. Secondly, the word “yom” is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean something besides a literal 24-hour period of time. It can mean the time or season when an event is at hand. For example, Joel 2:11 speaks of the coming of the “Day of the Lord”—a time of future judgment. And day can also be used to mean simply an extended period of time of indefinite length. An example of this type of usage comes just after the creation story in Genesis 2:4—“This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” We should also note that there are passages in Scripture which plainly tell us that God’s time-frame is very different from our own. Psalm 90:4 says in regards to the Lord—“For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” Or listen to the perspective of 2 Peter 3:8—“Beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Even in current English usage, the word “day” has that same versatility. Expressions like “back in the day” or “in the modern day” convey something besides a 24-hour time-frame. So here’s what I would say in summary—you could be both a “young” or “old” earth advocate and still be Biblically faithful. But what is not Biblically faithful is to say that the earth, and indeed the universe simply came into being as the random outcome of blind natural forces.

 

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But as long as you believe God was the agent behind Creation, I think there’s a lot of potential leeway to believe different theories about the age and method of the earth’s Creation. And here’s why I say that—because the purpose of the Genesis Creation account ultimately is not to provide a scientifically-accurate, blow-by-blow account of how everything happened with a precise accompanying chronology. Genesis is primarily a theological account of the beginning of life on earth—not a biological one. Clearly Genesis 1 doesn’t try to describe every different type of plant, animal, or natural feature that God makes. But it is emphatic in its declaration that God alone is responsible for the existence of the entire universe and the natural world. And here is where it can be useful to compare the Genesis 1 account of Creation to some other cosmologies found in the ancient world. As we’ve already said, the Hebrews believed that God alone had fashioned the world ex nihilo, out of no preexisting matter, and had spoken everything into existence. Such was God’s power and majesty that His words alone sufficed to make things happen. Humanity too is formed essentially from nothing. Genesis 2:7—“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”. Have you ever made anything out of dust?? This is just another way of saying God basically made man out of thin air—which both says a lot and also leaves much to mystery. Now, let’s quickly compare the Biblical narrative to one other roughly contemporary creation account. In the ancient Babylonian Creation story known as the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk kills a primeval giantess named Tiamat, and out of her corpse, the earth is fashioned. Also, in the Babylonian pantheon, both the sun and moon were worshipped as major deities. Yet in the Biblical creation account the sun and moon aren’t even created at all until the fourth day, thus diminishing their importance as simply one more aspect of God’s creation. And this is a God who needs no helpers to fashion His universe, and who is so powerful and all-sufficient that He can rest after His work—it is complete and perfect. Also, throughout the Genesis story, God is already making moral pronouncements on His work, calling it good. This is in sharp contrast to the Babylonian story where no moral values are assigned to creation—it simply happens. But perhaps nowhere is the contrast greater than when it comes to how God fashions humanity. In the Babylonian Creation story, humans are made out of the blood of a slain primeval monster, Kingu. And they are created by the god Marduk for the purpose of basically becoming slaves, to do all the labor needed on the earth and allow the gods to rest. How different is the Genesis account! As we mentioned earlier, God makes man out of dust—essentially nothing. But even more important is what we find in Genesis 26—“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” According to the Bible then, humans are the crowning glory of God’s Creation, and endowed with something of the intelligence, power, love, and spirit that God Himself possesses.

 

 

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So this brings us to the discussion of another major scientific controversy—the theory of Evolution. Can Christians believe in evolution and can it be reconciled with the Genesis Creation account?? Now just as with the age of the earth, there are Christians on both sides of this question. So without trying at all to influence your own personal opinions here, let me just share a few observations. First of all, you’ve probably all seen those bumper ornaments around before—the fish with legs. And it’s sort of a direct dig against the Christian fish symbol, right?? Implicit with this symbol is the idea that believing in evolution automatically counters or even disproves Christian teaching about God being the author of creation. The ideas behind this theory date back to the 1859 publication called On the Origin of Species by the English scientist Charles Darwin. Many people who favor a largely materialistic or secular worldview like to claim Darwin as their champion—the symbol of free scientific inquiry as opposed to the supposedly sheltered and narrow Christian worldview. But the facts are that Darwin himself never considered his works as making any kind of attack or statement against Christianity, or the potential belief in a Creator God. In a letter written in 1879, Darwin asserted his opinion that It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” He then went on to write a description of his own religious beliefs which categorically denied his being an atheist: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” Now I fully realize that agnosticism is a far cry from being a practicing Christian, but at least this should demonstrate the falseness of the claim that Darwin was some sort of anti-Christian crusader, or that his works were meant to undermine or even destroy people’s faith in God. So, having said that, let’s return to the question of evolution itself. I don’t think it is inherently problematic to believe that animals evolved someone from a process of natural selection or that even humanity itself has been somehow shaped or influenced by these natural forces. Because the fact is—on both sides of this debate there remain many unexplained things. If you reject the idea of evolution, and take a very literal reading of Genesis, you still have to wonder exactly where all the sheer diversity of current human races, and different ethnicities came from, starting from just Adam and Eve. The Bible doesn’t really try to explain this. And if you are a secular believer in evolution, you and even the leading natural scientists are still puzzled to try and explain the sheer gap in cognitive ability and so many other factors between humans and their supposedly closest animal relatives—chimpanzees, and other members of the great ape family. Just as we said with the question of the earth’s age, the purpose of the Genesis account of humanity’s creation is not to provide scientific detail or a step-by-step account of how God made all men and women. The purpose of the story though is very much to assert that God made humans, and that He endowed us with certain Divine qualities, being made in His image, that clearly sets us apart from all other animals. Could this have happened through evolutionary processes?? Perhaps so, but it is God who is orchestrating and guiding these processes, and not blind, naturalistic forces.

So regarding both evolution and the age of the earth, my point would be that neither one of these questions or so-called controversies should ever be used as a litmus test to determine who is Christian, and who is not. Christians can believe in the Big Bang or not, they can endorse evolution or choose not to—and these ultimately are not questions of faith, nor are they the most important things that we need to be spending too much of our time and energy focusing on. The question to ask is—however one understands the processes by which the universe and the earth and humanity came into being—do they believe that God was ultimately behind all of it? I said earlier that when Scripture talks about God creating man out of the dust of the earth, this both says much, and also leaves a great deal to mystery. Because to say something is made out of dust doesn’t really tell you how it’s made, does it?? In the same way for God to speak the other various elements of creation into existence also doesn’t give us much in the way of detail about how precisely the sun, moon, and stars were made, or the plants and animals were formed. But on the other hand, we learn a great deal from this information. Because we learn that we serve and worship a God whose infinite power and wisdom allows Him to create things, ourselves included, by the sheer power of His will, leaving the exact process forever a mystery to ourselves, with our fragile and limited minds unable to grasp the full wonder of what He has done.

So as we conclude, I want to return to a statement I made earlier—my belief that science and faith needn’t conflict, but can actually coexist and even complement one another. The caveat is this—regardless of to what extent we endorse this or that scientific theory and find it can harmonize with our faith and our interpretation of Scripture, we need to always be ready to recognize the limitations of science. I said earlier tonight that one reason I believe science and faith can often co-exist is because they ask two different sets of questions, and use different methods to reach their conclusions. Along these lines then, we should recognize that there are certain questions in regards to the purpose of life, and the nature of love, beauty, goodness, mercy, forgiveness—that science can never address or answer. Such questions can only be approached through the lens that faith can provide us. And then correspondingly, a big part of being a person of faith is similarly recognizing limitations to our knowledge and wisdom. Proverbs, the great treatise on wisdom, tells us early on, in Proverbs 1:7—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, and I think this is another way of saying that as God-fearing people, our pursuit of knowledge begins by admitting all that we do not and cannot know—that which belongs to God alone. The Book of Job is also included in the Biblical genre of wisdom literature, and at the conclusion of that book, in chapters 38-41, God breaks His silence to ask Job a series of questions that Job cannot begin to answer—all related to God’s sovereign control over the universe, and his complete mastery over all aspects of Creation. Job, for all of his desire earlier in the book to question God and demand answers from Him, is soon put in his place, realizing the gulf of knowledge between him and God, and humbly accepting that there is so much about God he will never fully grasp or understand. So science has its limitations, and we need to acknowledge that.

 

 

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Science also changes—and please don’t hear this as a criticism of science or a suggestion that as Christians we should avoid scientific study and inquiry. I’ve already said that I strongly feel like we need Christians involved in science. But science is certainly not infallible, and the scientific facts of today may well be questioned, challenged, or even supplanted centuries from now. For hundreds of years for example, the widespread consensus amongst medical experts held that bloodletting could be an acceptable treatment for all sorts of illnesses and maladies. In fact, the death of our first president, George Washington, in 1799, was hastened by the fact that his doctors, according to the wisdom of the day, repeatedly bled him during his final illness. Here is another example—you see above this paragraph a series of Time Magazine covers from the 1970’s that warn about an approaching new “Ice Age”, which scientists at the time believed was imminent. But as the more recent Time covers reveal, nowadays we are of course much more concerned that the world is getting warmer rather than colder. When I was growing up, we learned in school that there are nine planets in our Solar System—the furthest away from the sun being the planet Pluto. But a 2006 meeting of the International Astronomical Union the decision was made to downgrade its status to that of dwarf planet. We talked earlier about evolution. And you may have heard of a famous court case that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, where a high school teacher, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution to his students, which at that time was illegal in the state. His trial became a media circus and the basis later for the movie Inherit the Wind. Now many supporters of evolution will point to this trial as a landmark event in the struggle for the theory to gain wider acceptance in academic institutions. But often forgotten in retrospect is the actual content of the textbook that Scopes had used, called Civic Biology. For while it contained teaching about evolution, it also advocated for eugenics—that is selective breeding of humans in an attempt to weed out genetic disorders, a policy that would be put into chilling practice under the regime of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, and has today been totally discredited. Again, I mention these examples not to discredit science, but simply as a reminder that scientific knowledge is not something that is fixed and unquestionable—it is always in flux and changing.

 

Thus we need to recognize science’s limitations, especially when it comes to the faith realm. While we’ve looked at many different nuances of this topic, I could think of no better way to close than quoting from Ecclesiastes 12:12-14—“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” The debate over different aspects of science and their possible conflict with faith can be a never-ending one, so for me the bottom line is this: Do you acknowledge God’s supremacy over everything that is present throughout our universe? Do you recognize Him as the ultimate Creator, sustainer, and guide of life?? If so, then no matter what else you agree or disagree upon from the scientific realm, nothing should be able to shake these faith convictions which remain at our core. If we keep God at the center of the Created Order, then I believe scientific study will only go towards further highlighting His beauty, wisdom, and majesty. 

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3 thoughts on “Faith and Science–conflicting or complementary??

  1. Of course science is always changing, but the key difference is that the scientific method is constantly converging on the truth. If you rewound history to the Renaissance and started again, people may still try bloodletting but will eventually discover it doesn’t really do what they thought. Religion, on the other hand, is divergent as evidenced by the myriad sects and different beliefs of what is “truth” even within Christianity itself. But at least religion will continually adapt as it always has — a few hundred years ago you would have been a heretic.

  2. You and Rita are on our monthly prayer request list. I pray for you daily, along with many others. We are thankful for your willingness to be used by the Lorde in His work!!!

    Prayerfully,

    Claire

    • Thanks Claire! I certainly appreciate your prayers! I’m so sorry we didn’t have a chance to visit at the GIC. I hope we can talk at some this summer when I’m back in Montgomery though. God bless

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