Let’s End This War!

Andrew_Dickson_White_1885

Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

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