All In The Family
The relation of science and Christian faith is complicated, like a loving married couple, the two are sometimes an odd couple, very different from each other, they bicker, and they fight, yet they are wed together by their common pursuit of truth. At the end of the day, they have both earned each other’s respect. And together, in mutual support of each other, they’ve given the world some wonderful children.
If you listen to popular narratives you might think that Science excludes faith. They aren’t lovers, they’re enemies, bitter polarizing opposites that cannot cohabitate without abusing each other. Science fosters knowledge, but faith breeds ignorance. Scientists use reason, logic, and common sense but faith fills our heads with blind faith and dull wit. Scientists get results, but priests yield fairy tales and pipe dreams.
That’s a cute little caricature, but nothing more. There are, to be sure, many cases of overzealous lab coat folks using science like a weapon to attack religious targets. And many Christians, in turn, are known to retreat to their Alamo Church, staging a useless battle with science entire.
These attitudes are misguided and reactionary.
Underneath these disputes, there exists a deep harmony. Beneath the broiling bickering power struggles is familial bedrock. This is a family relation. There may be controversies about how the universe began, how old is the earth, how big was the Flood, how did the species begin, and are miracles possible. But there’s also a shared effort to understand such things–truthfully. One can admit these controversies permitting a range of answers within historic Christianity. Yet, these controversies are the spats of a married couple, not theaters of war between enemy tribes.
The relation of Science and Christian faith is one of interdependence, deep involvement in each other’s operations, and a depth of relationship going back centuries. This deep harmony is evident in several ways.
How Do We Know?
For one thing, Christianity birthed modern science
People have always inquired about how nature works. But modern science is more than that. It supercharges curiosity with observation, reasoning, realism, and of course the scientific method. This last part–the scientific method–is probably the key feature distinguish modern science from, say, natural philosophy or archaic pseudoscience (alchemy, astrology, etc.). Modern science didn’t always exist, it started to gel somewhere in the late middle ages. Muslim scholars are sometimes credited with the earliest forms of the scientific method, namely Alhazen Al-Biruni, and Avicenna, but the Muslim renaissance (as it’s now known) soon fizzled under fundamentalist theological constraints and because their scientific work never joined with Universities. Meanwhile, several Christian scholars like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grossteste, and Roger Bacon took the seeds of scientific methodology, planted them deep within the Universities of the day so they would blossom into Modern Science.
It’s hard to imagine, realistically, modern science growing so fast and so strong without the fertile soil of Universities. Yet, Christian churches historically started the university in the middle ages. These settings gathered the best minds of the day together and soon afterwards there were monks, clergy, and religious laity pioneering some of the founding innovations in physics, biology, optics, and genetics. In this way, it was medieval Christian universities that set the stage for early modern science. Almost all the pioneering scientists were church men such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilee, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes. It was overwhelmingly church dollars paying for scientific research. It was confidence in a good and orderly God that reassured them in searching out nature’s ways. And underneath their study was a deep desire to discover God’s designs and praise Him all the wiser.
Science is about God.
You see, for Scientific Christians, studying nature informs us about God since the Creator is known in part through His creation. God gave us the Bible, but He also gave us the Cosmos. These are what the church fathers called the “Two Books”: the book of special revelation (Scripture) and the book of natural revelation (Creation). Founding fathers of Science often framed their studies as acts of worship. And while there were deistic and heretical trends among enlightenment scientists, traditional Christianity was still the norm.
Moreover, nature witnesses to God’s logic and order.
Christians have long believed in an orderly world because of it’s orderly creator. It is remarkable that nature is so readily intelligible, coherently arranged, and sensibly ordered. We have no reason, according to naturalism, for expecting an orderly world if this world is all there is. But if there is an intelligent God creating the cosmos, then it’s not surprising to find nature reflecting God’s good order, as effect to cause.
Also, nature gives us metaphors for understanding God.
Nature works in reliable ways. It’s awesome to study, and impressive in scope. There’s always more to be found, a perpetual invitation for more learning. At minimum, nature is a helpful analogy for the Creator who is both inviting yet boundless, readily discovered yet beyond comprehension.
Next, the sciences assume an aesthetic dimension as nature witnesses to God’s artistry.
God could have made an incoherent, ugly, bland, and useless world, but He didn’t. He made a world with vibrant sights, sounds, smells, flavors, sensations, and experiences. He ordained the cosmos with rich grandeur, an artwork illuminating the grandeur of its Artist. Science becomes immanently more interesting when we understand that none of this “had to be,” but rather is the selective intention of a grand artist. Science helps us understand God’s artistry in nature, just as studying music theory (a ‘science’) gives the student greater access to the art of music.
Also, the interpersonal relation between God and man enriches the sciences with personalism.
Persons are interesting, generally more interesting than anything else. If a sandy beach has random scratches on the surface, there’s no curiosity needed, nothing of interest there, nor information there, unless those “random” scratches aren’t random at all, but are language. If those scratches are designed signs pointing to a transcendent meaning, then the beach sands are now about something other than beach sand. No amount of studying sand and beaches will tell you the meaning of those marks. Likewise, no amount of studying squiggles, ink, and paper can unveil the transcendent realm of literature. The ink and paper is flat and boring until we realize there’s a person using those things to communicate personally with us. Now flat paper takes on the depth of story, of literature, of dialogue. Nature is God’s book, and books have meaning. If nature is understood as revelation by a personal God, then we cannot rightly treat it as meaningless machinations. Once we’ve encountered the added dimension of divine depth, the 2d experience of nature just can’t satisfy us anymore.
Much of modern science, unfortunately, has come under the reign of a mechanistic worldview. Nature is just machines, animals are just machines, man is just machines. And we study these machines, their forces, their properties, to find smaller machine-like relations between all their parts, and then find the interworking of those parts, pioneering forward into endless reductivism, as if the nexus of all knowledge was also the disintegration of aiming at some abstract nexus of knowledge–where the grand theory of everything look at the machines that make up those parts, and we reduce everything to smaller and smaller parts till the whole of nature is disintegrated.
Lastly, they make beautiful children together.
Science has flourished in the Christianized West more than anywhere else. But it is Christianity, more than geography, that has been the common denominator for Scientific success. Modern science has flourished by the support of Christian ethics, Christian schools, the economics and industry of Christian society, and a lot of blood sweat and tears from hard working scientists born of Christian culture. The results have been fantastic in terms of fruitful learning, technology, medicine, richer worship, etc. Science and faith complement each other extremely well, even if pastors and scientists are known to say otherwise.
Why such Antagonism Between the Two?
It’s no secret that science and faith have often acted like enemies. Some of this can be chalked up to power-struggles. Just as a husband and wife may sometimes wrestle over who gets to make the decisions, over who “wears the pants in the family,” so science and faith have struggled over who has priority, who has the greater authority in society.
Other times, there are individuals or groups who are using science or faith to attack the other, when science and faith, properly understood, have no beef with each other. This is sort of like how mischievous kids sometimes try to get the parents disagreeing with each other and fighting. Properly speaking, Christianity allows for a fully operational, orderly world complete with laws, regularity, and natural forces. Supernaturalists accepts the natural forces, the natural causes, and the same nature that naturalists do, they just disagree over whether there’s anything else out there. When a militant atheist talks about how science steamrolls religious claims it may sound like science and faith disagree, but mischievous kids are known to start fights like that. Instead, what we have, is naturalistic scientists rejecting miracles, denying creation, and shunning prophecy not so much because science disproved it but because their naturalism ignored it. When those kinds of people do science, we can expect that they’ll interpret the data naturalistically because they are naturalists. Meanwhile, when sincere Christians do science they get the same data and interpret it without excluding God. That systematic exclusion of God is called “methodological naturalism.” That’s when a person does science under the assumption that natural causes are the only causes.
But a person can give natural causes high priority in studying nature, without having to reject God or supernature. Christian theists don’t have to jump to some fairy-tale magical mystery with every conclusion either. We just allow that the regular order of nature is a game with rules, and the game-maker can pause the game, enter the court of play of play and intervene if He wants. We may study the game and all it’s rules, but none of that study–whether from naturalists or supernaturlists–prove that the back door to the court stays closed.
You see, the biggest tension between science and faith is how miracles seem to deny scientific laws yet without miracles religious faith is empty. This is a real problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Imagine a game of racketball. The laws of nature describe the game when the back door is closed. It’s “game on,”” and the laws operate as they normally do. Miracles describe the game when the door is open. The normal operational rules are suspended as the game is paused. No rules are broken, and the game is not dismissed in a draw, but a whole different realm with different laws and different people can be outside that door. That open door allows for intervening actions that are not described by the rules of racketball. No amount of studying the rules of racketball, or studying the court, or studying each other’s styles will tell us what’s outside the court or what may happen when the game is paused.
Now, here’s the trick. If your racketball coach pauses the game, enters the backdoor of the court and proceeds to walk onto the court to talk to you–has he ruined the entire racketball game? Has he discredited the sport forevermore so that no one anywhere else can play racketball? Of course not, that would be absurd. Yet anti-religious types of science presume that if there’s any other laws or dynamics besides natural laws they must ruin the whole game of science, they must be “science stoppers.” This assumption is silly because there can be other regular, discernable, law-like relationships which just are explained through in terms of natures forces. No amount of Newtonian physics can quantify how a man loves a woman, how much more inept would science be if labcoat vested lab assistants tried to reduce God’s love for mankind to lab experiment. It would be absurd to assume that the rules of racketball must encompass and explain all other rules, or else we’re left with chaos. There are other lawful systems that just don’t submit to the stricture of science but are still very real, very discernable, very practical, and can even give science a whole new level of significance. There are different “rules” for when a coach is talking to his pupil, or two ladies passing in the hallway, or a boyfriend helping his girlfriend carry her gym bag. Just because those dynamics aren’t the same as racketball doesn’t mean they are absurdity and chaos. or, as some skeptics are prone to say “fairy tales” and “magic.”
Much more could be said on this rich topic. But it should suffice to point out that Science needs faith, and Christianity needs good science. They don’t have to need each other in the same way, or in the same measure. But when they are conducted well they can complement and support each other in a beautiful way. Science can lend to faith some concrete, practical knowledge of the world and the faith can dignify that data with meaning, morality, and transcendent worth. They can complete each other’s story, complementing each other’s different strengths for a well-rounded whole. These two have been married a long time, and despite what you might have heard from some of the new atheists on one end and the old fundamentalists believers on the other end–this marriage was made to last.