Crabby Christians or Nebulous Data?
Scientists who confront Bible-believing Christians with the physical evidence of theologically-challenging views like old-earth geology or common ancestry are usually incredulous when their well-crafted and well-supported arguments fall on deaf ears. How can something so obvious to one person be so easily dismissed by another?
In my own Reformed Presbyterian tradition, I have found that our theological presuppositions typically serve as the lens through which the natural world is observed and understood. When faced with apparent conflict between science and faith, the conservative knee-jerk reaction is to insist without equivocation that special revelation is a more reliable guide to ultimate truth than natural revelation. Without this ultimate reference point, it is feared that our sin natures would prevent us from seeing the world clearly. But if Christian theology is merely our fallible attempt to systematize the biblical data, then certainly we are prone to goofing that up as well. And given the estimated 38,000 Christian denominations spread across the world today, I’d say we’ve goofed it up quite a bit!
Interestingly, we do have the ability to faithfully interpret scientific data when no theology is at stake. For instance, Christians who tend to perpetually argue over the most trivial points of doctrine would probably all agree that chlorophyll is green, ice melts at 0 degrees C, and the universal gravitational constant is 6.67300 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2. This leads me to believe that theology can also be a dirty lens that blurs our observations of the natural world. Is it possible that scientific data can help Christians sort out good theology from bad theology?
Consider the great supernovae explosions that occurred in the years 1006, 1054, 1181, 1572 and 1604. Details of these incredible events were dutifully recorded by the world’s great astronomers. But the 1054 and 1181 explosions were not mentioned by any European astronomers. Some have cited bad weather as the probable cause, but the 1054 supernova, which is known today as the Crab Nebula, was visible in broad daylight for 23 days and at night for 653 days. Its sudden and violent appearance was recorded by Chinese, Arab, Japanese and even North American Indian astronomers, but for some reason nobody in Europe seemed to care. The 1181 supernova was visible at night for 185 days and was recorded by both Chinese and Japanese astronomers. But once again, Europeans paid scarce attention to it. Perhaps there was more going on than perpetual cloudiness?
In the years following SN1006, European astronomical science gave way to primitive superstitions and occult astrology. The conflation of Aristotle’s ancient cosmology with Christian tradition seemed to give theological support to the Greek notion that everything beyond the sub-lunar firmament was perfect, eternal, and unchanging. We now recognize this as a clear-cut case of bad exegesis based on incorrect assumptions about creation, but at the time this doctrine was considered non-negotiable. While Chinese astronomers referred to these supernovae explosions as “guest stars” European astronomers would have considered the existence of heavenly guests contrary to theologically acceptable science. As a result, the supernovae were not seen as new scientific data to be analyzed and understood, but as omens and curses to be feared—as was the comet of 1066 which nearly threw medieval Europe into widespread panic.
But why is there no mention of SN1054? Some say the object could have been viewed as an atmospheric phenomenon rather than a heavenly event—similar to how comets were understood; but even passing comets were dutifully recorded. Others have blamed the Ecclesiastical disputes between Rome and Constantinople, which came to a head in July of that same year. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church only two weeks after SN1054 exploded. Given the political turmoil of the Christian world, it’s quite possible that SN1054 was not seen as a natural phenomenon to be studied, but a supernatural omen marking the schism between East and West. Perhaps it was bad luck to even mention it? Since no written records of the event exist in Christendom, we may never know for sure.
The lesson here is that we Christians must be careful not to ignore obvious facts and data just because they don’t seem compatible with our theology. Often times these inconvenient truths can provide exciting new biblical and theological perspectives, and they can open up areas of scientific investigation that were once considered off limits to believers. For example, after Nicholas Copernicus pointed out the flaws in Aristotle’s earth-centered cosmology, more people were willing to test other aspects of the traditional system. Eventually it became theologically acceptable to study the material changes in the heavens—and just in time for the 1572 and 1604 supernovae! By demonstrating that these transient celestial objects were distant enough to occupy the “immutable” heavenly realm, the Renaissance astronomers began a difficult journey that would eventually liberate Christian theology from the scientific shackles of Greco-Roman astronomy.
It might not have seemed so at the time, but clearly this was a win-win situation for both science and theology—a victory achieved not by new exegetical insights, but through scientific discovery. It is definitely possible for scientific data to be misunderstood, but if Christians can admit that the Scriptures can also be misunderstood, then there is hope for a constructive dialogue between science and faith.
Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".