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Faith, Science and Metaphors

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August 12, 2013 Tags: Science & Worldviews, Worship & Arts
Faith, Science and Metaphors

Today's entry was written by Shiao Chong. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.


People tend to think of metaphors as simple poetic word plays to adorn or illustrate otherwise dull text. Positively, one might think of metaphors as useful for illuminating existing truths. Few, however, see them as indispensable to how we think and, hence, of how we arrive at truth.

Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson once remarked, “There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor. You can’t think without metaphors.”1

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff agrees: “A large proportion of our most commonplace thoughts make use of an extensive, but unconscious, system of metaphorical concepts, that is, concepts from a typically concrete realm of thought that are used to comprehend another, completely different domain. Such concepts are often reflected in everyday language, but their most dramatic effect comes in ordinary reasoning.”In other words, a whole network of conceptual metaphors operates in our everyday language, often unnoticed, to support all our abstract and theoretical thinking. So, if we think in metaphors, then the kind of metaphors we use can shape our conclusions, or at the very least, the direction of our reasoning.

For instance, we often think about time within the metaphorical framework of “time is money.” We talk of spending time, saving time, wasting time, and having time and giving people “five minutes of your time.” We ask our colleagues to “spare us a minute. ”This way of framing time as money fundamentally shapes how we think of time and value time.

When you think about it, metaphors abound in science and scientific language, and not merely as linguistic ornaments, but as fundamental frames for how we understand and explain those scientific concepts. For example, Richard Dawkins’ the “selfish gene” (from his book of the same title in 1976) is an anthropomorphism. Molecular biology, as another example, constantly employs metaphors from information, e.g. codes, translating, editing, signaling, etc.

Philosophy and theology also abound with metaphors. I would wager that we cannot “do” theology and philosophy without employing metaphors. As far as Christianity is concerned, the Bible is replete with images and metaphors that convey theological truths. Metaphor not only conveys truth but also creates passion. What captures the hearts and imaginations of most Christians are not the dry theological propositions or syllogisms but metaphors such as the Lord is my Shepherd, God our Father, Jesus as our friend, God sitting on the throne, etc.

Faith and Science at War

How does this impact the dialogue between faith and science? We might start by asking: what are the framing metaphors at work in the current debates? Even using the word “dialogue” here suggests an implicit metaphor that frames my approach to the relationship between faith and science. Imagine substituting “dialogue” with “war;”  that would conjure a completely different metaphorical framework.

In fact, faith and science as warring parties is the dominant framing metaphor that has captured the collective imaginations of the masses and the media in the past century. If this framework is our starting point, then it shapes how we engage the issue. Assuming warfare, we are predisposed to find a victor between the two, as do atheists like Dawkins, who seek to rid the world of religion or fundamentalist Christians who become increasingly suspicious of science and seek to regulate science or censor scientists. Or, failing that, we might try to find ways to keep the peace between the two, either in reconciliation or compromise of some kind, or to create peaceful co-existence for them in separate realms. Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of Non-Overlapping Magisterium (in which faith and science occupy separate realms of inquiry but do not affect one another) seems to be an example of the latter, while those that seek dialogue or integration between faith and science represent the former approach. In trying to find a middle ground, we have to essentially replace the metaphorical framework of warfare and conflict with another framework, another metaphor.

Faith and Science as Two Books

For centuries, Christians have employed the metaphor of “two books” for faith and science. The 16th century Belgic Confession, for instance, says in Article 2: “We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God …. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.” Various Christian thinkers over the ages from St. Augustine and Francis Bacon to recent writers like Deborah and Loren Haarsma in their book Origins (2011) have employed this “two books” metaphor to navigate the relationship between faith and science.

In this metaphorical framework, both faith and science are seen as complementary sources of truth or divine revelation. By claiming God as the author of both books, this metaphor frames faith and science as inherently compatible and complementary, rather than as inherently in conflict. If there is conflict, the conflict is not between scripture and science, but rather between different human interpretations of scripture and science.

The weakness of the “two books” metaphor is that it could still be seen to privilege the Bible, which is an actual book, over creation or nature, which is turned into a metaphorical book. Many Christians think that the truths of Scripture are far more important than the truths contained in the book of creation. Many feel that Scripture is indispensable reading, while creation is optional reading.

This metaphor also seems to imply a lack of overlap between the two books. It does not fully address how the two books might co-operate or collaborate. Or, why and how we should read both together? Do the revelations of both books co-illuminate each other, or do they speak to totally different things? Are all apparent contradictions between the two books necessarily due to human error in reading or interpreting them?

Faith and Reason as Two Wings

Another metaphor that I have come across in thinking about science and faith is that of “two wings.” In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” While not specifically about science, this “two wings” metaphor emphasizes the interdependence of faith and reason in working together to discover truth. Unlike the common metaphorical framework of enlightened reason leading blind faith, the “two wings” metaphor underlines how both faith and reason need each other, just as two wings are required to flap in coordination in order to fly.  Simply having one wing will not do.

The “two wings” metaphor is an important additional conceptual metaphor to nuance the “two books” metaphor of faith and science, challenging the assumption in the dominant war metaphor that faith and superstition are aligned on one side against reason and science on the other.

The fact is, even the atheist scientist uses faith—indeed, needs faith in order to do science. For any scientist to do their work, he or she has to confidently trust in at least a few assumptions about the world and about the scientific method. Scientists have to believe, for instance, that the universe is consistent, orderly, and can be studied in a rational and intelligible way. If you don’t believe or have faith in those assumptions, you cannot proceed to do science. Even atheist thinkers like Bruce Sheiman observed this as well: “Like the religious faith in an absolute, omniscient God, the scientist has faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, universal mathematical laws. … Science and religion presuppose a rational and knowable foundation on which the universe is built, and in both cases that is a matter of faith.”​3

Faith and Science as Different Maps?

The “two wings” metaphorical framework for faith and reason is an important corollary to the “two books” metaphor for faith and science. I believe we need to employ both concepts as alternatives to the warfare framework.

Let me end, however, by suggesting another possible metaphorical framework to nuance the “two books” metaphor. What if we envision faith and science as two different types of maps of the same land? Anyone who has picked up an atlas book would soon notice that there are different ways of mapping the same landscape. I have in front of me an old Canadian atlas that has various different thematic maps of Canada: by political boundaries, physical geographic contours, population, physiographic regions, geology, soils, climate, agriculture and forestry, natural resources and native people, etc.

These are all different ways of mapping the same reality. If we compare the maps to each other, we can spot similarities but also notice vast differences. Ignoring certain maps means we will lose information and knowledge of the land we are studying. And there might be consequences to that lack of information if we choose to act without it. If we ignore political boundaries in travelling, for instance, we will sooner or later face the reality of border crossing! If we ignore the mountain ranges, we will have an uphill challenge!

Can we not imagine theology and science as mapping out different things of the same reality? There is only one reality that God has created. And this reality is complex. Different fields of study seek to map out different elements or themes in God’s reality, e.g. economic, political, aesthetic, spiritual, scientific, etc. And these different mappings might have overlapping information, complementary information, and sometimes, information that look vastly different from each other! We need all of these to have a more complete picture of that landscape. Otherwise, we face the consequences of ignoring, say, the spiritual map or the scientific map of God’s reality.

I hope this “two maps” metaphor might be helpful to nuance the “two books” metaphor. While the “two books” speaks to faith and science as two sources of God’s revelation, the “two maps” suggests how they might be mapping out God’s reality in different and complementary ways. Add in the “two wings” of faith and reason required in all of these endeavors, and we might have a satisfactory nuanced network or set of metaphorical frameworks to rival and, hopefully, replace the toxic warfare frame.


1. Quoted from an interview with Bill Moyers, in A World of Ideas, Doubleday, 1989.

2. “Metaphor, Morality and Politics” in Social Research, vol. 62, no. 2, Summer 1995. Also see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, U of Chicago Press, 2003.

3. Sheiman, An Atheist Defends Religion, 2009, p. 191.


Shiao Chong is the Christian Reformed Chaplain serving York University in Toronto, Canada. Chong has a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Alberta and is an accomplished writer and speaker/preacher. Hired and supported by the Christian Reformed Churches in the Greater Toronto Area, Chong is the director of LOGOS Campus Ministry and Leadership, Culture and Christianity, its affiliate student club at York. He is a member of Rehoboth Fellowship CRC in Etobicoke, and also preaches at Friendship Community CRC, which is close to the university.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #82428

August 12th 2013

Thank you for this interesting and challenging article.

As you might expect I have a few comments.

1) I thought it might comment on a new book, Surfaces and Essences by Hafstadter and Sander, which I understand says that metaphors are not only important but essential to our understanding of the world we live in.  I most whole heartedly agree.

2) In my opinion metaphors are essential to our understanding because they are models of reality.  The question always must be as to whether they are apt models, or misleading models. 

3) My concern with Darwinism is that Darwin labeled Natural Selection “the war of nature” which produces evolutionary change.  Famously “survival of the fittest,” a phrase not original to Darwin, but accepted by him and incorporated in later editions of The Origin, is a concept based on conflict, rather than harmony. 

It also should be remembered also that England was in the process of conquering much of the world and establishing an enormous empire in the 19th century.  Is there any reason to doubt why Darwinian survival of the fittest received a good reception?

4) However as far as I can see there has been little or no effort to evaluate the model of war of nature is an apt metaphor for Natural Selection.  Where is the scientific evidence that evolution is based on conflict? 

5) If we are to accept the Two Books view there must be some consonance between our understanding of the Two Books.  Darwin proclaimed that there was no consonance and Creationists agree.    

If we agree with Darwin that Evolution works through war and conflict, how does this square with the view that God works through Love and not through Conflict?  This does not mean that creatures did not evolve, but maybe Darwinism does not understand how it works.

Another area of concern is the fact that dividing an issue in two ways leads to conflict and dualism.

A)  The dualism of Science and Theology trends to cause people to choose sides, when we know that this is inaccurate.  We have rejected the view of this discussion as war, I would also like to reject the view of debate which is very common and even dialogue.  Discussion is the best word.

B) The pillars of Western culture are Greek philosophy, Christian theology, and modern science.  When we take philosophy out of the mix we lose the referee that is needed to judge which side is correct. 

C) The Pope might think that philosophy is on the side of the Church, but that is not necesarily true.  Only three interdependent disciplines can work together to best determine what is the truth in all three these crucial areas of life. 

D)  The reason why a three cornered model or metaphor of how to determine the truth about Reality is that all three of these areas of Reality are rooted in the LOGOS, Jesus Christ.  This is the Center which we are missing in BioLogos.   


Iain Strachan - #82459

August 16th 2013

I think the previous comment, in cautioning about dualism and conflict, rather misses the point of some of the metaphors proposed, in particular the “Two Wings” metaphor - which is surely a “both-and” construct rather than an either/or as the bird requires two wings to fly.  To a lesser extent, the “Two Maps” metaphor is also “both-and” as they each provide information and essential stuff would be left out if one chose one map over the other.


As regards Darwinism as “the war of nature” - I think this is a metaphor applied in an entirely different concept.  I think even atheists like Dawkins would argue that love and not conflict is the way forward.  Though I disagree profoundly with Dawkins, he does make the point in “the Selfish Gene” that it is time to use our intelligence and rebel against our selfish genes and act altruistically.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82462

August 16th 2013


Thank you for your comments.

Trying to look at things objectively I see that dualism makes conflict inevitable.  That is why I object to it as well as seeing that it is wrong.

For instance birds can fly with two wings because they are separated by their bodies which act as a fulcrum and coordinator as well as source of power.  Metaphors should be considered models, rather than just a description. 

With the Two Maps again I find the inclusion of a third map or a third aspect is a much more effective way of resolving a question.  With two you basically have a stalemate if you disagree.  With three you have a potential tiebreaker and mediator. 

Surveyors use triangulation to construct a map.  This requires three elements, either 2 sides and one angle or one angle and two sides. 

It helps to resolve disagreements on neutral ground with the use of a neutral party.  That is why philosophy should be in the business of resolving the conflict between science and theology.  Sadly we have been unable or unwilling to discuss this problem on this level.

 Ian wrote: I think even atheists like Dawkins would argue that love and not conflict is the way forward.  

I might be in agreement if I saw Dawkins acting is a loving, cooperative manner.  Instead he is known for his feuds not only with believers, but non-believers who stray from his point of view. 

I am glad that he said people should act altruistically, but I am more concerned about the implications of his worldview and what it means scientifically, philosophically, and ethically, than how he paints it for public consumption.  Basically he believes that humans are controlled by our genes through memes.  As a convinced monist there is a real question as whether he really thinks that the mind can act contrary to the genes or body.       

Iain Strachan - #82463

August 16th 2013

I think Dawkins’s behaviour is wildly inconsistent.  People who know him say he is a remarkably gentle and peaceable person, and it is known that he is very generous in his donations to charity.  However, he spoils this by making ridiculously hostile comments to those who disagree with him.  Moreover, if you dare to criticize Dawkins in public, you immediately get jumped upon by a host of Dawkins fan-boys.

But the truth is that all of us are inconsistent in our behaviour - we attempt to be peaceable, but all of us have a certain limit beyond which we start getting hostile.  Perhaps this is because of our evolutionary history - “fight or flight” or whatever?

Personally I have been abused by so-called Christians on email discussion lists because I tend to accept evolution and I don’t feel that Intelligent Design arguments hold water.  As a result I have found at least one person (a fundamentalist minister no less) who off list emailed me with four letter word obscenities.  On a somewhat milder, but no less unacceptable note, I have found Intelligent Design proponents wantonly twisting what I had said and attributing to me opinions that were the exact opposite of what I was saying.  Moreover, however politely I point out that this is not what I said, they never back down or retract their assertions.  They are firmly entrenched in the “war” model, and it seems I am the enemy in this respect!

So when you point to Dawkins’s unloving behaviour, I think one should note the unloving behaviour of many professed Christians.  Dawkins may be a hypocrite in promoting altruism and then being hostile, but frankly, many Christians are no better.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #82468

August 16th 2013


Thank you for your response.

I apologize for the actions of those who misuse the name of Jesus.  I don’t agree with them either. 

However two wrongs don’t make a right.  Just because some Christians abuse others does not mean it is acceptable for Dawkins to do the same.

We need to go by the facts the best we can discover them.  I only know what Dawkins thinks by what he tells me and how I see him act.  I judge Christianity by the Bible and its long history.  I do not know if Dawkins is a hypocrite, because I do not know his value system. 

As far as I can tell he has no clear value system.  However, I do know that no system can work, whether it be a human social system or insect social system or a mammalian social system, which is based on selfishness.

The science is wrong because selfishness does not work in nature.     


Iain Strachan - #82469

August 16th 2013

Yes, you’re right that no social system can work on selfishness, and I think Dawkins would agree with you and advocate unselfish behaviour - an enlightened attitude to ignore our “Selfish Genes”.

But you must see that “Selfish Gene” is also a metaphor - it is not an advocacy of selfishness per se, more the view that genes tend to act in a way to ensure their own survival.  Indeed this is not even true - natural selection acts as if this were the case.  But it’s only a metaphor, and not to be understood as we understand the human idea of selfish behavour.

There are, in fact reasons why Dawkins’s science is wrong - his whole “selfish gene” theory which was a “gene-centric” view of evolution has been questioned by many scientists working in the field.  Dawkins claims that the gene is the unit of natural selection.  I think most folks would say it’s a lot more complex than that.  However, that is purely a scientific discussion, not a moral one on whether selfishness works in nature. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82471

August 16th 2013


First of all evolution if it means anything means that humans are a part of nature.  We are not some mini-gods who rule over nature at will.  This of course is also what ecology is all about, but when we do not link the two as I have been advocating for some time, we lose this meaning.

A metaphor is an analogy.  If there is not similarity between human selfishness and the way genes act, then the metaphor is false and wrong.  You are right to say that Dawkins does not advocate selfishness, but to say that selfish behavior is the way successful genes survive and flourish does suggest that selfishness is not a negative behavior.

You say that natural selection acts as if that is the case, which is where I disagree.  I am aware that some scientists question Dawkins’ views, so I know of no reason why I should not also.

We live in one world, not two.  We should be able to agree on that.  If you are really interested I will send you my book, DARWIN’S MYTH: Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life.      

Paul Lucas - #82604

September 13th 2013

Roger: “

2) In my opinion metaphors are essential to our understanding because they are models of reality.  The question always must be as to whether they are apt models, or misleading models. 

3) My concern with Darwinism is that Darwin labeled Natural Selection “the war of nature” which produces evolutionary change.  Famously “survival of the fittest,” a phrase not original to Darwin, but accepted by him and incorporated in later editions of The Origin, is a concept based on conflict, rather than harmony. ”

Ironically, Darwin made it very clear that his “struggle for existence” was a metaphor:

“The Term, Struggle for Existence, Used in a Large Sense

I should premise that I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which only one of an average comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the ground. The mistletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for, if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it languishes and dies. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on them; and it may methodically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in tempting the birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience’ sake the general term of Struggle for Existence.” Darwin, Origin of Species

So, natural selection was never warfare between individuals, but rather a struggle against scarce resources. 

Roger: “4) However as far as I can see there has been little or no effort to evaluate the model of war of nature is an apt metaphor for Natural Selection.  Where is the scientific evidence that evolution is based on conflict? ”

I suggest you read SJ Gould’s essays.  This is from just one of them:

2. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an abstract argument about a metaphorical “struggle” to leave more offspring in subsequent generations, not a statement about murder and mayhem. Direct elimination of competitors is one pathway to Darwinian advantage, but another might reside in cooperation through social ties within a species or by symbiosis between species. For every act of killing and division, natural selection can also favor cooperation and integration in other circumstances. Nineteenth-century interpreters did generally favor a martial view of selection, but to every militarist, we may counterpose a Prince Kropotkin, urging that the “real” Darwinism be recognized as a doctrine of integration and “mutual aid.” Stephen Jay Gould, essay “William Jennings Bryan’s last campaign” in Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991 pp. 426-427.

I am afraid, Roger, that you have constructed a strawman argument.  In populations, more individuals are born than the environment can support.  This sets up an inpersonal, inevitable struggle for the limiting, scarce resources—whatever they may be.  Some individuals are lucky enough to be born with characteristics that help them do better than other individuals in the population in that struggle.  Those individuals will, in general, leave more offspring than the unlucky individuals.  Through inheritance, the characteristics will be spread by the descendents until, over generations, every member of the population will have them.

As you can see, both Darwin and other scientists have examined whether the characteristics are always “warfare” against other individuals of the same population or whether they are cooperative.  There are just as many examples of cooperation as beneficial traits as there are of “warfare”.

But yes, the Struggle for Existence has been massively documented.  The chapter of Origin with that title does a lot of that documentation.

You have also, seemingly, invoked the Naturalistic Fallacy: “If we agree with Darwin that Evolution works through war and conflict, how does this square with the view that God works through Love and not through Conflict?”

How nature works and how we ought to behave to each other are 2 different things.  Also, how God created and how He works with us are also 2 different things.  Remember, when you say “God works through Love and not through Conflict” has to do with how He works with us human beings.   Gould also addressed that aspect in the essay I quoted:

3. Whatever Darwinism represents on the playing fields of nature (and by representing both murder and cooperation at different times, it upholds neither as nature’s principal way), Darwinism implies nothing about moral conduct. We do not find our moral values in the actions of nature. One might argue, as Thomas Henry Huxley did in his famous essay “Evolution and Ethics,” that Darwinism embodies a law of battle, and that human morality must be defined as the discovery of an opposite path. Or one might argue, as grandson Julian did, that Darwinism is a law of cooperation and that moral conduct should follow nature. If two such brilliant and committed Darwinians could come to such opposite opinions about evolution and ethics, I can only conclude that Darwinism offers no moral guidance.”

Moving from science to theology, I would note that God has many times worked through “Conflict”.  Isn’t the Exodus a product of conflict between God and Moses on one side and the Egyptians and pharaoh on the other?  In fact, didn’t God intervene to harden Pharoah’s heart to keep the conflict going?   Wasn’t the Conquest of Palestine by Joshua a conflict?  Isn’t God supposed to have directly intervened so that the Hebrews would win the conflict?  Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of the conflict between his preaching and the Sanhedrin and the Romans.  Without that conflict we wouldn’t have Jesus’ Resurrection.

So, looking at what we have been told and seen of God’s actions, although God is a loving deity, He has in the past used conflict to reach His goals.  Why can’t natural selection’s “struggle for existence” be another example of that?  His goal was to get a sapient species; natural selection would eventually design one.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82630

September 16th 2013


Thank you for your comments.

This issue is not simple, but some things should be clear.

God is not the Creator of chaos and conflict.  God is the Creator of order and harmony.

Darwinism in as far as it indicates that Nature and Reality are basically without order and harmony is contrary to our understandingof Who God is and how God works.  God works through nature as the Logos, God’s Word, Jesus Christ.

The statement that God hardened the heart of Pharoah is inconsistent with the rest of the Biblical witness.  No where else does it say that God made a someone to sin.  I choose to accept the truth of the 66 books of the Bible rather than a single verse.

God does not cause conflict and God does not cause people to sin.  God does not use sin to combat sin.  God uses love to overcome sin and death. 

Jesus could have created an earthly kingdom as all the Jews desired.  He could have defeated the Romans and made Jerusalem the capital of the world if God really did work through conflict, but He did not.  Nor could Jesus have done so and still have been the Logos, God’s Revelation of God’s Self.  

If you are willing to believe that God and nature works through conflict, Darwinism as we understand it does offer moral guidance.  Thankfully nature does not work basically by conflict as ecology clearly demonstrates so Malthusism and the Selfish Gene are wrong.          

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