Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World!
I recently read with great interest and sympathy a NY Times Op Ed piece by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens on “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” I say ‘interest and sympathy’ first of all because I consider both of the authors brothers in Christ whose friendship I value greatly. Karl in particular has been a teacher and mentor for me, and is the chief person to have sparked my interest in the conversation about science and theology. I say this secondly because I heartily agree with their desire to affirm that science and Christian faith need not be at odds and to reject both the fundamentalism of scientistic atheists like Richard Dawkins, on the one hand, and the fundamentalism of anti-scientific Christians like Ken Ham on the other. And I wish to do this not only because I think both types of fundamentalists are wrong, but also because, as a university educator myself, I am concerned about the number of students who are leaving the church because they feel that they must choose between Christian faith and science! I, like Giberson and Stephens, believe that they do not need to make this choice.
But, as much as I sympathize with Giberson and Stephens, I am concerned that one of their central assumptions—that there is a divide between ‘secular knowledge’ and Christian faith that must be overcome—essentially undermines their very pursuit of a middle ground where the two can be ‘integrated’. Indeed, even to assume that knowledge/science and Christian faith need to be ‘integrated’ seems to me to play right into the hands of the scientistic fundamentalists, to have completely sold them the proverbial farm. Instead, I think a much better and more distinctly Christian case can be made against Christian fundamentalist aversion for science, but before I can make the case, I need to talk more about what I perceive to be the problem with Giberson and Stephens’ call for integration.
To put it succinctly, even to talk about ‘secular knowledge’ and the ‘integration’ of science and faith is to buy into a problematic bifurcation of knowledge. The basic assumption lying behind such a distinction is that the world of knowledge can be divided into two discreet realms. On the one hand we have the world of secular knowledge, the goal of which is pure objectivity, which is governed by reason and humility, and which finds its ideals embodied in the practice of science. On the other we have the world of religion, which has a completely different set of goals and ideals. Religious knowledge is based upon faith, for the goal of religion is fidelity to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Bible as inspired by God and revelatory of God’s truth.
There are multiple problems with this bifurcation of types of knowledge. For one thing, it simply does not match the facts. There is no ‘Christianity’ that stands or ever has stood as a whole against science or reason. Whatever Christianity IS it certainly is an incredibly complex movement, and throughout its history there have been multiple ways that Christians have thought about the relationship between faith and reason, science and theology. This is a point I wish to unpack at greater length in a later blog, but for now it is sufficient to say that there has never been any single way that Christians have thought about the relationship between faith and reason, much less what faith and reason even mean. So to treat Christianity (if there even can be said to be such a ‘thing’) as a univocal totality is highly problematic.
Same goes for science. Is it truly or purely a secular pursuit? What are we to make, then, of the countless religious individuals who have been scientists and who have made significant contributions to our knowledge of the cosmos? Did they do so only by some kind of compromise between their faith and secular forms of knowledge? Again, the historical evidence would indicate quite the contrary. Take, for example, the Islamic Golden Age of scientific discovery (c. 750-1200). For Medieval Muslims there was no such thing as a secular realm, much less secular reason or knowledge. One of the most vibrant eras of human discovery, medieval Muslim scientists like Avicenna, Algaurizin, and Omar Khayyam made countless important advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and even chemistry because of their faith that the cosmos is the creation of Allah and their conviction that they served their God by coming to understand better the majesty of Allah's handiwork. Indeed, one might say that it was their very rejection of a distinction between faith and reason, religion and science, that spurred on their desire to study and learn about the physical world.
Much the same could be said of scientific endeavors in the ‘Christian’ West up until the last two centuries. Many of the great scientists and nearly all of the great philosophers of medieval Europe were Catholic clerics, including a few popes! And the list of Christians who have made significant contributions to scientific discovery ever since is absolutely eye-popping: Nicholas Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Lord Kevlin, Max Planck…to name just a few.
I can, I believe, say with a great sense of confidence that few, if any, of these great Christian scientists understood themselves to be integrating their faith with secular knowledge. In fact, even to talk about secular knowledge or a secular realm is to be somewhat anachronistic, for the very notion of the secular as a kind of non-religious, and therefore supposedly neutral, public sphere is a rather recent construction. Although with roots in both ancient and enlightenment philosophy and practically grounded in the rise of the modern nation state (in the efforts of monarchs to wrest power from religious authorities and later as democratic nations sought to establish religious toleration), the term itself and a full-blown philosophy of secularism did not appear until the mid-19th century.
Of course, secularism is now the name of the game in most nations outside of the Muslim world, even in countries that do still maintain some kind of official ties between state and religion, such as Britain or Norway. But even in such countries there is a considerable functional split between church and state, with faith now understood to be a matter of private, individual preference and practice, and such ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ endeavors as science viewed as features of the public, secular sphere. Aside from the fact that neither science nor any other kind of so-called ‘secular’ thinking has proven to be all that neutral or objective (see, for instance, Stephen L. Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion or just about anything written by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Jerome Ravitz, Paul Feyerabend, and Bruno Latour, among many others), it is easy to see why someone like Giberson or Stephens might presume the distinction between faith (religious) and science (secular): because that is what their audience generally assumes.
But this is exactly the division that we as Christians need to reject as we talk about the relationship between science and faith, and especially when it comes to providing a critique of Christian fundamentalism. Science belongs, I wish to argue, just as much to the church of Christ as it does to some so-called secular realm of knowledge. To treat the conversation otherwise is to give in to both the secular fundamentalists, who wish to see Christians surrender their faith in God for faith in science as the fount of all truth, and the Christian fundamentalists, who fear that any compromise with the secular ultimately amounts to selling out their fidelity to God.
A far more appropriate way to criticize the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific positions of Christian fundamentalists is to demonstrate how deeply anti-Christian and anti-biblical these positions truly are. In fact, I wish to argue that these tendencies actually mark the resurgence of the ancient heresy Gnosticism, which was roundly rejected by the Christian church in the first and second centuries. Defining Gnosticism and demonstrating the extent to which Christian fundamentalists are guilty of this heresy will be the central thrust of my next blog.
"I lay it down that all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction; and then again, as to its Creator, though He of course in His own Being is infinitely separate from it, and Theology has its departments towards which human knowledge has no relations, yet He has so implicated Himself with it, and taken it into His very bosom, by His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it, that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without in some main aspects contemplating Him." (John Henry Newman, (1858), "The Idea of a University", p. 50-51)