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Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 5

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February 6, 2012 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 5

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

Science as a Tool for Reading the Book of Creation

This is the fifth in a series of blogs (see side bar) looking at the relationship between science and Christian faith. I began in my first blog by arguing that, from a Christian perspective, science should properly be considered a task and tool of Christian faith rather than a secular enterprise that needs to be “integrated” with Christian faith and theology. I have also been arguing that the anti-scientific attitudes found among some Christians today bear a strong resemblance to the ideas of ancient Gnosticism in which the material creation was viewed as being irreparably filled with evil and ignorance.

These views were rejected by the early Christian church, which instead held to a fully developed doctrine of the incarnation—that is, one that fully embraces the orthodox Christian teaching that the one true God has been decisively revealed in the fully human, fully material divine-human, Jesus Christ. As I have argued, the doctrine of the incarnation opens up for us a helpful alternative way of thinking about how God speaks through material creation as a whole. As scripture declares, creation itself is a means through which God continually speaks to us of His glory, beauty, and righteousness! Thus, I have argued that we should reconsider the early church teaching that God reveals himself through two “books” -- the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation -- and that we must read these two in concert to understand the fullness of God’s wisdom, righteousness, and truth.

In the last blog I dealt with how we might correctly read the Book of Scripture. Finally, the task before us is to ascertain how believers might appropriately use science as a tool for reading the Book of Creation. This is absolutely pivotal to my entire argument, because if we are NOT to surrender science to the secular world, we must know how to use it, and the truth is that we do NOT use it in the same way that the secular world does. Or, at least, we should not!

Of course, for us to know how to use science correctly we must first have a clear understanding of what we mean when we speak of science. This is doubly important because, as I see it, there is a deep sense of confusion about the true nature of science—among both Christians and non-Christians alike. In order to clear up a bit of this confusion, I wish to identify three different albeit overlapping meanings we give to the one term, and then identify ways in which each does or does not provide a helpful way for Christians to read Creation as God’s Book.

First, when we speak of science we indicate the methods that have been developed since the early modern era for learning about the world that we refer to specifically as the scientific method: viz., observation, formation of hypotheses, testing of hypotheses, the formation of theories as a result of the findings of such tests, the development of additional hypotheses and tests, etc. This is science in its purest and simplest form: a disciplined tool for learning about how the universe ‘works’.

Christians do not generally question the validity of this method. Nor should they. The method itself fits very well with Christian commitments about the nature of the world as God’s creation: that it is an ordered whole, that it can be understood if studied in a humble, disciplined fashion. Indeed, the method was mostly developed by devoted Christians—Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, among others—convinced that they were using the tools of science to understand the complexity and grandeur of God’s good world. Indeed, in some sense it was for many involved in the early development of science a kind of worship of the Creator! Of course, like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill (even a plowshare can be used as a weapon!). The right way to use the scientific method for Christians—and therefore the right way to use the scientific method for reading the Book of Creation—is to do so with a fearless and humble openness to what God has to say to us through Creation, a sense of wonder at the grandeur and complexity of God’s creation, and a desire to utilize the knowledge gained that we might properly express God’s love for all persons and all creatures. As such, science is a sacred and not secular task!

Secondly, the term “science” can refer to the general community of people who utilize scientific methods to come to knowledge about the world. A slight variation of this use is to speak of science when referring to the actual findings of the scientific community. It is in some ways problematic to speak of the scientific community and scientific findings with the singular term “science” since there is disagreement on many matters of importance among scientists. Additionally, scientists bring a great deal of different perspectives, convictions, and biases to their investigations, and their findings often betray as much. Indeed, all human knowledge—whether theological or scientific—expresses the limitations of creaturely finitude and is therefore provisional and subject to correction.

This is not to say that there are no matters of general consensus among scientists. That the earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical pattern or that the so-called Krebs Cycle correctly describes the way in which cells process stored energy are essentially accepted universally within the scientific community, as are countless other findings that we now simply take for granted. Indeed, our lives depend upon the success of scientists and the truth (at least in a practical sense) of their findings in numerous ways. Every time we take medicine, fly on an airplane, or turn on a television, we are trusting that the scientific community has correctly figured out how some aspect of the world works.

And, like it or not, the fact is that evolutionary theory has achieved virtually universal acceptance within the general scientific community, including among the vast majority of Christian scientists. The great irony is that so many Christians perfectly happy to accept the findings of the scientific community in other respects do not do so when it comes to evolution, and this despite the fact that the scientific evidence continues to mount in favor of evolutionary theory. This is especially the case with recent developments in genetics.

There are, I believe, a great many reasons for this inconsistency, including many of the things I have mentioned in previous blogs, including Gnostic attitudes about the universe and a problematic view of how to read God’s word in scripture. There is another that I have not yet mentioned, and that is the extent to which evolutionary theory has been associated with scientific naturalism, which in turn points us to a third way of thinking about science…

And so, lastly but of great importance for our discussion, the term science is often used to refer to the worldview that affirms that all observable phenomena can be explained by reference to various natural processes or laws or fundamental physical properties. This way of thinking about science is, as indicated above, often referred to as ‘scientific naturalism’. Importantly there are two different versions of this world view, one of which is explicitly antagonistic to Christian faith and the other which is not. The antagonistic version is often referred to scientism, or which we may call “ideological” or “absolute” naturalism, for it essentially views science as a kind of religion which alone can account for all of reality. We find this view affirmed by many non-Christian scientists, such as the popular author Richard Dawkins.

The not-explicitly-antagonistic form of scientific naturalism is the view that the world does in fact act as it does as a result of generally discoverable natural laws, but not necessarily to the exclusion of God, who well may have created the world and therefore established the basic principles and laws that govern the physical universe. The key with this view, though, is that there is a universally demonstrable natural order—natural laws and principles—that describe why observable physical phenomena act as they do. There is gravity, which describes why apples to fall to the earth and planets run in their course around stars. There is entropy, which describes why the universe is expanding and stars eventually will cool. That science—the scientific method, that is—is successful at all is because of the assumption that the universe in some sense functions in an orderly, natural way, rather than chaotically or at the capricious whims of one or more all-powerful spiritual beings. For this reason, we may call this version of the scientific worldview methodological naturalism—that is, it is a form of naturalism that serves the methodological or practical purpose of making the scientific enterprise both useful and meaningful. In other words, it is a basic assumption about the world without which the scientific enterprise simply cannot function.

Of course, as Christians we do not embrace the absolute naturalism of an atheist such as Richard Dawkins. Instead we affirm, with scripture and the totality of the Christian tradition, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the creator of the entire universe, including all of the phenomena, laws and principles that the scientific community uses the scientific method to understand and describe. That is, we understand that God is the ultimate source of the order and design that makes it even possible for science to function at all! In this sense, while Christians certainly reject scientistic naturalism, we do not necessarily need to reject methodological naturalism. Indeed, Christians should assume a certain measure of methodological naturalism in that we believe, as scripture affirms, that God has created a good and orderly universe. Indeed, one might say that we have an even greater reason to affirm cosmic order than do scientistic believers, because we can provide an account for why the universe appears to have an observable order, whereas all they can say is that our universe came to be as a result of a random accident. (As a naturalistic answer for cosmic order, multi-verse theory has a slightly different answer to this issue, but as a theory lies completely outside of the realm of scientific investigation. For an explanation, see this wonderful piece in Harpers.)

This is not to say that we should not be wary, as Christians, of naturalism, even methodological naturalism, because of the fact that absolute and methodological naturalism have been so easily confused. This point lies at the very heart of my initial critique of the claim that science ultimately is a form of secular knowledge, and must be integrated with Christian faith, and it is why I prefer to speak of the material universe as the Book of Creation rather than Nature. To use the term ‘Nature’ is to imply that it exists naturally—that is, in and of itself, completely separate from and/or independent of its creator. As Christians we should completely reject such a notion, and this is the first step toward the recovery of science from the so-called secular world.

In the end, then, reading the Book of Creation correctly is the same thing as refusing to surrender science to the secular world. Its starting point is the unabashed conviction that the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ is same creator of the universe—the One whom we find revealed in all of His handiwork. It is to be willing to take seriously and grapple honestly with all that the scientific community might discover about the world, even if it would seem to conflict with some preconceived notions about the world that some Christians might have come to embrace as absolute truths (such as the necessity of a six day creation) based upon what we have already seen can be a rather problematic understanding of how scripture speaks God’s truth.

What remains to be seen is how this process of reading the books of Scripture and Creation actually looks like in practice. In my next blog I will demonstrate this by looking at how one might approach the all-important account of the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1 in light of what the scientific community has come to affirm about the origins and development of the universe.

Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.

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Merv - #67873

February 12th 2012

Papalinton, thanks for the interesting you-tube video.  It was reminded me of Phineas Gage (high school psychology class).   Unlike the gentleman in the video, I don’t see why it should disturb theologians.  If my left hand gives somebody a glass of water, and later my right hand commits a crime, we don’t believe that God will dismember parts of my body for their respective punishments/rewards.  No –“I” am responsible for what both of my hands do.  My left and right cerebral lobes may function differently but they are both me, even if they were prevented from talking to each other.  Granted, this IS a puzzle, but an old one.  Paul wrestles over the issue of his own will and who it is in him that does evil while his spirit wants to do good.  Other teachings usually refer to the “divided mind” in negative ways though the poor fellow referred to in the video had it imposed on him more literally than most.

But on to what you asked for:  examples of science informing theology.

Beginning with an old testament example, in some of the earliest writings (Job 28 among many other chapters of Job), the writer uses his observations of creation to see God’s glory in the grand scope as well as the tiny details, and even explicitly refers to men ‘searching it out’.  So theology is informed by science (but not science alone) how amazingly intricate and awesome the various facets of creation really are.  And yet theology replies back to science that as much knowledge as there is to be gleaned and even celebrated, wisdom is not found in any of it.  For wisdom comes from ‘fear of the Lord’ (end of Job 28 and in much of the wisdom literature –Psalms, Proverbs as well).    Fast forward to the psalmists (Psalm 19 or 139 or 147 or many others besides) and you see examples of present knowledge of creation used as a comparison to portray God’s faithfulness.  (Psalm 89)  In another place God tells us that when the sun ceases to rise, then we’ll know He’s broken his covenant with Israel –point being:  “it ain’t happnin”.  These lessons all require their readers to have observational science knowledge (uniformitarianism anyone?) before it would make any sense to them.   I could go on …well… in fact I will.  Fast forward some more to the New Testament and we see more teachings which draw on science:  (Matt.16)  “You know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but you can’t…”  Jesus pays a backward compliment to his religious listeners by noting they’ve honed their weather forecasting abilities though his main point is to ask why they aren’t applying their mental prowess to understanding “signs of the times”.   Granted that last one is theology snubbing science a bit –but not really; it’s Jesus doing like he so often does in his parables.  He uses science (gardening, farming, sun shine and rain) to teach other deeper matters.  It’s presuming science rather than being informed by it in this case.  Science helps confirm much of what is taught, though.  That sun and rain are scattered on the righteous and wicked alike—(randomness, anyone?)    Or back from the Old Testament:  …race is not to the swift … but time and chance happen to them all.  (Sorry, Roger, we’ll just have to disagree over the profundity of Ecclesiastes).  


Merv - #67874

February 12th 2012

Fast forward past the Bible, and science has helped cull away some
of the distracting misunderstandings (like the earth being unmoving)
–granted that teaching was never central to any important theology but
was just used as a point of reference by the scribes to make the real
points – about God.  And the biggest ‘stationaryest’ reference point
they had handy for comparison was … the earth!  But still, if people
were going to get bent out of shape about metaphorical choices, it’s
good to get it straightened out so they can get back to what the Bible
IS teaching.  And dare we bring up the current issues that Biologos has
in their mission?  I know Christians don’t all agree with it so I’ll
leave it alone here.  But science certainly is (and always has been)
heard, and many times used and accepted.
By the way, I haven’t
been offering any of this as so-called “proof” of anything.  Please
consider that not everybody (most of us?) here accept that science is in
a sort of judgment seat as an arbiter by which various philosophies or
religions must submit their agendas (on science’s terms) for approval.  
You seem to think in those terms but I don’t.  I’m not trying to turn
God into a sort of scientific claim, so I feel no need to fret about
“proving” all this to you on scientific terms (which I doubt is possible
anyway because I just don’t see how science can go there; with all due
respect to other Christians here who disagree with me over that.)   But
you, on the other hand ARE trying to portray your position as being
“scientific”.  So when you are the one making the allegedly scientific
claims, it’s only fair to ask what scientific evidence you have for your
claims.  If you can’t produce any for your ideology, fine!  Join the
club.  But it isn’t fair to demand [impossible] scientific evidence from
everyone else and then further demand that your ideology be the
default  [allegedly scientific] position .  You may decry this as
“shifting away the burden of proof for a strong claim that there is a
God.”  But all I’m doing is asking for evidence from anyone who wants
their claims to be accepted as *scientifically founded*.

spilt all this virtual ink, I’ll now acknowledge that I plunged ahead
using my definition of science which I thought broad enough to capture
it all.  I still have to guess what your definition is since I didn’t
see you volunteer one.  But if you don’t like how general mine is, feel
free to tighten it up for the sake of clarity – it shouldn’t change any
points I’m making.  But if you carefully tailor your definition to be
sure that any writers / observers before a certain century are excluded,
then we should revisit this charge of arrogance you brought up.  

meant no disrespect to cultures who practice or are aware of spiritual
presences.   You noted that Christians engage in that same practice. 
Some do.  But I do find it curious that of all the New Testament
instances of demons, none of them have demons operating independently of
biological living things.  (in fact, other than a sizeable herd of
swine, those ‘living things’ are all people!)  So demonic possession in
this present world seems very much about humans and their bondage to
evil forces stronger than themselves, not about things that go “bump in
the night” or levitate something in  front of you.  Early Christians
were called atheists precisely because they refused to see so many
demigods as movers and shakers of everything around us.  They backed
that all down to just “One God” which as far as the locals were
concerned, might as well be called atheism –it was the next thing to it
compared to the other pantheons of gods worshipped.    So to the extent
that some Christians may practice such things, I doubt they get it from
thorough Bible study.  More likely it’s from a mixing of Christian
thought with other kinds of spiritual belief.

Thanks for your thoughts, and I do apologize for tones of arrogance.  They are unbecoming here –I agree with you .


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