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.