Faith, Science and Metaphors

| By Shiao Chong


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 ShepherdGod our FatherJesus as our friendGod 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.


About the Author

Shiao Chong

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.