“The Language of God” Book Club–Chapter 6

| By Jim Stump on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

With our discussion of chapter six in this installment of the online book club, we cross the half-way point in terms of the number of chapters and the number of pages in the book. You may notice, though, that according to the Online Discussion Schedule found on the Book Club page, we’re combining chapters for the last two blog posts. Remember you can find other resources there too, like discussion questions and supplementary resources. We’ve also created a Book Club survey you can take to give input on future book clubs.

Chapter six is called “Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin.” In it Collins draws the parallel between our current situation of reconciling evolution with Christian faith, and the Galileo affair for which the science in question was heliocentrism. The comparison is striking in many of its particulars. The comments from some of the church officials quoted on pages 154-155 sound as though they could have come from opponents of evolution today: “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies”; “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation”; and “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” We look back on these convictions now and clearly see that the theological interpretation of an immobile earth in the center of creation was just not that important to the integrity of the faith. By analogy, we’re supposed to feel that our traditional theological interpretations of a six day creation and perhaps even a historical Adam and Eve can be modified without threat to the authority of Scripture and to the Gospel.

Not everyone agrees, though, that the analogy with Galileo is appropriate. James K. A. Smith wrote a short piece for Christianity Today a couple of years ago about this. He said, “The Galileo analogy doesn’t help us work through that tension because it says too much too fast. To invoke the Galileo analogy is to have already made up our minds.” And to be fair, another controversy between scientific and religious explanations resolved itself the other way: in the thirteenth century, the debate was about the eternality of the world. Of course according to Christian theology, the world was created at some point in the past. But such an idea was difficult to square with the natural philosophy of the time, which was dominated by the Aristotelian understanding. (Indeed, it was not until the twentieth century that the eternality of the world was seriously challenged by scientific evidence.) Siger of Brabant attempted to affirm the eternality of the world from the scientific perspective, even though it contradicted the teaching of the church, and his views were condemned. Even Aquinas saw the need to reconcile the apparent evidence from the natural world and claimed that nature existing eternally was not inconsistent with God’s creation of it. Theology appeared to have that one correct. Scientific conclusions should be regarded as tentative and subject to revision if new data comes to light.

Still, some scientific conclusions do seem to be definitively resolved—often because of technological innovations. For Galileo, it was the telescope. Perhaps genetics plays that role today for the theory of evolution.

  1. What do you make of the comparison of our situation today with Galileo? Are there important differences? Is the theology of Adam and Original Sin more central to orthodox Christian faith than the theological issues with heliocentrism?

On p. 149 Collins states, “The problem for many believers, of course, is that the conclusions of evolution appear to contradict certain sacred texts that describe God’s role in the creation of the universe, the earth, all living things, and ourselves.” This suggests that the issue is only secondarily theological, but is more primarily about our reading of the Bible. Historians of science often note that it was the same for Galileo: he didn’t run afoul of the church because of the theological implications of heliocentrism as much as for claiming that he—a scientist with only lay standing in the church—was attempting to instruct others on how the Bible should be interpreted. For those of us in the Protestant tradition, the interpretation of Scripture is a notoriously unregulated affair—witnessed by the some 40,000 distinct Christian denominations worldwide, all claiming to have the correct interpretation.

  1. How should we interpret the Bible? What is the role of tradition? What is the role of science? Who gets to decide whether traditional interpretations need to change?

Collins gives a lengthy quotation from Augustine on p. 156-7 about the need to understand the Bible in relation to what we know about nature from extra-biblical sources. And he ends the chapter with another quote from Galileo, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use” (p. 158). The relationship between faith and reason is one that Christians rightly wrestle with. Because of our faith, we sometimes evaluate the deliverances of sense and reason differently. This leads some to think that science should only be interpreted through the lens of what we believe by faith. The Galileo affair, and perhaps evolution today, show that the content of our faith can be affected by scientific discoveries.

  1. Can you think of other examples when the direction of influence flows from our sense and reason to the content of faith?

Share your thoughts on these questions or others with the BioLogos community in the comments section below.


About the Author

Jim Stump

Jim Stump is Senior Editor at BioLogos. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates existing content for the website and print materials. Jim has a PhD in philosophy from Boston University and was formerly a philosophy professor and academic administrator. He has authored Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming) and co-authored (with Chad Meister) Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010). He has co-edited (with Alan Padgett) The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and (with Kathryn Applegate) How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity, forthcoming).