The Harmonious Counterpoint of Science and Biblical Faith
Moments of dissonance between science and our faith are opportunities for us to learn humility and seek a deeper truth.
What should we do when we read a verse in the Bible that seems to disagree with some finding of science? When I worked with other astronomers at universities, their typical answer was to reject the Bible, because the conflict showed that Christianity was irrelevant and outdated. But in the evangelical church where I grew up, our typical answer was to reject the scientific finding, because the conflict showed that the science and scientists were atheistic. Is there another way?
At BioLogos, we do not throw out the Bible or science. Rather, we see faith as founded in the Bible, God’s authoritative Word. And at the same time, we see science as the study of creation, God’s amazing world. Here’s how we describe it in our mission statement:
BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith, as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.
We reject the idea that science and faith are at war or that scripture and nature are in some fundamental conflict. In fact, God’s Word and God’s World cannot conflict because both are of God. Then we go a step further, inviting people to see that science and biblical faith can interact in a positive, fruitful relationship. The most frequent word we use for that relationship is “harmony.”
The problem is that many people hear “harmony” as a complete absence of conflict and tension. To them, our mission statement sounds like a claim that all is sweetness and light between science and faith. Historian Peter Harrison calls this an “unquestioning harmony.” But it’s not that simple—conflict happens at times. Conflict shows up from scientific discoveries, such as when Galileo discovered that the earth moves through space, in contrast to a literal reading of Psalm 104:5: “He set the earth on its foundations, it can never be moved.” Conflict shows up when Christians argue for the existence of God and the need for Christ’s salvation, in contrast to claims that science is the only source of knowledge or technology can solve all our problems. The science/faith relationship is not a simple absence of tension.
To other people, “harmony” can sound like two things that have merged together so much that they are no longer distinct. And clearly, science and biblical faith are very different things. You wouldn’t look in the Bible to learn how photosynthesis works, and you wouldn’t do a physics experiment to determine the meaning of life. Biblical faith is much larger: about our place in the cosmic story, our relationship with God, and the ultimate destiny of ourselves and the world. In fact, as a Christian astronomer, it is my faith in God, rooted in the Bible, that motivates my scientific work and gives me confidence that God’s creation is understandable. But biblical faith, without the tools of science, can’t tell me the rate at which the universe is expanding! Scientists and theologians ask different kinds of questions and have different ways of working out the answers. Yet science and theology are not independent and unrelated. On many questions, it is essential that we consider both, such as when we ponder the first humans or the uses of genetic engineering.
“Harmony” is a word that can actually help us better understand the complexities of studying nature and scripture side by side. I’m a musician, so to me, the word “harmony” does not mean that things are in complete agreement or merging together (musicians use the word “unison” for that). Rather, “harmony” refers to two or more different musical notes sounding at the same time. The notes retain their distinct identity (both can still be heard), yet they come together to make something richer and more pleasing than either note alone. This meaning of “harmony” is similar to some other metaphors for the relationship between science and biblical faith: two books, two wings, or two maps. In each of these metaphors, we see two distinct things that each give a partial perspective but together tell a fuller story.
Even more than “harmony,” the musical concept of “counterpoint” is a beautiful metaphor. As a classical pianist, I love piano compositions that use counterpoint. When I was a kid, I played simple pieces and major chords (feel free to picture a cute 4-year-old climbing up on the piano bench for her first recital). But over the years I learned to play more complex pieces, like the counterpoint works of J.S. Bach. In these pieces, two or more independent melodies are played at once. The two strands interleave with each other, sounding at the same time yet complementing each other. While each tells its own story, they come together in a beautiful sequence. Sometimes both melodies are going strong, sometimes they echo and repeat each other, sometimes one supports the other or stays silent to let the other speak.
And at times the two melodies will directly clash in dissonance. (Watch the beginning of the video to hear an example.)
My piano teachers taught me that a beautiful chord was often preceded by a dissonant clash. Dissonances sound harsh by themselves, but without them, the music would sound boring and trite. If a musician rushes past the dissonance, the final resolution is not as beautiful. Instead, I learned to pause on the dissonant notes, to carefully place the notes in the context of the surrounding chords. The dissonance and consonance together formed more beautiful music than either alone.
How do we dwell in the moments of dissonance between science and biblical faith? Let us not rush past conflicts and pretend nothing is wrong. When dissonance arises in music, we don’t just throw out the dissonant notes. Similarly, if a scientific claim seems to conflict with a Bible verse, we don’t give up on biblical authority and ignore the verse. Neither do we forget that nature is God’s creation and ignore what God reveals there. Rather, the tensions are the places where we invest extra attention, in truth-seeking and humility. We dig deeper. We can
- Listen more closely. Do we fully understand each melody, on its own terms? Are scientists still debating some aspects of a scientific model? Are theologians discussing multiple ways to understand a particular doctrine?)
- Check the alignment. Are the two melodies meant to come together in this way, at this time? Is the Bible speaking about the same event or physical objects as the science? Are the two actually addressing different questions?
- Consider the balance. Should one melody be quieter than the other at this point? Is the scientific evidence inconclusive, such as in the question of first life? Is the biblical interpretation disputed?
By digging deeper into such moments of tension, we actually learn more. These dissonances prompt us to think creatively about new questions and to pursue a more vigorous search for truth. And that leads us to scientific models or theological insights we would not otherwise have had. Ultimately, we discover a more beautiful piece of music.
Science and biblical faith are not in unison, but something better: a harmonious counterpoint. Each is an independent melody that can be heard on its own terms, yet also supports, echoes, and interweaves with the other. We should not ignore or rush past the moments of dissonance, but dwell there awhile to come to a better understanding of how they fit into the whole. The harmonious counterpoint of science and biblical faith gives us a beautiful, thought-provoking, full-orbed understanding of nature and of Scripture. We discover God’s word and God’s world, in harmony.
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