Monday, November 10, 2014
Are Faith and Science in Conflict? (Nov 9 2014, St. Al's@5)
Are Faith and Science in Conflict?
Readings: Psalm 19, Rom 1.20-21
“The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.”
So says the opening line of Psalm 19. And I believe it. I believe that the heavens and in fact the whole universe declare the glory of God. I believe it as a Christian, as a theologian. And I believe it as a scientist. As a scientist, as one who seeks to understand and explore and make sense of the natural world, I am often struck by a sense of awe and wonder. I am amazed at the vastness of the universe. I am overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. I am awe-struck by the way a vast array of natural phenomena can be explained in simple mathematical equations. The use of the equation Force = mass x acceleration to explain the motion of the planets leaves me gasping in wonder. OK, I know that’s a bit geeky, but it’s true!
One of the reasons that I do science is that it reveals to me the glory of God. And one of the reasons that I believe in God is the experience of wonder that I have when I do science. I agree wholeheartedly with Paul when he writes “ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” This verse is a manifesto for science, for exploring the natural world. As a Christian, this verse motivates me to do science, as it has motivated many great scientists, men like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, or more recently Werner Heisenberg, Teilhard de Chardin and Francis Collins.
Now, I don’t get to do much science these days, at least not in the professional sense. I used to. I did my graduate work in theoretical quantum physics, my work was published in physics journals, and for a time I was a lecturer in the history of science. I love science, I love God, and I have never personally experienced a conflict between science and faith. On the contrary, my science inspires my faith and my faith motivates my science.
Are faith and science in conflict? For me personally the answer is no. But speaking from a historical perspective, the answer must be, sometimes! There a have been periods where faith and science, or at least their practitioners and authorities, have been in conflict.
Let’s take a look at Psalm 19 again. Did you notice that the first half is about nature, how we can know God through his creation, but the second half is about the law of the Lord? By law, the Psalmist means the Torah, the holy Scriptures which reveal God’s law or teaching, which is greatly to be desired and which enlightens us. So there we have it. Nature and the Bible. God has written two books. Galileo, the great scientist of the late 16th and early 17th century used to talk about these two books written by God, nature and the Bible, each of which contained truths that could not contradict each other, provided their true meaning is understood. And yet, ironically, even though Psalm 19 would seem to support Galileo’s understanding of the complementarity of Science and Faith, it was one of the scriptures used to attack Galileo.
Can anyone see how Psalm 19 could be used to attack Galileo? Remember that Galileo was an advocate of the new Copernican astronomy that took the earth out of the centre of the universe. Copernican astronomy said that it wasn’t the sun that went around the earth, it was the earth that went around the sun. Have a look again at Psalm 19.
Verse 6 says that the sun goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again. “Aha!” said Galileo’s opponents. “The Bible says that the sun moves, but your science says it is the earth that moves. Your science must be wrong!” And before of you start blaming the Catholic Church for this, let me tell you that this particular argument actually came from the Protestants, not the Catholics!
Galileo, as most of you know, was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1633 and sentenced to house arrest. He was however, and this you may not know, he was completely exonerated by the Catholic Church by the 20th century, and not only that, but he was also recognized and commended by Pope John Paul II for not just his scientific theories but also for his theological views on how to interpret scripture in the light of science. As Pope John Paul II said in 1992,
“there exist two realms of knowledge, one of which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition.”
So if church leaders from Thomas Aquinas to John Paul II to Pope Francis just last month have endorsed science, why have there been these periods of conflict between faith and science. Usually these happen when science discovers something that shakes up our worldview, something that changes the way we understand nature, something that changes the understanding of nature which has been built into our faith and theology. When Copernicus proposed that the earth was no longer the centre of the universe, he shook up the prevailing worldview. Moving the earth from its central position didn’t just change science, it also changed our whole way of understanding ourselves as God’s special creatures, placed in a special position in the centre of the universe, with heaven above us and hell below. That kind of shake up in what we think and believe creates the conditions for conflict!
But we sorted it out. We realized that the Genesis declaration that we are created in God’s image didn’t mean that we had to be in the centre of the universe. We realized that when the Bible says “the earth cannot be moved” as it does in Psalm 93, we didn’t have to take that literally and refuse to believe that the earth orbits the sun. We sorted it out, we moved on.
The next big shock came in the 19th century, when geologists realized from their study of rock formations and fossils that the earth must be much older than previously thought, and then biologists, and Charles Darwin in particular, proposed the theory of evolution based on their study of plant and animal species and characteristics. Again, this shook things up. There was the simple fact of the new time scale which seemed beyond human imagination. Previously, there had been no pressing reason to think of the days of creation found in the first chapter of Genesis as anything other than normal days. Now there was! But much more was at stake. For Catholics, the scientific theory that humans evolved from animals challenged the theological understanding of the uniqueness of the human soul. And for Fundamentalists, having to let go of the literal truth of the creation stories in Genesis would mean that the “Fall” which played such an important role in their theology would no longer be conceived of as a real historical event.
Most Christians have by now sorted this one out too and have moved on from this shake up as well. Not all. Some still have doubts about evolution, or reject it entirely. For Christians whose faith is wedded to a particular literal interpretation of scripture or to the insistence that the Fall was a specific historical event, evolution is still problematic, and the conflict with science remains. Some of us here tonight might be in that situation. That’s ok. We can talk about that in more detail later if you like, this evening or at our young adult group on Tuesday.
But most Christians have moved on. They are content to regard the story of the Fall as symbolic and metaphorical, rather than historical, and that takes away none of its power. They have no problem regarding the language of days in Genesis as poetic rather than literal. And the common ancestry we have with other life forms which is revealed by evolution actually serves to remind us that we are meant to be in relationship with all of God’s creation.
Sometimes, however, there is another faith-science problem that arises, and that is when scientists or others make the claim that science is the only way humans can know things, and that therefore faith is irrelevant. Let me first of all point out that the claim that science is the only way to know things is not a scientific claim, it is actually a statement of belief or faith! But it is a real concern.
The claim of the completeness of science has its origins in the success and power of science, especially the success of Newton’s science which fuelled the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Modern Age. In Newton’s physics there is matter, that matter is in motion, and that motion is caused by forces. Those simple principles and a handful of simple equations were used in the 19th century to explain just about everything that moved in the natural world. There is a famous story that when Laplace used Newton’s Laws to explain planetary motion and presented his text on astronomy to the King, the King read the text and asked Laplace where was God in all of this. To which Laplace replied, “I have no need of that assumption.”
Science no longer needs the assumption of God to do its work. It is an attempt to understand our experience of the universe based on a particularly powerful methodology: empirical observations, controlled, repeated experimentation, measurement, mathematics and reason. Science teaches us a great deal about ourselves and about the world God made.
But our Christian faith goes beyond science. Our faith welcomes the insights of science, because “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” But our faith also asks the question of why the world is the way it is. We ask questions of meaning and purpose, we ask how things should be, we talk about the importance of relationships, of loving God and loving each other, we talk about God who is both immanent in this universe but also transcends it. These are questions that science cannot answer. And as people of faith we explore these questions based on our own experience of the divine, based on the collected wisdom of others who have been in relationship with God, especially as these experiences have been recorded in our sacred text, the Bible, and, most importantly, because we as Christians believe that the same God who created the universe actually took on human form and walked this planet, we seek to answer the most important questions of our lives based on the words and deeds of Jesus.
So I encourage all of you to be both scientists and people of faith. For ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.