In what is becoming a most enjoyable annual tradition, I find myself back at Regent College for their pastors conference during this, the first month of May. This year, the theme of the conference is the interaction between science and faith and is called “Wonder and Devotion: Bringing Science and Faith Together for the Church.” We’ve talked about creation and evolution, the immanence and transcendence of God, issues around the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and a whole host of other very interesting things. It’s been a great week thus far.
Rather than trying to put together some kind of a unified and coherent reflection regarding what’s been discussed thus far at the conference, I thought I would just post on a couple of the ideas that have piqued my curiosity thus far.
One of the main lecturers is Denis Alexander, who is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Alexander very helpfully explained some of the reasons behind the difficulty and frustration involved in trying to have fruitful conversations about scientific theories like evolution, whether inside or outside the church. Here’s how he laid it out:
- There is scientific theory x.
- There is scientific theory x plus whatever ideological investment (y) this or that person or group wishes to attach to it for their own ends.
- There is the public understanding of scientific theory x being equated with ideological theory y.
To take only the example I am most familiar with, this happens with alarming regularity around the evolution/creation debate. Both ends of the spectrum—militant atheists and militant young earth creationists—have poisoned the well of discourse to the extent that it is very difficult to talk about evolution or belief in God without having first to untangle a complicated web of what you do and do not mean. For one group of people, Christianity simply is irrational willful ignorance and superstition; for another group of people, acceptance of evolution simply is atheism. Of course most people live in between these two extremes, but the extremes have so influenced the terms of the conversation that helpful dialogue takes a lot of hard work (more than it should!).
We also touched on the constant temptation of relying on “God-of-the-gaps” type arguments in discussions involving science and faith. An all-too-common approach is to look for things that science cannot explain as a way of “making room” for God. This is, of course, the strategy employed by the Intelligent Design movement. If something in the observable world (the bacterial flagellum was the example used) can be shown to be sufficiently complex—so complex that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how a gradual series of adaptations could have produced it—then, it is claimed, we have found room for God in the system. God obviously intervened at some point along the way to produce something that gradual adaptation could not have.
One of the problems here, of course, is that science has a way of closing the gaps over time. I’m no scientist, but as I understand it there are plausible explanations out there as far as how, say, the bacterial flagellum might have evolved gradually over time (Danielson explained the science behind this, but I’m afraid both my memory and my scientific deficiencies prevent me from relaying his explanation). And there are many examples throughout history where some feature of the world was thought to be a direct result of the hand of God which was subsequently shown to be explainable via the methods of science.
But the bigger problem, for me, is that this entire approach seems to be at odds with the biblical view of God and creation and how the two are related. The Bible does not present “nature” as something that God just gets rolling and then tweaks or interferes with from time to time, a little (irreducible?) complexity here, a miracle there, etc. It is fairly basic to Christian theology that God is both transcendent and immanent in creation (e.g., Colossians 1:15-20, Acts 17:28). I don’t think the Christian’s job is to go hunting around under rocks and trees for some place where we find something we can’t explain and say, Voila!, God must have done it! It is no virtue to invest our present ignorance about some feature or other about the created world with theological significance. This approach to science and faith doesn’t seem to do justice either to the nature of God or to human beings and the role they are called to play in the world.
At one point in today’s proceedings we sang that great old hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” It seems to me that if we really believed this were the case, we would be freed to adopt a posture toward learning about and living in the world that, rather than being defensive and seeking to protect some imagined space where “God must have done it” is the only admissible response, was characterized by gratitude, humility, and a genuine openness to learning more about this glorious world in which we have been placed.
Looking forward to more tomorrow…