Science and My faith
by Herold Weiss
The most striking scientific advances of the last few years have been in the field of genetics. Biology has made great[ene_ptp] strides since Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1909 and Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix in 1953. Among them is the realization that the nucleus of the atom is essentially a void. This basic modification of our understanding of material reality, however, does not demonstrate that science is not to be trusted. It only demonstrates one of the basic characteristics of science. Every scientific declaration is subject to modifications by new discoveries. No scientific demonstration is the last word. All scientific theses only serve to formulate predictions concerning areas in which knowledge is less secure. A scientific thesis serves to design experiments with which to test the validity of a particular prediction. In other words, the validity of a scientific thesis is demonstrated by its capacity to incite the imagination of scientists who design experiments that further reveal the way in which the universe in which we live actually works. Both Newton’s law of gravity and Einstein’s law of relativity are in a constant process of refinement as new evidence comes in from more recent research. These refinements in no way prove these laws invalid or wrong. The recent discovery of gravitational waves has proved Einstein’s prediction of their existence on account of his refinement of Newton’s explanation of gravity. Einstein viewed gravity as a curvature in spacetime. The scientific confirmation of gravitational waves proves Einstein right and now sparks the desire to understand the astronomical events that produced them. In this way new scientific discoveries serve to validate Newton’s and Einstein’s scientific work. On the other hand, if someone proposes an explanation of material reality which cannot be affirmed or refuted by scientific experiments, she/he is not a scientist. Science can only offer explanations of reality which can be confirmed or denied by scientifically controlled experiments or critically reviewed evidence.
The science of genetics has identified the language of the genomes. In 2006 a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, under the leadership of David Haussler, published the results of a detailed comparison of the genomes of different species. These researchers found two conglomerates of DNA that have remained stable throughout many transmutations in genomes of vertebrates. They designated one HAR1 (Human Accelerated Region 1). This genome is found in chickens, mice, rats, chimpanzees and, highly modified, in humans. During 300 million years, this genome did not suffer modification since the common predecessor of chickens and mice until the common predecessor of chimpanzees and humans. Then, during the following 6 million years, it underwent significant modifications in the common predecessor of chimpanzees and humans. During these 6 million years HAR1 in humans went through 18 modifications. Also discovered was that HAR1 is very active in the cerebral cortex of the fetus during the second trimester of gestation. This is the time when the essential structure of the brain is established.
The second genome of DNA was designated by the Santa Cruz researchers as HAR2. It is active in the development of the wrist in the human fetus. These discoveries, which some consider to be as important as those of Rutherford, Crick and Watson, are very important not only because they open a new area of study, human biology at the molecular level, but also because they deal with the brain and the wrist, the two organs that more discretely differentiate humans from all vertebrates.
No doubt, science will continue to advance as it discloses the way in which nature works. The new technology of computers has revolutionized methods of research, as the Santa Cruz team has amply demonstrated. There are Christians who see these advances as follies of human hubris or as attacks on Christian faith. These reactions, however, are based on basic misunderstandings.
Those who dismiss such scientific discoveries as pronouncements of science “so called” claim that true science concerning the formation of nature is to be found in the text of the first three chapters of the Bible. To assign scientific legitimacy to the Bible is at best anachronistic, and at worst illusionary and ignorant. Science as knowledge attained by the application of specific methods of research that are subject to peer review became part of our culture rather recently. The reconstruction of the past by the critical evaluation of the extant ancient sources and an explicit demonstration why some may be taken seriously and others may not is also a recent development in the writing of history. To claim that biblical authors wrote science or history is to do violence to the Bible. To pretend that the Bible contains science and history of a quality superior to that written by “mere” human beings is doubly wrong. It is wrong because in the Bible there is neither science nor history in the academic sense in which these words are used today. Besides, it is an error because the Bible gives ample evidence that it was written by “mere” human beings who were the children of their times.
Those who see science as a threat to Christian faith misunderstand both science and faith. I agree with those who understand that science and faith operate in different realms, deal with different objects and do not affirm the same kind of truths. As noted above, scientific truths are characterized by their ability to be modified by new research. No scientist can defend as irrevocable what he was taught in school. Anyone who rejects the critical results of well-designed experiments or historical research ceases to be a scientist or a historian. The believer who has faith in God also constantly searches for better ways to understand the God in whom he/she has faith. Believers who get attached to what they believed as children become immature believers. The faith of a child and the faith of an adult is the same faith. The faith of Abraham and my faith, I am convinced, is the same confidence of living by the grace and the mercy of God. But my way of understanding God and God’s will are not the same as those of Abraham because his culture and mine are quite different. It is also true that my way of understanding God and God’s will now that I am an eighty one year old man living in Michigan is not the same as my understanding of those things when I was a child in Montevideo, Uruguay. In reference to the difference between Abraham’s and my understandings of God and of God’s will, I have the advantage of the revelation of God made available to all human beings by Jesus Christ. On the other hand, I repeat, the faith of Abraham and my faith as a child or as an eighty one year old is absolutely the same, unchanged, undisturbed by different understandings of God and God’s will. Faith is not connected to changes in cultures and historical and scientific constructions of reality in the way in which conceptions of God and of God’s will are. Historical or scientific “truths,” which are temporal and contingent, cannot threaten faith in God, even while they may require that adjustments be made to the way in which God and God’s will are understood.
The reason I have no problem in taking into account what scientists tell me concerning how life has evolved on the universe is not because I have put my faith in science rather than in God. It is because my study of the Bible has convinced me that it is not concerned with providing academic science or history. When the Bible refers to historical or natural events the information is marginal, tangential and inconsequential. If academic scientists and historians today find some of this information to be correct, according to our present understanding of things, it does nothing to prove that the Bible has supernatural information. It only proves that the ancients had excellent powers of observation. To the contrary, when scientists today find that the way things are described in the Bible are proven wrong by our more refined means of observation, it does not prove that God has nothing to do with the Bible. The Bible’s agenda is to testify to God’s involvement in human affairs, to give testimony to God’s power, justice, fidelity and love. Many of the things that it tells about are not correct and many are not edifying. All its content, however, reflects the way in which a people saw themselves to be guided, protected and punished by God. It is a witness to the faith of these people, and as such it is worthy of emulation. A believer who vetoes the advances of science and history to defend the accuracy of a biblical text is taking leave of his reasoning powers. People of faith express their faith with the concepts available and reasonable to them. Faith does not turn a believer unreasonable. Faith surely goes beyond what can be established on historical or scientific grounds, but faith never vetoes what is reasonable. Faith is a power that integrates the personality harmonizing all the facets of what it means to be human, and being human is not limited to what can be investigated by scientific methods. When faith stands against reason it becomes a distorter rather than a harmonizer of the person. Religion can be either an agent of well-being or an agent of physical and psychological malfunctions. A faith that makes a person unreasonable reflects a religion that destroys the personality.
Consideration of different ways of understanding anything is an activity of the mind under the power of reason as well as the influence of experience and accumulated intuition. This means that understandings change. I have traced the changes in my understanding of God’s will in Finding My Way in Christianity: Recollections of a Journey. Similar exercises are sometimes described as “how my mind has changed, or has remained the same,” or “Why I changed my mind,” as is the case of the series in this blog. Faith, on the other hand is lodged, as the apostle Paul points out (Rom 8: 8 – 10, 27; 1 Cor. 4:5), in the heart, the core of being. As the activity of the heart, faith is the anchor of life in God. As such, it transcends reason and intuition. Faith grasps the very being of God as Faithful. The truth of God is not to be found in the realm of knowledge, but in the realm of being. I shall never place my faith in either science or history. Their truths are temporary and contingent on limited sources. The same is true, it must be said, of doctrines formulated to account for God and God’s will. My faith is set on the truth of God. God is who accounts for the reason of my being at all. Of my faith I cannot give explanations; I can only confess it. In the meantime I am happy to have science and history give me timely information about the past and the way in which life and what exists in time and space function in the universe that God is constantly creating. With science I have a great debt of gratitude. On account of its many recent discoveries I am enjoying my old age with good health and comfort.
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I like your “point to ponder”. We have an omniscient God; He controls all knowledge. We do not control events, discoveries or inventions without God’s input. Our Faith grows as we realize how God’s power is working in us and our lives while in this world.
I think you make an important point when you note that changing with new discoveries is a strength and not a weakness of science. Some have described the progress of science as a history of discovering you were wrong. That is one way of looking at it. On the other hand, one can get more right. But the scientist, ideally, always focuses on learning what is, on correcting errors of understanding.
I do think one can parallel faith. My faith in God is not changed in one sense, as you note, by my changes, but my understanding does. I keep my focus on God, while allowing my understanding of details to change. It is unlike the work of science in many ways, but at the same time, the ability to hold a focus while being able to change is a valuable characteristic of both.
You wrote, “To claim that biblical authors wrote science or history is to do violence to the Bible.” Point well taken. However, by a similar line of reason I would suggest that to claim that the Bible contains no science or history is to do violence to the historic doctrine of inspiration. The same God who created inspired the writers to write what they wrote.
The most obvious question begged by your statement seems to me to be things like what is the nature of inspiration? What is the purpose of inspiration? To what extent does science dictate my comprehension scriptural ideas or more specifically, what is the relationship between scriptural ideas of creation and science? Can the Bible be trusted?
I think that at the end of the day most folks who hold to a literal 6 day creation and take a very literal view of creation are doing so for perhaps 3 reasons: (1) internal agnst that accepting modern ideas of creation will pull them out of sync with their creator. (2) they honestly hold to a kind of literal interpretive method that basically makes it impossible for them to be intellectually honest and entertain alternative views. (3) they (a little bit of me here) want to make their task as a biblical teacher so distinctly upon that of disciple-maker that they don’t feel the need to give my time or attention to secondary matters of how God may have created but to the fact that He is creator and move entirely from that vantage point in teaching the overall themes of Scripture.
It’s difficult for me – and many church leaders I suspect – to want to tamper with the most simple understanding of creation because of what I perceive to be the likelihood of undermining biblical authority in the lives of followers of Christ. The guy in m pew struggling with chemical dependency for example, needs to know he can trust God at His Word a lot more than he needs to be able to articulate the finer details of the relationship between science and faith – at least as any kind of primary concern.
This is a thought-provoking topic. Thanks for writing it! I’ll be coming back to these ideas for a while I’m sure.
Chris – I like your description of reasons why someone might not want to hold on to a literal understanding of creation week. I find Kurt Wise interesting. He has a PhD in paleontology earned under Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard and yet is a young age creationist. He pins this explicitly to his belief that this is the interpretation one must apply to Genesis 1-3. I disagree, but one must admire his honesty on this point. (Read my review of his book Faith, Form, and Time.)
I agree with you, Chris, except the part about intellectual honesty (2). I am intellectually honest, and I believe the creation to be exactly as it is recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1 and 2.