Science and Faith: Navigating the Unwarranted Divide

Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience by Malcolm Jeeves. InterVarsity Press, 2013. Note: For additional ESN blog posts on this title explore this tag.

Editor’s note: Yesterday, Katelin reviewed Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience. Today she shares a few reflections stimulated by Minds, Brains, Souls and God:

  • Science and Faith
  • A God That is Bigger Than Our Own Understanding
  • Our Dual Mission Field.

As always, please do not hesitate to share your questions, insights, and musings with us. To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV


Science and Faith

Too often scholars of faith find themselves caught between two misunderstood worlds, trying to navigate a divide that in reality is entirely unwarranted. We need not fear of our own cognitive capacity.

The apprehension that some Christians show toward scientific advancement is discouraging. If God is who we claim He is, then we do not have to protect Him from Truth (nor would we have the capacity to do so, of course). Christian reticence to engage on a scientific level hurts our witness to a thinking world. How many of our academic colleagues have been reluctant to explore Christianity, fearing they will have to give up the habits of critical thinking? Is Christ not for them as well? Perhaps many more academicians would believe if they felt such rich examination was allowed, even welcomed.

Scientific thought is a celebration of the blessings God has given. What kind of God would give the gift of analytical thought and then tell us not to use it? The miracle of God’s relationship with creation is that His Truth is large and beyond explanation, yet also intimately involved with from who we inherently are. This reality is at once humbling and inspiring. It is, in essence, what Christians commonly refer to as ‘the Gospel.’ To dissolve it down to simplistic one-liners is an affront to the truth, and surely invites critique in its incompleteness.

Along these lines, Christians should encourage acts of worship through scientific investigation. The richness of God’s creation can only really be appreciated through careful and methodical attention to His efforts. How pleasing it must be to God when someone’s dissertation pushes at the edge of our understanding of His work on earth. How delightful when one of His own takes the time to notice even the tiniest detail of His creation. The result of such an encounter is a deeper faith, and a deeper love our Elohim.

We must expand from ‘safe’ conversations that ultimately create strawman faith. We don’t have to turn off my mind in order to walk through a church door. If we only engage in the easy-win debates, we will always fear the inability of God to withstand true examination.

A God That is Bigger Than Our Own Understanding

There are aspects of God that we are not capable of observing or understanding (or even knowing that we don’t know) based on our limited hardware. As science suggests, the Truth produces evidence of itself that must be discernible and comprehensible–but not necessarily by our human minds as they are now. We are limited in our ability to determine what does not exist at all, versus what is merely beyond out observation.

The biggest stumbling block to my faith has always been the pervasive presence of Christians with ‘unexamined faith’ that seem to have all the answers. I fear that my faith is also overly simplistic and short-sighted, that I simply enjoy the benefits of religious opiates. It may well be that some kinds of faith function in this manner, but it is also important to remember that there are richer aspects that require a willingness to engage intellectually. This mindset only came in my life only after a long period of intellectual fear, being easily shaken by paradox. I eventually realized that my faith was in my own capacity to comprehend, rather than in a God that was so much bigger than my ability to defend or explain Him.

There is a holy space in the incomprehension of God. To get there, we will need to relinquish our need to shield God from our minds. After all, why would we worship a God that we fully understand? This would be a very small God indeed. Rather than a stagnant arrival at a boxed-in faith, we can instead participate in an active journey toward the mysteries of the Cross.

Our Dual Mission Field

Science and religion help us to understand our universe. Science is useful for those aspects that can be proven experimentally. Extrapolating those findings into metaphysical meaning goes beyond the scope of the discipline into the realm of philosophy. Conversely, using theological passages as textbooks to inform cellular and molecular function is also narrow-sighted.

God is not being made smaller through scientific inquiry. God will always be bigger than our intellectual capacity, and so as our knowledge grows, so too does our understanding of how big God can be. Scientists know there will always be more to the unknown universe than to the one we have already explained. As we answer each question, twenty new ones replace it. Comprehension does not render God unnecessary–it expands who He is.

On some level, scientific communication with the lay public is embarrassingly lacking, leading to poor public scientific literacy and the fear that stems from ignorance. As Christians in academia, not only can we bear witness for Christ in our research, but we must also be ambassadors for our disciplines within our churches as well. Perhaps we can help bring our sisters and brothers in Christ into that holy mess of complicated, examined faith that offers the full richness of the Divine.

I’m honest with fellow believers. Do I believe in evolution? Yes. And I believe that there is a creator God that lovingly surveys the big bang, natural selection, positrons, dark matter, and all the other miracles of His creation. I also believe in a God that created the mind, with its ability to react to the divine, both spiritually and physically. Are there serious things to reconcile and kinks to work out? Undoubtedly. But why should that fact shake my faith? Again, the God I worship is complicated enough that we certainly should have to work hard to understand any part of Him. Otherwise He is a God unworthy of our awe and reverence.

My hope is for Christians to stop seeing science as a threat, or trying to deny its findings on religious grounds. Instead, embrace the more intimate knowledge of the Creator that we receive every day in the scientific journals. We need not worry that science might experimentally explain away metaphysical existence. Science and religion are elegant examinations of our universe, and neither detracts from the other’s beauty. They enhance each other—that is what is magnificent about science and God. Increasing our knowledge of the universe will only bring our closer to its creator.

We must be careful not to perpetuate the appearance of a false divide between science and faith. Rich debate should be welcomed, but reductionist separation in unwarranted. Both institutions have had their share of major abuses of trust in the name of advancing their own ideas, which further widens the chasm of communication between them. Books like Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods are necessary to begin mending those wounds and restoring interdisciplinary trust.

 

bytheirstrangefruit@gmail.com'

Katelin Hansen

Katelin Hansen (@BTSFblog) is pursuing a doctorate degree in neuroscience at Ohio State University (OSU). At OSU she is active in InterVarsity’s Christian Graduate Student Alliance and the Emerging Scholars Network. In addition, Katelin edits By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and understanding across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective. Katelin also serves as the Minister of Music at UM Church For All People, a multi-class, multi-racial church in an underprivileged neighborhood of Columbus, OH. To learn more about her academic journey read A Full Education (The Well). You can find her on Twitter at @BTSFblog

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7 Comments

  • kennethdlitwak@gmail.com'
    Kenneth Litwak commented on February 8, 2014 Reply

    Katelin,

    There is much in your post that is welcome and resonates with me. I would, however, raise a couple of points and would be very interested in your response.

    First, I don’t personally know anyone who is “anti-science.” No Christian I know thinks that cell phones are magical because you can hear someone talk through it. No one finds television scary or wonders how those little people got into that box (or flat panel). In earlier days, I made a serious effort at getting really fit, running some 5K races (though never very fast), and I found the description of how muscles turn ATP into ADP and Lactic Acid. (You’ll have to excuse any inaccuracies or simplifications there–alas I changed my mind about becoming a biochemist and regrettably majored in biblical studies instead.) I think the search for the Higgs-Boson particle, or whatever gives mass to matter is pretty interesting, even though I don’t understand the physics there. Most of us who can read a blog post on the Internet know about and probably own a computer or a smart phone. None of that would be true if Christians rejected science in general.

    The one place I do have a problem, which is the real problem between science and Christian faith, is evolution. There are at least two issues for me here. First, it seems to me simply bogus to say that humans evolved from something else after millions and millions of years, and perhaps billions of failed species, but yet, say that we were created by God. If we evolved, Homo Sapiens are simply a recent mutation–noting created us. That seems simply far far far too indirect. It sounds to me like this: I teach as an adjunct in biblical studies. So I give a lecture on Luke’s Gospel. A student writes a research paper for my course after doing significant research in the library (because I require that). When the student is done, because it’s my course and the student worked on the paper because I required it, therefore, I am the author of the paper. Perhaps this is not a very good analogy but you get the idea. Humans had a small genome change, as well as some other variations from whatever came before us. That is not being created. That is being a mutation, and I have trouble seeing the two as equivalent.

    The second issue for me is the real issue that you addressed. More and more Christians, it seems, are accepting evolution as how God made living things on the earth. The reason they are accepting this theory is that “science” says the evidence is overwhelming that this is what happened, and how humans came into existence. However, most of the scientists who declare this, not least Richard Dawkins and company, go on to claim that this process is completely explicable in natural terms without reference to any deity. If I objected and said, “How do you explain human consciousness?”, they will respond that we don’t know yet but we simply need to give scientists time to figure it out. That is, I have a “God of the gaps” until some scientist figures out how humans could have become “conscious” and self-aware without any recourse to a religious explanation.

    So if I’m supposed to believe in evolution because science has shown that it is unquestionably how Homo Sapiens developed, why am I free to ignore the rest of the theory, i.e., it can completely explain everything about life forms on the earth? I’m not a scientist, and my college chemistry class years ago does not qualify me to speak into scientific discussions. So, if I’m going to accept “science” and therefore accept “evolution,” I don’t need a deity at all to explain my existence. I just have to wait long enough for researchers to figure it all out. If I say that God had a hand in it, then I am telling scientists that they are wrong, but everywhere I turn, I hear Christians, whether biblical scholars or biologists saying that I need to accept the conclusions of science. So what am I to do? Continue to believe in a Creator, who did far more than any evolutionary biologist would ever grant, or scratch the Creator off my list as irrelevant because whatever the Creator did was unnecessary–science can, at least one day, explain it all, and if science can explain origins in a completely naturalistic way, then, even if there is a deity, it had nothing to do with my existence, so I don’t owe it any allegiance.

    Therefore, given a metanarrative that puts the mysterious, incomprehensible God of Scripture as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos and all that is in it (he might not have made any quasars but certainly crated a universe in which quasars would come into existence), and a metanarrative that the Big Bang was random, its results were random, and the existence of Homo Sapiens on the planet earth is random, do I believe the author of Genesis (regardless of how Genesis 1-2 should be interpreted, and I can accept that it is not describing literally what God did), or do I believe Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and probably every single science prof UC Riverside (chosen simply because it’s the closest UC campus to me) that we’re all just random accidents and we need nothing but science to explain all of reality? I don’t think there’s room here for a both-and position. Genesis might accommodate it, but most scientists sure aren’t going to do so.. Since I see real problems with a totally naturalistic explanation, I don’t accept that metanarrative, so how much of what scientists say abourt origins do I need to accept?

    Sorry for the long post. No one accuses me of being concise. :-) I do hope that I have not been reductionistic or created a straw “Adam.”

    Ken

    • bytheirstrangefruit@gmail.com'
      Katelin commented on February 8, 2014 Reply

      hi Ken-
      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      I’m afraid, from my perspective, your stand is indeed overly reductionist. The mere act of claiming Genesis is accommodating and scientists as imperialist, shows your bias. The truth is, it happens in both directions. As you mention, many Christians do indeed enjoy and support the benefits of science, yet they also pick and choose which established research is beneficial, and which is inconvenient and therefore dubious. This is not pro-science behavior.

      Indeed the very idea of two distinct groups, is a vast oversimplification. There are many evolution-believing biological scientist that worships a creator God. Tom Ingebritsen has recently done a whole series on these matters on this ESN blog (http://blog.emergingscholars.org/author/tom_ingebritsen/), and my understanding is that more on the topic will follow shortly from others. Suffice it to say, it need not be either or, and to claim it is such is indeed reductionist.

      If you are skeptical, I would encourage you to spend time reading and talking with the many scientist/Christians that bridge that gap and live quite comfortably in it. In addition to Tom Ingebritsen’s series, I would encourage you to visit the BioLogos Foundation, to learn more perspectives on the matter: http://biologos.org/. Edited 2/8/2014. 1:05 pm.

      • kennethdlitwak@gmail.com'
        Kenneth Litwak commented on February 10, 2014 Reply

        Hi Katelin,

        Thanks for your response. I have seen that there have been several posts on this general topic, but yours was the first I found time to read. Okay, I accept that I oversimpliflied. I still can’t see being one mutant form in the 10thy phylum, after millions of mutant species have come and gone, as “creation.” Indeed, the very thought that our family tree as humans includes clams, slugs, and cock roaches, in my mind evaporates any notion of human dignity. I have seen some videos from Biologos. It seems to me that they really want to have their cake and eat it too. I once attended a lecture by Karl Giberson, who insists that Christians must accept evolution as a fact. I asked him how it could then be that we need a savior? There was no Adam, so there was no Fall. Death is totally normal, and what we call “evil” is just the way the world works. His response was that evil, sin, and the need for salvation are “matters of faith.” That sounds like accepting evolution requires having an anti-intellectual faith.

        I will be interested to go look at other ESN posts on this topic. I fear what seesm to me necessary consequences of embracing the entire theory of evolution. I couldn’t be a Christian any longer, even if others can.

        Ken

        • bytheirstrangefruit@gmail.com'
          Katelin commented on February 12, 2014 Reply

          Unfortunately, I don’t at all see the connection between evolution and the lack of a need for a savior. All around me I see a broken world with broken relationships, indeed a broken self with broken desires. I and the world are in need of salvation. Jesus sets out a vision for how it could be, how we as individuals and as a people could be. He sets out to restore us to that vision. This is the heart of the Gospel. Evolution is actually quite tangential to these central ideas–rather than, as you might suggest, a centrally-derailing factor in the premise of salvation.

          I hope big things for your faith–for both of our faiths. That we may grow and lean into new revelation, not run from it. Indeed, a faith big enough to remain devoted to God and celebrate–rather than walk away from–His truths. You couldn’t be a Christian any longer? Lean in, brother, lean in.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on February 8, 2014 Reply

      Ken,

      The authorship question you raise is an interesting one. You are correct that we generally do not assign authorship to teachers when their students complete class assignments. But there are other authorship models besides “I wrote all the words so I am the author.”

      Consider a common scenario for scientific research papers (other scholarly publications may also follow this model, but I am most familiar with practices in the natural sciences). A graduate student carries out a research project under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The student does the day-to-day work in the lab, and makes a variety of decisions about the direction of the project in response to the results he observes along the way. The advisor provides the resources and context necessary for the research to occur, and offers guidance to ensure that the project is fruitful and consistent with the advisor’s overall research objectives. When the project is done, the student will typically write up the manuscript detailing the findings, since the student knows the particulars most clearly. And yet both the student and the advisor will be listed as authors of that paper.

      And then there is the authorship model of the Bible itself. We give authorship credit of the various books to the individual(s) who wrote down the words, and/or crafted the content that was passed on orally. And we also assign authorship to God, even though we believe that God dictated each and every last word in the text verbatim. We have every reason to believe that He was capable of transmitting His words more directly if He wished, but instead he choose a model that allowed for us to contribute to the process as well.

      From that perspective, it actually makes more sense to me that God’s mechanism for bringing about His creation would include a significant role for creation itself to play, as opposed to one where God just does it all as directly as possible.

      • kennethdlitwak@gmail.com'
        Kenneth Litwak commented on February 10, 2014 Reply

        Andy,

        Thanks for an interesting response. I wonder what you think of the authorship attribution that you have described for scientific research. It makes me think of many athletic competitions, and would have me wondering, when an athlete wins, say, a gold medal, the person’s coach does not get one as well. I admit, though, that I don’t know what the perfect analogy wold be, because I don’t know how God made everything, though the writing of Scripture is an intriguing analogy. Peter Enns certainly sees that as the way to understand creation.

        Ken

      • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
        Andy Walsh commented on February 10, 2014 Reply

        Ken,

        Having been the graduate student in such a scenario, I’ve come to think of it as a reasonable and appropriate way to acknowledge the various contributions made by different parties, and one that reflects the collaborative nature of scientific research. And because it is a well-established practice in the community, with name-order conventions that convey some of the structure of the research group, I don’t see any reason to worry that it is dishonest or gives credit where credit is not due.

        The Olympics have a very individualistic notion of athletic achievement, probably because of the nature of the traditional events. But other team sports events do recognize the contribution of nonplayers. Coaches and staff get championship rings in various team sports; I once heard the NY Giants chaplain speak and he had a Super Bowl ring. Coaches and staff get their name on the Stanley Cup along with the players.

        And then there are collaborative artistic endeavors, like films or comic books, which have many creators even if there is a single person named as writer; or symphonic compositions, which need many musicians to be realized even when one person composes the notes.

        As you observe, none of these are perfect analogies for creation. I offer them simply to illustrate the range of possibilities when it comes to the idea of authorship, and to suggest that something other than an auteur theory of creation needn’t diminish the prestige afforded God as first and ultimate creator.

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