Religion and science both play extraordinary roles in shaping the world (with their respective influences varying from region to region, nation to nation). Religion, of course, held sway for millennia as numerous iterations of dogma have attempted to make sense of the world around us.
In recent centuries (and especially in recent decades), science has seemingly been encroaching on religion’s claims about reality. Views ranging from earth’s position in the universe to beliefs that sneezes expelled evil spirits have been challenged and overturned by the advancement of the scientific endeavor. God seemingly kept getting smaller and smaller as humanity found physical or natural explanations behind many of the phenomena that we experience.
So, religion and science appear to be at odds with each other, competing for ground in the realm of truth. And on the surface, science appears to be winning rather handily. So what’s a Christian to do?
The Christian magazine, Relevant, published an article last week in a brief attempt to assuage this age-old conflict. In the post, Jesse Carey made a common mistake. Unfortunately, this error is not a small one: suggesting that there are different kinds of truth.
Carey would certainly not be the first person to suggest that religion and science have their sights set on entirely (as opposed to slightly) different targets. In academic circles, the technical term is “non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA),” a philosophy most popularly advocated by the scientist Stephen Jay Gould. While there is some value in this approach to reconciling science and religion, such an understanding of the two has some serious even fundamental flaws.
That flaw rears its head most clearly when Carey says, “faith requires us to put trust in something that isn’t provable” (emphasis original). Science, on the other hand, “is rooted in the notion that scientific truths are provable.” With these sentences, Carey has unwittingly disqualified faith from any reasonable, intelligent conversation. He sees this as a defensible position, however, because of the concept that science and religion investigate “two fundamentally different kinds of truth.”
In the Best Light…
Now, I did say that there was some value to NOMA, and there is certainly value in Carey’s argument in Relevant. I agree when he says that religion and science “aren’t at odds because they are concerned with different things and different methods of finding them.” If this concept is basically what Carey intends in writing this article, then the fault is merely an extraordinary carelessness with his words.
While it may seem like a merely semantic distinction, the difference between saying science and religion look at different “things” rather than different “truths” is an immense one. Properly construed, the concept of NOMA can help us understand that there are (or at least may be) varying planes of reality and that some approaches to understanding reality may have different benefits as well as constraints.
Specifically when it comes to science and religion, these different planes would best be described as physical and metaphysical. The methods of science and the methods of religion actually approach the objects of their investigation in similar ways (at least they should). The main difference between the two rests with the entities they hope to discover. Since God and the natural/physical world are not the same thing, we should not expect the scientific method to be of immediate use in understanding the subject of God; nor should we expect philosophical or religious methods to be of particular use in understanding the inner workings of the cell.
Granted, the findings and methods of science and religion can, will, and should inform one another, but they also should not be confused as one and the same.
More than a Feeling
While in the best possible light Carey’s thoughts contain some important insights, the overall tone as well as some of his specific statements undercut interpreting him in this way. For instance, in saying that the object of faith is, by its nature, unprovable or that “God never asked us to prove He existed to anyone,” Carey seems to want to relegate faith to the realm of feelings and good will rather than truth.
Yet, the proposition that God never asked us to prove he exists demonstrates a lack of depth in understanding the biblical revelation. His citation of 2 Corinthians 5:7 (that “we walk by faith, not by sight”) underscores a failure in his interpretation. He has taken the verse out of context. For in the passage from which Carey lifts that verse, Paul is talking about how we long for heaven and our final resting place with God, describing that hope as a matter of faith in God’s promises rather than as a matter of presently experiencing its fulfillment.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul is not talking about the general expectation of Christian life and faith. Had he been, he would have had to deny not only one of the driving forces of the Old Testament (where the Lord consistently makes claims like, “you will know that I am the Lord“) but his own methods of preaching the Gospel to nonbelievers and Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 15; Acts 17:22-34).
Judeo-Christian faith has always been grounded in real, historical events such that the whole edifice would come crumbling down should those events be falsified. As Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). As an aside, this is not to say that a single chink in the armor sends the whole worldview reeling.
The earliest believers in Christianity, those like Paul, Peter, and John, believed that their faith was grounded in the historical person of Christ who was bodily resurrected three days after being executed. This was not about what they felt to be true but what they knew to be true.
Now, Carey does not outright state that Christian faith should be founded upon feelings or vague intuitions, but the tenor of his article suggests that he’s making such a maneuver.
A False Dilemma
Carey brings up some great points toward the end of his article. I heartily agree when he states that Christians are “called to literally embody” the truth of the Gospel, but he’s set up a false dichotomy (as Relevant magazine in general has become wont to do lately) when he says “we’re called not just to ‘defend’ truth,” setting up defend in scare quotes.
Living the Christian life requires that we embody the habits and virtues of Jesus, yes, but this is not to the exclusion of potentially “refuting…theories that challenge our understanding of scripture.”
A classic verse, 1 Peter 3:15, shows that making a case for Christian faith necessitates both a rational defense as well as exceptional character: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” We are called to provide a defense, but we are to do so in a way that demonstrates the reality of what the Gospel claims.
A Christian, in trying to make a defense, can easily get wrapped up in arguments and forget to respond with charity and grace. Such a person has forgotten to hold fast to the efficacy of the message, namely that it is supposed to change the person from the inside out. If the events of the Gospel are true, but the lives of those who claim Christ have not been transformed, then the message will be irrelevant to the unbeliever who needs to see that redemptive evidence as well.
On the other hand, the Christian who shuns making such a defense forgets that if Christ’s work–the cross and His resurrection–have not actually happened, then there is no salvation or sanctification to be found in the message of Christianity. Whatever good Christianity might do, its power to do it would have to be found somewhere other than the Gospel message itself. If the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection have not enabled this change, then we should set our sights on something else.
The defense of the truth of Christianity and the faithfulness of the Christian are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, each requires the other in order for the Gospel to be both true and meaningful.
In his attempt to rectify the supposed conflict between science and religion, Carey promotes the type of faith that most atheists caricature in their criticisms of Christianity. A description of faith as trust in something that is unprovable forsakes rationality. Unfortunately, many Christians describe and practice their faith under such terms. Some do so from ignorance. Others do so as a means of appearing sophisticated or spiritual.
This is not a bad faith only because it’s philosophically shallow and often leads to intellectual dishonesty; it’s a bad faith because there’s little hope of such faith ever being efficacious in the life of the believer except in the most tangential way.
Good faith, rooted in the reality of the Gospel, is much more substantive as it enables the believer to worship in spirit and in truth. That, Jesus said, is the kind of worshipper that the Father longs to see.