Christian reverence for science

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The UniverseWhen Christianity and science come together, the meeting place is often like a battlefield. From the Christian point of view that is a pity, because the central Christian belief, that in Jesus Christ God’s reason entered the world, demands that science be given an independent and honoured place.

It implies that both God’s ways and the world are reasonable and that we can explore them. The scientific interpretation of the empirical world and the Christian interpretation of God’s relationship to the world are compatible.

The two kinds of exploration, of course, work at different levels. Questions of faith have to do with why anything exists at all and with the purpose of human life.  Scientific questions ask how the world has the shape that we find it to have. Each way of questioning offers an interpretation of the world at a distinctive level.  

Most fights between science and religion have been boundary disputes. They have turned on who has the competence and authority to interpret the world at its different levels.

The emblematic struggles, which have taken on a mythical status, were associated with Galileo and Darwin. In each case churches claimed preemptive rights to exclude scientific interpretations of the movement of the earth and of the origins of life on the strength of a wrong interpretation of scripture. They wrongly moved out of the larger question of why the world exists to pronounce on the question of how the distinctive features of natural phenomena are to be explained.

I think that scientists like Hawking and Dawkins may have the excuse of historical provocation, but make the same mistake in reverse, of arguing that discoveries of how human beings develop prove that there is not a God. Boundaries are not safely crossed. To put it bluntly no discoveries in the natural world can prove that there is a God or define human value and destiny. Nor can they disprove it. Nor can interpretations of faith disqualify scientific conclusions.

But that delineation of boundaries between scientific and religious questions ignores the more interesting question of the overlap between religious and scientific questions. They cannot be kept hermetically sealed, because questions are always asked by people, and most human beings from time to time do ask both questions about how the world we see works, and also about why it exists and what purpose there may be to human life. 

And some people are motivated to scientific questioning by religious wonder, while others are motivated to ask questions about God by wonder at the world that they discover through science. David Attenborough’s programs can both draw people to explore a deeper reality of the world beyond possible scientific exploration or dissuade people from it. 

Science does impact seriously, too, on the way in which we relate faith to the world in which we live, and so in the way in which we imagine God’s relationship to our world.  It makes a difference whether we imagine God in relationship to a world that is the centre of a relatively small universe, or in relationship to an earth that is a tiny part of one among many possible universes, with distances in time and space that are beyond imagining.  It also makes us see humanity in different ways. Our view of God is enlarged somewhat, and God’s relationship to each human being needs to be revisioned. 

The image we have of the universe, too, will shape our understanding of the way in which God relates to it. If we imagine the universe as a clock with fixed and clearly defined relationships and laws, the image of God as creator will be different than if we see the world as evolving and with a principled uncertainty built into it. Again our understanding of God needs to be revisioned.

Similarly discoveries of the human genome and of inheritance, too, will shape our understanding of human freedom in relation to God’s freedom. It does not destroy the Christian understanding of humanity, but it will raise new questions to which there will be new responses. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, christianity and science, belief, atheism, dialogue

 

 

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Andrew, again thank you for your words of wisdom. At our Spirituality in the Pub in Paddington Sydney on 6th April, our topic, under our year's umbrella theme of "Tell me a Story" is "Faith and Scepticism".

Our conversation will be led by Bernadette Tobin, a woman of deep religious faith, and Bob Carr, former Premier of NSW, who will tell his story from the perspective of a Sceptic. The evening will not be a debate on faith v scepticism, but will hopefully further develop the theme which underpins your article - what can people of religious faith and those who claim to come from a more scientific mindset, learn from each other as we continue our struggle to become more truly human
Marea Donovan | 17 March 2011


Because of the day that's in it, let me tell a little story relevant to Andrew's article.

In 1940, de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Based on Princeton, it had two schools: Theoretical Physics and Celtic Studies.

Schrodinger (he of the famous cat) came to Dublin with his wife, daughter and what we used to call his mistress to run the first. He said that religion had no place in science.

The Celtic Studies school investigated the origins of Christianity in Ireland and concluded that St Patrick is probably a composite of a number of missionaries from the fifth century or earlier.

Flann O'Brien, who took a caustic view of everything Dev did, declared that the new Institute had been a huge success: it had shown that there was no God and two St Patricks.

Happy St Pat's Day.
Frank | 17 March 2011


"the overlap between religious and scientific questions" ... what is interesting is that the truth is Natural Design so one argument is for Intelligent Design and one argument is for Natural Selection. Both arguments are wrong because both arguments don't argue against each other but argue against the truth. You can't handle the truth ...
Greig WIlliams | 17 March 2011


'How it works and why' shines (for me) a light on the boundaries of dispute, you spoke of. One does not negate the other. Seeing that in physics, as in politics, every argument has a counter argument, the notion that there is an overlap is comforting to me. I think that taking the story of Adam and Eve literally, has convinced many scientists that their perspective is the only way of making sense of our existence. And yet in science there are the famous exceptions and in religion there are the two eternal truths.
Joyce | 17 March 2011


It is helpful to recall that the Catholic Church apparently learned a great deal from its reactive approach to Galileo. Dogmatically, the Church had painted itself into a corner by insisting on a fundamentalist biblical account of how the natural world is. When it came to Darwinism, Leo XIII was a great deal more cautious and wise. He warned Catholic scripture scholars against using their craft against hard science arguing that 'truth cannot contradict truth,' meaning that both disciplines can know their own spheres of interest and authority and so can co-exist. Pius XII picked up on this as well as his successors. The Catholic position came to be that all that is insisted on for reasons of faith is that God is a Creator and that all things come from God. For Darwinians this posed no problems because they regarded faith as a help 'survival' mechanism. The big losers in this conversation were and are the fundamentalist denominations and sects with their ludicrous literalism in biblical hermeneutics. A concise Catholic explanation of Church claims really only arrive with the publication in 1965 of brief study by Fr Pierre Benoit OP, 'Aspects of Biblical Interpretation.' His solution to the Catholic dilemma was summed up in 'Only that which is formally taught is revealed.' In other words, Faith says that God made the world but it goes on to affirm that the 'how' of it all should be found in science.
David Timbs | 17 March 2011


Thank goodness we have a different way of understanding the infinite nature of God today. As physical scientists search the nature of metaphysics the indications are that intelligent mystics are correct about a single power that unites, sustains and holds all living things in place.

Whilst God is still beyond our knowing I can see that as evolution moves onwards we humans gain a greater consciousness of God's creative beauty in all life patterns. This consciousness gives us the power to transcend the natural world and imagine what lies beyond in eternity. For more information on the correlation between science and God I suggest you look at www.iscast.org. It's a newsletter from an organization of high profile Christians trained in science and technology.
Trish Martin | 17 March 2011


In the debate, God vs Science there is a false dichotomy drawn and it is instructive to be reminded that it is not essential to enter that false dichotomy. It may be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the reality that we know by knowing God. Hold your ground and hold your tongue. God does not need defending nor does our acknowledgement of a transcendent numinous presence undergirding reality.
graham patison | 17 March 2011


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