4 Facts to Help Understand the Relationship Between Faith and Science

Sep 22, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

The debate concerning the evolution theory is one that fits into a larger conversation in which Christian faith (and with it theology) on the one hand and science on the other are negotiating terms of engagement. Both are trying to figure out how to relate to each other. This negotiation is not easy. It is not difficult to see why. Christian faith goes back 2000 years to the life, message, and work of Jesus Christ. It stretches even further back to the faith of Israel as a people delivered by Yahweh from bondage in Egypt. Christian faith is an ancient tradition that is based on sources (tradition and the Bible) that are now considered pre-modern.

Science took the world by storm after the Enlightenment had made a critical decision in favor of human reason as the foundation for society and culture. Out of this emphasis science was born with its scientific hypothesis and the inductive method. This approach to reality proved so incredibly effective that the gains in knowledge of our natural world over the past 250 years have been absolutely staggering. No wonder that our civilization has an limitless and optimistic trust in the advance of science and its fruits, so much so that science has virtually replaced religion as the source of meaning and progress in our world.

This optimism that extends into the art of meaning-making is entirely unwarranted, however. Yes, science is amazing, but, while it opens new horizons of possibility, there is a ceiling to its ability to create meaning and purpose to human life. In fact it is completely incapable to do so.

The role of religion is far from over. In fact, it is needed more than ever now that science has brought us seemingly infinite possibilities but also looming scenarios of Apocalyptoc destruction in the form of a nuclear holocaust or wholesale climatic upheaval. If anything, the critique that befalls science can also be applied to the way some religions, and especially certain sections of Christianity, can be overconfident in an assessment of their own knowledge and the way they want to bring that knowledge to bear on those who think differently. Both science and Christianity have at times too much confidence in their knowledge. And when they do they make silly absolute claims.

How should Christians think wisely about the relationship between science and faith? Here are a few points.

1. Both Theology and Science Work With Unproven Assumptions  
The first thing we need to understand is that both faith and science are based on unprovable claims. Both Christianity and science make claims about the world that can’t be proven but have to be believed. This pertains both to the foundation of faith and the foundation of the scientific method.

Christians for instance simply have to start with the assumption that there is a self-revealing God. There is no Christian faith without revelation, because without revelation there is nothing to believe in or at least nothing would make itself known to us. Similarly, science can only get off the ground on the belief that there is a correspondence between our thought and the world out there as well as a belief that there are natural laws that are predictable and consistent. Without these beliefs no science is possible.

Both Christian faith and science believe all sorts of things about the world people live in. Until recently Christianity taught that Genesis 1 was really about 6 literal days of creation. The historical evidence for the evolution theory has been steadily mounting, but even today many Christians believe with all their hearts in a literal 6 day creation.

Science for its parts used to believe in all sorts of things at its earlier stages that proved to be incorrect in the end. Philosophers of science speak therefore of scientific paradigms. Paradigms are ways of looking at reality or part of reality through a certain lens. Looking through this lens certain sets of beliefs about the world have a certain amount explanatory power, i.e. things that would otherwise perplex us make now sense. All goes well, however, until these paradigms, these lenses, don’t work anymore because of mounting contrary evidence. A new paradigm, a new lens, is needed. Newtonian physics, for instance, needed to be replaced with relativity and quantum physics. Scientific beliefs are replaced with other ones.

Both faith and science operate on faith and while they deal with truth, respectively about God and the natural world, they both work with unproven assumptions. To an extent this brings faith and science together and shows that the knowledge of either one cannot simply be privileged. Both Christians and scientists (and of course they can overlap) need to understand, therefore that what they hold to be true about God and the world is based on assumptions that they need to believe in order to hold their views. We're all believers!

2. Both Theology and Science Offer Interpretations of Reality  
All Christian faith and science can offer are interpretations of reality. There really is no more to it. This may sound off alarm bells for Christians who may say: “Hey, we’ve got God’s inerrant Word through which we have access to absolute truth.” But suppose this were all true about God’s Word, how would you go about proving that? Moreover, suppose the inerrancy of Scripture could be proven, does having access to absolute truth also mean that what you as a fallible human say is absolute truth? No, not at all! Christians can only offer their interpretation of the Bible, nothing more. The fact that there are so many churches and denominations with conflicting statements of faith speaks to that fact.

But the same is true of science. Scientists often pride themselves in the exactness of their science and the fact that their search leads to hard and absolute conclusions. That is all good and well, but with the hard facts in hand, what are you going to conclude? Right, your conclusion is no more than an interpretation of the facts of reality. That’s why Newtonian physics eventually had to make room for relativity and why Darwin’s explanation for variation in species had to make room for the discovery and understanding of DNA. Scientific belief systems are interpretations of the world. Remarkably often these interpretations later prove to be wanting or even outright wrong. This doesn’t mean science isn’t making progress, but just that you can always only search for truth. You can never possess it.

If we can understand both theology and science as models of interpretation, as mere attempts to comprehend, Christians do not have to be afraid of science (and vice versa) while scientist can be more relaxed and modest about their truth claims (and vice versa). The Christian needs to understand that his theology is an interpretation of the Scriptures and therefore not ultimate truth, while the scientist needs to do the very same things with whatever theory she constructs on the basis of her scientific data.

3. Christianity and Science Labor in Different Regions of Knowledge  
Even when faith and science are quite similar in that both are based on assumptions, i.e. beliefs about reality, and even when all both can do is to offer interpretations of reality instead of making absolute truth claims, they are also very different.

You could say that faith (or theology) on the one hand and science on the other occupy two different regions or two different kinds of knowledge. Science uses the scientific method in order to explain how the world works, how things are. It discovers the natural world. Faith, on the other hand, concerns itself with the things of God, with the relationship of God with the world and with the question of how we should live and where all this is going.

You could say that these are two different regions of knowledge. You could say natural knowledge verses supernatural knowledge but that is quite misleading. After all, what scientists discover about the world tells us something about God and what Christians believe about God has an effect on how the world is seen. But it is important to see that there are two different kinds of knowledge here. Science explains (how it works) and theology (but also philosophy) helps to understand what that means.

There is a danger here, for scientists should be careful to brazenly proclaim that on the basis of their research they know that God doesn’t exist. With that conclusion they cross the boundary of their expertise. They then move from explanation to understanding, from fact to meaning. They then make claims about something that is not available for scientific research, namely God.

The expertise about God and things related to God can better be addressed by theologians (as well as philosophers). The reverse is also true. If Christians make proclamations about the natural world that fly in the face of solid scientific research, they say more than they can. It is not their expertise. That is why scientists as scientists ought to be mainly silent about God’s existence while Christians as believers should refrain from “knowing” how God created the world.

The scientist needs to learn, therefore, to have respect for the specific domain or terrain of Christian knowledge. Ridicule is not appropriate. But equally, the Christian might want to take a step back in judging a scientific theory that has broad support within the scientific community over a long period of time.

4. Christian Faith and Science Have Different Tasks  
With the difference in areas of expertise comes also a difference in tasks. Science is good at explaining how things work but less equipped to provide meaning, purpose, or ethical direction. This is not because scientists are dummies or unethical beings but because the scientific method which is based on hypotheses, testing, and examining of inductively gathered facts, is not designed to perform a theology of philosophy or an ethical evaluation.

Theology (and philosophy) on the other hand concern themselves with interpreting the greater whole of reality, which is an extremely complex process of evaluation. This process leads to answers to questions such as: “Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Where are we going?” and “How should I live?” The scientific method, so proudly heralded as the way to progress and enlightenment, is hopelessly inadequate here, while it is here that direction and meaning is giving to human existence.

This is not to say that a scientist cannot make a claim about God or that a theologian cannot make a claim about science. But the scientist can only make such a claim outside of their scientific expertise, while the theologian does so similarly outside their own realm of doctrinal knowledge.

The scientist would do well to understand that religions (and philosophy) are good at creating meaning and providing ethical frameworks. The moment the scientist plays the ethicist or philosopher he ventures into non-scientific territory. Equally, the Christian has to have respect for the expertise of the scientist who knows how to do research and come up with new findings about the world.

What does all of this mean? 
What does all of this mean for the debate between faith and science?

1. First and foremost, it means that the theologian and the scientist need to listen to each other. They both know that what they say within their realm of expertise, their own region of knowledge, is never absolutely true, or, if it is, the certainty that it is so is not available. All they work with is belief systems and interpretations.

2. Secondly, given the fact that there are two regions of knowledge and two different tasks, it is essential that Christianity and science learn to cooperate and integrate. What science offers is of great importance to what we believe about God and what the theologian offers is of great importance for putting the findings of science in a larger framework of meaning and purpose. Faith needs to learn from science and science needs to learn from faith.

3. Thirdly, given our assumptions and interpretations of reality, there will be different opinions. And, in fact, we know that this is the case by the simple observation that even putting science over against Christianity is based on the misunderstanding which thinks that all scientists are atheists and that there is just one right version of Christianity. There are many different opinions about how it all fits together, but as members of a common humanity we need to learn to listen, learn to respect, and learn to work and think together.

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