Christianity and Science

Over the past 11 years, in preparing to deal with an Introduction to Religion course which I teach in 3 classes over two semesters each year at the University of Dayton I have been required by the university to present to the class lectures on Genesis 1-3 (required reading for the course). Over these years and classes, I have gone through the text many times, always gaining new insight into the text. I have not only read and reread the text of Genesis 1-3 text but also read about the modern controversies between Creation Scientists and Darwinian Scientists and about the current scientific evidence and what it tells us about the origins of humanity. I will admit when I started teaching about Genesis 1-3, I was not that versed in the controversies swirling around the text. I assumed the text was true but had no idea that the very nature of truth was at the heart of the controversy. I was in the beginning, willing to accept a loosely literal interpretation of the text but also through my own educational background did not doubt that science and evolution were also true.I had not considered well the ways in which the claims of science and the claims of believers were in fact contradictory and allowed those controversies to sit on the back burner seeing no need to resolve them, no way to do it in any case, and comfortable with the intellectual dissonance between the competing claims. I was comfortable both with the shots that Intelligent Design folk took at atheistic scientists and with the dismissive jabs science aimed at biblical literalists. I was not in any camp, and only casually tried to make sense of it all. I was sure the Genesis text was inspired and meaningful and true, so atheism had to be wrong. I probably kept a vague hope that the truth of Genesis 1-3 would become obvious B science=s relentless pursuit of truth would eventually even show in what sense Genesis was true. But during these years, the more I read, the more I listened to my students questions and read their thoughts about Genesis in the papers I had them write, I realized there were some significant issues which I had to work out in my own mind. Thus was born my personal theological reflection, QUESTIONING GOD: A LOOK AT GENESIS. Personally I have found that a purely literal reading of Genesis is not intellectually sustainable. There are too many hints in the text itself which indicate a non-literal reading is called for. There also are too many significant contradictions in the creation accounts found in chapter 1 versus chapter 2 to allow the stories to be read literally.
I read how the ancient Christian writers assuming as they did that Genesis was written by Moses endeavored laboriously and creatively to explain away any apparent contradictions in the text. They were well aware of the contradictions and point them out, but then proceeded to try to explain them away, assuming they must for the sake of logic be explained away. But when I read the conclusion of modern scholars, who saw no need to reconcile the contradictory texts, but rather saw evidence for two differing stories written/edited by distinctly different peoples at widely differing moments in history, I accepted the notion that the stories in fact should not be harmonized, but should be mined for the riches each one offers to search for what it means to be human and to the pursuit of understanding the fullness of Gods revelation. What this has led to for me is the realization of the many levels of truth which a text can contain. Reading through the New Testament and the Patristic writers of early Christianity, one sees that they joyfully perused the scriptural texts for allegorical, symbolic, spiritual, moral, and prophetic meanings. They also always read the text in the light of Christ B Christologically and Christocentrically. This was their normal way of reading any text of the Old Testament, including Genesis 1-3. One does not have to go too far to realize that we do this all the time with significant texts. Thomas Jefferson penned the words of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men were created equal.If pushed in a discussion about this almost all my students deny the text is literally true and hold to some version of it depends what you mean by.” They readily admit we are not all equal, we are not all Einsteins or Pavrottis or Michael Jordans. Jefferson had slaves so he didnt think all men were equal either. So we realize that with certain qualifiers to explain the statement, we might agree on its truth, but that is not a literal reading of the text. We also realize we understand that text differently than Jefferson himself who did not include women, Africans, Indians, the uneducated/unEnlightened, or those who didnt own land in his idea of Amen. So in what manner is the text “true?” It comes down to how we interpret it. We really do interpret the text of the Declaration of Independence differently than Jefferson did B we have expanded its definition of men but then we claim we really are following his tradition, his thinking, his meaning (must not literally!). This is as true of any writing we might look at including scripture. Biblical literalism is hard to sustain intellectually, for me personally. I realize others can do it. But I find it untenable, because for me at least, like the development of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin in Roman Catholic theology, it is a position that necessitates a certain amount of mental and theological gymnastics and forced explanations and acceptance of questionable propositions to justify it and keep it consistent. It is for me far more intellectually satisfying and spiritually beneficial to have to deal with the issues that are raised by accepting the fact that Genesis 1-3 is more profitably read if one uses the traditionally accepted other readings which Christians have relied on through history.

I do understand that once one accepts the notion that the biblical text is not always meant to be read literally, people feel they are on a slippery slope B for how can we know if any of the bible is literally true if we allow that some parts of it are not? My contention is that this is the role that Church plays in bible reading. It is a fact that if we accept Enlightenment individualism, no one person alone ever can fully determine when a bible text is to be understood other than literally. But if we read the bible within the community of the church, within the church=s history, within the tradition of the church including its dogmas, patristic commentary, canons, hymns, etc, we can discern when and how to read certain texts in a non-literal fashion. This very notion goes against the grain of Protestant bible reading principles which seem to assume that every individual has the ability to fully interpret any and all scriptures. I think this assumption is false. I think we need guidance as is shown in the New Testament itself which interprets for us many Old Testament texts which if we didnt have the New Testament hermeneutic we would never understand the Old Testament text as it is interpreted and used in the Christian scriptures. Yes, we may have to intensely study and debate the meaning of some texts, but I think we can come to some understanding that all texts are read literally some of the time and some of the texts are read literally all of the time, but some texts are not read literally at all. In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, St. Paul writes, For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.‘ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake.The Old Testament text he comments on is perfectly understandable and meaningful if read literally. However, if we read it literally, according to St. Paul we miss the point of the text and of God’s message. I also think this happens to be true of Genesis 1-3 where if we insist on a literal reading of the text, we are going to miss the very point of the text and of Gods message. I can imagine St. Paul saying, Do you think it is science that God is concerned with in Genesis 1-3? Wrong! It was written for our sake and speaks to us about what it means to be human, and what it means to be a creature of God. It isnt science, it is theology!At some moment in the 15 billion year history of the cosmos, the universe became self aware. This moment was the dawn of humans. How and when this exactly happened is not recorded for us in history, but it is recorded for us in theology in Genesis. It is described in Genesis as the work of God in His creation. God brought forth this magnificent and new creature capable of self awareness, of consciousness and self-consciousness, of conscience, of free will and of love. That moment was not recorded by the news media nor by any ancient historian, but it was later described within the two stories of the creation of humans found in Genesis 1 and 2. God now had a most unique creature in his universe to deal with, to carry on His plan, to have dominion over the rest of the creatures. It is a story of hope and potential but also of fall, of pain, of sorrow, of sin, of death. I dont believe the story was intended to be science, and certainly it was written long before the modern scientific method of inquiry became our common way of approaching the universe. It is not trying to pose or answer the questions which 21st Century science asks and considers important. It is however endeavoring to offer eternal truths about humans, which considering it is perhaps 3000 years old, it has done divinely! My own conclusion (which won’t satisfy many) is that science and religion are really looking at things from two very different perspectives, and though they may be writing about the same thing – the origin of the universe – they see things as differently as a botanical taxonomist and a romantic poet see a rose. I do hold to a two realm approach to knowledge. I think science and religion are part of two differing ways of knowing.

Science’s philosophical base is skepticism and doubt and relies on the scientific method of testing, proofs and evidence as the only basis for its claims. It is completely materialistic. Science forms theories and tests and retests the theories. Theories are simply the current best opinion as to how things work based on the evidence we have. But science’s skepticism means the interpretation of facts is always subject to question, revision, replacement. For example whereas Newtonian physics was good enough to get man to the moon and back, today scientists regard Newtonian physics as an inadequate model for truly understanding the universe and look to Quantum physics and mechanics and the theory of relativity as a more adequate framework for comprehending how the universe really works. Religion, though often involving doubt and questioning, is not based in skepticism but in faith. We believe in the existence of God – and hold to this often without any evidence, or we at least interpret the evidence in a particular way. But we are faith based and bring our faith to our interpretation of things, including science. We accept in religion that sometimes we cannot know something, sometimes we dont experience something, but we do accept the witness and testimony of others, including that testimony recorded in scriptures and in the tradition of the Church. It means that for us at times our doubt and our faith is directed at the reliability of the witnesses to the truth being claimed. We accept on faith that some revelations and some spiritual experiences are not available to all, and that sometimes all we can do is accept the tradition of the churchs trust in and acceptance of an event or an experience. We do not believe that all spiritual experiences are merely personal, subjective, only of the intellect. We believe that spiritual experiences even when limited to an individual can be tested against the tradition including the scriptures. Christianity in its history certainly has not accepted any and every claim to revelation or dogma, but has painstakingly discerned what is theological truth. Theology is not merely subjective opinion. There has been an immense discerning process through the centuries, through debate, through councils, through reading and interpreting scripture, through rejecting some ideas and writings.
The scientific method which for some is the only way to approach any claim to truth, is not meant for discerning between theological claims. While some theological claims can be evaluated in terms of reason and rationality, sometimes the claims to theological truth can only be experienced or tested within the context of faith, of a faith community, or by living according to its tenets trusting that its goodness will be revealed to us. Not everything in religion is without some type of support, but often the support comes in the form of the testimony and witness of believers. Here again, we are left with evaluating the trustworthiness of these people when their claims cannot in fact be tested. Faith and reason are not always and necessarily opposed to one another. But they sometimes belong to the two different ways of knowing. Whereas science demands testing and proofs, theology must rely on testimony, wisdom and discernment. When Galileo defended notions that the earth revolved around the sun in opposition to the Churchs geocentric approach, he had only the mathematical proofs of arcs to offer and could not bring forth any other evidence. And though Galileo backed down as a faithful son of the church from his position, he did warn the Pope that at some point on this one issue the pope and the church were going to find themselves opposing the truth, a truth which would eventually be demonstrated from scientific reasoning. When the church has failed to understand the limits of its particular way and realm of knowing and usurps its authority and treads on scientific knowledge it has often embarrassed itself. We in the church have to live by the humility we claim to value and recognize there are other realms of knowledge and ways of knowing the universe which are beyond our competencies. I believe it was Galileo himself who said, that religion does not teach us how the heavens go, but only how to go to heaven. Christianity gains nothing by refuting evolution accept perhaps alienating the scientific community from religion. The real source of problem regarding evolution is the biblical literalists. We should let them fight all they want. We have a much more significant mission and ministry not to alienate the scientific community so that we can in fact engage them in conversation regarding issues of morality which are in our competency to discuss and evaluate. Then we could bring our message to issues of genetic engineering and research, abortion, stem cell research, cloning, ecology, and a host of other issues. The fact that science can study the world with no regard to religion, doesn’t mean that everything science says is wrong. But it also doesnt mean that science is the only way of knowing worth anything. Science has its limits. As Einstein commented, science can tell us what we can do, but it can’t tell us what we should do. He felt that was the particular role of religion in society. (ex, Science says we can make nuclear weapons, it cant however tell us if we should make these weapons). The issues of morality which science often runs up against are issues that require more than the scientific method and scientific reasoning to discern. Since we live in the same one world, even though we have different realms of knowing, we could then bring science and religion together to discuss scientific research and appeal to reason with scientists about why we need to consider what we should do not just what we can do. I don’t think believers have to fear science, or evolution, nor do we have to deny the truths that science presents which the bible doesn’t confirm. The bible doesn’t mention dinosaurs, but I think they are true and really roamed the earth millions of years ago. Science as a way of knowing speaks about theories B interpretations of the known facts which are constantly tested to see whether they do account for all that is known about a situation. Some biblical literalists try to jump on this idea, especially regarding the theory of evolution and say it is theory not fact. But all scientific thinking is contained in theory B the theory of electricity, the theory of gravity, of thermodynamics, aerodynamics, etc. They all are theories and so may be changed, improved, rejected, when new evidence is presented. But they also have shown themselves to be true enough to guide much of our daily technology. There may be ways in which the theory of evolution is wrong, gaps in its evidence and things it cant fully account for. Scientists at times are critical of evolution in one of its aspects or another (which biblical literalists immediately pounce on). However, whatever faults scientists find with Darwinian Evolution, they still are accepting the general principles of the theory and of the scientific method, and of skepticism and of doubt, and of scientific reasoning. Saying something is Atheory@ in science doesn=t mean it isn=t true.

I don’t think Genesis 1-3 is meant to be science as we understand science today. It is expressing truth but is simply not interested in the same things that scientists are normally interested in. It does not try to produce evidence for its claims. It rather is offering us a chance to understand what it means to be human, to be the very way the entire created universe became self aware. And it offers a claim that we accept on faith (Hebrews 11:3), namely that it is not merely an issue of natural cause and effect which resulted in humans being on the planet. We believe in one God the father all mighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. We accept on faith and on the testimony of scripture that we are created in the image and likeness of God. (Many of my students mistakenly write that we are created in the image and likeliness of God!). We believe this means something for how we live, how we relate to the rest of creation and how we are to treat all other human beings. Genesis 1-3 offers us a God inspired insight into who and what we are more than if offers us scientific and historical fact about the first human beings. It helps us come to an understanding of how we are to relate to the rest of creation and to one another.


One thought on “Christianity and Science

  1. Dear Fr. Ted,

    I skimmed your comments on Genesis 1-3 this morning and was struck by your efforts to categorize them. I find it significant that Saint Basil declares the Genesis narrative as primarily a great parable because, as he says, the reality of creation is too great and our minds are too small to encompass the enormity of the cosmos and the cosmogenic process. Once the Genesis story is acknowledged as parable more than narrative, then it opens into a far more persuasive commentary on creation with pertinence for our time.


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