(This blog post is adapted from my sermon at ClearView Christian Reformed Church, Oakville, Ontario on Oct. 28, 2012.)
In our society’s popular mindset, religion and science are at war with each other. Often, people see faith as connected to emotions and values, while science is connected to evidence and truth. And, furthermore, people link religion with theism and science with atheism.
So, what we have in popular mindset is a war between theism, religion, faith and emotions on one hand, and atheism, science, reason and evidence on the other hand, as the table below shows. And science is seen as leading us to truth while religion is only leading us to values, at best or delusions, at worst.
|= Values||= Truth|
I think this popular mindset is inaccurate. I want to go down these two columns in the table and talk a bit about: 1) Theism and Atheism, 2) Religion and Science, 3) Faith and Reason. In summary, I want to suggest that only theism and atheism are incompatible but religion and science are complementary to each other, and faith and reason are both necessary for us to find truth.
Two Worldviews: Theism and Atheism are incompatible worldviews
Yes, these two are in conflict and incompatible. Theism is the belief or worldview that God exists or at least some kind of God exists. Atheism flatly denies that. So, they are basically two very different and opposing worldviews. Both cannot be right.
But here’s something important to distinguish. Science is not atheism. Science does not equal atheism. What is science? Science is a method of gathering knowledge and information about the material world through observation and experimentation. That’s all it is. Science does not prove or disprove God’s existence. I know there are atheists who claim that science can prove God does not exist. But there are many other people, many other scientists, including even atheists, who would disagree with them.
For example, there is an atheist, a moderate atheist as he calls himself, Bruce Sheiman who wrote a book called, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than without It. And in this book Sheiman says that “In my view, it is the nature of science to be agnostic. Science can say nothing about the existence of God.” (Sheiman, p. 153) Similarly, world renowned geneticist Francis Collins would agree: “The atheists are simply wrong that scientific explanations compete with our belief in creation.” (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 18)
Atheism, however, is linked to scientism. What is scientism? Well, as Bruce Sheiman explains it: “Scientism is the atheistic community’s version of fundamentalism; it assumes that only science can describe and understand the world, and that only the material or natural world is real.” (Sheiman, p. 152) In other words, scientism is a form of worshipping science as the only way we can find truth of any kind. And that the only kind of truth is scientific truth. And it assumes that only the material world is real. If science can’t study it or measure it or test it, then it must not exist. Scientism is tied to atheism. Not science, but scientism.
So, the conflict is not between religion and science but between religion and scientism. And this leads to my second point:
God’s Two Books: Religion and Science are complementary disciplines
Think of nature or God’s creation and the Holy Scriptures as two books by God. God created both books, and both books reveal God’s truth – maybe different truths – but both are from God. The 16th century Belgic Confession, which our denomination the Christian Reformed Church holds to, says in Article 2: The Means by Which We Know God:
“We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.”
Romans 1:20 says this: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” And Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Creation is like a book that we can read to see God’s power and divine nature, and hear God’s glory proclaimed.
So, the scientist studies God’s book of creation – the material created world – and learn God’s truths from that. The bible scholar studies God’s book of Holy Scriptures and learn God’s truths from that. They are not in competition with one another because both books are written by the same God. Their truth has to be consistent. Scriptures and Science are complementary ways of finding truth.
If there is conflict, the conflict is not between scripture and science but rather between different human interpretations of scripture and science. God is the author of both creation and scripture. There can be no conflict between those two. But there might be potential conflict between the human interpretations or human readings of either of God’s two books. In other words, conflict might happen because human beings make mistakes in either reading Scripture or mistakes in reading creation. Now, my third and final point:
Two Wings: Faith and Reason are interdependent ways to truth – BOTH are necessary for science AND religion.
Here’s a quote from the late Pope John Paul II, which I believe is true: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” What is faith? Faith, biblically speaking, means a reasonable and confident trust in something or someone. It’s not blind faith, where you simply believe in something without any evidence or reasonable reasons for doing so. Neither is faith simply intellectual assent or intellectually affirming something as true. Faith is a whole person – includes our intellect as well as our emotions – reasonable and confident trust in something or someone, by which we act upon it.
In our bibles, Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And sometimes we think this verse means that faith is irrational because faith sounds like believing in something that’s invisible – being certain of what we do not see. But that’s misunderstanding the verse. “Things not seen” here does not mean “invisible”. Rather, for the original Jewish audience, it would mean the future. This coincides with the previous phrase, “things hoped for”. Remember the whole verse says, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And what did the ancient Hebrews hoped for? They hoped for God’s kingdom in the future, the new age that the Messiah will usher in for them. So, Hebrews 11:1 is not about believing in something you don’t have any proof or evidence for in the present, but rather, it is focused on your assurance or conviction of being personally part of God’s future reconciliation of all things. That confidence and trust in God’s promised future righting of all wrongs moves us to act in certain ways in the here and now.
And that’s what the whole list of examples of faithful people in Hebrews 11 shows us. They were confidently trusting in God to carry out his promises, so that they acted the way they did. And the list also serves a second purpose: it acts as a rational support for trusting in God. Because God has delivered on his promises to all these people in the past, God is good for delivering on his promise for those who trust God now.
So, faith in religion, well, in Christianity at the least, is not irrational or devoid of reason. We need reason. In fact, our minds and our thinking matters to God. Romans 12:2 asks us not to “conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds”. In Mark 12:30 Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” We need to love God not only with our emotions but also with our minds and our thinking. Furthermore, we need to use our reason to better understand God’s Word, to think about how to apply God’s truths in our world. One famous theologian had said that God did not give us the Bible so we can stop thinking! Rather, God gave us the bible to stimulate our thinking.
On the other hand, science also needs faith. For any scientist to do science, he or she has to confidently trust in at least a few assumptions about the world and about the scientific method and act on them. Scientists have to believe, for instance, that the universe is consistent, orderly and can be studied in a rational and intelligible way. If you don’t believe or have faith in those assumptions, you cannot proceed to do science. Let me quote again from atheist Bruce Sheiman: “Like the religious faith in an absolute, omniscient God, the scientist has faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, universal mathematical laws. … Science and religion presuppose a rational and knowable foundation on which the universe is built, and in both cases that is a matter of faith.” (Sheiman, p. 191)
So, scientists use both faith and reason to find truth about God’s book of creation. Theologians use both faith and reason to find truth from God’s book of Scripture. Faith and reason are both necessary to find truth – they are like two wings that flap together.
Let’s quickly recap what my points are: the conflict is really only between theism and atheism, and between religion and scientism. But between religion and science proper, there is no inherent conflict but they are both complementary disciplines. Remember, God’s two books. And faith and reason are not opposed to each other but are interdependent on each other to find truth. They are like two wings that are both required in either religion or science for human beings to find truth.
So, how do we apply these insights to our spiritual journeys? We need to love God with both our minds (reason) and our hearts (emotions). Faith uses both.
If you are one who is very rationalistic in your thinking and skeptical of the Christian truth, I would like to encourage you to recognize that we can never escape faith. Even scientists need to exercise faith in order to be able to exercise reason. I would encourage you not to think of faith as a stumbling block to truth but as a necessary component along with reason in finding truth. Maybe you might need to give some Christian beliefs the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you should try and approach the Bible on its own terms.
Maybe you are a Christian who is very suspicious of new ideas and suspicious of intellectuals and those overly scholarly theologians. “Just give me and my Bible, that’s all I need,” you say! “I don’t need this intellectual mumbo-jumbo.” “If the Bible says it, I believe it!” Well, I applaud your piety and your heart is in the right place, but I will challenge you that God does not only want your heart, God also wants your mind. God wants you to love him and to follow him not with blind submission or blind faith but with a reasoned conviction, with a renewed mind. We need to love God with our intellect as well. The Holy Spirit also works through our minds, our thinking and our rationality. Maybe you might need to be less afraid of those intellectual theologians and be less afraid of those scientists and start reading some of their books and ideas. And talk with other Christians about these things.
The goal is that we end up with God being in the center of all areas of our lives, in all parts of our being – God-centered emotions as well as God-centered thinking. The goal is to love God with our whole beings – heart and mind – not just with parts of who we are.
Was there anything surprising or new to you from this blog post?
What did you find helpful and/or encouraging to your own spiritual struggles or questions?