“How does your scientific understanding mesh with your journey of faith? Do you see those conflicting at all?”
If I’ve heard that question once, I’ve probably heard it a thousand times—and it’s a good question. One that is very relevant in our current culture, which often conflates the findings of the scientific community with absolute truth. Science and faith haven’t always had the best relationship with each other, and it’s not at all clear how we can integrate some of the findings of the scientific disciplines with the words of the Scriptures.
As a particle-physicist-turned-pastor, this is probably a question I’ve reflected on more than most. I have a decade of training and experience in this scientific community, and I understand and value it from the inside, and the same is true in pastoral ministry. I’ve walked both journeys, and I value both journeys. I don’t actually see them in tension or conflicting with one another, but I understand how, at first glance, it would look like they do. Because I believe the question above is a good question worth wrestling with, here are my current thoughts:
Fields of Study
At this point, there are probably thousands (if not tens of thousands) of fields of study, and the list seems to be growing every day. Just for fun, here are a few recent additions:
- Data Analytics & Artificial Intelligence
- Substance Abuse Nursing
- Healthcare Innovation
- Financial Technology
- Human-Computer Interaction
Fascinating new additions! As the areas of learning continue to multiply and develop, it is worth thinking about what a field of study is. When we say there are new fields emerging, what are we saying? Each field of study has a number of components, but two central elements stand out to me: we’ll call them the Domain of Study and Source of Authority.
- Domain of Study: Each area of development has a set of questions it is looking to address. The reason fields of study keep popping up is because new questions are being asked and examined. The group of questions and collection of knowledge that is being pursued in this field of study I will call the domain of study. The key observation to make (at this point) is this: a field of study is somewhat like an actual field; there is an area of examination, but there are also boundaries where the field of study drops off and questions that exist that are outside that particular field of study’s domain. The conclusions we come to in the field of Financial Technology aren’t going to help us in the field of Substance Abuse Nursing (and vice-a-versa) because to move from one to the other, we cross the borders around each field of study.
- Source of Authority: Along with each field of study, we have a source (or sources) of authority that we trust to validate our conclusions. If our knowledge is tied to the source of authority, we believe it; if not, we hold it as possible, but not trustable. Furthermore, the source of authority is “scoped” to the specific field of study. In Mathematics, we trust pure logic as our source of authority. If our conclusions can be shown to logically progress from our foundational axioms, we believe them. That pure logic does not carry across the borders into another domain of study and act as an authority in another field, such as the aesthetic appeal of poetry.
There are other elements in each field of study, such as the compiled body of knowledge, the active community, and so forth, but for the purpose of what we’re working with here, these two elements are what we need to understand.
When we are asking the question, “Do science and faith conflict?” (Or the inverse question, “Do they reinforce each other?”), we are asking a question about two distinct fields: the field of science and the field of Christianity. Asked more precisely, we might put it this way: How do the domains of study and sources of authority in science and Christianity interact?
Specifying the Fields of Faith and Science
Let’s look at each of these fields a little more carefully. What is the domain of study and source of authority in each of these fields?
For Christianity, it is actually a bit difficult to pin down the field of study precisely, because Christianity predates the ideas of fields of study, and as such, was never really precisely defined. When we look at it from the point of view of questions Christianity is addressing though, I might suggest the field of study is Knowing God and Living the way He would have us live. These are the questions faith is answering: God is knowable through (and because of) the Son, Jesus. Jesus has made God known, and he has revealed how we can live as well.
The source of authority is a little clearer: the revealed revelation of the Scriptures. Because we know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we know what He said in the Bible reveals who He is and that God is knowable now the same way He revealed Himself as knowable then. This doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the Scriptures in this way is an easy task; rather it is complex and requires understanding what was understood when God was speaking in the Scriptures as well as understanding how that may apply to us now. It’s a lot of work to dig this deeply into the Bible, and it’s definitely not the same thing as a surface reading.
The sciences are a little easier because they came into being concurrent with the development of the idea of fields of study. As a result, they were articulated more clearly and are easier to pin down. The domain of study in the sciences is the workings of the natural order, and the source of authority is experimental reproducibility. The scientific method is built on this concept: If we form a hypothesis about how the natural order works and can do an experiment that tests that hypothesis, and if the experiment verifies our hypothesis every time, then we should trust our hypothesis is correct (or more precisely, our hypothesis is equivalent to what is really happening as far as the experiment can tell).
Each of these fields is good, and we can accept both of them as they are defined and where they each speak with their authority.
Examining How these Fields Come Together
So, how do these two fields fit together (or not)? How do we navigate each of these fields, particularly when they come together? In general, for any specific issue, there are a few things that can happen:
(1) A specific question or issue sits within one domain and outside the other domain of study
When we are clear about the specific domains of study for these two fields, many of the perceived tensions between science and faith begin to dissolve. What often causes the tension in the first place is a lack of clarity about what questions live within that specific field of study and realizing that the authority in that field of study doesn’t have the same level of authority outside the field. Let’s look at a few specific examples:
How old is the Universe?
This question is one of the classics that people draw lines over. On one side, you have a Bible reading that would suggest the universe is 6,000ish years old, and on the other side, scientific measurement would argue for over 14 billion. A little bit of a difference there!!
Let’s ask this question: Which domain of study does this question live within? If we’re honest with ourselves, this question lives within the realm of science; it is connected to the workings of the natural order and doesn’t make any difference when it comes to knowing God and living the life He calls us to live. Furthermore, if we are going to read the Bible as if it is a scientific textbook, we are taking the Bible out of context. The purpose of the Bible is not to speak to the same field of study as the sciences, and if we claim the authority in faith outside the realm of faith, we set ourselves up for arguments that are easily undermined and dismissed.
The fact is, the Bible is not trying to be a scientific textbook, and we shouldn’t make it be one. The original audiences to which the Scriptures were written were alive at least 1,500 years before science came around; they weren’t even asking scientific questions. The kind of literally-how-old-is-the-earth-question wasn’t even a category of thought back then. To try and force the Bible to speak to that is asking it to answer a question it was never intended to speak to. There isn’t a tension here if we simply allow ourselves to admit the Bible isn’t trying to answer this question, so we simply won’t ask it to do that.
Is there a God?
Alright, let’s move on to an even bigger question here: Is God real? This is another one of those questions where there can be massive disagreement between faith and science. Christians would clearly assert God exists, yet there are portions of the scientific community that would argue there is no need to believe in God (a thought that is very far from universal, contrary to what you might have been told). Let’s look at these two sides and ask how these fields interact.
Once again, let’s ask this question: Which of these fields speaks to this particular question? Christianity suggests that it directly addresses these questions, whereas science is concerned with understanding the natural order; something that Christianity would suggest God has created but is not limited to. In other words, this is a question that Christianity can speak to within its realm of authority, but science cannot. As soon as we’re looking at scientific evidence to examine whether or not God is real, we are stepping outside the boundaries of what is science, and science cannot authoritatively speak to that. There is no repeatable experiment you can devise to determine if God is real—you can’t measure the God that transcends the natural order by doing experiments within the natural order. When science is used to claim evidence against (or even for) God, we are projecting the source of authority in science outside the boundaries we know that authority can be trusted within.
What about all the areas that we used to think were God that we now understand as a natural phenomenon? Doesn’t the fact that we used to believe God caused every earthquake and then realized those are natural give a trajectory for arguing God is not real? Yes, it is true that there are a number of natural effects that we used to believe were caused by God and now we realize God is not necessary to understand them, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist at all… it just means we misunderstood God before we studied His creation more closely. A more true scientific statement would be “We do not need to believe in God to understand these dynamics in the natural order.” That is an honest scientific statement—you don’t need to believe in God to understand this, but neither is it incompatible with God either. To speak to the God question, you need a field of study that claims to answer that question.
In fact, this whole like of approach might have been something we could have come to the conclusion far earlier. Going the other way, the Christian faith has never said to look for God in the mysterious events you can’t explain; it says to look for God in Jesus Christ—He is the picture of the Father. If we are hanging our belief that God is real on natural phenomena, we may have missed the point of the Scriptures.
(2) A specific question intersects multiple domains of study
Not every question is one that we can parse out directly into one field of study or the other, although my experience is that if we think carefully about many of the questions that cause us headaches, many of them dissolve into issues of one field of study or the other. The areas of overlap between the two fields are the ones that may potentially be more problematic. How do we handle it if a question overlaps between the two fields of study and they lead to contradicting conclusions?
When I face a situation like this, I usually try and step back and think carefully about which elements of the question are fittingly addressed by each field of study. The key is to realize which parts of the picture are spoken into by each field and consider how they may fit together. Often there is a composite picture that can emerge that doesn’t cause us to need to pit the fields against each other.
How did we get here?
This is another big question that there has been all sorts of rancor over. On the one side, you have Creationists who assert that we are here because God created us, and on the other side you have the scientific community that suggests we evolved into existence. How do we address this question?
At first glance, we might think this is a question that lies fully within the bounds of both faith and science, but let’s think a little more carefully about that (this is usually the story that gets told). First, let’s think about science; what does it mean for the source of authority in science (repeatable experiment) to speak about the origin of humanity? It is impossible for us to create an experiment and see if human life evolves on earth! Since the locus of scientific authority is a repeatable experiment, it is impossible for us to say with certainty that science says, “This is what happened.” At best science can say, “What seems consistent with what we have discovered is…” Put another way, there is a significant difference between what has been theoretically understood and experimentally verified, and what takes an existent theory and projects it into an area we’ve never tested. The theory of evolution is just that, a theory. It’s a potential of what might have happened in an area we’ve never been able to actually look at (and will not be able to ever directly observe). More precisely, the idea that human beings have evolved is more a scientifically inspired guess than it is a verified fact.
From the Biblical side, we know that the Scriptures tell a story of humanity being created by God himself. We were called God’s imagers and created to walk in relationship with Him. What exact process brought that about? We know the Scriptures talk about Adam being formed of the dust of the earth and Eve being taken out of Adam’s side. What precisely does this mean from a scientific point of view? Once again, if we conjecture about that, we’re leaving the realm where the Scriptures have authority to speak. We can know that God created us to walk with him and image him (the area the Scriptures are a credible authority), but the scientifically exact process is not something we should probably be trying to extract. Was it literally God breathing into a pile of dirt? Perhaps, but I think what is more likely important is that any conclusions we might draw from that if it were true (like perhaps that we are created of the same stuff as the earth and as such we “belong” on this planet) are correct conclusions in the biblical narrative.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but the point is that the lack of this kind of clarity is what leads to apparent contradictions. If we overstep the fields of study it’s easy to walk away with the conclusion that science has “proven” we’ve evolved from other forms of life, and this is completely incompatible with the Bible which says we are animated piles of dirt. A more precise phrasing is that science is suggesting humanity evolved, and the Scriptures are saying that God made us as His imagers for relationship with Him, somehow.
As you can see here, we have far from a contradiction between two sources of supposed absolute truth here. We have, at best, a very fuzzy set of things that kind of look like they point in different directions. There is no need to question your faith or make science and faith enemies here.
As a scientist, my evaluation of whether the driving force of natural selection has the power to produce species changes at the level required to create us human beings feels like stretching too little data too far; from what I’ve seen most of the time when you understand something over the range of 1-5% and then project that out to try and understand what is happening out at 100%, you almost always miss something that turns up in the 95% in between that you have no knowledge of. This kind of situation comes up all the time in particle physics, and time and time again we discover something new and unexpected—I don’t see any real reason to expect otherwise here. One of the things that science has taught me is how vast, complex, and wonderful this created order is. Vast gaps in data usually have something interesting living in them that you can’t see yet.
On the other hand, others grab the current understanding of both and call it theistic evolution. There are a few theological questions you have to work out here to not undermine the story of Scriptures (how does sin enter the story universally if we did not have a unique pair of ancestors for example), but in principle, I believe it’s possible to do this without violating either field of study as well.
You can see here that the point I’m trying to make is that if we just stay honest with our fields (What are they actually studying? and What issues are they qualified to speak to?) there isn’t a problem valuing both Christianity and what we learn from the Bible on one hand, and science and what we learn from the scientific process on the other.
The problem is not that these fields exist in opposition to each other so much as it is that we tend to oversimplify the picture and look for one source of truth that will answer every question we could ever have. Neither faith nor science is intended to do that. Both science and Christianity do have an area where they can speak with authority and credibility, but neither of them has the monopoly on speaking into every question you could ever answer.
Sometimes, in an attempt to hold on to the authority of the Scriptures, we can make silly assertions about them… statements like, “Everything you ever need to know you can find out in the Bible.” I understand the sentiment, and I certainly appreciate that everything I need to know about my journey of faith is in the Bible, but on a very practical level, the Bible will never give me directions to the store so I can go and buy groceries. If what I need to know is how to go buy food for the week, the Bible doesn’t give me everything I need to know and to assert that it does actually waters down the places where the Bible is qualified to speak into, and it reinforces and adversarial posture between faith and other fields.
Is it more work to think through which questions can be spoken into by which fields? Absolutely! But, it’s also a more honest position, and I’m not sure how we can ever expect to know truth if we’re not working to be honest. I have the greatest respect for both faith and science, and I love that they can both speak into my life in the areas I need to learn from them.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman