Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Comparing the scope of faith and science

Introduction

When we discuss faith and science together, we might encounter seemingly incompatible concepts and perspectives, but this should not be the case! Instead of having to decide between faith and science, we need to come to the discussion with a clear understanding of how they support each other. This approach demands that we know which questions to ask and where to go to find the answers.

Here are the basic questions that must first be dealt with: What questions does science ask and how does it find the answers? What questions does theology ask and how does it find the answers? How does each area of study evaluate conclusions and measure the accuracy of those conclusions? And maybe even more important, which questions cannot be answered authoritatively by each area of study? (This Worldview chart outlines the primary differences between 6 dominant worldviews.)

Remember that "science" simply means "knowledge" and that each area of knowledge has its own scope which we commonly split into various "sciences" such as sociology, chemistry or philosophy. (See my chart outlining some of these categories.) But many people take a more limited definition of science while assuming that the natural and applied sciences have the ultimate authority in every area of knowledge, which is precisely the fallacy that must be addressed.

Background

Some of my motivation for addressing this subject came after watching Ken Ham host Bill Nye in a tour of The Ark Encounter. (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2t_bAg8Abo) This is almost painful for me to watch because neither one of them seem very concerned about listening to the other's questions or providing clear answers, only proving their own point. What makes this more difficult is a lack of real intellectual connection because their foundational beliefs are so radically different. It seems as though they are speaking different languages. It may be that if Ken would simply give clear answers to the science questions from Bill while clarifying which other questions are really issues of worldview, it would help to direct the conversation and provide boundaries for each of them. Ken's questions to Bill could then be limited to how worldview impacts the interpretation of science because worldview is Ken's primary area of strength.

Which circle is bigger?

Since many people consider science more authoritative than faith, let's begin there. The areas of biology, geology, physics and the like are considered "hard sciences", which means that they deal with measurable and observable data. The hard sciences include the natural, formal and applied sciences. Common questions include what is the median temperature of Santa Monica from 1950 to 2000 A.D.? or what are the anatomical differences between the gorilla and the spider monkey? or what is the speed of light? All of these investigations are accomplished with the use of measurement and can be repeated and recalculated for near absolute accuracy. The challenge for scientists then is to take measurable data and draw conclusions about patterns. These patterns are then grouped into theories about historical data and potential trends for the future. Science has beautiful and useful applications which have led to a huge increase in the storage, processing and retrieval of information, productivity, communication, health, longevity of life and care for our planet.

Faith is actually an application of our worldview which does not deal directly with measurable data but with philosophical questions that draw information from many fields of study including science and philosophy. Philosophy (or theology, if you prefer) is not a "hard science" and is traditionally included in the social sciences. This is the study which is most directly related to our worldview. Common questions include who is God (or is there a god)? who or what is man? is there a purpose to the universe and our existence? is there a good and evil or right and wrong? and how can we know anything at all? Note that all humans deal with these questions at some level because it is part of our built-in thought process and requires us to draw conclusions from many areas of study as well as from our personal experiences and interpretation of those experiences. If we agree that we can know anything, we can also know that these questions must be important. Why? Because we can examine records from every civilization addressing these questions and how their conclusions impacted their society.

The diagram below illustrates the 2-way interaction between knowledge and faith. What we believe is influenced by our knowledge, but our beliefs also have the power to override our interpretation of new data and experiences to fit them to our current worldview. Those beliefs then determine our actions, which is the outworking of our faith.

Notice that faith (the application of our theology) impacts every area of study, incorporating concepts from many areas of thought. It does not depend on the details of science alone but must consider scientific data as a viable source for confirmation of certain conclusions. Science, however, has a more limited scope and can draw philosophical conclusions only as theories because philosophical concepts such as love, morality or existential purpose cannot be measured directly. This means that science, by definition, cannot ask certain questions while faith has a right to claim scientific perspectives as long as they are not directly refutable by scientific data.

Potential problem areas

This is precisely the area where many people become confused. Does scientific data show the Bible to be in error? Is evolution or a random origin of the universe already proven as true? Is creation, the flood or the existence of God even possible? These are good questions but they must each be evaluated by filtering out what science can or cannot authoritatively address. By definition science can only speculate about origins of the universe, creation or the existence of God. Evolution is also not a proven fact because it is classified as theory and there is no hard evidence for macro-evolution (the gradual and randomly selective change from one species into a difference species).

This leaves us with the questions about supposed scientific errors in the Bible and potential errors in the historical accuracy of the Bible. Science can address both of these questions. The question of historical accuracy has been addressed at length and the Bible has profoundly and authoritatively proven its accuracy in every area that can be measured. Those events that are supernatural such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, and therefore beyond the scope of science, cannot be either proven or disproven by science. But it is also clear that some supernatural events, specifically the resurrection of Christ, have an amazing quantity of historical proofs that cannot be denied by thoughtful investigators. If we investigate the supposed scientific errors contained in the Bible, we see that more and more of these have been resolved in recent years to show that the Bible had the correct information before scientists "discovered" them. One example is the common human genome that identifies one common ancestor for all of humanity, although this was not thought to be possible just a few years ago. The global flood is another interesting study and, as it has not yet been proven false by scientific data, theologians can continue to assume that it is accurate, having sufficient data to support this perspective.

It is also important to remember that the Bible is not a scientific textbook. It is a historical record that also includes poetry and accounts of visions and prophetic messages. It was written by 40 different authors including shepherds, priests, poets, fishermen, lawyers and a physician, between 1900 and 3400 years ago. Theirs was a very different culture than ours in a time with very different values, technology and perspectives about life. This requires that anyone who studies the Bible does so with a knowledge of that culture and the ability to interpret the text in that light. Those who believe the Bible to be the authoritative and inerrant Word of God have a foundation for life and knowledge that is beyond value because the Bible provides wisdom from our Creator about every area of life. Those who do not trust the Bible to be authoritative or inerrant are limited to a human perspective on life and the natural world. It is that simple.

Conclusions

If you have followed the logic so far, you can now come to some conclusions about the seeming contradictions of faith and science. First, according to logic, faith and science cannot be both contradictory and true on any given piece of scientific data. I would add that the existence of logic is evidence of order and purpose in the universe and that logic is dependent on faith, not faith on logic. Second, it is not possible to build a theological perspective (or worldview) on the basis of scientific data alone because there are questions that science simply cannot answer. Third, any theological perspective that claims to be true must be willing to address or explain the data common to human understanding and experience including scientific data. Fourth, one's philosophical perspective will always be more complex and broader than their area of expertise and have a tendency to color or filter their interpretation and application of data into patterns that fit that perspective.

If one claims to have a biblical worldview, then the acceptance of biblical truth provides a foundation for each area of study and gives that study meaning and purpose within the bigger picture of God's design and purpose. If one has an atheistic or materialistic worldview, then the assumption that nothing exists outside the measurable and material universe always overshadows their approach to each area of study and only gives each study a practical or utilitarian purpose. In this sense, a person with a materialistic worldview has no concern with or basis for an opinion on the existence of God except by the fact that it raises objections to their assumptions about the world.

We are like children playing on the floor, each one with their own toys. Suddenly one of us looks up and says, "Hey, you can't play with that! Give it to me!" But then the parent comes in and says, "Okay, time to put away the toys." Who has the greater understanding? It must be the parent who gives the children the toys to play with while there is still time to play. The "toys" of the scientist or the philosopher no longer have value if no one is around to play with them anymore. It's not the toys that matter, but each of us who are loved and cared for by our Creator in spite of our ignorance or misinterpretations of reality.

Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, has said:
He who is presumptuous enough to think that he can find the true principles of physics and the laws of natural things by the force alone of his own mind, and the internal light of his reason, must either suppose the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the law proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, the [man] himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done.
In a study of many lives of great scientists, it is evident that faith in the Creator God informed both their worldview and their scientific discoveries since they "knew" the reality of a God who had created the world with order and purpose and enables us to know Him partially through a growing understanding of His creation. All of modern science is founded on this reality and a continued "trust" in the laws of nature and logic established beyond our own power of reasoning. Faith informs the natural sciences and enables us to interpret and apply them with an assurance of certain outcomes whether or not we choose to believe in God.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Debates on Religion

Every few weeks I happen upon an interesting article and then waste a few minutes looking through the comments to see what people have to say about the content. Sometimes this is slightly enlightening but it often just reinforces my belief that people have a long way to go in their ability to understand truth and communicate that truth in a graceful and convincing manner. And so, once again, I decide to not comment there but to consider people's arguments for myself and develop my own response...

Anyway, an Australian publication, ABC, published an article "If you want kids to be happy, try religion". First, I have a few problems with the title, but the idea was that studies seem to indicate that both young and old can benefit from contemplating and subscribing to a meta-narrative that instills a sense of purpose and hope in their lives.

But the comments of course turn very quickly to the debate between those who claim that religion is a detriment to society and those who don't. I think you are familiar with many of the arguments:
  1. The Bible cannot be trusted because of its dubious authorship and myriad errors and contradictions.
  2. If there is a god, he cannot be good because of what he allows now and because of the horror he promoted through the Mosaic Law and through the activity of the O.T. nation of Israel.
  3. Religion and especially Christianity has no connection with reality and scientific data and certainly cannot prove the existence of a god.
  4. There are many people who are good and kind and generous in the world without any commitment to a religion or a deity.
Then, there was a comment near the end which caught my attention:
Yes, you can argue that the teaching of religion might present some of worthwhile values, and hence wellbeing, to students, but so too should ethics classes. I think that this whole debate is missing the most important issue about the teaching of religion in schools. I firmly believe that the ability to think critically and rationally (or, indeed, just think) is the greatest benefit a student can gain from an education. Religion, by its very nature, is the antithesis of this and for that reason alone should not be taught in schools, unless in a course on critical thinking.

So, how can we respond to these claims and, in particular, the comment? Let me deal with the comment, because this calls into question the source of our ability to reason. It is also the great lie of secular society which purposefully ignores the foundation of education and critical thinking. Without the Bible and the worldview that it promoted, it would be hard to imagine what our society would look like. Certainly there would be very little cause to read or to question the decisions of our kings and tyrants or to help others through humanitarian efforts or technology or health care. There would be no respect for the individual or his ideas or desires or feelings. There would be little accountability as nations or people groups for the harm done to others and no retribution for wrong doing except in the most brutal fashion and by the people with the bigger army or most powerful weapons. We must remember that the very ability to question the intentions, actions or beliefs of others comes from an appeal to a higher authority. In some cases this is our own reasoning, which is entirely fallible and incomplete. In other cases, it is the authority of the Scripture, which has never been proven false either in authorship or in content. So our friend's comment above is true in that "the ability to think critically and rationally is the greatest benefit a student can gain from an education". But it is the Christian worldview, and the Bible in particular, that encourages this approach to life and even provides the foundation for what we call "critical thinking" in our society and in the scientific method.

But, there is a bigger concern which is almost never addressed in these debates, the concern of the heart. It is more difficult to put into a rational argument but it is unavoidable if we want to be honest. Am I loved, do I deserve the love of others and is it worth loving others? God has answered this question not in arguments but in the Word made flesh, God with us, Emmanuel. What is buried beneath the foundation of the Universe? The love of God for us. Jesus' death on the cross demonstrates His desire for us to be with him, our value to Him and our purpose in and through Him. Without this foundation, we have nothing and are less than nothing. Praise be to Him who has loved us with an everlasting love, not because of who we are or what we might do, but because He has made us to be His own, the recipients of His love and grace. That is the only real source of JOY and it has very little to do with 'religion' and everything to do with Jesus!

Friday, May 02, 2014

Real value in Christian Education

What is Christian Education and why is it important? From much study and experience it seems that the real difference is the focus on character, the heart of the person, not just the brain or the thought processes. Character formation is integral to learning because a person of character is one that is prepared for life and finds real purpose in both learning and in serving others. As we prepare for life we need to see the big picture of what life is and how we fit in. We know that we have been created by God to be 'image bearers' (Genesis 1:26-27), this means we reflect the character of God; but sometimes we are able to reflect it more clearly than at other times. Rick Warren says:
God wants you to develop the kind of character described in the beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12), the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), Paul’s great chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13), and Peter’s list of the characteristics of an effective and productive life (2 Peter 1:5-8).
But how can I develop this kind of character which is a real reflection of who God is and who He wants me to be? This is the essence of the Christian life and what God is constantly working toward through my walk with Him, through my relationships, through my family, through my church, through my daily circumstances, trials and learning experiences. This is preparing for life and living out my purpose! So the calling of the Christian school is to support both the family and the church in this process of understanding and applying Truth from a God-centered perspective!
Now, why doesn't public education develop this character in our children? First of all, this character is not the stated goal of public education. Character is simply outside the scope of an academic approach to life where people "learn to earn", although there are schools that attempt to address character without a biblical foundation. But more importantly, there are several conflicting issues in modern society which directly impact the public education environment: a disparity between religious belief and popular belief, a secular vs. sacred concept of life, relativistic morality, and the false assumption that some people have more value than others. These concepts can be summarized in the differences between a God-centered worldview and a self-centered worldview.
In the self-centered worldview, I am my own purpose. I exist as a product of the chance fusion of genes from my parents. My character is formed by my circumstances and how I react to those circumstances based on my predisposition and my attitude. My choices are determined by what I think is best for me. Doing the right thing means doing what is right for me or maybe benefiting someone else (usually someone I value). If I am religious, I may make some choices based on how God may or may not punish me as a result, but the focus is still on my own well-being.
In a God-centered worldview, I exist for God's purposes. I exist because God has planned for me to be born with certain genes in a certain place at a certain time. My character is formed because of the people that God puts in my life to teach and train me and I learn to recognize His hand in this process. Often my attitudes and actions do not reflect the character He desires, but I am learning to do this through the difficult things He brings my way. My choices are determined by what God says is best for me as I learn Truth from His Word and by His Spirit living in me. When I don't make correct choices, I need to deal with the natural consequences and trust Him to use everything for His glory.
So the Christian school, ideally, has an approach to life and learning which results in beautiful and purposeful connections in the following areas:
  1. God-centered education connects faith to life (God's law is central to all learning and to all decisions because I know He desires what is best in the long term.)
  2. God-centered education connects work to service and ministry (Work is a process of using what God has given me to bless and serve others, to care for His creation and to communicate a knowledge of Him.)
  3. God-centered education connects morality to absolutes (Right and wrong is not determined by the limited scope of what is right for me or my community but because God is Holy and God is Good.)
  4. God-centered education connects people to purpose (My life has purpose because I am part of His big plan. But, just as important, each individual around me has purpose too and our interactions need to communicate their God-given value!)
We can take a look at these connections in more detail later, because they are unique to the Christian school. But remember that we as parents and as teachers are an integral part of highlighting these connections in how we live and in how we teach. What a joy and privilege God has given us!