Saturday, 20 August 2011

Science and Christianity – must they clash?

Implacable enemies or close friends? As I wrote a few days ago, I've been reading a book that aims to show how scientific discoveries (especially evolution) need not present a barrier to believing in Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. In that post, my focus was on how evolution by natural selection explains certain things about our genetic structure much better than a literal 'God made Adam from the dust' account of how humanity came into being.

The next topic I'd like to look at is why some Christians feel the need to take the Bible's account of creation literally in the first place. What motivates some Christians to treat with suspicion any scientific ideas that seem to cut across the literal Biblical account? In a moment, we'll step back some 400 years to the time of Galileo, an Italian astronomer who made some discoveries that caused a mighty stir among the religious authorities of his era. But first, a word about how we read the Bible.

The classic evangelical way of reading the Bible is to take it as something like a law textbook, meaning we happily pluck from it isolated verses and phrases to quote as God's definitive word on a particular matter. By way of example (a personal bugbear of mine, this one), look at God's well-known words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

'For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'

Those words were written as God's message to a particular group of people at a particular point in time. Now I'm not saying I don't believe they apply now to Christians in general, but this approach can get us into trouble. It's too simplistic to take some words of God from the Bible and casually apply them to ourselves. That might lead us to go into battle massively outnumbered and with each soldier carrying only a ram's horn and a lantern, as per the story of Gideon in Judges 7. Or perhaps we should delight in the violent deaths of our enemy's children, as the author of Psalm 137 seems to. On the contrary, we need to remember that all the dialogue, all the prophecies, all the events in the Bible took place at a certain time among a certain group of people. Surely that should be the starting point for all our efforts to interpret the Bible.

Like I wrote back in March, what if we step back from the law textbook approach and instead see the Bible as a God-inspired collection of books that tell us about God's people through the ages? Perhaps this would free us from a slavishly literal interpretation, while still leaving intact the Bible's status as the inspired word of God. Another (often-noted) point specific to the creation account in Genesis is that it is very poetic; it may well never have been intended as a literal, historical account.

On to Galileo, then. Galileo Galilei, to use his full name, made some important observations that cast great doubt on the traditional understanding of the universe. Here's the summary from that book I've been reading; The Language of God by Francis Collins:
In 1608, inspired by information he had heard about the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands, Galileo made his own instrument and quickly made a number of astronomical observations of profound significance. He observed four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. That simple observation, which we take for granted today, presented significant problems for the traditional Ptolemaic system[], where all heavenly bodies were supposed to rotate around the earth. Galileo also observed sunspots, which represented a possible affront to the idea that all heavenly bodies were created perfect.

Galileo ultimately came to the conclusion that his observations could make sense only if the earth revolved around the sun. That placed him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church... The Dominican Friar Caccini... insisted that “geometry is of the devil” and that “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.” Another Catholic priest claimed that Galileo's conclusions were not only heretical but atheistic. Other attacks included a claim that “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation” and that “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” While much of the criticism came from the Catholic Church, it was not limited to that. John Calvin and Martin Luther also objected.

Personally, I suspect that Christians and churches who reject evolution nowadays are in much the same position as Galileo's opponents 400 years ago. Francis Collins notes that: 'In retrospect, modern observers must wonder why the church was so utterly threatened by the idea of the earth revolving around the sun.' Collins picks out a few Bible verses that suggest a geocentric (earth-centred) view of the universe (Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, Ecc 1:5) but then says: 'Today, few believers argue that the authors of these verses were intending to teach science.' I'm hoping that in the future people will say the same regarding the Genesis creation account, and evolution will be accepted by just about everyone as the explanation for the breathtaking array of life that we see all around us. Maybe that would stop what the Roman-era theologian, Augustine of Hippo, wrote about regarding Christians who (usually with the best of intentions, I have no doubt) speak about science from a position of ignorance (quoted from 'The Language of God'):
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but... [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

1 comment:

  1. Galileo also had some powerful friends within the Catholic Church who agreed with his theories, and protected Galileo from those extremists who wanted to do something quite different than censor him.

    Galileo even had some talks with the Pope who was open to his ideas, but wanted more scientific evidence. Indeed, it was some of the scientists of the day who were most opposed to Galileo's observations. They wanted more proof, which was understandable. Other scientists, though, had already come to the conclusion Galileo had/or were persuaded by his evidence) so it made for a lively debate for a while.

    If I recall, Galileo thought he had permission to publish on the subject while the Pope had said not to. It didn't help that Galileo's treatise was in the form of a dialogue between a neutral observer, the astronomer, and someone called Simplicio who put forth some of the same arguments the Pope had used, and since Simplicio wasn't portrayed in a very flattering light, the Pope was incensed, and Galileo ended up under house arrest. It appears Galileo didn't intend to make fun of the Pope, but of two of his fiercest critics, one of whom refused to look through the telescope.

    I don't see science and religion as being enemies or friends anymore than I see philosophy or art or music being friends or enemies of science. They just are. What people use them for though is another matter and all sorts of poor arguments are used by Dawkins on one side, and far right fundamentalists, like Ken Ham in the U.S., on the other, to try and paint a picture of enmity between the fields of thought.