Is our faith reformed through the lens of science?

Credit: cc by Keren Tan via Flickr

Given that it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it was only natural that this issue of Covalence be devoted to an historical look at how science was viewed at the time.

First off, let’s look at what happened in sparking the Reformation. In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed something called the “95 Theses” to a church door in Wittenberg. It was his way of starting a dialogue with the church leaders at the time about fundamental things he thought needed to be reformed. The impetus was from the sale of indulgences, which were thought to “buy” loved ones out of some time in purgatory. At the root of it was a new view of salvation and by what means a person’s sins can be forgiven – a topic Luther personally struggled with.

These ideas in an already charged cultural context set off a firestorm and ultimately created a split between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. As John Albright, a retired award-winning physics professor, writes in our feature, change was afoot broadly across Europe as the very nature of nature — namely in the heavens — was being uncovered at the same time.

Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms encapsulates how he was moved to act. He is said to have told church leaders: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

It is not only a bold statement, but a humble one too in that he asks for God’s help in his efforts to enact change.

Luther laid, without meaning to, the framework to contradict some of the political machinations of the sixteenth century church and opened up the Biblical by translating the Bible into German. It had to be a freeing moment for Luther and his students to openly acknowledge something so simple as one’s faith should not be dictated by those in authority.

This embrace of knowledge based on scientific observation was supported by many of the early Reformers as Albright outlines in depth in his piece this month.

In many ways, what science in recent years has revealed about our DNA, our planet and the immensity of our universe has given us new glimpses into our reality that not only may challenge our previous views but may cement — in awe of the complexity surrounding us — our faith further.

Key points of the reformation mindset that are often discussed as: by Christ alone we have a historical source (sola Christus) by grace alone (sola gratia) there is an eternal source; by scripture alone (solo scriptura) there is record of the Apostolic witness; and by faith alone (sola fide) it is given to us personally.

What the “solas” provide us today is a strong yard stick by which to test our own theories about how we are practicing our faith. None of these are contradict what scientists were beginning to discover about the solar system in those early years of the Reformation. None of this is in exclusion to the world around us or in contradiction to basic reason.

Still reliance on reason alone is not what Luther had in mind — for reason knows it’s place and does not try to work out our salvation. And perhaps more importantly, it comes alongside a dose of humility that is a key ingredient in the reformation formula.

For science, the equivalent formula today is to reason in conjunction with research and also the humility to know that we are only human and not perfect — and nor should we aim to be. Perhaps that acknowledgement of imperfections and the impetus to inject humility in one’s work is the greatest reforming power faith can bring to science.

But can and should science reform religion?

Those active in cognitive science of religion may say that such reformation is possible as they study how humans are naturally inclined toward religion. Still whether these scholars’ findings will have a lasting impact on how faith is practiced is difficult to say.

The true test may be for those who hold science as something that has disproven the need for religion. Oddly enough a materialistic belief system may be instructive as we face our own temptations to prefer our faith to remain static and forever superior to the beliefs of others.

Maybe it is our neurons or our evolutionary psychology that are enabling us to doggedly hold on to our beliefs, but being able to challenge them may just teach us that our faith in our own reasoning alone is likely to prevent the reformation the church needs today.

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