Science’s challenge for doctrinal Christianity: Part 2

Science’s challenge for doctrinal Christianity: Part 2Editor’s note: This is the second of two essays looking at the divide between scientific discovery and Christian doctrine. Lybarger’s essay was originally published in SciTech, the newsletter of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) saw the need for a critique of religion by science and of science by religion when he said:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition.
Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.
We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.

Critical thinking and scientifically oriented reasoning is increasingly necessary in any modern society. This requires the willingness to question received knowledge and how it is obtained. Yet this is inimical to the Church’s religious knowledge wherein doctrines and Biblical accounts of historical events are accepted as inviolable.

An example of this problem is reflected in Rev. Kenneth McCall’s question of the presumed “overall plan of God in creation and redemption”. He elaborated by noting that:

…the question has been virtually ignored for the past 200 years; nature has been dropped from the agenda of theology, which has been preoccupied with other themes. The knowledge of nature has advanced by leaps and bounds, while theology has been in the main concerned with other problems.

Maybe the reformulation of our traditional doctrinal understanding in the light of our contemporary knowledge of nature is far more difficult than we imagined. What is important for us in our context is the radical and probably irreconcilable disparity between the ancient and modern cosmological concepts…1

For James Miller, retired minister and member of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith, this amounts to “the ‘wilderness’ for the Christian community, a world divided against itself”. It is:

…one that separates facts from values, knowledge from faith, body from mind, matter from spirit, and science from religion. This division is so endemic in western and especially American culture that it is taken as the normal state of affairs.2

Questions for Christian faith traditions

Although scientists cannot prove that God exists, they can ask questions that challenge conventional beliefs about God and other absolutes. Much depends on the questions asked and how they are framed. The following questions center on facts vs. interpretation, time, salvation and creation.

Facts vs. Interpretation

Does the viability of Christianity stand or fall on beliefs in a pre-scientific conceptualization of the created order and miraculous testimonies? Such affirmations become problematical vis-à-vis the way science understands the phenomena of the universe and of humankind. In short, statements about the universe and the origins of humanity are matters of interpretation. Karen Armstrong makes this clear, that

What we call reality is constructed by the mind and that all human understanding is therefore interpretation rather than the acquisition of accurate, objective information. From this it follows that no single vision can be sovereign; that our knowledge is relative, subjective, and fallible rather than certain and absolute; and that truth is therefore ambiguous.3

That said, demonstrable facts, however provisional, are important considerations when confronting preconceived religious beliefs

Time

Time is a complex issue. Are religious beliefs about eternal life related to time e.g. that the universe will exist forever? If God is eternal does that mean that God existed before the Big Bang when both the Universe and time came into existence? Is eternity connected to time or does it exist outside time? Is time linear, as theistic religions state, or is it circular as found in non-theistic religions? Or is it a constitutive part of space as Einstein has shown?

Salvation

Traditional theology states that all who are believing Christians are assured of eternal life. Quite apart from the question of salvation of non-Christians, what about salvation of humankind from the prehistoric era when humans evolved as distinct species?

Creation

If God’s creation of the Universe is good and perfect, how then to explain that all that constitutes creation goes through a life cycle from birth to death including stars e.g. the Sun? What does this portend for Earth and all planets in our solar system?

Consider the fact that there are billions of meteorites in our galaxy left over from the Big Bang, one of which collided with Earth with devastating results for living matter. Space.com reported:

 The risk of asteroid impacts like the meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 may be 10 times greater than previously thought based on several new studies of its origin and power. It was the largest airburst on the planet since the famed Tunguska event in 1908.

If God is the author of all that exists, cannot God also bring about obliterating change? That any of these scenarios will not happen to Earth for billions of years is irrelevant given that a billion years is but a flash of the eye for believers in eternal life.

 Science’s contributions to religion

Tertullian, an early Church Father (160-225 AD) believed that pre-scientific philosophy often corrupted theology. He asked the famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Today, that could be rephrased to read: “What has science to do with Christianity?” Indeed, there is much to be learned from science. Here are five possibilities.

First: Science can inspire a sense of awe and wonder at the utter immensity and complexity of the created order that is beyond comprehension. Albert Einstein (1879-1958) no atheist, theist, or believer in a personal God remarked:

We see the Universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand their laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations (google “Einstein and Religion”).4

Second: Critical thinking is essential to the growth of scientific knowledge. Should not the same pertain to religious thinking? Doubt is essential to the growth of any knowledge. If religious dogma had never been questioned there might never have been a Protestant Reformation. A slogan of the Reformation was sempre reformada (always reforming). That was forgotten once Protestant doctrines and creeds were formulated.

Third: Christians need to listen to the prophetic voices of scientists when they warn of climate change and its consequences. By working together, scientists and the churches could be a real force for preventing further damage to planet Earth and humanity.

Fourth: A consequence of science’s questioning of religious dogma is that it frees up believers to re-evaluate what is essential to being a Christian. Is it believership in the doctrines and formulaic teachings of the Church, e.g. the Trinity, individual salvation, eternal life?

Unquestioning assent to such dogma amounts to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. For him what was essential was discipleship. What he called “costly grace” is more difficult as it gives priority to following the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.5

Fifth: Science is pushing the frontiers beyond what is knowable to what is unknowable. As Karen Armstrong has noted:

Apparently our brains are incapable of achieving a complete worldview of incontrovertible proof. Our minds are limited, and some problems remain insoluble, As the American physicist Percy Bridgeman (1882-1961) explained: The structure of nature may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all… The world fades out and eludes us… We are confronted with something truly ineffable…

Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians. Not only was God beyond the reach of the human mind, but the natural world was also terminally elusive. It seemed that a degree of agnosticism was endemic in the human condition.6

Astrophysicists are finding that there is a limit to what can be known. There is an utter complexity of the Universe and its timelessness. If that is true for science, it is even more the case for cataphatic theology. It attempts to know God as a personal being who is defined using specific terminology and who can be parceled into differentiated interrelated entities i.e. the Holy Trinity. Such anthropomorphic thinking limits the divine to human language and intellectual categories.

The opposite is apophatic theology that describes God as silence or unknowing, i.e. by what God is not. This way of thinking was prevalent in pre-modern Christianity (think Aquinas, Anselm, and Eckhart) before Western theologians and church leaders became enamored with absolute certainty.

Apophatic theology is expressed as mysticism, or what is popularly called “spiritual but not religious”. It is illustrated in Moses’ encounter with Yahweh on Mt Sinai.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM HAS SENT ME TO YOU.” (Exodus 3:13-15):

This is close to what Einstein had to say when encountering the vastness of the universe.

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong the ranks of the devoutly religious men.7

In conclusion, this survey of the scientific challenge to doctrinal Christianity calls for radically new ways of thinking about the Christian faith and its place in a post-modern world.

Lee Lybarger was born in 1934 and graduated from the College of Wooster (OH) in 1956 with a BA in sociology. Lee’s interest in science and religion began with his personal struggle of reconciling his Christian faith with the political, economic, and social realities. After retiring as a district representative for Aid Association for Lutherans (later Thrivent Financial), he has become very interested in what biological and astrophysical sciences are reporting about the origins of the universe and humankind; about extraterrestrial life and the destiny of stars of which our Sun is one, etc. Understanding scientific findings has helped him to validate his conviction that the foundations of the Christian faith carry greater validity when based on Jesus of Nazareth.

Photo by QuotesEverlasting [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

  1. McCall, Kenneth. “What Remains to be Done?”, pg. 2 in SciTech: Journal of the Presbyterian Association of Science Technology and the Christian Faith.
  2. Miller, James. “Voices Crying in the Wilderness”, Ibid pg. 3.
  3. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2009, pg. 311.
  4. Einstein, Albert. Google.com: “Einstein and Religion
  5. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Chapter 1. New York: Macmillan, 1959.
  6. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2009, pg. 266.
  7. Einstein, Albert. “Strange is Our Situation on Earth”, in Modern Religious Thought by Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. Boston: Little Brown 1990, pg. 225.