Posts Tagged ‘science’

Another thought on my previous post about evolution

November 21, 2012

I appreciate that there are Christians who reject evolution because it contradicts their understanding of scripture, especially Genesis 1 and 2. Alongside my denomination and most of the universal Church, I don’t share that understanding, as I said in my earlier post. We must agree to disagree. I don’t believe science, the Bible, or Christian theology are incompatible. Indeed, they are allies, or they should be. Science gets into trouble is when it goes beyond its boundaries and tries to speak metaphysically—about that part of reality to which science has no access.

And of course we Christians get into trouble, I believe, when we do the same in reverse.

I fully support our United Methodist position on the topic of science and faith (from the Book of Discipline, ¶ 160 § F). I’m underlining the sentence that I believe is especially relevant here:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

While I don’t agree with them, I’m sympathetic with Christians who reject evolution on biblical grounds. Nevertheless, I don’t think that Christians should reject evolution on the same grounds that many atheistic evolutionists reject believing in God. In other words, either evolution explains how we got here, in a naturalistic sort of way, or God explains how we got here, in  a supernatural sort of way. The two explanations are mutually exclusive: it’s either God or science but not both.

If we Christians accept that premise, then we have more to worry about than just evolution. If we’re sick, go to a hospital, receive treatment, and get well, are we any less healed by God because doctors and medicine and medical technology intervened in our healing? I don’t think so. I believe it’s God at work through this intervention—and isn’t it amazing that God gives us bodies capable of being healed in this way?

When God answers our prayers, after all, that “answer” isn’t usually like the parting of the Red Sea: it’s usually through otherwise natural, fully explainable circumstances. Whether it’s by evolution or some less controversial means, God usually works in a mundane, natural sort of way. But we Christians still believe it’s God at work.

Science rules out questions of meaning and purpose before it starts

December 13, 2011

My friend Paul, whose blog you can and should read here, is a scientist and theologian. In a post today, he says something important about science that I’ve tried to say many times, but not so concisely or clearly.

The success of science is because of its finite scope, not in spite of it. It’s not an unusual idea, really. There is rarely success without boundaries. By eliminating entire classes of questions, science can address its own with integrity. By disallowing certain kinds of evidence, science can focus on what matters to it. By insisting on reproducible, falsifiable, and continuous results, science can happily ignore everything that does not fit these categories.

For example, questions of meaning are right out; science eliminates all notions of purpose before it even gets going. So there should be little wonder that the world uncovered by science appears, of itself, pointless. By turning a deaf ear to the combined witness of hundreds of generations of religious believers, science can avoid the difficulties of theology. By saying “no” to all discontinuities, science can ignore claims of divine action in the world.

My point is not that the meaning of the world is self-evident, or that all religious believers are right, or that obvious miracles happen every day. I’m just saying that, even if it was and even if they were and even if they did, science qua science wouldn’t know it. It couldn’t know it. It just doesn’t go there. Scientists would know it because they’re people, not because science would tell them so.

About that controversial word “predestination”

August 16, 2011

In my sermon on Sunday, I didn’t say anything about predestination, a word that shows up in Romans 8:29-30. These verses are a Calvinist proof-text. I’m not a Calvinist, as everyone knows (John Wesley was no fan of Calvinism). And I’m not going to resolve the issue of the meaning of the word in this post. (Next week’s sermon over Romans 9 might afford me an opportunity to say something about it from the pulpit.)

Here are a few quick thoughts: Whatever Paul means by this word, he means as a word of assurance. He certainly isn’t telling the Roman Christians that some of them are saved and some of them are damned, and there isn’t anything they can do about it! Since he’s been laying out the means by which all humanity now becomes part of God’s covenant people, he likely intends to reassure Gentile Christians, especially, that their adoption into God’s family was a part of God’s plan all along.

After all, as we know from Paul’s argument so far, God didn’t send the Torah to his covenant people only to  find—to God’s surprise—that Israel failed to live up to it. The sending of God’s Son didn’t represent a change of plan. Rather, God intended to use the Torah to highlight sin and, through the cross, gather it up in one place in order that Israel’s Messiah (and humanity’s representative) could destroy its power once and for all.

And because of what God accomplished through the cross (whose victory was made manifest in the resurrection), everyone on earth now has the opportunity to share in God’s victory and become a part of God’s family.

Wow! That’s a hasty and inadequate summary of Romans so far, but you get the point. Whatever Paul is talking about, it shouldn’t be read through the lens of 16th-century Protestant theology, no matter how much Paul’s words here made their contribution to it; it should be read in the context of Paul’s argument about the Messiah and God’s covenant with Israel.

I vote that we make Bishop Wright an honorary Methodist. We're children of the Anglican tradition, you know?

Regardless, the most troubling aspect of predestination to most Methodists is the idea that God forces God’s will on some people—as if being “elected” by God were all God’s choice and humanity has no say in the matter. How does this leave room for personal responsibility? I like (surprise, surprise) N.T. Wright’s words on the subject:

Is Paul after all a determinist, believing in a blind plan that determines everything, so that human freedom, responsibility, obedience, and love itself are after all a sham? ¶ One can easily imagine Paul’s own reaction… “Certainly not!”… What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important.1

This is not to deny, Wright says, the “mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage.” But it does deny the “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa” [emphasis mine].

Does this sound familiar? The deterministic view of conservative Calvinism represents the same two-dimensional thinking that characterizes contemporary discussions of evolution and the origin of the cosmos. As I’ve written about on plenty of occasions, people on both sides of the science-faith divide seem to agree with one another that either evolutionary processes explain how we got here or God explains how we got here, but not both. This is a false dichotomy: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Just as God’s action in Creation doesn’t compete with the physical laws of  the universe, so God’s will doesn’t compete with human will. As Wright says,

God’s actions and human actions are not, as it were, on the same plane… Woe betide theology if discussion of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from one by adding to the other.2

Thank you again, Tom.

1. N.T. Wright in “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 603.

2. Ibid.

Today’s edition of “What Paul said”

August 4, 2011

Once again, I’m pointing you in the direction of my friend Paul’s blog. His latest post discusses a recent opinion piece in the USA Today, which argues that evolution, rather than God, accounts for human morality. Paul identifies the premise of the article that underlies so many discussions of science and religion—and one often shared by both atheists and believers:

That assumption is: If it is possible to understand human altruism from a biological point of view, then the biological point of view must be both necessary and sufficient.

I am writing about this because it’s another God-of-the-gaps thing (see my last post): Human goodness is due to God or it’s due to biology. If a certain — IMO weak — understanding of God can’t explain morality, then it must be evolution.

We get letters

January 24, 2011

I’m pulling out an excerpt from my response in the comment section of this post. Some of you might find it helpful.

Science rules out supernatural explanations at the beginning, as a rule. It only sees natural causes. If there are other aspects of reality out there to “see,” as we Christians believe, science is by definition blind to them. To say, for example, “There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence,” is merely a tautology: “This method that is blind to God cannot see God.” Yes, that’s obviously true. We all should affirm that and move on.

Another reason why cats rule

November 11, 2010

File under “God’s Amazing Handiwork.” With the help of very high speed photography, scientists at last discover that the humble action of a cat’s lapping water is actually a marvel of physics.

What happens is that the cat darts out its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water.

The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water up behind it.

Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the upward rush of the water and starts to pull the column down — snap! The cat’s jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.

The cat laps four times a second — too fast for the human eye to see but a blur — and its tongue moves at a speed of one meter per second.

Unsurprisingly, as the article points out, cats handle the task of drinking with more class and elegance than dogs. That’s science! That’s not even my opinion.

Our cat, Peanut, who does, in fact, rule.


Atheism again?

October 17, 2010

Four of my last eight posts have related to the topic. Sorry! This will be my last one for a while (fingers crossed).

Today I wrote the following in response to an atheist commenter way back over here. This is my last comment on that particular thread. The commenter kept making a mistake that’s very common for proponents of scientism. Be on the lookout for it the next time you see that friendly celebrity atheist on TV telling you why there’s no God. It is this: If science can identify a naturalistic cause for something, then God is not also involved.

He argues, for example, that since love is “grounded in biochemical processes,” love has no objectively real or deeper meaning. That simply doesn’t follow unless your metaphysical belief rules out anything other than that knowledge at which the scientific method can arrive. It is reductionist thinking in the extreme.

The physiological “ground” of love may be “biochemical processes,” but this says nothing at all about other possible grounds for love. It’s all so simplistic.

John Cleese tackles this very subject in a funny video I linked to at the end. Read the rest of this entry »

UMC’s official position on evolution (and science in general)

October 12, 2010

The following excerpt comes from ¶ 160 § F of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, under Part IV, The Social Principles. (You can read the statement in its entirety here.)

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

These days, atheistic scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins are often “making authoritative claims about theological issues,” trading in their legitimate authority in one area to say something authoritative outside of their area of expertise. Of course, plenty of religious people make the same mistake. Either way, our Book of Discipline rightly calls foul.

When it comes to evolution, it’s not either/or

October 12, 2010

This is old news, but I just stumbled upon it. The good folks at Pew are always stirring it up, religiously speaking. Here’s a survey from last year, which wanted to determine the extent to which religious groups agreed that “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life.” Among us meek and mild mainline Protestants, a mere 51 percent agreed.

Even as someone who sees no conflict between Christian faith and evolution, I would answer this question “no.” I disagree with its premise, which is: “Either evolution or God explains how we human beings got here. Which is it?” The question reinforces a false, post-Enlightenment dichotomy between science and faith. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

God is not one agent among others on the plane of cause and effect on which we live, such that the more evolution “does,” the less God does. God’s engagement with the world is not in competition with natural processes. A transcendent God is above cause-and-effect. In other words, we shouldn’t expect to see God’s fingerprints in Creation in order to strongly affirm that this world was created by God.

When I’m in the office, I’ll find the United Methodist Church’s statement on faith and science, which puts it quite nicely.

Being humble about what we think we know

October 11, 2010

In a lengthy series of comments way back over here about faith versus science, I wrote the following, which I kind of like:

If there is a God who is transcendent, who is wholly other than what we and the rest of Creation are (see how I snuck that religious word in), then it’s no grudging concession to Enlightenment thinking that we finite human beings can’t apprehend such a being through science or reason alone; it’s a requirement.