No One Always Wins, Except God

I was telling a friend recently about this blog and the forum and he asked me what I thought on the whole faith vs science issue. That’s a good foundational question and I realize that I have not really made clear here what I think on the whole “issue.” So I will discuss it in two parts. This week I will cover the simplest possible ways to see and resolve the conflict. Next week I will tackle the more complex approaches.

The simplest way to resolve any conflict is for one of the sides to win. If science says one thing and faith another then only one of them can be right. Faith in fact seems to have the upper hand. If God, who knows all things, produced the Bible that is true in all things, then anything that disagrees with the Bible must be false. Yet, we have seen in history some blunders where Christians thought the Bible was teaching something about reality, but was not in fact. The most classic is the issue of whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth around the sun. Faith ended up on the wrong side of that debate, not because the Bible was false, but because religions leaders misunderstood what the Bible was telling them authoritatively and what is was being figurative about. The Bible is true in everything that God means to communicate through it. Figures of speech, poetry, and the like must be more carefully understood (don’t get me started on the end times). I am therefore hesitant to rush to side with faith in the conflict with science. Even though the Bible is true in every word, our grasp of some of the details and our tendency to mix human philosophy with faith can lead us to errors.

On the other hand I don’t rush to side with science either. Science, admittedly, is a process of continual change, sometimes quite dramatic. Every child learns how evidence shapes theory which in turn drives us to find more evidence to shape theroy even more. No theory is safe from being altered or overturned by new evidence. On the other hand, new evidence is never alone sufficient to overturn a long standing theory. This is part of what makes science interesting, but also undermines its ability to defeat faith. If our theories can be changed, how can they stand against divine revelation. Also, we should be slow take some new piece of evidence as undermining Christian faith. It may turn out to be a fluke. I am not saying that science cannot inform and challenge faith, but claiming that science has greater reliability and veracity than faith is foolish. As scientific evidence builds up and a theory becomes more stable it’s ability to inform and challenge faith grows. One study though is never sufficient to challenge faith. I therefore reject science always defeating faith in determining the truth.

So, I contend that it is not so easy as faith always wins or science always wins. Next week I will talk about the separate realms approach and the multiple viewpoints approach. Both approaches attempt to allow both sides to win, but each in their own way. This is exciting stuff and I welcome your comments.

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Bible Reading as Insurrection

So I read an interesting blog post over at the CNN belief blog. Lisa Miller describes how the internet and technology are allowing more and more people to read the Bible for themselves, apart from church direction or control. Her title proves more provocative than her post, but both point towards a belief on her part that this trend will lead to the collapse of the church. She believes that once people can read the Bible for themselves and share what they are thinking with others while reading or hearing what other people think, then they will lose interest in being preached to and indoctrinated by the clergy. I find that idea to be rather silly. People who can and will read the Bible, and think for themselves as they read, are exciting and will only make the church stronger. The important things in the Bible are clear enough for anyone to see (theologians call this the “perspicuity of the Scriptures”) and the true churches teach all of these things. There are no secret contradictions being covered up. The more people read the Bible the stronger the church gets.

There is only one way things could go wrong with so many people reading the Bible for themselves in our cultural climate. That is people thinking that their interpretation of the Bible is just as valid as any other person’s. Just because a person sees something in a passage or the wording there supports some specific interpretation doesn’t make it true. To really understand a passage in the Bible requires really understanding the whole Bible. It also helps to know things like the historical context and to know what other people throughout history have thought about the passage or Bible as a whole. So, while everyone can find truth in the Bible, the people with the most knowledge of the Bible will be the most accurate.

This is not a rule of religion, it applies just as much to science. If one of my students comes in having read part of the chapter for class, but not the rest, or has forgotten the general principles I laid out in the first class he is more likely to be wrong in his conclusions. His interpretation of what he read is not as valid as mine. I know the whole book. I know the whole field (okay, so way more than him, at least). So yes, I am excited he is reading the textbook and thinking for himself, it’s just that his “interpretation” must match up with truth in order to be valid.

Back to the Bible. People reading on their own is great. What will help them though is access to people with more knowledge of the Bible. We might even consider a weekly meeting where people who are reading the Bible get together for encouragement and share what they know. These meetings should be led by a person who we believe has the best knowledge of the Bible. This hypothetical meeting sounds a lot like church, lead by the local pastor. You see, church is actually an emergent property of Christianity not an artificial entity trying to control it.

To conclude, no, people reading the Bible and communicating globally about what they read are not threats to the church. It is the very foundation on which the church is built.

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Anti-Supernaturalism

The other day a friend asked me what the biggest challenge is to talking with an intellectual atheist about God. Having already thought a bit about it I answered readily that atheists tend to be anti-supernatural. While I didn’t get much of a chance to continue that conversation with him, let me post some more thoughts here.

The problem is that science operates under a belief in naturalism. If I perform an experiment today, I assume that it will have the same results tomorrow, given identical start conditions. Every time I have dropped a stone it has fallen to the ground. That’s a fact. Every time anyone has ever dropped a stone it has fallen and every time anyone ever will drop a stone it will fall. That’s a reasonable assumption. There is no proof to the contrary. We could be safe and drop a stone every few months just to be sure, but we will assume that the laws of nature hold at all times and in all places and move on with our research. Supernatural events, which violate these rules by definition, must therefore be impossible.

The problem though is that the belief that the rules of nature are never violated cannot be proven. This should not be a surprise to those familiar with Popperism. We can prove statements to be false by finding an example of something that defies that statement, but the absence of violations does not prove the statement but only make it likely. If I said “all ducks have wings” you can prove me false by finding a duck with no wings. If you looked very hard for ducks without wings, and all of the many ducks you found all had wings, it is unlikely that there exist ducks without wings. You can’t be sure though. It is the same with miracles. Even if you never see one it doesn’t mean one didn’t happen. It is unlikely, but not impossible. Of course, we do have written records of miracles in the Bible, but you have to trust those observers.

All of this is to say that science cannot and does not categorically rule out miracles, the resurrection being chief among them. It is very improbably, and very hard to replicate, but it is not absolutely impossible. Anyone who says it is impossible is making a faith statement, not stating a scientific fact.

-Tim

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How Do You Know?

What I want to talk about is epistemology. Epistemology is all about how we know stuff. Religion and science have historically been at odds on this issue. Religion claims that truth comes from divine revelation while science says that truth comes from observation.

We can thus imagine the following conversation:

S: prove to me that God exists.

R: The Bible tells me so.

S: that does not count as evidence.

R: it does.

S: evidence is based on science and reason and observation. Provide me proof from any of those things.

R: Science changes. The only unchanging truth is from God. You must accept his testimony as evidence.

S: Religion is based on individual interpretation. Provide evidence that is objective.

 

The problem here is not “what is true?” but “how do we know truth?” The conflict between religion and science is at its core very much about how we know truth, not who has better or more evidence.

I say all this because at times we can feel frustrated in talking with our friends and colleagues because our source of truth and theirs does not match up. As scientists, when we disagree with other scientists we know what kind of evidence will be compelling to both sides. We can run a study, or cite from the literature and resolve the disagreement. Similarly, in church, if we disagree with someone we know where to turn for evidence. We can open our Bible, or reference a respected theologian to support us. The tough times though are when we disagree with someone who doesn’t look to the same place for authority on the issue at hand.

 

There is much more to say on this topic, but I will stop there for now.

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Where Are We Going?

I have recently decided to turn an idea I have had for some time into a reality. As an academic and Christian I see an important need for the fusion of these two things, specifically for support, encouragement, and advice to those committed to these two historically adversarial callings. I do not mean an effort to be academic about Christianity or to be Christian about academic output. Rather I mean that there are important challenges and difficulties which we face as people who are both academics and Christians and that we would benefit from encouragement and support. I firmly believe that a person can be a devout Christian and rigorously rational and scientific.

Now that I’ve given you my statement of purpose, here is a list of topics that I hope will give you a better sense of where this undertaking is going. I don’t promise we will cover all of these topics, but they are all legitimate topics.

-the relationship between faith and reason as sources of truth

-how to lecture on topics which are contrary to your morality, but not your peers morality

-atheism as a worldview not a neutral position

-gaining prestige without falling into pride

-gaining prestige without suppressing the importance of God in your life

-how to evangelize in an academic setting (along with what is allowed)

-telling atheists from agnostics

 

For students:

-how to handle the problem of evil if challenged in the classroom

-how to handle being taught things contrary to the Bible

-how  to be properly open-minded

-finding a good mentor

-how to spot bad logic

-how to spot a worldview masquerading as reason or science

 

Examples of things you might think fit, but don’t:

-an essay on the history of christian thought in the west

-dating tips in college

-Calvinism vs Arminianism

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Hello.

Between Two Towers is for people struggling with the tension between academia and Christianity. We serve faculty, students and everyone by offering information, encouragement, and guidance about how to be a successful professor, student or intellectual while also being an uncompromising Christian. This blog is part of a larger Between Two Towers project. You can find our forums at www.betweentwotowers.org.

 

– Tim

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