Thoughts from the Science Classroom: Faith!? What faith?!

Where is faith in the science classroom?  Where is faith in the physics courses, studying the latest developments from the Large Hadron Collider; the astrophysics graduate classrooms, perusing the search for life on other planets via the Kepler Space Telescope; the chemistry undergraduate lab, investigating the strands of amino acids and proteins that comprise the very building blocks of life; the biology seminar, challenging any student of faith with the nearly indisputable evidence that evolution via natural selection explains the vast majority of biological interactions and the development of species?

Faith, in this case, is often quiet.

Now, you may say, not all of these things conflict with faith!  The search for the Higgs Boson doesn’t seem to conflict with any religious doctrine–indeed, one might say it reveals the glory of God’s creation and its seemingly infinite complexity and beauty.  Nevertheless, this view is not taken by all scientists, nor by all those who understand such scientific developments and breakthroughs.  Many view such developments as examples of the increasingly waning effects of religious experience and the universal explanatory power inherent in modern science.  This latter view is, sadly, a popular one…despite its lack of strong arguments.

From physics to biology to chemistry and beyond, students struggle with new scientific ideas when facing a scientific theory or development that seems to contradict a theological doctrine that the student may have believed strongly even a day prior.  Theologians have realized this for a while, and have constructed helpful  models in order to help us encounter such difficulties.

Two stalwarts in the discussion are Ian Barbour and John Haught, who have constructed nearly identical models.

1. Conflict – Science and religion are at war. See Richard Dawkins; Creationism; general fundamentalist suspicions of “science” and “scientists”

2. Independence – Science and religion describe two completely separate worlds/methods/realms of thought.  See Vatican II (specifically Gaudium et Spes, section 36); talk of “keep science in the science classroom, religion in the religion classroom”; Martin Luther

3. Dialogue – Science and religion could benefit from discussions, but only in select areas.  Vatican II could also reside here, but the waters begin to cloud.  This level involves scientists and theologians talking with one another and acknowledging difficulties.

4. Integration – Science and religion can live in harmony.  Examples include Teilhard de ChardinProcess Theology, and even the “New Atheists.”

Now, I should qualify this final statement. New Atheists believe strongly in the concept of “atheism” as much as they believe in the strength and proving power of modern science to solve the world’s problems–what one might call “scientific materialism.”  Thus, since atheism is clearly a belief system (as opposed to agnostics or skeptics, generally), their existence would then fall within the “integration/confirmation” paradigm of describing religion-science interactions.

As historical tools, these four stances characterize much in the history of the religion-science discussion.  One could place Thomas Aquinas in the Integration category (inasmuch as he understood the science of his own day), Martin Luther in the Independence category (as he saw science and theology as describing two separate but non-conflicting worlds), and Pope Benedict XVI somewhere between the Independence and Dialogue category (though much debate would exist here).

However, whenever I have presented these four models to students, it seems as if I’m presenting a wide array of possible answers but offering little help in getting to these answers.  For the biology student, describing the four-stance models offers little solace in their own search to stick with the religion of their youth, despite their intellectual assent to seemingly heterical ideas. (Where does original sin come into the picture if we were descended from apes?  In the Pleistocene era?  Before or after the last ice age?)

Perhaps one can gain some perspective and insight from the concepts of “paradox” and “dialectic” in contemporary philosophical theology.  While the terms seem a bit difficult, the concepts are familiar ones…

First, the paradox: the assent of two seemingly paradoxical notions, trusting in the infinite wisdom of God and the limited wisdom of humans to resolve such paradoxes.

Classic example: the Incarnation.

Many describe Roman Catholicism as a “both-and” religion today, requiring assent to various doctrines and dogmas that seem to contradict but nevertheless we assert to be true: the Eucharist, the Mass as sacrifice and celebration; the salvation of Christians alone and “baptism by desire”; the lists go on.  This is essentially a stance of faith within paradox, and the stance could simply be taken and transferred to scientific discoveries.  Indeed, the late Pope John Paul II held essentially this view when he asserted to the reality of evolution in the mid-1990s, noting that “truth cannot contradict truth” in God’s vision, even though it may seem to contradict itself here on Earth.  For those who accept many modern scientific theories and still believe, this approach seems not only readily accessible but already much-employed.

The inherent problem with the paradox mindset, however, is the misappropriation of religious mysteries upon very human gaps in dogmatic explanation.  For example: in the paradoxical mystery of the Incarnation, God became human in a way that left Jesus both fully God and fully human.  This central tenet of Christianity elevates and confirms the “paradox” approach, since to understand how God could become human would necessitate that we become more than human ourselves.  Since we are not God, how can we hope to explain this supernatural infusion into our reality?  Similar quandaries exist when attempting to explain the resurrection: explaining direct actions by God requires a Divine understanding, which we simply don’t have.  This Christian mystery rests in paradox, and rests quite nicely.

On the other hand, appropriating a similar “Christian mystery of paradox” point of view in science/religion conflicts falls victim to Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” or Tillich’s “Protestant principle“: pretending something is infinite in nature when it, simply, is not.  For example, the difficulty that Christianity has with Darwinian evolution need not be an essential source of mystery: evolutionary theory calls into question specific doctrines that were created by church councils and theological figures with various scientific worldviews.

Following this example, Calvinism/Presbyterianism would then have the following difficulty: John Calvin followed Augustine in creating a theological world of “total depravity” after the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Evolutionary theory calls into question any situation out of the first three chapters in Genesis, necessitating a metaphoric view of the Biblical account of creation.  Instead of holding a view of “paradox” and Christian mystery, one could instead seek to find the point at which the doctrine relies on ancient scientific theories instead of theological truths. As opposed to the paradoxical/mystery approach, this approach affirms the humanity behind many of the Church’s doctrines and does not call Divine stances that were based on faulty scientific evidence.  This approach, following a philosophical tradition I won’t go into, I term the dialectic.

Second, the dialectic: encountering difficult scientific theories with the knowledge that human-designed theological doctrines are not always perfect, and allowing for change in certain doctrines given a newly discovered way to see the world.

Classic example: the world is really really old, not just 4000 years, so doctrines of creation had to adjust in light of this fact.

The “dialectic” approach to science and religion, as you might have guessed, is a trickier road to walk.  It is fraught with the dangers of encountering modern philosophy, modern science, and modern theology in all its beauty, fragility, and heresy.  It requires a permanent tension, an enduring dialogue, and a place for the mysteries of the undiscovered future.  The dialectical approach to science and theology, however, cannot exist without paradox.  While the dialectic assumes human designs of doctrine, one must be careful not to claim that all doctrines are human-designed.  Thus, some notions which may appear dialectic (say, the notion of original sin and evolutionary biology), may, in fact, be paradoxical mysteries.  However, the dialectic approach requires that we do not relent to mystery unless absolutely necessary, for fear that the science/theology dialogue will simply become a matter of asserting “oh, that’s just a mystery!” time and time and time again.

Sadly, this is all the ammunition many intelligent believers have when it comes to difficult scientific theories.  And, as can be seen and witnessed first-hand, this is simply not enough.  It is often easier for an intelligent person to adopt the model of “secular humanism” (see: Bill Gates) than to cling to a belief in a Christian, loving God who seems riddled with anti-scientific language and dogma.  As theologians and Christians, we seek to convince people that this God is worth fighting for both on paper, at conferences, and in the world today, but I sometimes feel drowned out by forces out of my control.

Thus my affinity for the dangerous and difficult position of dialectics.  As opposed to the four-stance model above, this position leaves room for integration, independence, dialogue, and even contrast (for example, on ethical grounds).  Additionally, the dialectic approach, in affirming the possibility of paradox, envelops the unknown scientific discoveries in the future as well as those Christian doctrines which are not up for debate.

Ok.  Now what?

For any science teachers out there, I realize that “paradox” and “dialectic” are not really terms that middle school students (or even many high school and college students) will understand.  But these issues are difficult and sometimes complex, and we must not shy away from complexity for the sake of some concept of ignorant bliss.  Here, of course, lay the faith in God required of Christian science educators and those who interact with students of science.  As Katherine Greiner put eloquently in yesterday’s post, “At the end of the day, honestly engaging the most perplexing questions can ultimately cultivate faith in our mysterious, loving God.”

Her call for teachers to embrace of the mysteries of God flows well into a science educator’s necessary  embrace of God’s faithfulness to resolve disputes, to answer questions, and to grant peace where none seems to appear.  Students of science are taught to question, ponder, challenge, and critique the very facts of the world, and their love and drive for answers must be celebrated in light of faithful Christian God who will not recoil every time Adam and Eve are called into question.

Tagged with: