Book Club Channel
The Language of Science and Faith: An Excerpt
Can Science Inform Religion in Helpful Ways?
As mentioned earlier the Galileo affair is the most well known historic example of the interaction between science and religion. Although often cited as an example of conflict between science and religion, it is also a prime example of scientific contribution to religious belief. In Galileo's time there was a heated disagreement over the interpretation of a few Bible verses in the Psalms. If it was assumed that these Scriptures should be read as modern science, and not as ancient science or perhaps poetry, then they could be interpreted to say that the earth was stationary. However, Galileo had been convinced by Copernicus's argument that this was impossible, and Galileo wanted to rescue his fellow Christians from this error. Galileo's task was thus to use the new science of his day to remove a misunderstanding about what the Bible was teaching about the motion of the earth.
Galileo, who remained a loyal Catholic to the end of his life, makes his position clear in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany:
[In] St. Augustine we read: "If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there."
This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.
Galileo did not suggest that his discoveries contradicted the Bible, but that science had offered a refinement to a proper understanding. Projects like this book are motivated by the belief that we need similar guidance today, particularly when interpreting the first chapters of Genesis.
Donald MacKay offers a healthy perspective on scientific involvement with religion:
Obviously a surface meaning of many passages could be tested, for example, against archaeological discoveries, and the meaning of others can be enriched by scientific and historical knowledge. But I want to suggest that the primary function of scientific enquiry in such fields is neither to verify nor to add to the inspired picture, but to help us in eliminating improper ways of reading it. To pursue the metaphor, I think the scientific data God gives us can sometimes serve as his way of warning us when we are standing too close to the picture, at the wrong angle, or with the wrong expectations, to be able to see the inspired pattern he means it to convey to us.
We suggest that Darwin's theory of evolution, now that it has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt by science, offers the same sort of help in understanding the Genesis creation story as Galileo's work helped his generation to better understand the psalmist's references to the mobility of the earth.
Science and religion relate (and don't relate) in many ways, as we have seen. Certainly being independent of each other is common and should be used as the default position. When it is established that there is indeed meaningful interaction, this can be negative or positive, and even both at the same time.