Science and Religion – an Interfaith Encounter.

Yesterday I was one of three speakers at a forum on science and religion. Speaking as unelected representative of all Christians I basically made a single point: that the orthodox Christian tradition teaches that God reveals God’s self in two ways: through the created order (natural revelation) and through particular moments in which God speaks through humans to humans (special revelation, in particular Jesus Christ and the Bible)

Thus for Christians there can be no contradiction between what we learn through the study of nature and what we learn through the study of scripture, since both have the same author. If there is an apparent contradiction it must be because we have misinterpreted either nature or scripture or both.

It turns out Jews and Muslims agree on this. Not surprising given the continual intellectual interplay of the three religious traditions.

Yet there were still some pretty serious (but not unpleasant) disagreements in the subsequent discussion. I found myself on the outs with both my Muslim colleague (which I expected knowing that their magazine is a bastion of creation-science) and most of the Christians in the audience. Let me explain.

1. There clearly are contradictions between what scientists say about the lessons drawn from the study of nature and what many Christians say about the lessons drawn from the study of scripture. The one that was immediately raised in discussion was over whether darwinian evolution or divine creation explained the presence of humanity on earth.
2. Resolving this contradiction would require one of two things
a. Asserting that scientists have misinterpreted nature.
b. Asserting that (some) Christians have misinterpreted their scripture.

At this point both the Muslims and Christians in the audience firmly asserted that it is scientists that have misinterpreted nature, while religious people have accurately interpreted their scriptures. I tend to think that Christians have misinterpreted their scripture. Anyway . . .

The first argument offered was that the second law of thermodynamics disproves the possibility of evolution. (This law states: “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium—the state of maximum entropy.”) Evolution posits a decrease in entropy (increase in complexity) so, the argument goes, evolution is incompatible with the 2nd law.

This is totally bogus, because the earth is not an isolated system. Energy is constantly poured in from the sun and this drives systems toward greater complexity. The universe as a whole is an isolated system so far as we know, and all evidence is that entropy is continually increasing overall in the universe. (I’m happy to discuss with doubters the rules of quantum physics and Stephen Hawking and “energy out of nothing” in black hole boundary events. But that isn’t an argument about darwinian evolution, that is an argument about cosmology.)

The second argument offered is that one can show through complex mathematical analysis that the probabilities of events posited by evolution taking place are so low that the presence of an intelligent designer is a more credible explanation than pure evolution.

The problem with this argument is that the equations that characterize many physical and almost all biological processes are non-linear equations. I did a study of this class of equations in relation to reading satellite data back when I was 18 year old. A characteristic of these equations is that small changes in input can lead to sudden and large changes in output. They are not probabilistic and probability theory cannot be used predict the future of systems which they govern. Nor can it be used to trace back to the origins of present systems. This is why there will never be a capacity to to predict the weather for more than a week or two in the future. To use the example from Glick’s excellent book “Chaos,” a butterfly’s wings can actually make a change in the weather that will create a hurricane. And this is the reason that the weather we experience today cannot be traced back to any particular set of initiating events.

(Don’t even bring up climate change. Climate isn’t weather.)

Of course this means that mathematical modeling can never prove evolution either. This whole class of arguments is irrelevant one way or the other.

Of course one could go on. There are disputes about the interpretation of the fossil record, and so on. And all of them, like the arguments above, miss the point.

They are arguments for God based on science. They are arguments that seek to demonstrate that the object of Christian faith can be proven by human argument, or at least cannot be dis-proven by human argument.

And for the Christian this is unnecessary. Our faith is neither built on nor justified by human argument. (I Corinithians 1:22 – 24: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”)

Christian faith is built on our encounter with the living Christ. And that encounter is self-justifying. It doesn’t need anything else to make it valid, and no other “fact” in the world can invalidate it. It takes place in the realm of human being that isn’t available for scientific scrutiny.

Faith as a way of knowing is in a completely different class of knowing than the application of human reason to the data provided by the human senses. It can articulate itself coherently and consistently and thus rationally. But it isn’t built on science and doesn’t depend on science.

Thus the reason I don’t think Christians have accurately interpreted our scripture isn’t because those interpretations are inconsistent with science. I don’t care what scientists think. I think Christians have misinterpreted our scriptures because these interpretations are inconsistent with the fundamental Christian experience of encounter with God in Christ.

(I note, from an inter religious perspective, that Muslims have also wrestled with these issues. Specifically in the Mutazilte controversy of the 11th and 12 centuries, and more recently as writers such as Tariq Ramadan discuss how a nation can be governed by the shared revelation found by natural law while also being consistent with the Qur’anic revelation of divine law.)

So, to reiterate what I told the group. I think every aspect of the theory of Darwinian evolution accurately describes nature from within the framework of reason applied to the data at hand. And I know on the basis of faith that everything I see in the natural world is alive with the glory of God, and feel God’s presence everything I take a deep breath. Indeed, I find evolutionary theory to be infused with a tremendous and subtle glory and majesty.

These are not incompatible, and indeed cannot be. For God is the author of both the book of nature and the Book, but they are written in different languages, and we read them with different eyes.

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