As a Christian I hold several presuppositions on faith. First, God is maker of heaven and earth. Second, the world as we observe it is the handiwork of God. And third, science observes the world in ways that can reveal God’s handiwork. The best of science and the best of theology work together to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the work of God. This simple assertion lies at the core of The Language of Science and Faith.
I believe in a God who has changed my life and established my identity in ways that I cannot otherwise imagine. I believe in a Bible that has survived the most intense scrutiny to become the text that tells the best story of who we are and why we are here and how God loves us and saves us. And I believe in science too. It provides a tangible and reasonable system with which to describe and understand the physical world. Science does not answer all the questions (nor can it); nor is science right every time. Science, like theology and every finite and sinful human effort at knowing, is by definition tentative. Science operates on the proposition that everything we think we know about the natural world can be rejected if it does not meet the test of observation and experiment. Science always seeks to correct itself. Theology at its best must do the same. Humility is as important for the scientist as it is for the theologian. Nevertheless, science does show with ever-increasing accuracy that we inhabit a world that did not appear in an instant. Science shows that we as people inhabit bodies that are made of the same stuff as everything else, and that these bodies most likely developed over a long period of time.
Granted, science (and specifically evolution) does present problems for the believer. Evolution describes a creation where randomness and lack of direction appear as the order of the day, where an enormous amount of time, death and waste are required to get from the beginning to the end. This presents significant challenges to the view that God highly values purpose, life and economy. Look at the majesty of a glorious mountain range at sunset or the incredible complexity of the human body, and it’s easy to deduce God’s hand. But science forces you to dig underneath the veneer of majesty and incredulity to see the tortuous road down which mountains and bodies had to progress.
But what if what looks like indeterminacy is instead an inability of the human mind to perceive the logic that’s there? If God’s ways are not our ways as the Bible teaches, does our failure to see a purpose in evolution mean that there actually is none? We label things as “random” and “chance,” but isn’t that really just another way of saying something is humanly unintelligible? What if it made perfectly good sense to God? What if what looks like randomness is part of a plan? Evolution allows that nature could have turned out differently than it did. But the fact that is did not turn out differently, that evolution actually moved from simplicity toward greater complexity and climaxed with humanity allows purpose, intentionality and ingenuity onto the table. Physically, the natural world may not display a discernible purpose of its own. But that does not negate the indiscernible purposes of God. There is no such thing as theological randomness.
Actually, even the random aspects of the physical universe aren’t totally random. This book helps us see how indeterminate nature of quarks and genetic mutations function according to determinate laws of nature. The eventual appearance of carbon and other heavy chemical elements depended upon the precision tuning of the universe’s fundamental interactions. Fudge the math by even a smidgen, and you wouldn’t be reading this now. Likewise, natural selection sets limits on genetic variation. Mutations that prove advantageous are determined by their environment. Now to say natural selection is not to imply godless selection anymore than gravity is godless. Airplanes crash and people fall to their deaths, yet gravity has caused few believers to lose their faith. In fact, you could say that gravity demonstrates God’s constancy and impartiality, like the sun which shines on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt 5:45). If gravity can be interpreted as evidence for God’s constancy and fidelity, why can’t evolution be a sign of God’s ingenuity and generosity?
Too often Christians think science is the enemy. While some interpretations of science do oppose religious faith, science itself simply testifies to the how things are. Scientific findings are not the same thing as scientific interpretations of those findings. Even among scientists, explanations of data can differ depending on who is doing the explaining. But still, scientific explanations accord with observed reality. Granted, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7 NRSV), but that only means that there’s more to reality than what we see. It doesn’t mean we ignore what we can see. Faith is not fantasy. If faith is going to matter, it too must correspond with the way things are rather than with the way we believers want things to be.
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith (Abingdon, 2008) and How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011).