“The Language of Science and Faith”: Important Answers, but Limited Questions

As a future rabbi whose brother is a chemical biologist, I must write any review of a book on Christianity and Darwinism with care and respect for the authors, even as they approach these issues from a different vantage point than my own. Thankfully, this book does not force a stretch. Bold and notable are the ways in which Karl Giberson and Francis Collins — leading lights in both science and religion — delve into the fraught connection between faith and reason through their book The Language of Science and Faith; complemented with their smooth style and literary craftsmanship, it proves both an incisive and enjoyable read.

Even so, I come away from it surprised by the premises on which it is based. To note, as they do in their introduction that “evolution is a scientific theory that makes no direct statements about religion” is to skirt what I understand to be some of the fundamental implications of evolution on profoundly theological issues (22). Notions of scientific inquiry, most notably Darwinism, force us to engage with questions of how we know what truth is and how we reach it. When these questions are taken to their logical ends, we realize the profound theological challenge science poses: if we are uncertain about what we truly know, how can we presume to know God — and by extension that Scripture and prophecy also provide access to truth? Further, if there is a systematic means to access truth through science, why engage in the less tangible process of seeking truth through religion?

To their credit, Giberson and Collins engage with some of these challenges (or ostensible challenges) that science poses to religion in their chapters “How Do We Relate Science and Religion?” “Can Scientific and Scriptural Truth be Reconciled?” and “Science and the Existence of God.”  These chapters are indeed rich and deeply meaningful.  But their understanding of religion and its sacred books (at least within the Abrahamic context) appears uncertain and ostensibly contradictory. On the one hand, Giberson and Collins support the Documentary Hypothesis: “We must understand that the Bible is a substantial and wide-ranging collection of writings and transcribed oral traditions” — suggesting that humans, not God, composed the Bible (94; italics are present in the book itself). On the other, they presuppose that, when read within its cultural and historical context, inconsistencies between science and the Bible “disappear,” such that “We can therefore safely accept Scripture as God’s revealed Word, even though it does not address the specifics of many scientific questions and often refers to the natural world using the understandings of the time in which it was written” (107).

In addition to the potential contradiction between their two statements about Scripture, Giberson and Collins seem to posit that Scripture is “God’s revealed Word.” But the scientific system they seek to reconcile with faith would very well question why they would do so a priori? It is unclear if they are shying away from the issue or if they are trying to appeal to a readership that believes in the fundamental truth of Scripture and is seeking to find a theologically consistent way to understand science, rather than the other way around.

I find this an unfortunate limitation to the book. It would seem that the authors, in attempting to navigate the treacherous waters between science and Scripture avoided some of the most challenging questions of all, even for those of us who believe deeply in a single God: why should we (rationally) believe that Scripture persuasive as a guide to our lives and a source of truth? The resting assumption of the entire book is that Scripture is inherently meaningful and a guide to human life; the authors inadequately explore why they are so certain of that fact, especially given the challenge they note of garnering an authentic understanding of Scripture in its historical and cultural context. 

Undergirding much of the question of Scripture’s inherent meaning (beyond being a mere form of literature) is the notion of prophecy and revelation. What do each of those terms mean and how can humans, existing in a world replete with Darwinian Selection, become endowed with the ability to commune with our Creator? Is it, as Rabbi Moses Maimonides suggests, a function of heroic virtue and knowledge? Is it, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel intuits, a function of “divine pathos” and a singular, sacred ability to empathize? Is it something else entirely?

While it is clear that Giberson and Collins take both science and religion seriously –and have a knowledge of both that far exceeds my own — I am concerned that they may not draw the notion of “science” and Darwinism to their logical conclusions. If, as I understand their book to suggest, knowledge and the search for it are intrinsic to both science and religion, and rational analysis and experimentation are a valued means to pursue the former, it is unclear to me why the premises of Scripture should not undergo the same sort rigorous scrutiny that science affords, even within the scope of this book itself.

Overall, however, I was most engrossed by The Language of Science and Faith and think that anyone engaging in serious religious reflection, study, or enrichment in the contemporary world would benefit from reading it. That I would take issue with such specific portions and premises of the book is evidence of the high esteem in which I hold so much of it.

Joshua Stanton is Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

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