Faith and Reason Are Not Really Friends

Faith and Reason Are Not Really Friends February 26, 2019

Faith vs ReasonYou may not find this as fascinating as I do, but I recently came across a video put out by The Gospel Coalition, a think tank for Calvinists co-founded by Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor and author who herein verbalizes his own reservations about human evolution.

What stands out most to me is that while Keller has used up a great deal of ink over the years arguing that science and the Christian faith need not be mortal enemies, he admits here that it doesn’t really matter how univocally the sciences tell us that humans evolved gradually from other primates…he still believes the human race was specially created from scratch starting with an original couple named Adam and Eve.

But why? Why would a pastor whose personal ministry has long been marketed as an outreach to skeptics undermine his credibility by openly rejecting the most fundamental organizing principle of the life sciences? Even after confessing that his fellow Christians with legitimate credentials in the relevant sciences tell him that human ancestry cannot be narrowed down to fewer than several thousand intermingling hominids?

Such is the power of faith over reason. At some point or another, there will always come a choice between the two—otherwise it wouldn’t be called “faith,” now would it?

A Disappointing Admission

There are at least a couple of reasons why the interview below means something to me personally. First of all, my graduate degree was from Reformed Theological Seminary, so any discussion of the interplay between science and Reformed theology automatically interests me. As a matter of fact, Ligon Duncan, who also appears in this interview with Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, currently serves as the chancellor of my seminary.

Beyond that, I have also spent a good deal of time working my way through Keller’s most well-known book, The Reason for God, individually reviewing each chapter in order to illustrate the many ways I feel Christian apologists misrepresent what skeptics think about the claims of this particular faith. The relationship between science and faith comes up a lot in the book (e.g. here and here), and his treatment of the matter lies at the heart of why so many of my Christian friends keep recommending the book to me.

Like my well-meaning friends, Keller wants to convince his readers that there is no significant conflict between science and the central tenets of the Christian faith. In Chapter 6 of The Reason for God, he suggests that you can be a good Christian and still accept some version of evolution—provided you reject any version which views natural selection as merely, well…natural.

Christians may believe in evolution as a process without believing in “philosophical naturalism”—the view that everything has a natural cause and that organic life is solely the product of random forces guided by no one.

The scare quotes obscure the fact that you really aren’t talking about evolution via natural selection if you feel there has to be locatable evidence of supernatural intervention in there somewhere—a guiding hand if you will. But the un-guidedness of evolution is fundamental to understanding the way our modern sciences have shown us that we came into being.

Theoretically, one could decide that God chose this wasteful, inefficient, and often quite brutal process in order to shape life in the direction he wanted it to go, although it certainly would raise some serious questions over what this says about a deity who would do it this way. But Keller suggests (contrary to all the scientists he knows, evidently) that you can still say you believe in evolution even if you keep the human race completely separate from all other animal species, some of whom share nearly 99% of our DNA.

In the end, Keller cannot allow science to contradict the Bible because that would undermine his entire theological framework. I’m hesitant to admit my disappointment, because it makes me look pretty naive. But I make it a practice to always approach apologists sincerely, remaining as open as I can be to the possibility that they will say something which finally changes my mind back again. But alas, the disappointment continues.

Rejecting the Science

The segment relevant to this discussion starts at about the 8:00 mark and lasts until about 10:00 (article continues below):

Where I would stop is with Adam and Eve. And I would say not only was there an actual Adam and Eve, otherwise I do not understand how the Pauline understanding of salvation works—I just don’t know how Romans 5 works—but I’d even say, “Look, I know what my Christians who are scientists tell me, and that is, they say, that all human beings were not genetically related to a human couple.” That’s right now the consensus… (emphasis mine)

He willingly grants that even scientists who are devout Christians like the ones who run Biologos have studied the human genome carefully enough to see all the markers of common ancestry with other species, but he then admits that as an evangelical theologian he still cannot bring himself to contradict what the Bible says about this because too much of his theology hangs in the balance.

But when I read the text, I look, and it says—it sure looks to me like it’s saying—that God created Adam and Eve, and he didn’t just adopt a former human-like being, and adopt him and put [in] the image of God. It doesn’t seem like that is what it is saying. It says “he created out of the dust of the ground.” And I do think in the end, even though I could be wrong on reading that text, I feel like I’ve got to have my reading of the text correct my understanding of what the science says. (emphasis mine)

For Keller, if there is to be any dialogue between science and the Bible, the latter must always inform the former rather than the other way around. That’s why they call it “faith seeking understanding.” He starts by resolving that the Bible has to be right, and then he looks for ways in which science can be made to support what he already believes (which isn’t how science works, btw), rejecting any conclusions of science which contradict what his reading of the Bible says.

For a brief, misleading moment he talks as if he’s going to allow new information to reshape his thinking:

Science is a way of telling me truth. And the Scripture is a way of telling me truth. But if they are clashing, even though I know the science might show me that I’m reading the Scripture wrong—and that has happened in the past, where the science came in and said “Are you really … does the Bible really teach that the sun revolves around the earth?” So it’s possible for the science to make you ask, “Did you read the text right?”

But then he keeps going and, despite the lessons of history, he reverts back to his default position which is to take whatever the Bible says over anything the sciences tell us is true.

But if you go back and read the text and you come to your conclusion, that as far as you can say before God “I’m trying my best to read this as I think what the Scripture says.” Right now it says to me, no, there’s an Adam and Eve, and everyone came from Adam and Eve and they were special creations. And so even though I don’t have an answer to my science friends, that’s where I stand. (emphasis mine)

I suppose there’s nothing novel about this admission since it’s the default position of most of the evangelicals I know. But Keller’s science denial here stands out because he has always argued that faith and reason are not natural enemies. It’s also significant because the folks at Biologos, who have devoted their careers to persuading fellow evangelical Christians not to fear common ancestry, have for some time partnered with him to keep a dialogue going with Reformed theology in order to show that they can peacefully coexist.

But after this video aired, they issued a response expressing their disagreement with Keller’s decision to reject common ancestry:

There is strong evidence for human evolution, particularly from the field of genetics, that has convinced almost every professional biologist, both Christian and secular. The genetic evidence also shows convincingly that the Homo sapiens population was never as small as a single couple. (emphasis mine)

Back when I was a kid, people were still arguing about how bone fragments fit together and inside of which strata of geological history they were found. In fact, many fundamentalists today are still stuck in that era since they haven’t actually allowed any new information to shape their understanding of evolution since at least the late 70s or early 80s. But the biological sciences have come a long way since then, and the mapping of the human genome has pretty much settled the matter.

The Bible is wrong about this. Of course, we can cut the biblical authors some slack—there’s no way they could have known thousands of years ago what the mechanics were which brought us unto being. They used the only forms of explanation they knew at the time. I just don’t really get why someone like Keller cannot allow for that, except to say once again that such is the power of faith over reason. If he grants that humans evolved from other primates, the Christian message as he understands it falls apart.

It’s All About Drift

Now, I know what a number of my more open-minded Christian friends would say to this. They would argue that Keller merely represents a particular subgroup of the Christian faith, reminding me that #NotAllChristians feel they must reject the science in order to protect the Bible from all this newfangled learnin’. They want very much for me to acknowledge that some corners of Christendom are able to accommodate the science, because not all Christians are inerrantists.

Related:The Absurdity of Inerrancy

But that’s not really my point. I know good and well that there are permutations of the Christian faith which have found a way to reconcile their theological frameworks with the discoveries of modern science. Religions evolve and adapt to their environment just like living organisms do, so of course there are versions out there which part ways with Keller along with most other evangelicals when it comes to this topic.

But I can’t help sensing something…it’s difficult to articulate because it’s a feeling, but I’ve felt it enough to know there’s something to it. It’s like the invisible undercurrent you feel at your ankles when you step out into the surf coming in at the beach. Regardless of where Christians of different stripes land on specific issues, they all face the same internal pressures teaching them to be suspicious of those sources of information which come “from the outside” of their tradition.

At some level faith is always fighting against reason, resisting its push away from whatever the church has taught them to believe about themselves and the world around them. Sometimes faith relents and accepts that it cannot defeat what reason asserts, but there is always a fight. Sometimes circumstances force believers to give up something about the way they interpret things (like the church eventually did about the geocentric universe), but there always must first be an internal battle.

That’s because faith and reason really aren’t friends. I fought that conclusion for a long, long time. But moments like this remind me why I left the whole thing behind. In the end, you cannot serve two masters. One will always demand you choose it over the other.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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