Is It “Christianity versus Science?” (What Brunner Said)
American conservative Christianity, especially conservative evangelical theology influenced by fundamentalism, still struggles with science. And, of course, many scientists struggle with religion—except that which is completely privatized and makes no truth claims about reality outside the self. Cornell University’s late, former president Andrew White’s “warfare of science with theology in Christendom” (partial title of his two volume work published in 1896) goes on—especially in the “trenches,” so to speak. By “the trenches” I mean the pulpits and pews of local congregations and hearts and minds of individual evangelical Christians. In addition I mean in many Christian schools and home schooling contexts. It even goes on in many evangelical Christian colleges and universities although usually at a higher level of reflection.
Many people are convinced that modern science is Christianity’s enemy; many modern scientifically informed and minded people are convinced Christianity is science’s enemy. The flashpoint of controversy is often “evolution” without any clear description of that concept on either side. Mention “creation” in many contexts, religious and secular scientific, and many people immediately jump to “evolution versus creation”—as if the whole point of the biblical and Christian doctrine of creation were to oppose evolution. And conservative evangelical Christians often wrongly equate belief in an ancient creation, as opposed to “young earth creationism,” with belief in secular, naturalistic evolution. Mention of “theistic evolution” provokes suspicious stares.
Popularizers of modern science bear much of the responsibility for the tense situation that exists and strenuous opposition to science itself because they often smuggle naturalism into their explications of modern science. Here’s one example. Every semester I teach a course on modern Christian theology and begin with the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I show the tail end (last chapter) of a documentary called “Infinitely Reasonable: Science Revises the Heavens.” It’s part of a ten part series with the overarching title “The Day the Universe Changed.” The host and narrator, author of the book the series is based on, is British journalist James Burke. Much of the episode (which I don’t normally have time to show) deals with “the Galileo affair” between Galileo’s proof of Copernicus’ belief in a sun-centered solar system and the Catholic Church’s traditional belief in an earth-centered system of sun and planets. Then Burke talks about post-Galileo scientific discoveries about nature ending with Isaac Newton. He never mentions, of course, that Newton was a strong believer in God who was obsessed with discovering the date of the return of Christ.
At the very end of the episode Burke is standing in the library of Empress Maria Teresa’s palace in Vienna talking about Roger Boscovitch and how he brought about the pope’s lifting of the ban on Copernicus’ book about the solar system. Just before that he was on a roller coaster and another carnival ride talking about Newton’s laws of nature—specially gravity—and how their discovery made possible the exact prediction of the late return of Halley’s Comet. Burke stands at a window looking out over the city of Vienna and says (paraphrasing) that all this modern science stuff leading up to the conclusion that the universe is a clock-like machine that works by mathematics is wonderful if you have the “confidence” to realize that what it means—that man is alone in the universe, that there is nobody “out there” who cares.
Of course, I lead the students in a discussion of what a non sequitur that is! Newton, I tell them, thought that physics was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Hardly anyone in Newton’s time would have drawn the conclusion that Newton’s discoveries of natural laws like gravity require atheism! Many Christians actually used his discoveries as part of a project of natural religion to form a basis for Christian apologetics—arguing (like contemporary believers in “intelligent design”) that the scientific revolution supported belief in God.
What I wonder, though, is how many school children and young people viewing that film (which has recently been republished in DVD format) in a secular education setting, without guidance from a Christian professor, realize how idiotic Burke’s conclusion is—based on what went before it in the film?
I only mention that film as an illustration of a very common problem contributing to the tension between conservative (traditional) Christianity and modern science—popularizers of modern science smuggling naturalism and even atheism into modern science as its logical concomitant. I could mention more examples—even from my own high school experiences years ago. Almost everyone is aware, of course, of the documentary series The Cosmos which was re-released (with some updating) recently. It begins with popularizer (a scientist in his own right) Carl Sagan saying “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Talk about a presupposition that science itself cannot prove! And yet, how many school students have been swayed by such popularizations of science that smuggle naturalism into it?
On the other side, of course, are the many anti-modern science books, films, podcast lectures, etc., produced by conservative Christians, that bash modern science using flimsy evidence and arguments to attempt to prove that the Bible teaches and “real science” supports that the earth was created in six days of twenty-four hours each about ten thousand years ago. I have yet to meet a deeply committed Christian scientist with strong credentials in scientific research (biology, geology, anthropology, etc.) who agrees with that.
As everyone who has followed my blog very long, and as many of my students know, one of my favorite theologians is Emil Brunner (d. 1966), Karl Barth’s nemesis and counterpart in the dialectical theology movement in Switzerland in the 1920s through the 1950s. (I say “nemesis” because they had a very famous and unfortunate, lengthy and complicated argument about “natural theology” in which Barth used very strong language against Brunner and Brunner responded by attacking Barth’s views on a number of issues. I say “counterpart” because they were, in so many ways very close in their thinking—for example about Christ as the center of Christian theology and the Bible as a witness to revelation not verbally inspired.)
Not long ago I read for the first time Brunner’s excellent little book Philosophy of Religion from the Standpoint of Protestant Theology (ET 1937). There, beginning on page 171, he dived “head first” into this whole controversy with a section on “The Bible and the Scientific View of the World.” He starts out admitting that “By its undreamed of progress science has forced faith to disencumber itself of certain relics of (primitive) science.” That seems beyond debate. Then he continued by arguing that theology has no business intervening in the framing of scientific hypotheses: “It should never have entered the head of Christian theologians to intervene in the controversy over Darwinism, so long as the framing of evolutionary theories was confined in a strictly scientific manner to the domain of what is open to observation.” That’s a particularly pithy and insightful statement that takes a lot of unpacking only because of the complicated tensions that exist between “religion” and “science.” Basically Brunner was challenging both Christian theology and science to respect their boundaries and limits. In essence he was slapping James Burke’s wrist (anachronistically, of course).
Then Brunner makes an astounding statement: “Impossible it is that any essential position of Christian faith should be affected…by changes in the scientific view of the world.” (p. 173) One must pay attention to every word in that statement to avoid confusion and wrongheaded objection! “Essential position” means something different to Brunner than to many conservative evangelical Christians who have elevated the age of the earth to a dogma! And “scientific view of the world” means something different to Brunner than to many secular popularizers of science who present it as including naturalism—the belief that nature is all there is. Brunner then explains how necessary it always is to free “the substance of the Bible” (what Barth called its Sache) from its temporary forms. Everyone does that whether they realize or admit it or not. The only question is what is included in “the substance of the Bible.” For Brunner it is Christ and the gospel. Finally, Brunner stated that the real conflict between “faith” and “science” appears especially when modern scientists (or I would say popularizers of science) smuggle “scientific monism” into “science.” Brunner labels “scientific monism” (which many since him have called “scientism”) “superstition!” (p. 175) By “scientific monism” he meant the belief that all of life’s questions can be answered by science and that by its own methods science is capable (eventually) of providing a comprehensive understanding of all of reality.
In my experience very few actual scientists believe in or promote “scientific monism,” but many popularizers of modern science do just that—by implication (e.g., James Burke). Brunner rightly noted that “It is with philosophy that the serious conflict of faith is fought out.” (p. 173) The problem is that philosophy is often smuggled into the teaching of science—especially by popularizers who either don’t understand science’s limitations or misuse science, misunderstood and/or misrepresented, to promote their philosophy (viz., naturalism).
Finally, Brunner ends the discussion of “The Bible and the Scientific View of the World” with this astounding conclusion: “Opposition to faith in revelation does not grow out of science, philosophy, or culture, but out of false thinking about science, philosophy, and culture.” (p. 183) in other words, there is no necessary conflict between faith and philosophy either. That conflict also arises only when philosophy begins with certain presuppositions that rule out faith from the beginning. Fortunately, postmodern philosophy is beginning to reverse that trend and re-open philosophy’s door to taking religion seriously (as more than myth).