Let’s, everyone, settle down…Science and Religion: Part Two

Let’s, everyone, settle down…Science and Religion: Part Two August 11, 2014

In Part 1 on this series on the relationship of science and religion, I tried to debunk Richard Dawkin’s assertion that faith is belief in a thing without evidence and in the face of contrary evidence by unpacking the very bible verses he alludes to. If you are interested in reading this, click here: Science and Religion Part One. 

In the next two posts, I hope to begin making the case for the leveling of the playing field between scientific and religious knowledge. Though each deals with different data and different dimensions of reality, there is quite a bit of convergence between the scientific and religious knowledge. Specifically, I hope to show how both scientific and religious “knowing” include a degree of unknowing. 

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO OXFORD PROFESSORS: AN ILLUSTRATION

I’ll begin with a paraphrased version of a story shared by Prof John Lennox, Oxford Professor of Mathematics, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science. I cannot recall the exact context, but Lennox recounted a conversation he had with a fellow Oxford professor who is a world-renowned physicist. The conversation between Lennox and the Physics Prof occurs after some sort of faculty discussion or presentation and went something like this:

Physics Prof (PP): After hearing you speak, I detect that you may be a Christian.
Lenox (JL): Why yes, that’s quite true.
PP: That means you are obliged to believe Jesus is both God and man. How can you believe in Jesus being both God and man? Can you explain that to me? It’s ridiculous… get off it, man.
Lenox (JL) responds in his cheeky fashion, by saying: Hmm, yes, well, may I ask you a question?
PP: Yes, you may.
JL: Grand – would you be so kind as to tell me what consciousness is?
PP: (thinks for a moment) I don’t know.
JL: What about energy?
PP: Well, we can measure it…
JL: Yes, but that wasn’t my question. Can you tell me what energy IS?
PP: I don’t know.
JL: Well, do you believe in these things – that they exist?
PP: Yes.
JL: But you can’t define them. Then why do you believe they exist?
PP: Silence for a moment while in thought.
JL: Let me help you out… you believe in consciousness and energy because the concepts have explanatory power. Even if you can’t explain them or define them, you know energy exist because it’s a helpful phenomenon for explaining and predicting things. Is that the case?
PP: Yes.
JL: So, should I write you off as a physicist?
PP: No, please don’t.
JL: But you were about to write me off as a Christian [and perhaps even a mathematician] because I cannot explain God incarnate. Even if I can’t explain the hypostatic union, that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, I have reason for believing it given the evidence and because of its explanatory power. You should not discredit me as a Christian any more than I should discredit you as a physicist for not knowing how to define energy.

(In my imagination, the conversation ends in a similar scene to C.S. Lewis’ moment of conversion from theism to Christianity chronicled in the cheesy biographical video below. In other words, the conversation culminated with these two Oxford professors, one driving a motorcycle, the other riding in the sidecar zipping through the countryside towards a pub for a pint of real ale, fish & chips & mushy peas, and perhaps a spot of tea to round it out. I can’t be sure, but I would wager this is exactly what transpired post conversation. See the short clip below.)

In any case, the point of this little anecdotal conversation is not to demonstrate that because we can’t fully explain x, we should therefore believe in x. Rather, the point is twofold. First, it is to demonstrate that there are clear limits to knowledge, both scientific and religious. Scientific knowledge includes a dimension of mystery. Second, it is simply to provide an illustration that reveals an analogous relationship between certain dimensions of scientific and religious knowledge. There is a degree of convergence.

LET ME UNPACK THE ANALOGY A BIT…

Physics, defined most simply, is the study of energy and matter and the interaction between them. The fact that (so far as I know) no high level physicist claims the ability to explain what energy is neither eliminates the possibility that energy exists nor discredits physics as a valid science. Put simply: We know THAT energy is, but we don’t know precisely WHAT energy is. Exactly what energy is remains a mystery. The reason we believe energy exists, as Lennox suggests, is because it is a helpful phenomena for explaining and predicting things.

The same is true for theology although it illuminates a different dimension of reality. Theology (and I introduce theology here because theology is the field that deals with religious knowledge) is the study of God and his interactions with the created universe. As the Physics Professor was well aware, one of the central tenets of Christian theology is that Jesus is both God and man. Theologians have attempted to explain this over the years, most notably during the Council of Chalcedon in which the church articulated the incarnation via the hypostatic union (Jesus has two natures conjoined in his person). In other words, the data from the Bible points to the reality that Jesus is both fully God and fully man without explaining the mechanics of this. We know that Jesus is God incarnate, but we don’t know precisely what that means or how that works. That Jesus is both God and man is affirmed but how Jesus is both God and man remains a mystery. If we take seriously what the Bible tells us about God, it should be no surprise that we cannot grasp the depths of what it means that the eternal, infinite God became a man in a particular time and place. And so, similar to the rationale for a physicist believing in energy, the reason Christians believe Jesus is the God-man is because of its explanatory power.

As he so often does, C.S. Lewis has a remarkable way of explaining the principle of this. In a lecture to a Socratic Club (at Oxford, no less), Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” The fact of the matter is that there are some basic things in the universe that we haven’t got a clue what they are: energy, gravity, the mind, etc. That we cannot wrap our minds around some of the most basic things we experience daily does not negate their existence. Rather, we believe in these things because of their explanatory power.

For the next post on science and religion, I hope to explore the various perspectives on reality (realism & idealism), address the fact that there are limits to both scientific and religious knowledge in that each illuminates and help explains distinct dimensions of reality (mechanical/biological/etc. & metaphysical/existential/etc.), and the distinction between the various ways of coming to logical conclusions (induction & abduction).


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  • Derek

    I realize it was the nature of the professors’ exchange that led to the direction you took in your post, but I just wanted to poke back a bit. Play the role of devil’s advocate, if you like. 🙂

    > We *know* that Jesus is God incarnate, but we don’t know precisely what that means or how that works.  [emphasis added]

    Isn’t that kinda begging the question? We don’t *know* that. That’s the very issue under debate in these sorts of discussions. Knowledge THAT energy exists based on observation of physics is not the same as knowing a theological claim, no matter how you slice it. To quote part one of your series, “the type of evidence available to us and to them is simply different.” Regarding epistemology, I don’t think we have the same “justification” for belief in the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. You admit as much with respect to empirical justification in your first post. Logical deduction may (or may not) get us to God, but I don’t think we get to specific claims about Jesus. So we’re left with testimony – where the last two centuries of critical scholarship should at least give us pause.

    To take a slightly different tack, let me lay out what I’m reading in your post a bit more formally:

    Premise 1: God necessarily has properties x, y, and z.
    Premise 2: Jesus is God.
    Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus necessarily has properties x, y, and z (even if we don’t know precisely how).

    While there’s nothing logically wrong with the argument (the conclusion does indeed follow if the premises are true), it doesn’t add much information. Meaning that you’d only believe premise 2 to be true if you had reasons to believe the conclusion already. There may indeed be ways of determining that Jesus was/is God incarnate, but compared to empirical observations of energy – we’ve gotta admit that’s a whole different shootin’ match. See my points above.

    :: takes devil’s advocate hat off ::

    Digging the blog, sir – nice to get the occasional peek into stuff you’re thinking about. Hope you and the Suz are doing well.

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