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Can Scientific and Scriptural Truth Be Reconciled?—Summer Reading Group V

This was a frustrating chapter. And not frustrating because of where it was trying to go (it didn’t succeed), but because of the way it was going about getting there. It was frustrating in the same way that watching someone else drive your car is frustrating. One keeps thinking, “You know where you’re trying to go, but you need to learn to drive…”

As you can already see from the chapter title, the question we are here after is the heart of the issue. It is a question to which there are only two possible answers, yes or no. If we say “no,” then we can either ignore science and believe the Bible, or we can believe what scientists tell us and simply say that the Bible is wrong about certain things. In my experience, most of the readers here (at least those who comment) believe that the two can be reconciled, and the question becomes, “How?” Like most of us, the authors believe that scriptural and scientific truth can be reconciled, and they attempt to show one way how.

The authors suggest that the key is to acknowledge that the “Bible is not a scientific text and should not be read that way. Science did not even exist five hundred years ago…” (106). By “science,” they mean a specialized form of communication with certain rules and norms. This is a bit of slight of hand, and is inaccurate. Whatever.

They suggest that “the first step in addressing apparent conflicts between science and religion is the recognition that they are different enterprises. These differences are often highlighted by noting that science and religion answer different questions or answer the same questions in different ways” (107). “The kinds of answers found in the Scriptures are generally nonscientific…because the Bible is not even trying to teach science. Nowhere in the entire Bible do we read anything that even hits that the writer is trying to teach science. What we encounter instead is a consistent discussion of the purposes and reasons for why things are the way they are” (108).

This sort of simplification isn’t satisfying, and it certainly does not accomplish what they think it will accomplish. If one temptation is to insist that the Bible is making timeless, universal scientific truth claims, then the other temptation is to put the Bible in a tiny box in which the only questions it may answer are existential. The authors want to say that the Bible answers the question “why,” but obviously they don’t believe that natural death is because of human sin. So what then do they mean by “why”? I don’t think they themselves are clear about this point, and this is the point, so it isn’t a point to be unclear about.

Their obvious misstep was to fall into the trap of thinking that exegesis and hermeneutics of a certain text will resolve the problem. That is, there is a vital step between hermeneutics and making conclusions. That step is theology. The authors can wave their hands around all they like, talking about the intentions of the author, etc., but it will accomplish nothing unless they deal with the implications. But alas, they have failed to do this. Had they kept this in mind, they would have called the chapter, “Can Scientific and Theological Truth Be Reconciled?” And if they had done this, they might not have felt the pressure to do violence to the text in order to accommodate their scientific conclusions. Perhaps they lacked the chutzpa.

As I already alluded to, the theological and not just textual issue that one must deal with is the question of sin and death. The theistic evolutionary position leaves us, generally, with an understanding of sin as being synonymous with finitude. Death and mass extinction are a part of the creation from the beginning, and that is because of this finitude, and a struggle to overcome it. I am not inclined to believe that this position, by necessity, falsifies the essence of Christian faith—that we are reconciled to God in the man Jesus, and so are made heirs of God with him, thereby given the promise of eternal life. Nevertheless, let us be unambiguous on this point: if evolution is how God created, then there was no fall, and God has no real reason to hold us responsible for sin, since we are not the cause of our own finitude and “fallen” state. If we take the theistic evolutionary position, we find ourselves neck-deep in a theodicy problem that might just drown us. After all, what kind of a God of life and love chooses to create a world of mass death and violence, and then, to add insult to injury, places demands on his creation?

However, lest we think that the evolutionary position is the only one with theological problems, let me just note two issues with the traditional understanding of creation that we get from Genesis 1 and 2. If we begin with a sinless, deathless creation, then human sin is an introduction of the absurd. After all, it is hard to believe that perfectly created, sinless creatures would voluntarily choose to sin unless there was already something wrong with them. Of course, this is resolvable, and so is the lesser of the two I’ll mention. The second is death. There is no such thing as a cause-effect relationship with God. Our actions cannot force God’s hand. So when humanity sins, it does not by necessity mean their death. That death is a consequence of sin is then not natural, but an imposition of God, a judgment of God. And most of us can accept this without problem, but it creates huge problems for animal suffering and other forms of natural evil. There is absolutely no causal relationship between human sin and the suffering of animals, other than to say that God imposes death and finitude and frailty on the rest of creation because of human sin. Again, we’re neck deep in the theodicy problem. After all, what kind of a God of life and love chooses to punish all creation for the mistake of two creatures?

The next section addresses the question of scientific conclusions and their reliability. Doesn’t science change all the time? In so many words, say the authors, “No.”

So, having made clear that the Bible has no authority to challenge the conclusions of science, and having made clear that scientific conclusions aren’t going to be reversed in any substantial way, the authors spend the rest of the chapter doing their real business: assuming the truthfulness of evolution, and trying to figure out how they can still say that they believe in God and God’s creative involvement.

As you might expect, they pay lip service to humility, saying that we really can’t understand the mysterious ways of God. And then they stick God in the only non-determined space their scientific minds can find—providential involvement within the very created order of scientific laws, especially that space of creaturely freedom. God isn’t involved sometimes, but all the time, while still allowing the creation its own degree of autonomy. What on earth do they mean by this? They mean that “Chaos and quantum uncertainty make it impossible to see the world any longer as determined… It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation” (118-119). This, the authors believe, is analogous to human freedom—determined in some sense, but also genuinely free.

In fact, they make a big deal about the analogy between human and divine action, saying quite explicitly that “God’s action can be compared to our own” (120). And indeed, “we…do not understand human action in the world….human intentions emerge in our minds, somehow, via processes that we don’t understand. And then we rearrange the world around us to make these intentions a reality…” (119).

Now, let’s ignore the bigger problem of divine providence. We’re not going to solve that, and it is a gross misrepresentation of the idea to say that providence may be “exercised” in a certain part of reality that is already undetermined. The God of the Bible works out his plan through the very intentions of women and men, and this is true mystery, and we ought not trivialize it with scientific speculation. Let us instead address their very bizarre idea of creaturely freedom.

If we are to take some form of Darwinian evolution as a premise, and we are also to take as a premise that God grants the creation a degree of freedom, which is why creation is worked out in an evolutionary process, then we have to say that simple organisms have a will. Talk about freedom is meaningless without will. If there is not a willing subject, then when we say freedom we are really saying randomness or chaos. That isn’t freedom. At the very least, freedom is directed toward ends. That is, I am free because I am able to do what I intend to do. If I am unable, I am not free. If I have no intentions, language of freedom is meaningless.

Like everything in Christian faith, when we talk about freedom we are already talking about an experience of reality possible only because of God’s presence and grace. That the authors find part of the world undetermined should not seduce us into believing that we have found a space for freedom. That isn’t freedom. Likewise, God needs no Chaos to be involved with us and to respect our freedom, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”

Can scientific and theological truth be reconciled? I think so. But not at all in the way that the authors have articulated it. I don’t think we should try to solve the problem by removing the problem. We would be wiser and more noble to go through the problem, with all the uncertainty involved. We don’t have to reduce the Bible to a question about meaning, nor mistreat it as a fact-book. Maybe the best thing our community can do right now is exercise Christian patience, and learn to live in the tension of unresolved questions, to live by faith.

Matthew Burdette is a graduate of the religion program (BA and MA) at La Sierra University.

This is the fifth essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? The second. The third. The forth.

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