So what are we to make of Christianity and science? I think a helpful analogy would be to think in terms of two books from God: scripture and nature. Scripture is testimony of God’s involvement in the world and reveals his plan for creation, including us. Nature is physical evidence of God’s work in the world.
Without getting too metaphysical, I think it is important to ask what the difference is between the natural and the supernatural. When we say “natural” we usually mean something that we see repeatedly and consistently. When we say “supernatural” or “miracle,” we refer to something that seems inconsistent with what usually happens for which we have no explanation. For instance, people coming back to life is supernatural… or is it?
What if God suddenly raised everyone from the dead and then began bringing people back from the dead right after they died? We might not be able to explain what was happening but if it continued over time we would no longer call it supernatural. It happens every time and therefore it is natural. What if gravity is actually supernatural, but because it happens all the time, we call it natural? Supernatural is simply extraordinary events that we can’t explain. Does that make the natural any less permeated with God’s presence?
We have received divine revelation in scripture about God and his plans for humanity. We also have before us the wondrous handiwork of God in the physical world. We know God exists and is involved, but science is the study of the physical evidence of how God works in the world. Revelation does not tell us how the physical realities of the world work and science does not tell us about God’s purposes or operations beyond physical realities. So precisely how do the two interact? Why not ask how Jesus could be fully God and fully human? How can God be three in one? It is a paradox.
The drive of the Modernist era has been to force an “either or” solution. For finite beings with limited mental capacity and perceptive abilities, to believe that we can grasp how an infinite and omniscient God interacts with creation is more than a little arrogant. To conclude that because science cannot measure God that God is not present is the height of arrogance. It doesn’t mean that these topics shouldn’t be probed, but a considerable dose of humility is in order.
For centuries, the Church stifled learning and understanding of the physical world because of its unexamined iconoclastic presumptions about how the world works. As many of those presumptions were proved false, the church resorted to threats and inquisitions to retain power and authority. The Church discredited itself before much of the world. The Church succumbed to its own hubris.
Meanwhile, the Enlightenment, flamed by the recalcitrance of the Church, gave birth to a new type of hubris. As science broke free from the prison of Church influence it began to quickly gain authority. Scientists made remarkable breakthroughs that dramatically improved the lives of everyday people. By the 19th Century, philosophers like Auguste Comte (1798-1857) touted positivism, and the new science of sociology, as the future religion of humankind. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) championed the concept of Social Darwinism. (It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest.”) This trajectory in social scientific thinking led to the Eugenics Movement in the United States and Germany during the first half of the 20th Century. However, the most notorious of this band of intellectuals has to be Karl Marx (1818-1883).
Marxism is essentially a Christian heresy. It promises a coming utopia. It views humanity as moving toward an unstoppable conclusion. It demands complete loyalty. It views the people as the “body,” except instead of having Christ as head, impersonal market and evolutionary forces are taking the “body” to completion. Of course, as we have seen, the individual counted for very little.
Science is not an institution in the same sense as the Church. Scientists can not achieve the same level of tyranny the Church achieved. Yet, from the mid-19th Century (at least) leading scientists, scientific communities, and social thinkers have championed science as the final authority on all matters and legitimized some of the most horrific events in human history.
Evolution played a part in many of the destructive ideologies of the 20th Century. So is evolution the culprit? If I want to make a counterfeit $20 bill, I would be well advised to use a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the center that looks as close to the real thing as possible. If I want to create a counterfeit religion, wouldn’t I want it to look as much like the real thing as possible? Scientific research points overwhelmingly toward evolution as process in the book that God has given us about the physical world. Would it not make sense to incorporate this mindset into any godless counterfeit ideology I develop? This doesn’t make evolution wrong or evil.
It seems to me that the answer lies in embracing the paradox of the two books God has given us. Scripture, apart from science, leads to a stagnate culture. Science, apart from scripture, can lead to a host of horrifying consequences for humanity corporately and individually. Science, and its application through technology, is coming to be seen less as a savior and more as a tool that can either enhance life or destroy it. Its luster as the high priest of knowledge is beginning to fade.
One of the things I see today as a minor theme within the Emergent Church movement is hostility toward reason and science. This strikes me as an over reaction. The answer to an over inflated esteeming of science is not its trivialization. In fact, the scientists I know are among the most awestruck, humbled, and mystical people around. The answer is to bring the study of the physical world back into balance with the personal word God has given us in scripture, incarnated in Jesus Christ, and attested to us by the Holy Spirit.