Monday, May 19, 2008

Thinking through science and religion.......


......as a non-Creationist. I am also not a scientist: my degree is in theology and I have limited scientific knowledge.

I was going to get to this at some stage but the comments and exchanges on the threads relating to my posts on how we understand the Old Testament have brought it on sooner. There may be concurrent posts on the Old Testament and Religion and Science, then, depending on how folk respond.

I would say at the outset that I do not favour religion over science or vice-versa: the general debate about these issues often presupposes a mutual exclusivity which I do not buy into. We seem to be in an age and an environment where people have lost faith because science has taught us to doubt religion and we seem to need impiracle evidence before we consider belief. How sad. Science and Religion may approach the same topics but are not asking the same questions. To me Science is concerned with the "how?" and religion with the "why?" and unless we get that clearer in our thought processes I think we are bound for trouble.

I did say on an earlier thread that I believe all that we know about science at present is provisional: scientists can "prove" relatively little of what they believe because future discoveries may well enhance, challenge or indeed change current thinking. Scientists aren't uncomfortable about this and nor should they be.

But at risk of some blog friends calling me a heretic I also believe that what we know about Christianity and Salvation is provisional. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians "For now we see through a glass darkly". Certainly all the mysteries of faith are too great to be revealed to us which is why I am constantly declaiming here and elsewhere that we are in danger of making God in our own image and therefore too small. My God is so transcendent that he can not be constrained by the pages of any scripture regardless of what that scripture proclaims about that same God's self-revelation.

That traditional religious belief co-exists uneasily with science at present is self-evident. Where is the blame for that? I have to say it all too often lies within Christianity itself because the church has had an historic suspicion of science which many individuals have inherited and continue to pass on. This is the same church which treated as heretical the ideas that the earth orbits the sun and that the earth is not, after all, flat. Linked to this there is also a history of religious retreats in the face of scientific advances. We have found ourself in a "God of the gaps" situation where God explains what we don't know and as we learn more the God gap shrinks and we become wrongfooted and defensive. Side by side with this another generation grows up believing without question or challenge that science has disproved religion.

The growth of startling scientific understanding from the 1960's has threatened that remaining God space: pulsars have been discovered which might be a clue to the Big Bang, the description many people - Christians included - give for the start of the universe. If matter can disappear without trace into black holes it is no great advance to speculate that it can also spontaneously appear, therefore removing the apparent need for a creative force. That does not mean, however, that there was no creative force.

But the good news is that we do not need to subscribe to the God of the gaps premise which is flawed because it is reactive to science and projects a far from transcendent image of God. Christian scientists such as Joceylin Bell-Burnett, an astronomer with the Open University argue that far from the God gap getting smaller, advances in scientific knowledge are not so tidy as to clear everything up but instead pose many extra unknowns. The God space does not shrink. Far from it: it expands.

Christianity has done itself a disservice, not so much for expecting belief without proof, but for expecting belief without question. It seems to me, however, that it is Christian scientists such as Bell-Burnett who are at the forefront of asking the hard questions today: questions like "What was God's role in this process?"

More to come.