Nature, Religion and Science: A Place to Stand
By Neil Earle
“You’ll love it here in the fall,” my realtor told me.
She was right. Memphis, TN is known for its luxuriant abundance of trees but if you go north of the city where we live you are ensconced in a beautiful pattern of green, gold and yellows this time of year. The corn was as high as an elephant’s eye just a few weeks ago and now it is harvested.
But lots of other crops are ripening as this marvelous almost mystical turn of the seasons unfolds. One church in the forest north of us has a sign, “This is your breakout season” and even more relevant are the host of older hymns that Nature’s Fall Show conjures up to many of us. There is “All things bright and beautiful,” and “For the beauty of the earth,” as well as “Sing the song of harvest home.”
The Marvels of MathA long line of Christian thinkers have been fascinated by the conclusion that the universe, mysterious as it is, seems to be open to sustained and intelligent human investigation. Nature is congenial to our explorations. Christian thinkers have pointed to the science of mathematics as an obvious illustration of the point that mathematicians have to discover equations and formulas a posteiori. They cannot propose a new theory without applying the tools of mathematical corroboration. “The book of the Universe,” Galileo is supposed to have said, “is written in the language of mathematics.” Physicists have to “do the math.”
It seems remarkable to many how the human mind seems “pre-programmed” in advance to discover nature’s screts. “We discover that the universe shows evidence of a designing or controlling Power…with the tendency to think in the way we describe as mathematical,” offered Sir James Jeans some time ago. Note this challenge laid out by the superbly confident Deity through the words of his prophets: “Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Tell us the former things what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome” (Isaiah 41:21-22).
Lay out your charts, let’s see your sums, says the Transcendent One towering over those chapters. Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
The Distemper of Doubt
Christians can enjoy this spectacular turn of the year but others are less sure – a theology about the natural world is very much out of favor today. In the light of pervasive evolutionary thinking (in spite of its admitted flaws) and insidious anti-God teaching and mistakes the church itself has made some are not able to see these outdoor displays in fall and spring in the way Paul and Barnabas explained it to the pagans in south-central Turkey years ago. These enthusiastic folk wanted to worship the disciples rather than the great God:
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them…Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).
Here is Paul’s flat-out linkage between harvest, the fruits of the earth and the great merciful Creator God. Yet in order for us to enjoy this concept in all its beautiful simplicity today’s preachers have to do some extra spadework. For starters we may have to analyze and even deconstruct some of the ways Christians have handled this issue of Nature and Religion in the past. A helpful guide here is the respected French scholar Henri Blocher's work In the Beginning. Blocher offered an overview of the different ways the Christian church has presented the whole issue of Religion and Science, a burning issue since Darwin’s theory was published in 1859.
A Threefold Triangle
The first approach Blocher designates as concordism – the word “harmonization” perhaps fits better. Many Christians across the centuries have pointed out the harmonies between Religion – specifically the Bible – and the discoveries of modern science. This partly explains the career of John Polkinghorne who gave up his career in physics to become an Anglican priest. He was struck that the implications from his Quantum researches pointed to a Creator God.
This strategy of bringing out points of agreement between scientific discoveries and the Biblical text is admirable… as far as it goes. The problem, says Blocher, is that it allows the theologians of a particular age to raid a current understanding of science for pointing to God’s existence. Thus many Christians in the Middle Ages assumed that Hell was a literal fiery place below the earth. Some took Psalm 19 with its beautiful word picture of the sun rushing across the sky like an athlete to “prove” that the sun revolved around the earth.
Most of us know the problems this “flat earth” thinking led to in the 1500s with Galileo, etc. So “harmonization” is OK up to a certain point. God’s own revelation of himself in Scripture should come first, Paul’s tactic in Acts 14.
A second approach Blocher’s calls anti-Scientism though it could be also labelled Creationism.
Here we meet the “strict literalists” and they do have important points to make, says Blocher. For one thing, Science seems to be always changing its mind, groping in the dark, and discarding theories more than is admitted. Darwin goofed on the “simple cell” notion and his disciples forgot that acquired characteristics of an organism are not inherited. The problem comes in when anti-Scientism builds its own alternative science. For example, in order to understand the amount of water needed to Flood the whole earth, literalists create a theory of a “water vapor canopy” that surrounded the pre-Flood earth – a sort of divine storage tank that was unleashed.
This canopy apparently shielded the earth from powerful radiation from space and thus explained the long lives of the patriarchs. Henry Wilson and the Scientific Creation association became identified with this comprehensive scheme in the book once used as a text at many fundamentalist colleges – The Genesis Flood. While all of us are free to speculate it is obvious that the water vapor canopy theory takes you a long long way from the “strict literalism” approach to Genesis 1-11.
The third tactic of interaction between Christians and Science Blocher calls fideism, the tactic of arguing that the Bible is not a text on physics or biology but is concerned only with spiritual truths. Thus in studying Jonah, for example, look for the bigger picture of not being hateful to foreigners rather than calculating whether a whale’s mouth is big enough to swallow a human. Carried to an extreme this approach tends to water down even the great truths of Scripture. So in this Science/Religion Triangle each view has elements of truth and weakness. So how does all this help us in our love of Nature?
Torrance’s “Noises in the System”Nature is marvelous. It is also dangerous. There are glaring divergences – Mount St. Helens vs. Mount Baker. In the mid-20th Century a new breed of “scientific theologians” led by Thomas Torrance laid much stress on the well-known philosophical term “contingency” – the fact that the universe is not necessary and does not have to be the way it is. Rather, it is allowed by the freedom of God to act both rationally and irrationally. In the Garden of Gethasamane Jesus had a choice – and chose wisely. Choice and even an element of irrationality seems built into the system.
Advancing contingency offers a good explanation for the complexity of the cosmos, allows us to understand both the Creation’s rationality and its unpredictability. Torrance and others understood that the New Physics of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg (pioneering quantum science and uncertainty) is more congenial to the full Biblical revelation of a super-intending Providence outside the material world who neverthless allows unexpected things to happen. Torrance sees this insight as a path to explaining such unexpected events as virgin births and resurrection. Colossians 1 introduces Christ into this debate and praises him as the Controlling Intelligence behind the scenes. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Go read Torrance to delve deeper into Torrance’s contention that for the Great God, everything is not cut and dried, surprise is built into the system, and even the Quantum realm has a Creator. Polkinghorne agrees and adds that this changes everything both for strict literalists (who think they “own” Jesus) or to fudgy fideists who haven’t begun to contemplate the full implications of the Incarnation. There are indeed, more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. To God be the glory.
After the Fact or…Before
One solution is to start further back in the very process of how we humans reason and come to conclusions. In The Science of God Alister McGrath – another scientist turned Christian – analyzes two approaches. One is “a posteriori” which means esentially making a conclusion when evidence accumulates “after the fact.” The opposite is the approach taken by too many scientists and Christians today. It is called “a priori” and refers to making a prior judgement about something you are investigating. Atheists do this when they postulate, “The universe exists and we know how it got here.” The a posteriori approach says, What are we to discern from the reality we see around us? Is there a higher explanation than human theorizing since our own brains too are part of the natural order we are seeking to explain? Paul and Barnabas argued that the natural world seems to be congenially set up to feed you and your families. This strongly implies an overiding, caring Intelligence whom we should respect!
Three Levels of Agreement
When we back off from the subject a little, take off our lab coats and step down from our pulpits we can break down the reality we see around us in three ways.
First, Nature is glorious.
Second, Nature seems to reflect order and purpose.
Third, Nature is set up in a way human reason can explore and investigate.
If we take Aristotle’s definition of Nature as “what happens on a regular basis” we can more calmly analyze each propostion. Is Nature glorious? Yes it is. Even Charles Darwin marvelled at the intricate design and organization of the human eye, for example. He saw it as a threat to his whole theory of efficient changes over eons producing masterpieces.
Yet he couldn’t surrender his a priori assumption of resident naterial forces. By contrast Bible readers are introduced to Nature as the product of Someone bigger and more aware than ourselves, of Someone who stands outside the created order and ourselves and begins enunciating his claims without complicated tricks and leaps of logic. “In the beginnng God created the heaven and the earth.” This Supremely Confident One of Genesis 1 follows up this insight with the more intricate claim in Psalm 94:9, “He who plants the ear shall he not hear? He who formed the eye shall he not see?”
This all-knowing, intrusive and self-confident Personage claims credit for everything in Nature, from the stars in the farthest galaxies to the pupil of the eye (Isaiah 40:26).
If an Intelligent One got the created order started than we should expect to see order and purpose advanced on many different levels. And we do. Consider a clip from God’s Nature Quiz: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and spread its wings towards the south? Does the eagle mount up at your command, and make its nest on high?” (Job 39-26-27). Here are creatures functioning quite sensibly and harmoniously without any “help” from human kind. They are oustide our purview and yet are wonderful and marvelous for their own sake. Neither Walt Disney not MIT created or invented them, but there they are. An a priori fact (there before us) but needing a posteriori reasoning to more logically make sense of them.
This is an a posteriori remembrance that we humans are not the center of things. But Christians have a good idea of Who really is, and in him, we live, move and have our being. Both an a priori fact and an a posteriori conclusion.