“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” (St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Opening Blessing)
It has been said that there are only a handful of books worth reading in life, while the rest are a waste of a good tree. (I do not know the origins of this quote, but I first heard it from Dr. Thomas Loome.) In a similar tone, I am finding that there are a set of core, transcendent ideas central to Christianity that summarize the faith, while the rest of Theology expands and deepens these ideas, adding to the beauty of Christian faith. The most central summary of Christianity is found in Creeds, both the Nicene and Apostles Creed. The very word Creed, Credo in Latin, means, I believe. Therefore, to affirm a creed is to have a belief and central to that belief is the pursuit of truth.
To come to truth is no small task. For example, one of the most basic concepts of the spiritual and moral life is “know thyself.” This simple phrase, borrowed from Greek Philosophy, points to a lifelong journey of exploring the most elemental questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? As I grew in my faith, these and other core questions were aided by the quote of St. John Paul II placed at the beginning of this reflection. The affirmation that both faith and reason are necessary for the human soul to ascend to truth (and by extension, ascend to God) was one of the most liberating moments of my intellectual and spiritual life. It gave me confidence that whether it be theology, philosophy, astronomy, biology, psychology, literature, poetry, music, or any other honest intellectual discipline that can be referenced, an inductive ascent to truth would occur, leading me to a deeper understanding of truth; truth about the world and truth about God.
This experience of liberation dates back to 1998, the year I entered seminary and the year that Fides Et Ratio, the source of St. John Paul II’s quote, was promulgated. Turn the clock forward to 2015, and I am puzzled how this beautiful image of ascent has been replaced by an attitude (in some corners) reminiscent of two kids taunting each other playing “Rock’em Sock’em Robots.”
What should be one of the most exciting exchanges of ideas among disciplines often devolves into academic spitting matches between “people of faith” and “people of science” with the ultimate goal being to make the other look like the village idiot. The byproduct of this approach has been a hyper-volatile atmosphere between faith and science in which emotionalism is presented as rational debate, leaving those who have level heads looking for the Exit door to remove themselves from this profoundly uncomfortable experience. Therefore, as an attempt to open a discussion on this subject, I thought it would be helpful to step back and ask the question: What has gone wrong in the debates between faith (specifically Christian faith) and science?
Understanding the nature of Christian Faith and the nature of Science
The Nature of Christian Faith
A major problem with debates between Christian faith and science is an inability to stay within the parameters of the nature of Christian faith and the nature of science. To help us understand the nature of Christian faith, we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that faith is certain since the very Word of God cannot lie and “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” (CCC 157) Read in isolation, one can rush to the presumption that faith is so certain that there is no need to pursue any other intellectual disciplines. However, when we read on in the Catechism, we find that faith seeks understanding, compelling the human person to deepen our understanding of God and the world, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, summarized beautifully in this quote of Saint Augustine, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.” (CCC 158) These reflections point to Christian faith being a supernatural gift that opens the heart to know, love, and serve God.
As helpful as these reflection may be, we are still seeing faith from within the context of Divine Revelation. Therefore, this begs the question, how does natural reason (including science) inform faith? When we move onto the next paragraph in the Catechism, our understanding of faith broadens to include natural reason. Let us read the paragraph in its totality.
Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.” (CCC 159)
Therefore, we can see that the nature of Christian faith is to seek truth, first and foremost, through the Revelation of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, Christian faith also calls us to engage the different disciplines of natural reason since the truths found in these disciplines derive from the same source as does Divine Revelation. The nature of Christian faith draws upon all disciplines (presuming they are pursuits of real science), affirming a core, fundamental truth that unites all schools of thought, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation of who God is, how God brought everything into existence, and where God is leading us in our lives. (For an example of how this vision of faith is expressed in education, read Blessed John Henry Newman’s text, The Idea of a University.)
Therefore, can a certain faith also admit times of confusion and contradiction? Absolutely! In fact, faith demands a gap of knowledge in order for the human person to deepen their faith, even to the point of times of profound spiritual darkness (for an example of this, read “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” by Carol Zeleski.) When it comes to contradictions between faith and science, the response of Christians should not be, “Well, science must be wrong since faith is always right!” Rather, apparent contradictions are to be seen as just that, apparent, and a mutual exploration of truth begins in which faith and reason are in dialogue with one another to deepen our understanding of truth in contrast to trying to “knock each other’s block off.”
Nature of Science
Let us now look at the nature of science. I often find myself frustrated when I hear arguments that can be summarized as, “Faith is about opinions and feelings, while science is about hard facts and objective truth.” This drastic oversimplification of both faith and science can breed a false interpretation that if you want to know truth, stick with science; if you want to be sedated by the opiate of the masses, follow religion. As I have grown in my understanding of science as a contributor to this blog, I find, more and more, that to make such claims is not only wrong, but disrespects the very nature of both faith and science.
To explore the nature of science, I would invite you to read the National Science Teachers Association position statement on the nature of science. This summary of the nature of science points to the core parameters in which science is done. Central to this understanding is that scientific knowledge is reliable, but tentative, meaning that even the best of research may be modified or discarded in light of new discoveries.
Further, science employs a number of methods and processes to understand the physical world, but precludes the use of supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge. Therefore, science is a limited field that is not designed to explore things beyond the material world. The summary goes on to affirm that the final goal of science is to understand the natural world for its own sake. Therefore, we can see that, even though science is a powerful tool to explore our physical world, there is built into the very nature of science a humble disposition, presuming that the truths arrived at can and will be changed, modified, or completely abandoned.
Lastly, since the nature of science is to exclude the supernatural, to make definitive statements about the supernatural such as, “faith is a bunch of opinions,” falls outside of the purview of science and is an expression of one’s opinion about faith and not something derived from the nature of science itself. A very clear articulation of these points is made in the National Academy of Science’s open text entitled, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. Here are two wonderful responses in the “Question and Answer” section of the text, addressing questions of faith and science.
Can a person believe in God and still accept evolution?
Many do. Most religions of the world do not have any direct conflict with the idea of evolution. Within the Judeo-Christian religions, many people believe that God works through the process of evolution. That is, God has created both a world that is ever-changing and a mechanism through which creatures can adapt to environmental change over time.
At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. Religious and scientific ways of knowing have played, and will continue to play, significant roles in human history.
No one way of knowing can provide all of the answers to the questions that humans ask. Consequently, many people, including many scientists, hold strong religious beliefs and simultaneously accept the occurrence of evolution.
Aren’t scientific beliefs based on faith as well?
Usually “faith” refers to beliefs that are accepted without empirical evidence. Most religions have tenets of faith. Science differs from religion because it is the nature of science to test and retest explanations against the natural world. Thus, scientific explanations are likely to be built on and modified with new information and new ways of looking at old information. This is quite different from most religious beliefs.
Therefore, “belief” is not really an appropriate term to use in science, because testing is such an important part of this way of knowing. If there is a component of faith to science, it is the assumption that the universe operates according to regularities—for example, that the speed of light will not change tomorrow. Even the assumption of that regularity is often tested—and thus far has held up well. This “faith” is very different from religious faith.
Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral. (Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy of Science. p. 58)
In light of these reflections, we can see that exploring a debate between Christian faith and science is a rather difficult feat if the goal is to stay within the parameters of the nature of each. It is not that Christian faith and science are diametrically opposed to one another, but their investigations point to two different ways of knowing and coming to truth. Therefore, let us move on and look at how an exchange between Christian faith and science can be done in a healthy manner.
Comparing the Nature of Christian Faith and the Nature of Science
From our exploration thus far, we can derive two, important points to help us understand why debates between faith and science often fail.
- The nature of Christian faith explores truth that is revealed through the Revelation of Jesus Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is present through natural reason. There is no need for faith to place limits upon explorations of natural reason (including science) since all truth points to a common origin, namely God.
- The nature of Science necessarily places limits upon itself as a tool of understanding the natural world. The question of God’s existence is a question that science remains neutral about since scientific method only explores the material world. Therefore, the nature of science does not deal with questions like the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Holy Spirit, and questions of life’s meaning and purpose.
From these two affirmations about the nature of Christian faith and science, we can begin to see the difficulties in establishing the groundwork for a healthy debate between faith and science. On the one hand, the nature of Christian faith affirms the necessity of natural reason, not seeing it as a contradiction of or threat to Christian faith. Rather, it is a necessary investigation to come to truth (a fact many Christians would do well to revisit).
One may argue that the Church has tried to place limits on scientific study, seeking to scuttle certain advancements in different fields of science (human cloning being a prime example). There is a necessary dialogue that needs to occur about the ethics and morality of the application of science. (This dialogue is not only a concern for Christianity, but people of all faiths, people of no faith, and the scientific community itself.) However, science in the pure sense, as an exploration of truth about the physical world, should be allowed the freedom to explore the depths of the natural world, trusting that sincere pursuits of truth will ultimately point to the source of truth.
On the other hand, one may argue that a debate that respects the nature of faith and science naturally places the scientist at a disadvantage, given the limits that science imposes upon itself. What is a scientist to do if a Christian goes on about the truths revealed in Jesus Christ? Does the scientist simple shrug his or her shoulders and say, “Sorry, we don’t deal with that.”
This challenge, however, can also be a burden upon the Christian if they truly approach this debate in a spirit of charity. Do we have a debate night where we only talk about natural reason, gutting all vestiges of Christianity from the discussion? Do we have a night where the Christian speaks freely about the different sources of Divine Revelation and the scientist talks about the truths of the natural world, risking an end result of leaving the audience still wondering, “So what is the relationship between faith and science?”
I hope you are beginning to see that this question is far more complicated than one may think on the surface. I would take it a step further and pose the question, “Is a debate between Christian faith and science even possible?”
Is a debate on faith and science even possible?
I was walking through a local bookstore the other day and randomly thumbed through texts arguing that a debate between faith and science is not possible. My first inclination was to think that these books might have a good point, given my inner wrestling with this very question. However, the foundational argument of these books was that Christian faith is so arcane, so immature, so unintelligent, so inflammatory, and so ignorant of the physical sciences that society should lump us all into a ball and kick us out of the discussion (this is obviously a summary).
Needless to say, I was unimpressed, especially as these authors then went on to espouse themselves as the mature geniuses of our times, almost hinting at a “messianic” mission of which only they possess the golden compass of truth (again, a summary). As much as I would like to rant about the authors’ hyper literalist “straw man” caricature of all Christians, which the books set ablaze amid bold proclamations about the pending death of Christianity, I will avoid becoming a character on the stage of this bizarre intellectual Carnival and simple say that if you are someone who reads these texts and come away thinking, “There has to be a better way to explore these questions,” you’re in good company. Theses spats, as tempting as they are to engage in, only perpetuate how debates on faith and science should not look. In short, we need a new format if anything healthy can emerge.
That being said, I do believe that a more charitable exploration of this thesis is necessary: Is an actual debate between faith and science possible given the nature of Christian faith and the nature of science? My assertion is that the nature of both faith and science show us that a debate is not necessary. Mature faith sees natural reason as a necessary means of coming to truth while honest science affirms that questions about God are not in their spectrum of investigation. Therefore, the real question should be “Why do we feel a need to have a debate in the first place?”
A simple answer to this question may be fear. Fear on one side that advancements in science will do harm to Christian faith and fear on the other side that religious belief will create a barrier to advancing our knowledge of science. (Another angle of fear on this matter is the impact of this debate on politics… that would be whole other post.) Therefore, I would propose that if a debate between faith and science is to be done it should be about what has led to the fear and distrust between faith and science, address these concerns, embrace the true nature of Christian faith and science, and then move forward as dialogue partners, not adversaries.
So what should a dialogue on faith and science look like?
If we are now to shift from debate to dialogue, what should this dialogue look like? To explore this question, let us return to our beginning, revisiting the words of St. John Paul II.
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. (St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Opening Blessing)
The ends of faith and the ends of reason are not always the same, but they can inform one another on their given explorations. Both faith and reason can teach us that the human person has an inner wiring and longing to know the world that we live in and this world is multidimensional, multifaceted, and contains layer upon layer of meaning, purpose, and truth that has captivated the mind for the whole of human history. Even the hardest of atheist scientists can affirm that faith, Judeo-Christian faith in particular, has had a monumental impact on human history, both for good and bad, and even the deepest Christian who is suspicious of the natural sciences can affirm that scientific exploration has greatly impacted modern society, both for good and bad.
Could there be a day when this atheist and this Christian approach one another in a spirit of solidarity, seeing that their common goal of pursuing truth may be a way to charitably explore their differences or are we doomed to the endless charade of “debates” that have more to do with politics, bitterness, and hatred, laced with sophomoric “gotch ya'” moments, instead of sincerely engaging in a dialogue about truth? My prayer is that the words of St. John Paul II will drive a new dialogue of charity between sincere Christians and scientists, bringing the failed “debate” circuit to a necessary end.
Discussion: Do you think that a debate between faith and reason is possible? Leave your thoughts and, together, let us engage in a dialogue between faith and reason, allowing for a moment of ascent toward the source of all truth.