There is no conflict between science and religion, only between bad science and bad religion. At London Bible College I learned a very important principle from Dick France. In many situations, truth lies not in either/or but in both/and. I am persuaded we do not need to make a choice between either science or Christian faith. Rather, to understand the world and our human condition, we need both science and Christian faith. I have continued to read widely on topics such as evolution both from scientific and theological perspectives. I have wrestled with the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis and other significant Bible passages as well as with issues in epistemology and the philosophy of science. I am more convinced than ever that Christian belief and scientific study are entirely compatible. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
This morning we considered this important topic thinking about the relationship between science and the supernatural. There are a number of presuppositions which are necessary if you are going to understand science and these intrinsically exclude anything which could be described as supernatural. The same assumptions exclude the possibility that miracles can happen. Bad science rejects reports of miracles because such events cannot be handled in the ways science is equipped to do.
We went on this morning to think about the existence of God and saw again that saying “God does not exist” cannot be declaring a proven fact but only expressing a personal belief. Faith is concerned with the God who is above science, Who created and sustains the scientific laws which scientists study but is inevitably Himself beyond the scope of scientific study. Science does not, and cannot, prove God doesn’t exist. It is not possible to prove that kind of negative statement. And science will never ultimately be able to explain how the world began. Science is very good at explaining how this world works and how we can control it. But it has its limits – and good scientists recognise those limits. Science cannot give us any answers about things in the universe which we cannot see or touch, the whole spiritual realm.
Some people, including some scientists, are unable to recognise the signs of God in the world. Many people are so blinded by the way the media suggest that science has replaced God that they simply cannot see God. Some scientists are so locked into their way of looking at the world that they genuinely cannot see the evidence for God which is all around them. But for anyone who looks for it the evidence is there plain to see. All it needs is a shift in perception and people can see the world in a new way.
The biologist Louis Pasteur said, “Posterity will one day laugh at the foolishness of modern materialistic philosophers. The more I study nature the more I am amazed at the Creator.” “Science brings men nearer to God.”
Thinking about science and Christian faith, I am not going to talk specifically about creation and evolution. I have preached on that topic before and those sermons are on my blog. Chapter 7 of my book Prepared to give an answer gave my understanding of the question: “Just how did God create the world?”. This evening instead I want to look at the issues of science and Christian faith from a broader philosophical perspective. I hope you won’t feel I am going too deep if I pose the very important question, “What is truth?” I ask this because science and religion have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to say that something is true. Let me begin with three statements. Think about each one – is this true or false?
(a) 2 + 2 = 4
(b) force equals mass times acceleration
(c) Henry the Eighth had six wives
Are these statements true or false?
The first statement,“2 + 2 = 4”, expresses mathematical truth. This starts from certain basic assumptions (axioms) and derives from them other mathematical truths by means of defined operations. These can be proved totally theoretically by following the rules of mathematics.
The physics equation, “force equals maths times acceleration”, expresses scientific truth. Science is based on observations and experiments from which theories are deduced. A theory or model is only true if it successfully explains and predicts the results of practical experiments. So truth in physics is quite similar to truth in mathematics, but not identical.
“Henry VII had six wives” is true in the area of history. According to all the available evidence, historians judge this statement to be correct. Truth in historical events and people can still be accepted even though there may be little evidence remaining of what actually happened many centuries ago. But it is always possible that new facts emerge and change what is understood to be true in history. That cannot happen in the same way in mathematics.
The study of the philosophy of knowledge is called epistemology. It considers matters such as truth, belief, evidence, and reason. There are many different areas of knowledge: mathematics, science, history, literature, morality, philosophy and religion too. Each area has a different understanding of truth within it, with different ways of determining what is true or false. Historical facts cannot be proved true mathematically because the rules of mathematics do not apply to history. Moral questions of right and wrong, like “Is murder wrong?” cannot be decided using scientific principles alone, because the scientific method of reasoning is not designed to apply to moral issues. Religious truth is another distinct kind of truth concerned with things which are infinite, eternal and spiritual, things we can never fully understand or adequately describe.
When we recognise that there are different kinds of knowledge, we then also need to realise that they all use language in different ways. Mathematics and science almost always use language very precisely and literally. But there are other ways language can be used. Consider four more statements – are these true or false?
(d) “He’s got a frog in his throat.”
(e) Romeo loves Juliet.
(f) God is love.
(g) “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.”
“He’s got a frog in his throat” is an example of a statement which we consider to be true if the person is coughing. But this is an idiomatic expression in English, which would not translate directly into a foreign language like French. It is using language which is metaphorical, not literal. No actual frogs are involved.
“Romeo loved Juliet” is a true statement about the characters in Shakespeare’s story world. But since they were fictional characters, it is meaningless to say whether their love was true in the real world. In real life relationships, rather than in fiction, saying to somebody, “I love you” can be true or not true, However, such love cannot be proved mathematically or scientifically or historically, but only in the experience of the people in love.
When Christians say “God is love” is that true or false? We need to think about what we mean by “truth” in that statement and we also need to consider how we understand the word “love.” The love expressed by the almighty and eternal God will necessarily be much more profound than any human expressions of love.
Similarly, when we read in the Bible in Genesis, “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.” We need to ask what we mean by the concept of truth in that sentence. Is that truth in scientific terms, or in history, or is it truth in the terms of religion and faith? And we need to ask what kind of language is being used? Is it literal or symbolic.
Poetry is often not intended to be understood literally. Take as an example, “Tyger, Tyger burning bright, in the forest of the night.” This poetry is not referring to a tiger which is on fire. Religious truth cannot always be explained in the language or judged by the sorts of ways of thinking which belong to other kinds of knowledge. Eternal and spiritual truths often can’t be expressed in literal language.
Isaiah 55 8 ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.
9 ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Consequently, religious truth is usually not expressed in literal language but instead in words used symbolically or poetically, using similes and metaphors, sometimes bending language almost to breaking point. It is a big mistake to try to understand literally language which was intended to be understood symbolically.
Very many of the alleged conflicts between science and faith arise because science and religion are using language in different ways. The Bible uses many different forms (genres) of language: history, parable, law, letter, proverb, and the highly symbolic language of prophecy and revelation. When we approach any passage in the Bible, we must try to work out what kind of language it is written in and that will then lead us to consider what kind of truth the passage is trying to communicate. As an example, think about when Jesus told His parables, do we think He was quoting historical truth? Was the Good Samaritan a real living person? Did an actual Prodigal Son ever leave his father? Were the parables history? Or were they instead carefully constructed stories which convey spiritual truth?
The same questions arise when Christians and scientists debate the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. Is the Bible account of God creating the world in six days true? That will surely depend on the sense in which we are using the word true? Some people argue that evolution has disproved the Bible. I want to suggest the issue in the alleged conflict between creation and evolution is actually philosophical. The real question is what do we mean by truth? Are the Creation Narratives in Gen 1-2 intended to be read as scientific truth? This leads to the related question. Is the language literal or is it instead symbolic or poetical, or some combination of these genres? It seems very unlikely that the writers were trying to produce a textbook of science and history. For one thing science and history and modern scientific language as we know them have only been invented over the last few hundred years. The Bible accounts of creation have been around for 3000 years or more. It seems much more likely that Genesis was written to present religious truth in an enduring form, using the kinds of language which were in use at the time of writing. I have explored those Genesis accounts from the angle of biblical interpretation in different sermons which you can find on my blog.
When it comes to creation, science and religion are asking different questions. Science wants to know how the universe began and how did life begin and develop. Religion is asking who was behind it all, why did life begin, what is the purpose of it all? In this, as in so many alleged conflicts of science and faith, religion and science use different concepts of what is true and are using language in different ways. Both scientists and Christian believers are well-versed in the forms of truth they deal with all the time, and they are fluent in the kinds of language appropriate to those respective kinds of truth. It is very sad that science and faith so often misunderstand each other, firstly because they have different understandings of truth and secondly because they use language in such different ways. When it comes to science and Christian faith, it is not a matter of either/or but both/and. If we want to understand the universe and our human condition properly, we need both science and Christian faith.