Thursday, July 24, 2014

Science and Scripture

In my evangelical world, science is still sometimes at argument. Yes, it manifests itself in specific subjects, but, for the most part, it is the idea of science itself that seems to be at odds - as if somehow it's sacrilegious to think God could communicate knowledge to people outside the Bible.

Obviously it's not always so bad, but a lot of times it is.

Don't get me wrong, it's a rough slog that needs to be waded through. While the rest of the world is actually engaging science on its own terms, so many evangelicals are becoming less and less relevant to the world. People do very much need to understand that some approaches to scripture, even very old, traditional ones, come with their own assumptions and biases that aren't inherent in the text.

I don't even care so much if people still choose to form scientific opinions from religious or theological beliefs. I wish they wouldn't, but I'm not going to kill myself to change it. I do think it's important that there is at least respect in the areas of our disagreement. We can think each other stupid morons, so long as we don't treat each other that way.

Still, as I approach the debates that exist within the evangelical world around science and religion (particularly a certain kind of literal, fundamentalist religion), I more often cringe at those with whom I agree.

I know the arguments that Ken Ham, say, or some Intelligent Design officianado will put forth to defend their position (or attack mine). I get the reasoning behind it and I understand pretty clearly why I've chosen differently. Hearing those ongoing arguments make me sad, but they do not upset me.

I'm not really upset by the other "side" either. I think, for the most part, the Christian defenders of science are robust, thorough and graceful (or at least more graceful than they should probably be expected to be given the abuse they so often endure).

It's got to be tough for someone who could easily walk away from the evangelical tribe, to stay and attempts to present alternatives, counter-opinions, true Christian challenge, all the while being vilified and called enemy.

At the same time, I often regret how little emphasis is actually placed on scripture by those in the "science" camp. (And please, know it pains me deeply to even be talking about this as a "debate," but reality is as reality does - the same goes for unreality as well, I suppose.)

Sure, there is debate about the ways in which scripture is used and approached by the seven day creation camp or the ID perspective. There is a presentation of alternative perspectives and approaches to interpretation. That's not absent. What I don't often see is an affirmation of the primacy and importance of scripture for those who choose to put stock in the study of the physical world.

Now this is sort of an awkward critique. I went to school at Eastern Nazarene College and took a class from Dr. Karl Giberson, who's sort of become a leading engager of such debates and a convenient whipping boy for the most militant of evangelicals and literalists. I know Karl - not in some super close way, but we're friends on Facebook; I've been to his house a couple times. I find it hard to talk about such discussions without thinking of him.

This isn't really something that applies to Karl. He's a scientist. He really does well when he's talking (and even better when he's writing) from the scientist's perspective. He speaks well to his own religious experience, but honestly, religion is not his field and the times I'm most uncomfortable with what he has to say are the times he addresses religion more deeply - again, it's not his field.

It might be more a critique of the silent majority of those for whom religion is their field than it is of Jesus-loving scientists. Religion, theology, happens to be my field and it seems sometimes like we've hung those scientists out to dry. And, in doing so, have done a real disservice to the conversation.

You see, when there is a debate over God and science, rightly or not, the perception is that one side takes scripture more seriously and the other side is perceived to argue that perhaps they're taking it too seriously.

In many cases, though, this couldn't be further from the truth.

I believe people willing to engage so strenuously in debate (on any side of any issue) probably care pretty deeply about the subject matter. Yes, some people use a non-literalist interpretation of scripture to justify ignoring sections they don't like. But to categorize all science advocates in that vein is silly.

But it might be justifiable, especially if people who really do take scripture seriously, but find themselves in an alternative position to traditional evangelicalism refuse to speak up.

I wish the conversation would continue - beyond why one perspective on scripture is inadequate for some and onto alternative ways scripture can be taken seriously.

I grew up in a pretty conservative environment. I suspect it was my own natural contrarian proclivities that kept me from jumping hook, line, and sinker into literalist, fundamentalist beliefs. I had a lot of thinking to do in college to evaluate new information I received about science. What I didn't get until Seminary, though, were the tools to do a similar evaluation and recalibration on how that new information effected my views of God and scripture. Those tools weren't present in the science debate.

It is a scare tactic to say that evolution or serious science is an attempt to move our children away from proper doctrine or that the study of science in standard academic terms will steal a person's faith. It's not entirely wrong, though. People do encounter science and lose faith from time to time. Others find resonance with a more liberal perspective on science and faith, but lose the fervency they once had for God. It happens. It's far from inevitable, but it's not non-existent.

I wonder sometimes, if Christian kids aren't getting turned off to Christ because we're not equipping them with the tools necessary to process theology in light of science. If, by omission, we're teaching them to take scripture less seriously when we counter dearly-held childhood beliefs with alternative perspectives.

In my case, the pathological need for order drove me to deep study (well beyond anything required in any of my academic programs) to try and answer some of these questions. I know a lot of people just don't feel the need to do the same thing.

In my case, the need to incorporate scientific revelation into a life of faith lead me to an even more serious treatment of scripture than I had before. If I have one critique of the Ken Ham ilk, it's that they don't take scripture seriously enough.

I don't think this perspective on the matter gets discussed enough. It's not the job of scientists - even Christian scientists - to do it. It's my job, and really the job of anyone who's ever put in an effort to reconcile new information with ancient faith.

I've written about my continuing struggles with this reconciliation here. I will continue to explore because it's a whole lot of fun, but also because this journey has led me to some amazing discoveries about God and the world that reach far deeper and with more beauty than anything I've experienced before.

I think people encounter this kind of science everyday - it's more than biology, but sociology, history, economics, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and more - information that doesn't immediately fit into the religious or theological framework they've been given.

I think, for a lot of people, the default position is just to devalue scripture. They just don't have the tools to do otherwise. They simply say, "well, if my understanding of scripture was wrong in this area, I guess it must be wrong here, too," and leave it at that. That's certainly where I was for many years.

As Christians, scripture is the tradition of God's people passed down through time. It may not be a verbatim dictation of thought and practice from God's mouth to your ears, but it's amazingly, profoundly, life-alteringly important.

Reconciling the two, or, especially, giving people the tools to reconcile the two, is not the job of scientists - it's the job of pastors and theologians. My people.

Too often, and I am certainly guilty of this as well, we remain silent when we should speak for fear of entering an argument that could be avoided. When we do so, we hurt ourselves, the people with whom we converse, and also those "scientists" out there, in a wide variety of fields, who've dedicated themselves to increasing knowledge and learning more about this unbelievable world God shares with us.

I'm not sure if there's a point to this whole essay - and it's about five times longer than I've intended it to be -but I've been thinking about it recently and I thought it might do some of you some good to think about it, too.

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