Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Language of Origins

I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Language of God, by Dr Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, in which he attempts to show evidence for God in 21st Century science. The book has received mixed reviews. Alister McGrath, a believing scientist, molecular biologist and theologian of international reputation and author of Dawkins' God and, with his wife, The Dawkins Delusion, says of the work, "A remarkable book...Compelling reading for anyone reflecting on the relation of science and faith", while the secularist, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, writes, "To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts." It does seem inevitable that, no matter how qualified and respected a scientist may be, once he mentions God his credentials mean nothing and his reputation is considered compromised.

In his review Harris paints a worrying picture of a mindless Christian world in which people believe the earth is six thousand years old; science is considered the enemy of faith and thinking is the preserve of beleaguered secularists. Of course, Harris has his own agenda and is an Evangelist for Atheism just as much as Collins is one for Christianity, both claiming to base their views on sound socio/scientific theory. (For a truly thrilling and thoughtful account of scientist as evangelist I recommend Clare George's The Evangelist ) Of course, neither will Dr Collins' observations sit easy with those of my Creationist friends who subscribe to a young earth theory since Collins' views sit squarely in the theistic evolution school of thought.

Collins points out that "science is not static. Scientists are constantly reaching into new arenas, investigating the natural world in new ways, digging deeper into territory where understanding is incomplete. Faced with a set of data that includes a puzzling and unexplained phenomenon, scientists construct hypotheses of the mechanism that might be involved, and then conduct experiments to test those hypotheses. Many experiments on the cutting edge of science fail, and most hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Science is progressive and self-correcting: no significantly erroneous conclusions or false hypotheses can be sustained for long, as newer observations will ultimately knock down incorrect constructs. But over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding. That framework is then given a much more substantive description, and is called a 'theory' – the theory of gravitation, the theory of relativity, or the germ theory, in instance.

One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research. Scientists have a streak of closeted anarchism, hoping that someday they will turn up some unexpected fact that will force a disruption of the framework of the day. That's what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that regard, any assumption that a conspiracy could exist among scientists to keep a widely current theory alive when it actually contains serious flaws is completely antithetical to the restless mindset of the profession."

This addresses an issue that has bothered me for some time concerning the approach of some Christians in trying to make sense of their faith and scientific progress in the question of origins. I am no scientist and cannot claim even an amateur enthusiast's grasp of the arguments but some Christians' faith approach to issues of science and origins seems sometimes to lack a basic integrity. Too many Christians decide on their conclusions based on one, usually literalist interpretation of the Bible then set about finding 'proof' to back up these conclusions; then they insist this is science. Question their approach and/or conclusions and they look at you with suspicion as though suspecting that you are part of this imagined conspiracy to which Collins refers. Not everyone does this by any means but enough to make it too easy for people like Sam Harris to feel justified in dismissing us all as the lunatic fringe.

It is not that I think that faith has nothing to say to science but it is really important that faith should speak the language of science and demand of itself the same level of integrity it demands of science; otherwise, why should anyone listen?

A common enough mistake that has been repeated down the centuries is to lay over the basic tenets of Scripture the received wisdom of the day and treat that as though as inerrant as Scripture. Collins explains that the church can attach itself to a prior view of things and incorporate that into its core belief system. Any attempt to revise the received wisdom of the day in light of new scientific observations is resisted and denounced as a betrayal of the truth, a heresy.

Galileo's experience presents us with a very good example of this. Many saw in the Bible irrefutable arguments that all heavenly bodies orbited the earth:

"The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved" (Psalm 93:1)

"He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved" (Psalm 104:5)

"The sin rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises" (Eccl. 1:5)

But Galileo observed four moons orbiting Jupiter, showing that the earth was certainly not their centre. However, over a thousand years earlier Augustine had already established the idea that God accommodates himself to our peculiar circumstances and what we see when we look out at the world. Each of those verses accurately represents the way we see things from where we stand.

That is not to say they are scientifically accurate but then, as has often been pointed out, that was never the purpose of God's communicating with us. He did not say to Moses "E=MC2" and, again, Augustine took the view that the biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. He bemoaned the folly of those who stick doggedly to a view of the world long shown to be erroneous by simple human scientific progress, bringing the church into disrepure by such dogmatism:

"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly someone meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation."

(The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chap. 19 [AD 408])

These are things with which thoughtful Christians wrestle and on which we don't all agree while Christians who fail to reflect thoughtfully, preferring an instinctive approach to faith, tend to cling to what they believe they 'know' and often do end up speaking idiotically about them, misrepresenting science as almost totally conspiratorial in its nature and the Bible as fully vindicating their personal prejudices. In a world that needs desperately to hear the gospel it serves the world ill and God unfaithfully if we present it such that it is robbed of all credibility and of even a fair hearing.

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