The pastor of my church asked me to speak about naturalism and theism at our Wednesday night supper, in part to lay some groundwork for his discussion of creationism and evolution the following week.
These kinds of presentations are never easy for me. I’m not a philosopher, so I spend considerable time just making sure I can correctly define all the terms I’m using. Further, these kinds of talks force me to think about the relationship between science and faith, a relationship I’ve never fully understood.
Someone has remarked that scientists have presuppositions. We certainly do. For Christians, an important presupposition is that the universe is a contingent reality, reflecting the grace, beauty and intelligence of its creator: the “Vestigia Dei,” the fingerprint of God.
But this presupposition is special: it does not drive the way we reason about physical law or how we interpret data. It does not mean we invoke God as an explanation in any theory or model; we never do this. It does not mean we seek to prove the existence of God through science, or that we conclude a given outcome or pattern of facts could be so only if God exists. It is not Intelligent Design. It does not mean that we constrain our imaginations vis-a-vis the development of new theories or models in an effort to remain faithful to existing doctrines; we never do this.
If, in an act of faith (and, to some extent, worship), we choose to interpret scientific findings to reflect the intelligence and power of God, we never allow such interpretations to become constraints on the further questions we can ask or the answers we might get.
Our presupposition about God and the universe is not beyond reproach. We must be willing, if asked, to allow our faith to be subjected to scientific reasoning if possible. We are ever mindful that our belief in God is an act of faith. We might be wrong.
To presuppose the universe is a contingent reality is to adopt a state of mind in which we recognize that answers about the universe gleaned through the scientific method are, in effect, coming from God.
This doesn’t mean we believe we are receiving a literal communication from God. Instead, we believe the universe can be explained as though God were not a given–that is, as though God did not exist.
This is not an insult to God. Indeed, it is the highest form of praise many of us can conceive: that God has created something so wonderfully self-contained that a functional understanding of how it works need never refer back to God.
The examination of such a universe demands humility. In that spirit of humility, we value the contributions of other scientists regardless of their religious beliefs. We (all scientists) recognize that our theories and models are always tentative and may be altered when new data is gathered or when more extensive theories are developed.
We also adopt a non-negotiable policy of absolute honesty that goes far beyond not fudging experimental data. Since the universe is a reflection of God (assumption), altering or misrepresenting the truth of the universe to fit with other beliefs, such as religious beliefs, is a form of blasphemy, not to mention an act of simple dishonesty.
For many Christians, their encounter with the biblical text or received tradition plays a similar role. Altering the perceived truth of a biblical text to fit a scientific model or theory is, for them, a form of blasphemy.
But Christian scientists generally believe we are free to approach the Bible from a variety of perspectives. A literal, journalistic interpretation of Genesis 1, for example, is simply not required by religious doctrine or the constraints of rational thinking.
That’s not to say such an interpretation is necessarily wrong because it isn’t required. Instead, we make an appeal to recognize the difference between the choice to read the Bible a certain way and the constraints imposed on our thinking by the rules of logic and the experimental facts gathered through scientific research.
Seen in this light, science does not trump religious belief. It merely provides, in some cases, concrete boundaries within which we must search for religious truth.
Rodney Dunning is a physics professor at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. He attends Farmville Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column appeared previously on his blog.