The challenge of being religiously faithful and scientifically honest has been with us since Copernicus and Galileo challenged prevailing understandings of how the universe is structured.
The “Darwin period” – which is actually still with us, it seems – continues the challenge, as the most widely held understanding of the development of life on the planet is seen, by many, as an assault on the truth of the Bible.
Last month’s debate between Bill Nye the “Science Guy” and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum is a recent illustration of the challenge, as is the latter’s call for equal time to refute claims presented in the TV series “Cosmos.”
Closer to home, parents sometimes need to help youngsters deal with questions that arise when science class at school offers understandings that don’t match those learned in Sunday school.
The question is often framed: “Science says this. The Bible says that. Which one is true?”
This can be a good opportunity to help develop an understanding of the difference between the scientific part of our thinking and the religious part.
Scientific observation and description of the world around us, as well as non-scientific affirmations about life in that world, are a regular part of daily human experience.
Imagine a mother responding to a question about her child: “He is a 50-pound, 47-inch tall, 7-year-old second-grader with brown eyes and brown hair.” And then she says, “And he is the light of my life and God’s gift to our family.”
Which statement is true? We readily agree that they both are. But what if the boy has gained two pounds and grown an inch since she last checked?
The first part of her statement is no longer accurate and is in need of revision to be “true.”
Does this lack of precision in the “scientific” information about her son mean that we can no longer believe her affirmation about the sacred place he has in the family? We quickly say, “Of course not.”
We easily make distinctions between descriptions and affirmations, and the two work together daily in our living of life.
We understand that our descriptions of life and the world are constantly being refined by knowledge and experience, and our affirmations about the significance of these elements of life are made deeper and more profound by that refinement.
I have come to believe that this distinction between descriptions of and affirmations about the world and life in it is the key to understanding the relation of science and faith.
A “religious” affirmation in any period of history is accompanied by the “scientific” understanding of the world in its time and place.
Time, study and discovery refine that understanding toward greater accuracy. And, like a person who puts on new clothes, religious faith is called upon to embrace a refined understanding to accompany its affirmations of significance.
Unfortunately, lack of clarity about this distinction can be exploited by anyone seeking support as a “defender of the truth” against an assault on that truth by the other side.
We saw that in the church’s response to Galileo as they defended the traditional geocentric concept of the universe as well as in much of the popular religious response to Darwin.
We hear it still in various “young earth” proposals that seek to counter physical evidence of the age of the planet.
History suggests that we will probably continue to be faced with this challenge, and it is understandable that there would be resistance to discoveries that challenge deeply rooted understandings
Persistent though it may be, communities of faith can respond to the challenge in their educational work by helping children – and others – to understand that scientific discoveries contribute to our knowledge of the natural world while religious affirmations speak to different questions of meaning that transcend the data of scientific investigation.
Children are able to hear a parable or other story using creative events and characters and realize that it may not be factually true, but that it bears witness to a truth deeper than factual accuracy.
Here is a simple example. Is Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare factually true? Probably not. Does it point to a profound truth? Most certainly.
In the same way, parents can help their children understand that the theological truths of the Bible were written when there were certain understandings of how the natural world worked, and those understandings have been refined by the abilities God has given us to explore and discover.
With good encouragement, they will naturally embrace that the faith message of the Bible is wrapped in a package whose scientific understanding continues to be refined.
They will understand that learning about the world God has given us is more an act of faith than an assault on it.
They will also be less vulnerable to appeals that pit science and faith against each other, disrespecting both.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.