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It’s a Matter of Faith… or IS It?

February 14, 2014

When and why should something be a matter of faith? When do you tend to see your view of God or the Bible, etc., as a “matter of faith” more than of rational evidences, and, most importantly, why?

Each of us “decides” on what we take “on faith”, usually subconsciously.  For many, this means without a lot of systematic thought or digging for reasons.  And what we hold “faithfully” to can make a big difference in our daily lives and our mental/emotional health.  I’m among those who do give it a lot of thought and believe both societies and individuals are better off when they do the same… as long as abstractions don’t become an obsession.

Because of individual personalities, social surroundings, etc. (a host of other factors), we each approach this a little differently.  But there are general principles we can see and apply to tighten up our own categories of faith and create a more realistic and healthy belief system.  I mean a “faith” in God or ultimate reality about life, whether we consider that part of our religion, our non-religious spirituality, or whatever. There is a different element to faith, as we often use the term, than to intellectual belief, to be sure.  But for now, I’m using them basically interchangeably.

One of these “principles” or processes by which we decide where and why to put faith in an idea about God or what we believe God has communicated to us (as in the Bible or nature) is this: How we look at the interaction of science and religion.  Are we particularly suspicious about the “facts” or the methods of one or the other?

Many Christians are highly skeptical about at least some aspects of science because they believe it (especially in biological specialties) is working from an anti-God assumption and is simply wrong on key points of data! Similarly, a great many (but not all, by any means) scientists are understandably anti-religion, in part because of this very reaction and a genuine mistreatment of science. So we end up with a good amount of unfortunate, detrimental opposition and wasted emotion (in my view) between “science” and “religion”.

Now I’m neither a professional in “religion” nor in “science” currently or recently. (Part of my earlier career spanned both.)  I have high interest and education in both arenas (mostly psychology on the science side, but with interest in many areas of science). Lately, I’ve taken to studying the area of “science and religion” as a special category…. It is nearly a “discipline” in itself.

One of the things I’ve seen illustrated in this is that most people have a distorted view of just how religion and science, as distinct ways of knowing that sometimes do come into conflict, actually have interacted over the last four centuries (since about the time of Galileo and the late Renaissance). We tend to exaggerate the kind and amount of conflict or contention between the arenas.

Perhaps we are reading backwards from conflicts of our own time, primarily the one between creation beliefs based on a literal reading of Genesis, and evolutionary theory.  The heated early period of this conflict subsided some after the famous Scopes trial of 1925, but seems to have grown in intensity again in the last few decades.  A very recent expression of the conflict was the amount of interest shown in a debate between creationist Ken Ham and “The Science Guy”, Bill Nye. (See my brief comments and the discussion about this “Ham on Nye” debate here.)

The issues are about more than just personal beliefs, it should be noted, as they often play out in practical and controversial policy areas such as local or state school curricula, for just one example. In other words, the matters of conflict between a religious and a scientific approach to key areas of interest and study are indeed important.  Still, these may overshadow how science and religion have actually affected each other in beneficial ways and could be said to have cooperated more over the long term than they have impeded one another. 

I will use just one example to illustrate this… from a pivotal figure at or near the beginning of the main “scientific revolution” that propelled, in the late 1600s, much of what we think of as “modern science”. That figure is Isaac Newton, famous for his “laws” of gravitation, motion, optics, etc.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)  Source: Wikipedia

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Source: Wikipedia


Many people know that Newton was also a devout Christian and a serious student of theology, as were most “scientists” of his day (not yet called that… what we call science fell within “natural philosophy”). In a chapter (18) in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006), John Hedley Brooke points out a common misconception of the type I’ve referred to above – an oversimplification of the relationship between science and religion as it tends to be worked out by its top leaders.  What we call the “scientific revolution” is thought by many to have, he says, “… emancipated [science] from religious concerns.  It would be more accurate to say that Newton reinterpreted theological concepts, such as divine providence and divine omnipresence, through the categories of his science…. The unity of nature presupposed the unity of the divine mind…” (pp. 295-96, emphasis mine).  Still, for Christians who too quickly “use” Newton to validate their orthodoxy, they should note that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; and perhaps for that reason, refused ordination in the Church of England.  He was “deeply suspected of heresy” (as above, p. 296). 

Science has been influencing theology in a similar way ever since Newton and other “natural philosophers” and mathematicians of his general era.  Conversely, people have made the case that Christianity, specifically (as the predominant religion of especially the earlier developers of “Western” science), has heavily influenced science and that there is no “final conflict” between the two arenas.  Though this case is often overstated or oversimplified, the basic idea seems incontestable.  The two approaches to an understanding of “truth” or “reality” do play back and forth on each other, with mutual influence, as much as some religionists and some scientists make it look like there is an absolute chasm and a “battle to the death” around key issues like the origins of life.

It should go without saying (to all but the most rigid of scientists and science buffs) that most people have some spiritual or religious faith and probably always will.  They will take things on “intuition” or “revelation” or other means of authority than just the methods and theories of science.  What is both legitimate and important to ask ourselves and each other is, “Do you follow the better observers and thinkers of the world, such as Newton, Einstein, Schweitzer, Whitehead (mathematician and philosopher) and many others to the present, in seeking to let your science inform your faith and your faith hone and enliven your science?”

How do you, as a reader here, see this issue and process it in your own life?  

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