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Science and Faith

In Holy Week, after the Eucharist in which the ordained renewed our vows, and the bishop blessed the sacred oils, we all had lunch together. At our table, there was reflection on the role that Christianity has been playing in the anti-vax movements, the protests that ended so badly (at our NZ Parliament), and conspiracy theories. One priest – whom most would locate at the evangelical part of the spectrum – suggested that some of the atrocious theology of evangelicals is responsible for this catastrophe; “They will answer for this before God.” [This priest further highlighted that the sex abuse scandals compounded with church connections to the anti-vaxxers are giving a negative image of Christianity in the public’s perception that we will struggle to recover from. I would add, since then, the reporting of the cult-like culture of the American-style mega-church, Arise (after the Hillsong mayhem), has further marred the Christian/evangelical image.

What I want to focus on in this post is the weak advocating for Science by (many) Christians. From my perspective [I have a Science degree and a Theology degree], Science is founded on the consistency and intelligibility of the Universe – a belief that I see as founded on God being the source of the Universe. I have repeatedly pointed out that in NZ there is not a diocesan Anglican bishop who publicly declares acceptance of evolution [I’d love to see this statement refuted]. Evolution, I have said more than once, is the elephant in the empty nave.

In the context of this conversation, I want to highlight (and commend) the new statement on Science on the Dunedin Anglican Cathedral website:

Celebrating our God revealed in Science and Discovery:

We believe, along with countless Christians throughout every age, in a loving, creative God who is revealed in the person of Jesus, the Christ, and also in the natural universe, an amazing, unfolding creation which can be investigated and explored using the gifts of intelligence, wonder and curiosity with which God has imbued human beings made in God’s image.

This means that we share a faith which is entirely compatible with, and indeed enhanced by, scientific discovery. Many of the seminal ideas in modern scientific fields were proposed or proven by scientists with a strong faith, including the Big Bang Theory, proposed by Catholic priest, theoretical physicist, mathematician and astronomer Fr Georges Lemaître, and leading Christian scientists in every field today find no conflict with their faith.

Over 1600 years ago, the famous African theologian St Augustine of Hippo, an Imazighen (Berber) bishop from Hippo Regius in Numidia (in modern-day Algeria), observed that it “it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing” for a Christian to interpret scripture in a way that denies scientific facts, “presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics,” as such science-denying not only makes a fool of the speaker, but drives people from faith, as they can see that the speaker is plainly wrong about something they can measure. As a principle, Augustine held that “When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.”

In other words, the Bible is a complex library of many different genres, through which we may glimpse some of the nature and works of God, but the books are not scientific textbooks. If we interpret a poem about the wonders of creation and its relationship with God in a way that is scientifically proven to be wrong, then it is we who are mistaken, not the scientist or the poet, and we need to look again at what scripture might actually be saying rather than defend a ‘truth’ that was never meant literally even by the author… So yes, we believe in evolution, the same way we believe (especially living in Aotearoa) in plate tectonics and in oceanography!

If we believe in a faithful, loving, creator God upon whose Word we can depend, then we must also assume that we can depend on the natural and observable laws which exist within God’s creation (even when these become stranger and stranger the closer we are able to look!), and on the truths which are revealed to us about God’s creation when we investigate our own homeworld and the wider universe. Of course, much of what we know about both theology and science is our ‘best working theory’ with the information we have, but the scientific method and the scientific knowledge that we as a species have uncovered are part of, rather than in conflict with, a rich faith which is grounded in God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit.

This understanding is in keeping with scripture itself, which often celebrates the scientific and medical knowledge which God gives humanity, and with the understanding of mainstream churches throughout the world. Anglican Churches, including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the USA, have made explicit statements about the importance of science in faith, and the Roman Catholic Catechism states that “there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

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2 thoughts on “Science and Faith”

  1. All good, Bosco, but I myself would interpret the Dunedin cathedral website statement as a public statement of the Bishop of Dunedin. As for my own lack of public statement on the matter (save for here 🙂 ), I could make public statements on many matters and do not have time to make them on all matters. Unless I publicly deny evolution, why should I issue an edict affirming evolution? (!!). By implication, should I be also be affirming publicly that the earth orbits the sun, Armstrong and Aldwin did land on the moon, and there is no reason not to sail your yacht in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle?

    1. Thanks, Peter. [For those beyond these isles – to be clear: Peter is my diocesan bishop]

      It’s an interesting thought that bishops would understand statements on the cathedral website as being public statements by them. Would that be limited to cathedral articles, or to any Ministry Unit’s website in a bishop’s diocese? Do cathedrals check with bishops before putting statements on their website? Is it limited to websites – or is that any communication?

      There are (many, many) Christians in NZ, USA, & elsewhere who are well-known to be anti-evolution. We have several free-to-air Christian Television channels in NZ that would daily have anti-evolution programmes. [I am unaware of any Christian TV series free to air in NZ that would be pro-evolution.] You may think the impression we are anti-evolution to be silly; nonetheless, there wouldn’t be a week that goes by without my encountering this amongst Kiwis beyond the church (or even within it)!

      & yes, when there is a daily programme on Television denying that the earth orbits the sun, or that humans landed on the Moon, or claiming that the Bermuda Triangle is dangerous – and that is linked to our core Christian beliefs (as anti-evolution is to the understanding of Genesis, Jesus, and Paul), then I would be similarly advocating for us to make our alternative position clear.

      Easter Season blessings.

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