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Science and Religion: Getting the Conversation Going

by William H. King

William H. King was Lutheran campus pastor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, at the time this article was written. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1986, pp. 611-614. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Like many other pastors, I received a formal education that was rich in the humanities and spiced a bit by the social sciences -- particularly the subjects related to the helping professions. But the natural sciences were, like green vegetables, endured in small helpings and seldom savored. Indeed, I suspect that most pastors have only a minimal understanding or appreciation of the natural sciences. Though our attitudes toward the sciences may range from benign condescension to outright hostility, we rarely feel compelled to broaden our awareness in this area in order to minister or theologize more effectively.

Yet I have become convinced that pastors must reach out to scientists and must increase their ability to understand and speak in the context of the natural sciences. For if we presume that the gospel addresses the destiny of all creation, we do well to understand the tools that reveal that creation. Moreover, many of the great religious and ethical issues of our day are rooted in the world of science and technology. The dilemmas of euthanasia, the wonders of genetic engineering, the mixed blessings of atomic energy, the obscenity of environmental pollution, the depletion of natural resources -- all of these concerns are legacies of a scientific culture. If religious people are to have a voice in determining the uses of knowledge, we must have a rudimentary understanding of the values, perspectives and methods that placed these issues in our culture's lap.

Furthermore, and perhaps most important, we minister within a society heavily influenced by science and its methods of seeking truth. At the university where I minister, I am continually struck by the dominance of science and engineering; often it is to students in these disciplines that I attempt to communicate the glorious, yet often subtle, mystery of the gospel. If preaching and teaching are to be meaningful to these persons, we must find ways either to speak within their frame of reference or to expand their frame of reference to include our own. With that need in mind, I would like to suggest some themes that offer points of contact between the worlds of science and religion.

The quest for intelligibility. In the popular mind, the essence of science is experimentation, which produces data observable to the senses. But though science does indeed rely on empirical methods of research, and though scientists may regard empirical data as the only relevant kind, empirical research is only the means, not the goal, of science. The raison d'etre of science is not the generation of data but the attainment of intelligibility. Scientists look for patterns that relate one bit of sensory data to another, and it is these patterns of intelligibility which constitute reality, not the data themselves. Most of modern physics, for example, points toward a structure of reality that cannot be visualized, or described in standard language. But the insights of physics are "true" or "real" because with them the behavior of matter becomes intelligible.

Understanding science as the search for the intelligible is significant, because it suggests that science and religion share the same ultimate goal -- to give intelligibility to the world and human experience. Religion does not use empirical methodology with anything like the rigor of science, but it does seek in its own way to make human experience intelligible. What is love? What is the destiny of humanity? What is humanity's status in the universe? Why do the innocent suffer? Why must we die? These are questions that prompt us to seek intelligibility. They are also questions that empirical methodology cannot answer.

If science and religion really are mutually exclusive ways of gaining intelligibility, one would expect religious fervor to wane in places where scientific inquiry is highly valued. But that does not seem to be the case. At our major universities, for example, there is currently a resurgence of conservative evangelical and charismatic religious groups. There is a multitude of reasons for this trend, but the strength of these groups, many of which make virtually no concessions to the scientific mind-set, suggests at the very least that students are not finding sufficient intelligibility in the laboratory.

Some might say that it is not the budding scientists and engineers who are fueling the religious resurgence. Yet, in my experience, this group is often two or three times more heavily involved in religious activity than is the university population as a whole. The students who are most aware of what scientific tools can reveal appear to have some awareness of those tools' limitations.

This phenomenon should remind us that theology, if it is to be taken seriously, must effectively address the deepest human concerns about meaning and value. As George K. Schweitzer told a group of campus pastors, "The problem of science and religion is not an intellectual one. The 'scientific' critique of religion can be answered so that religion is not unreasonable. In the popular mind there is, however, a difference of credibility. The problem is that science is good at what it does, explaining the physical world; religion does not seem to be nearly as effective at its task."

The strength of conservative religion among students in the sciences may also suggest, however, that there is a tendency for people to compartmentalize reality. Among the students with whom I minister, I sense very few ethical qualms or even questions regarding the use of science and technology. They look to religion primarily for personal support, a sense of belonging, and hope for the future. Their faith has little or no impact on vocational plans. Thus, ministers are called to walk a difficult tightrope: without forgetting that religion offers a different kind of intelligibility than science does, we must refuse to allow faith to become privatized. The intelligibility we offer must include a discernment of how science can be most humanely employed.

Except in the minds of fundamentalists, religion has long since stopped trying to lend intelligibility to nature in the way science does. And science seems to be recognizing the limitations of its methodology -- its inability to give intelligibility to all of what humanity experiences. Once we accept the fact that the quest for intelligibility requires many tools, perhaps we can allow the scientific saw and the religious hammer to pursue the common goal of understanding.

The limits of conceptual networks. Arthur Eddington tells a parable about a zoologist who decided to study deep-sea life using nets with a two-inch mesh. After repeatedly lowering his nets and studying what was caught, he concluded that there was no fish in the sea smaller than two inches.

The story humorously illustrates the importance of recognizing the relationship of epistemology and ontology. If we assume that only that which is known by sensory observation is real, we are fishing with a certain size mesh, which may or may not apprehend all of reality. Conversely, if we assume that reality consists only of the physical universe, we will accept as valid only those methods of knowing that investigate sensory data.

Langdon Gilkey and Stephen Toulmin have forcefully argued that science, understandably invigorated by its success in comprehending the physical world, has tried to extend itself beyond its methodological capabilities. For example, the theory of evolution, which offered an explanation of the development of biological characteristics, was presented as a naturalistic philosophy of history, which presumed to speak of the nature and destiny of humanity. That philosophy may or may not be true; it is an opinion not testable by empirical methods.

There is, of course, nothing deplorable about the fact that science has limits, any more than it is a failing of the biblical creation narratives that they shed no light on the structure of DNA. An essential part of critical thinking is deliberately to exclude certain factors from the field of study. The key word is "deliberately"; it is essential that scientists and theologians be aware of their tools' limitations -- that they are aware of the sorts of questions that are beyond the scope of their inquiry. The dialogue between theology and science is always least productive when one side is imperialistic in the claims it makes for its methodology.

The role of imagination and metaphor. The importance of metaphor and story in contemporary theology is well known. Instead of seeing the theological task as that of mining eternal gems of dogma, recent biblical critics and theologians have been concerned with how biblical images function in a given context, and with the range of meanings that metaphors have for the reader. As Jesus' own frequent use of parables suggests, we are incapable of encapsulating the divine reality in theological propositions; we are able to speak only by analogy.

In the popular mind, it is just this inability to speak with absolute precision that separates religion from science. While theologians must deal with images, scientists, it is thought, are concerned with the "bare facts." While the theologian must say that God (or sin or grace) "is like" such and such, the scientist can say "salt is sodium and chlorine combined in this way."

This language difference can be a stumbling block for persons trained in the sciences. Shortly after becoming a campus pastor, I was involved in an undergraduate Bible study on one of the "light" passages in John's Gospel. I asked the group to think about what the image of light conveyed to them. The students noted that light is something that reveals, exposes and judges, or gives hope and comfort. "But which meaning is the right one?" asked a computer science major. "They're all true," I replied; "taken together they enrich the image." "But one of them has to be the idea the writer intended," he persisted. "When I write a program, each of the symbols means one thing that I want it to mean. I want to know what John's symbol stands for." Clearly that student was most comfortable in the world of mathematics, where symbols do not have shades of meaning.

Those of us who wrestle with multifaceted biblical images may envy the clarity of scientific terms. But science is more dependent on creative imagination and metaphor than we might think. A number of philosophers have suggested that science cannot be concerned only with "bare facts," for all data come to the observer within a context of assumptions which are not provable by the immediate data. To measure the amount of a gas given off by a solution, for example, one must assume certain "laws" concerning the behavior of gas. These laws are abstractions from experience which have been shown to yield a high rate of correlation among data.

Most of the data cited in the theory of evolution were available long before Darwin's time. Scientific progress was made only when he created a context, a theory, around the notion of natural selection. This was as much a creative act as the writing of a symphony or the painting of a picture. The really significant moment for the scientist, as for the poet, is when he or she finds a new way to speak of what is familiar, creating a new context for understanding.

The use of metaphor and imagination in science is also evident in its use of models. Most of us have made models of atoms using Tinker Toys and styrofoam balls. In textbooks the action of electrons in chemical reactions is pictured as little balls jumping out of one orbit and into another. Nothing like these Tinker-Toy atoms or those orbiting balls actually exists, of course, but the models are not false for that reason. They lend intelligibility to the physical world and are in that sense true.

In both science and religion, then, language is constantly used to speak of a reality that is beyond the capacity of language to express. But even as theologians insist on the significance of metaphor and the importance of the imagination in creating contexts of meaning, they can also benefit from the scientific concern for making language as precise as possible. All who are involved in biblical preaching or teaching have at one time or another been guilty of taking a text out of context. We should not impose on a biblical image just any meaning we happen to find comfortable or helpful. The context and the overall thrust of Scripture impose limits on interpretation. If the cost of lacking imagination in interpretation is spiritual sterility, the price of unfettered license is a faith so mushy that it means nothing in particular.

A professor once said to me, "Sometimes I wonder why some of you preachers bother going to seminary. By the time you finish explaining a passage, it's reduced to terms from other disciplines." That is the voice of someone who has been confused about how his faith differs from other theories he can hear on campus. And indeed, what unique insights can ministers bring to a discussion if every humanity-affirming action is termed "incarnational" or "sacramental," and every social cause is judged "prophetic"? Only when the significance of Christian images is clear will they be accorded serious consideration. We cannot and need not make the products of theological imagination subject to empirical verification, but we can at least be clear about what our insights are.

The idea of continuous creation. Luther's exposition of the first article of the creed begins, "I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still [my emphasis] sustains my body and soul" (The Book of Concord, edited by Theodore G. Tappert [Fortress, 1959], p. 344). Luther understood creation as an ongoing activity of God, and he was certainly not the only theologian to do so. But in practice the church has usually treated creation simply as the initial event in history, the moment that God brought order out of chaos. That focus has greatly complicated the relations between science and religion. If God were simply the means of getting the world started, a post-Newtonian mind would have no need of God to understand the workings of nature.

A renewed emphasis on creation as a continuing process is thus essential if a fruitful dialogue between religion and science is to take place. The work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the process theologians and some feminist theologians has suggested ways that religion can focus on God's activity of bringing new reality into being. This brand of theology will focus less on God's transcendence and more on God's co-creation with humanity. It will contain a greater willingness to tolerate randomness in the universe, regarding it as the means by which God works through the infinite possibilities of the cosmos. The benefit of this approach will be that the explanations of science, instead of being an alternative to God, can be regarded as clues to the processes of divine creation.

It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that the most significant meeting place for science and religion is the Olympian heights of academic discourse. I believe, rather, that the most crucial dialogue on the issue is not conducted at professional meetings between scholars but daily in the public areas of our society, as persons influenced by scientific perspectives consider the claims of religious faith. Indeed, the conflict between science and religion is best seen as a pastoral issue.

Obviously, one of the first things a pastor can do is -- as has been suggested -- to emphasize the ground that religion and science share. Pastors can acknowledge and affirm the sense of mystery that the scientist experiences, and suggest that it is this same sense of mystery that undergirds the religious quest as well. Second, pastors can offer alternative ways of viewing the world. At the college level today, those trained in sciences and engineering usually gain little exposure to nonempirical ways of knowing. Even basic English courses are being replaced by courses in technical writing. Therefore I have found it helpful in conducting Bible studies to make use of dramatic readings, which force students to interpret the tone of the text, the intent of the writer and the motivation of the characters. Theology and literature seminars also allow participants to confront the ambiguity and subjectivity of interpretation. In doing so, they realize that not all analysis is as clear as the work in their labs. My aim is not to discredit scientific inquiry but to suggest its limits and to offer alternative paths of study.

Finally, it is important simply to support and encourage those whose vocation is science. Until recently, most religious people engaged in dialogue with science tended to assume the role of the custodian of ethics, lecturing the amoral technicians of the laboratory. As in other contexts of pastoral care, a constructive confrontation is seldom possible until a relationship of trust is established. Something as simple as an earnest inquiry over coffee -- "What issues do you struggle with in your research?" -- may open the way for fruitful discussion. If theology is to make an impact on scientific culture, we cannot lose sight of the fact that scientists, engineers and technicians are not the enemy but persons who struggle for meaning and purpose just as we do. Science and religion should be regarded as allies in the effort to discern the meaning of God's creation.

William Bragg, a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography, made the point quite succinctly. He was asked whether science and theology are opposed to one another. "Yes," he replied, "but in the sense that my thumb and forefinger are opposed to one another -- between them I can grasp everything." Perhaps, between science and theology, we cannot grasp everything, but surely the combination reveals more of the cosmic mystery than either can touch alone.

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