Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Being a Christian and a Scientist part II

Continuing yesterday's installment, I would like to continue providing material from Oden's systematic theology.

Science is characterized by a method and a spirit. Its method is an orderly presentation of facts, showing their causes and their relationships to general truths or laws. The spirit of scientific inquiry is openminded and unprejudiced; it does not omit relevant facts and is receptive to new evidence. This is the fundamental attitude or spirit that provides common ground for all the various sciences. Within this common spirit there are wide differences between the methods used in various sciences. For example, insofar as psychology is a science, it gathers empirical evidence on the basis of controlled studies, but psychology has found it difficult to rule out intuitive insight and holistic reasoning. Insofar as history is a science, it bases its conclusions on historical evidence and documentary witnesses, and has the same problems with establishing textual authenticity that theology does.


First, I must say that I love that Oden uses the phrase, "insofar as psychology is a science." I participated in several psychology experiments my senior year at ISU, and I must say that they lead me to doubt a lot of what comes from that discipline. Of course, that has to be judged on a study by study basis, but there are quite a few of them that I wonder either why they think their experiment will yield good data or why they think their data supports their conclusions.

Next, Oden makes a very good point in all of this. Christian teaching is highly concerned with truth, both in a general sense and as it's known in Jesus when he says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." For Christians to ignore facts because they are inconvenient is dishonest, and actually can be seen as going against Christian teaching. Inconvenient evidence doesn't go away simply because you don't like it.

For scientists, however, the same standard still applies. Science has had and still has its share of dogmas, the same as any religion. To ignore data for the sake of maintaining the "status quo" is bad science. While peer review has allowed great refinement in the way science is presented and confirmed, it also is open to abuse from the stifling of viewpoints.

This, of course, is not to confused disagreements about evidence with ignoring evidence. Sometimes data is bad and people don't realize it. Sometimes data just doesn't support the conclusion that is reached, or at least not as strongly as one would like to think. Sometimes data must be compared to other data sets, which can either confirm or contradict previous conclusions. The point is, disagreement is not denial. Similarly, rejecting bad science is not stifling a viewpoint.

The forms of evidence differ for physical, historical, and spiritual truth. Truth in the physical realm must be established by empirical data gathering and experiment, and truth in the historical realm by testimony, documentation, and correlation of evidence. Truth in the spiritual realm must be tested in a more complex way, by examination of oneself, of history, of conscience, of one's sense of rational cohesion, and of claims of divine self-disclosure. Each sphere of inquiry must submit evidence appropriate to its subject. Psychological and humanistic inquiries have tried at times to employ the same evidentiary process appropriate for physics or mathematics. In doing so, one kind of evidence (empirical) has been applied to or transposed into a sphere that transcends it or that exceeds empirical competence.


This is a good reminder for those who demand scientific evidence for the existence of God. Evidence for the spiritual just isn't the same as evidence for, say, protein aggregation or the existence of a black hole. How do you physically prove something which isn't physical?

This isn't to say that there can be no objective evidence for spiritual truths. What people often ask for is "hard" evidence when such a thing just isn't appropriate. Imagine asking a historian for hard evidence for the existence of Socrates. The answer you would get might be disappointing.

The forms of evidence that are presented in Christian teaching are highly diverse. They include scientific inquiry and demonstration, but they also include the kinds of evidence found in legal science, namely, the presentation of cases, circumstantial evidence, and testimonies of eyewitnesses. As legal inquiry proceeds from texts, testimony, and precedents, so the study of God deals with consensual precedents that interpret these events. Christian teaching characteristically appeals to many different levels of evidence--historical testimony, moral awareness, life experience, the social history of a people, and the history of revelation--in order to establish a convergence of plausibility along different and complementary lines.


Science is limited in what it can tell us about God. We can study the interactions God has with the natural world, and we can examine the historical evidence to determine its authenticity (with tools such as carbon dating), but the evidence on which Christianity relies is beyond science. That is to say, the evidence does not rely upon the physical sciences, and the physical sciences would be hard-pressed to either prove or disprove the claims of Christianity. Which is not the same as saying that Christianity is beyond doubt, but that the tools of science only provide a limited scope with which to examine it.

As logical reasoning begins from concepts and ideas and proceeds to conclusions, so does much theological reasoning proceed from idea to idea inquiring into how those ideas are related logically. Well-developed and rightly presented evidence tends to elicit in the mind a sense of conviction of truth that resembles what Christianity calls belief or faith. Judgment moves with evidence.


Which is exactly why many people are able to become Christians (or any other faith/"faith") without being scholarly experts in the field. There is evidence available to them which is deemed enough. This isn't good enough for everyone, which is reasonable and expected.

Even though Christian teaching had been called a science for over a millennium before modern science preempted the term--claiming that it excludes nonempirical evidence--and even though Christian teaching has been responsible for nurturing many of the deepest values of modern science, there remains one principal reason why it is probably better not to call Christian teaching a "science": Today an unacceptable odor accompanies this term, especially as it is used by some who are seeking prematurely (and desperately) to preserve theology by forcing a cheap accommodation with empiricist science and reductive naturalism. Christian teaching can do without the name science, especially since science means to so many the ruling out of all forms of evidence that do not submit to naturalistic observation, quantification, and measurement. This sort of science is a restriction of the freedom to learn. To this diminution of science the Christian inquirer can say with Paul: "A man who is unspiritual refuses what belongs to the Spirit of God; it is folly to him; he cannot grasp it, because it needs to be judged in light of the Spirit." The Christian faith is finally built "not upon human wisdom but upon the power of God."


Both following up what I've written already and introducing a new element, the evidence that Christian faith relies upon is "folly" to those who doubt. Why? Well, in some part it's because they require of Christianity evidence that will never come. If all you will accept is empirical scientific observation, then Christianity will never seem "logical" or "reasonable." But then, most of life won't. Consider the burden of proof placed on Christian faith: In what other areas of life is such a requirement asked? Are there things in life that cannot be boiled down to gross physical processes?

The reason we demand higher certainty for religious assertions than historical assertions is a telling one: They are more important. They have more behavioral consequences if we accept them. When the same level of evidence exists for Caesar and Christ, the testimony concerning Caesar remains largely uncontested, whereas that of Christ is hotly contested. The reason is that inquirers know all too well that they have a stake in the result of the inquiry. It makes little difference to us now what Caesar said or did, but much difference whether God has come and spoken.


The evidence is important. The outcome is important. But what can happen is that the stake someone has in the answer can sway their objectivity in examining the evidence. If there were more concrete evidence (i.e. physical studies) towards Christianity, would that cause the world's skeptics to accept the faith? Or would they simply find other reasons not to believe?

This is not the case, completely, with everyone. There are those who can maintain strong objectivity. But I've known many people who left the faith because they felt hampered by the moral obligations it brought. "I don't want to be chaste, I don't want to worship, I don't want to be forgiving, I don't want to believe in Hell!" It can't be ruled out, one way or the other.

At first, it may seem to be a decided disadvantage to Christian teaching that it cannot establish its facts with the same objective or controlled certainty that physics and chemistry usually can. But there may be a hidden advantage to this seeming limitation. For if religious truth were capable of absolute objective certainty, then faith would become as compulsory for acceptance as the mathematical conclusion that two plus two equals four, or the scientific conclusion that water is constituted by hydrogen and oxygen. If religious conclusions had this compulsory character (because of the absolutely overwhelming character of objective evidence) then would there not be less place for the risk of faith? God would no longer be the incomprehensible, majestic One worthy of our worship and obedience, but merely a rationalized object of empirical data. No longer would, "the just live by faith," with all the character building this involves. Christian faith would cease to be a choice altogether; God would no longer have sons and daughters who voluntarily and with risk choose to love and serve him.


Christian teaching holds that God has placed great emphasis on the freewill of man, allowing him to make decisions rather than forcing him to worship. Would scientific evidence for faith eliminate man's freewill decision to follow God?

Of course, none of this answers the question directly: How can I be both a Christian and a scientist? The simplest answer I can give, based in part on the preceding discussions, that the principles of scientific inquiry and those of theological inquiry are not contradictory and do not exclude one another. I have studied, to some degree, the arguments and evidence for and against the reliability of the Bible, and I am unaware of anything from the realm of empirical science that contradicts the claims of the Bible or shows it to be anything other than what Christian tradition holds it to be.

That is all I have to wite on this matter for now. However, I may post some more on the subject, depending on, well, a variety of events and circumstances. If there is broad interest in the discussion, then perhaps.

8 comments:

Steve the Troll said...

The spirit of scientific inquiry is openminded and unprejudiced; it does not omit relevant facts and is receptive to new evidence.

Christians are anything but openminded and unprejudiced. In fact, they are living in the past...about 2000 years ago...and they're not open to changing that. Also, the bible omits relevant gospels and does not adjust to new evidence provided by biblical scholars.

Christian teaching is highly concerned with truth, both in a general sense and as it's known in Jesus when he says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

Encyclopedias will tell you that there is no real evidence of the existence of Jesus, so you're quoting something that may not exist.

This is a good reminder for those who demand scientific evidence for the existence of God. Evidence for the spiritual just isn't the same as evidence for, say, protein aggregation or the existence of a black hole. How do you physically prove something which isn't physical?

So you don't believe in physics then? I thought you were a scientist. If it isn't physical, it doesn't exist. Fiction can be fun, and it's probably good for you to have an imaginary friend since you're probably lonely in lab. You know, nobody has seen the Easter Bunny either. He must be one of these non-physical Gods too.

The Christian faith is finally built "not upon human wisdom but upon the power of God."

I totally agree. You are not wise. That works for you...and you're okay with that. But I strive for something more. I strive for wisdom.

The thing that I find interesting in all of this is that you really have no reason to believe in God, or Jesus. You just chose to. Why don't you chose to believe in Mohammad? Why aren't you Muslim? What makes you choose Christianity? I think it's just comfortable for you. It's how you were brought up. Your friends are Christian. You're lonely. Perhaps you're racist. I don't know.

Based on everything you've said and quoted, there is no reason for you to be Christian.

I have studied, to some degree, the arguments and evidence for and against the reliability of the Bible, and I am unaware of anything from the realm of empirical science that contradicts the claims of the Bible or shows it to be anything other than what Christian tradition holds it to be.

What about the part where Jesus rises from the dead? And the immaculate conception? And walking on water? These are all PHYSICAL impossibilities.

Steve the Troll said...

You do know that many of the books in your bible are forgeries, don't you?

If not, I can give you some references.

meera said...

ok, i'll preface this with i'm not trying to give you a hard time, i'm actually really curious:

i understand how you've related science and religion, and addressed the evidence for christianity. so i have two questions...

1) how do you choose christianity to begin with? i see how, once you've chosen the faith, you can rationalize it, but how does it become a starting point?

and 2) how do you address evidence for other religions? i'm assuming, since christianity fundamentally dismisses other paths to enlightenment, that you also don't think other religions are right or true - feel free to correct me if i'm wrong here. however, members of these faiths can probably also cite evidence such as you have. how does one go about choosing? does it involve science and reasoning, or pure faith?

Steve the Troll said...

Most parents indoctrainate their children. The church preaches it. If they don't do it, then their friends talk about them behind their backs (or at least, that's the fear).

Christianity is a religion of fear. According to the Old Testament, if you didn't acknowledge the grace of god, your children would be killed. Some parents think this still applies, and they've been taught that they are bad parents if their children don't accept Jesus.

Unfortunately, this means that parents have to manipulate children who know better and would otherwise question their parents beliefs. If a child disobeys, the parents hang guilt and fear over the child's head ("you don't love me," "God will punish you!" "you won't go to heaven.").

Parents further build up death to be this horrible thing, and create heaven as a way to avoid death. Most children would latch on to this idea. They will meet their parents in heaven after they both die. This is very comforting, and based on assumptions and lies. The child doesn't know to ask for proof unless he/she has been raised to question authority (including their own parents). The parents don't introduce the child to other faiths (intentionally or unintentionally), so there's really no way for the child to choose his or her faith until he/she becomes aware of others.

When this awareness happens, it can be a crushing blow. One way to deal with that is to accept that you were fooled (that's what I did). Or, you can do what Hal did, and just go with it and base your entire existence on a piece of fiction designed to brainwash illiterate masses thousands and thousands of years ago.

meera said...

dear steve the troll,

i get it. you think religion is dumb. and you've done a good job showing us all why you think religion is dumb. hell, i'm kinda religious and i agree with some of the things you're saying.

however, there are people out there - like hal - who don't think religion is dumb. and i guess i was trying to get into his head a bit on why he believes in christianity and how he chose it - whether brainwashed as you call it, or not.

thanks for you attention!

love,
meera.

Steve the Troll said...

Meera:

Just trying to give you some fodder until he responds (he's slow sometimes).

Religion is the passion of the troll. It fascinates me. Anyhow, feel free to ignore my rants.

Steve the Troll said...

A wise man once said: "Skepticism is the antithesis of faith. A science that encourages people to question is the enemy of a religion that demands people accept."

Anonymous said...

Hereis a professor who agrees with me. Maybe you've read this blog before. What do you think?