Science and Christian faith

Philosophy News Service * richard jones (richard@PhilosophyNews.com)
Tue, 23 Nov 1999 02:01:09 -0500

Commentary: Restoring respectful relationship between science, faith

Saturday, November 13, 1999

By DR. DENNIS P. MCCANN, Scripps Howard News Service

The controversy over the teaching of evolution and creationism in
public schools is a sorry spectacle that dishonors both modern science
and Christian faith.

Those lined up on either side seem to have despaired of reasoned
arguments and instead have tried to use the political system to
undermine their opponents' claim to public standing. The big losers in
all this political grandstanding are our children, who are forced to
keep their heads down while their elders punch each other out in what
must feel like an ugly divorce.

The history of the relationship between Christian faith and modern
science at times may read like a soap opera, but there's no mistaking
the fact that here is a couple who once walked hand in hand - and may
yet again, one day, if only they could remember what brought them
together in the first place.

The other night here in Atlanta, at Agnes Scott College, the defender
of contemporary evolutionary science, Stephen Gould, tried to laugh
creationists out of the academy, characterizing their approach to the
scientific evidence supporting evolution as the work of "spin doctors"
trying to minimize the meaning of the facts. But to support his case
of "spin doctoring," Gould overreached himself.

He pulled out the Gideon Bible that he had brought with him from his
hotel room and began to read from one of my favorite biblical texts,
Psalm 8: "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the
moon and stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art
mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visiteth him?"

This passage, however, reveals far more than Gould meant it to, for it
eloquently bears witness to the poetic character of biblical faith.
Psalm 8 is not a theory about anything, but an ecstatic hymn of praise
to the Creator of all things, provoked by the same sense of wonder
that is commonly regarded to be the deep root of both scientific
inquiry and religious faith.

The Hebrew poem describes creation in metaphors taken from our human
experience of creativity, "the work of thy fingers," but the point is
not to assert these as a causal explanation of precisely how the
universe began, but to evoke the presence of Divine Grace in this
universe, and to model the believers' growing and appropriately humble
realization that in our very existence we are loved beyond
comprehension.

The relationship between scientific inquiry and religious faith
becomes dysfunctional when those seized by a passionate love for
either seek to justify their love in inappropriate ways.

Christians who believe that the Bible is meant to teach science,
because they cannot understand that the literal truth of Hebrew poetry
remains irrepressibly poetic, are just as much in error as are
evolutionists, like Gould, who go beyond what the theory of evolution
requires to assert that sheer statistical randomness, devoid of any
meaning whatsoever, is the necessary and sufficient explanation for
the plain facts as science has come to know them.

A constructive approach to the impasse between defenders of
evolutionary science and their creationist opponents cannot lie in
politicizing the struggle over curriculum and textbooks in
natural-science courses, as has happened in Kansas and New Mexico. The
resolution may lie in another area of inquiry altogether, namely,
religious studies.

Contrary to what is often heard, the constitutional separation of
church and state does not prohibit appropriate teaching about religion
in general, nor does it prohibit philosophical inquiry into the
relationship between religious faith and moral development. It merely
rules out teaching with a sectarian purpose, i.e., with the deliberate
intent of using public resources to favor the interests of one
particular denomination or religious organization. Evolutionary
science, in some of its forms, does challenge biblical faith; but
since these challenges are deeply philosophical in character they are
best addressed by taking up the critical study of religion, not by
taking cheap shots at the other.

The best chance of saving this dysfunctional relationship is to move
forward with the development of pedagogically appropriate public
school programs in religious studies, where the compatibilities as
well as the tensions between scientific inquiry and religious faith
can usefully be examined. The design and implementation of such
programs, obviously, is bound to be controversial, but at least the
controversies will have a chance of being resolved in their
appropriate venue.

A respectful if not loving relationship between science and religion
can be restored when we can all agree to let natural science be taught
in our public schools as natural science and not as a substitute for
religion - and conversely, when religion can be taught in our public
schools as religion and not as a substitute for natural science.

Dr. Dennis P. McCann is executive director of the Society of Christian
Ethics and editor of the annual of the Society. He may be reached at
Agnes Scott College at 404-471-6062.