The importance of being wise Christians
Regular Network Ipswich columnist James Knight dispels the perception that there must be conflict between science and theology in part two of his series on Bringing Christianity and Science Together.
Science has taught us one of the most astounding discoveries we have ever made; that everything at a quantum level has the same elemental composition. The atoms in our bodies come from stars - in fact, almost every element on earth originated in the fiery centre of one of many cosmic explosions that happened millions of years ago; our whole solar system is the result of a supernova that spilled materials out into our galaxy which later formed our sun and planets. Our knowledge of science has allowed us to cognitively colonise existence itself, as we discover relations between all sorts of disparate phenomena. As a Christian, the intimate isomorphic interrelations between the very big and the very small, between biology and cosmology, and between mind and cosmos, compounds my view that the universe was specially created for us, and that our principal purpose in life is to have a relationship with the Creator - our God, who made Himself known in Jesus Christ.
In my view, the discovery that we are all made of the same elemental material is one of the greatest discoveries of all time – it is a discovery that is able to change our perception about so much. It is the perfect avenue for greater and more innovative exploration, and it is one of the primary facts that can push us on to broaden our horizons and embrace learning with an enthusiasm and majestic awe not previously seen. This knowledge more than any other encourages us to reconstitute the epistemological boundaries - it widens the net and allows us to view phenomena like 'abiogenesis', 'natural selection' and 'common ancestry' in an entirely different and more illuminating light.
It is true young earth creationists and anti-evolutionists think that an immense allegiance to God also brings with it the insistence that they stick to their guns, but they have perhaps overlooked the fact that the narrow parameters in which they do their thinking are a relatively recent insistence on the mind, largely arising as a resistant force to human innovation in the last 150 years. Most pre-Enlightenment scholars were not sullied or influenced by this irrational view of the world.
Christ says that we are the light of the world, but it is imperative that in shining our light we keep ourselves open to the bright light of good and reliable knowledge when it arrives. Fresh investigations have plenty to teach us - we should not live in the past - for in doing so we do a disservice to God’s grand plan for the progression of the world. Science has already shown that we all evolved from one initial organism (this process may have happened more than once), and that as far back as we can observe in the book of life, scouring our evolution shows that we are all ancestrally linked.
I am writing this set of articles on‘Christianity and science’ to show that as Christians we should be the first to discern sound knowledge and contentions when they arrive, for we have the soundest wisdom of all regarding ultimate truths - the Word was with God and the Word was God. Our keenness to receive fresh and exciting discoveries should not be halted by an intransigent fear of human progression.
If the universe is a simulacrum of the Divine realm - the result of a providential impartation - then it stands to reason that the things which we try to explain are merely self-references within that realm, just as when we try to describe what the human mind is we are analysing something that is contained within itself. The big bang, the black holes, the stellar collisions, the galaxies, planets, earth, life, every cellular activity on earth - all of these things are explained by the providential impartation, and if one believes in the Creator God, it is in my view justifiable to say that they are all part of a cosmic consciousness. That which we perceive as chance and that which we try to decipher with probability are only so because we are inside the cosmic consciousness - for outside of it they are not subservient to probability at all. Linear time could simply give the illusion of unguided evolution when in fact God could be involved every step of the way. Even the wastefulness of evolution, the perceived copying errors in DNA and RNA could easily be part of the cosmic mindset.
The fruits of science
It is certainly true that DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that all living creatures share a common origin. The explosion of genomic research has revealed that all living creatures work in essentially the same way; they store and translate information using the same genetic code, with only a few minor variations in the most primitive organisms. Christians believe that organisms have been created to be part of nature and to adapt within nature’s system - thus we see that organisms of all kinds evolve when their environment and external surroundings are altered. As far as Darwinian evolution goes, biological studies show categorical branching points that demonstrably reveal the history of evolutionary progression and new species arriving throughout many various stages of evolution.
We know a lot more now than when Darwin first published his 'Origin of Species'; we know enough to be much more certain about evolution and the fine details of how creatures evolved. Moreover, those that deny evolution miss out on a fundamental part of epistemology, in particular, the great things that we have achieved because of our knowledge of the intricate structures of living organisms. Let me offer you an example of our benefiting from evolutionary knowledge and our knowledge of intricate biological structures. This is taken from Kenneth Miller’s brilliant book 'Finding Darwin’s God':
In 1994, William Stremmer of the biotech firm Affymax sought to ‘evolve’ a new strain of bacterium resistant to an antibiotic known as cefotaxime. He started with a copy of the gene for B-lactamase, an enzyme that breaks down some antibiotics but is not much use against cefotaxime. He mutated the gene (randomly), selected for resistance against cefotaxime in bacteria carrying the mutated genes (there was a little), and then did something very clever. He chopped a copy of the moderately successful mutant gene into small pieces, then allowed them to combine randomly into new sequences that were reinserted into new cells. This randomised swapping of bits and pieces of genes is remarkably close to the kind of gene shuffling that takes place during reproduction, and it was just as effective. In just three rounds of shuffling and selection, he produced mutant proteins that were 32,000 times as effective against cefotaxime as the original protein had been. The key to Stremmer’s dramatic success, as he noted, was his ability to mimic an underappreciated part of the evolutionary mechanism - its ability to shuffle and recombine genes and gene sequences during reproduction. The mechanism of mutation is far more dynamic that is generally believed, and his dramatic demonstration of rapid evolution gave a hint of just how creative mutation can be.
This is one simple example of how God uses our studies of biology to our advantage. Biologically there is little difference between humans and animals. Our genetic instructions are encoded in the same language of DNA and we know that when human genes are transplanted into other animals, bacteria, and even plants, function perfectly. There is no reason to claim that physiologically we are very much different form other living things, just as, if the truth be known, we are at a sub-atomic level not much different from the empty space that makes up our universe – we are all made up of matter. Moreover, it is not always realised that if young earth creationists or anti-evolutionists are right, we should not be able to find any examples of long progressive evolutionary changes in the fossil record at all - but, of course, we have found many(anyone who has seen the long history of elephant evolution from basic proto-elephants to elephants as we know them or, for that matter, the transformation from fish to tetrapod amphibian will see what I mean)
Many great physicists have shown us in the last 150 years that both the universe and matter itself are far more complex than we ever realised - and time has also shown (to those that needed it) that we must embrace fresh knowledge if it is shown to be sound. The same is true, of course, in biology. And as I said at the beginning of this article, at one point every atom in your body was once at an astronomical temperature in the nuclear furnace of a long distant supernova. Joni Mitchell’s song 'Woodstock' in which claims we are ’stardust’ really is more true than any of us could have realised. It is this fact perhaps more than any other that opens us new epistemological vistas - a panoramic potential for some of the greatest discoveries that man has ever achieved. And as long as the search does not encroach upon our relationship with Christ - through whom all things were made, and in whom all life that is the light of men (John 1:3-4), we can embrace nature with passion and try to learn as much as we can about her and about creation itself.
Those who feel threatened by science are missing out on something truly wonderful; the joy of discovery far supersedes the joy of safe complacency. I suppose in one sense science is a little like music in that it has beauty beyond its intrinsic benefits and pleasures. The scientists would tell you under analysis music is sound vibrations pervading the air, stimulating neural activity in the brain. Yet all of us know that music speaks to us in a way that transcends mere scientific analysis. The ineffable feelings of awe and of the numinous are prominent in the glorious sound of music, in fact, that is why we use music to express our worship for God, music can take us where words fail to take us. I think this applies to science too - those who see it as a negative interference foolishly look past its real beauty. Science will not tell us everything, but if we allow it to it will reveal much about the glorious wonders of God’s creation.
It is true that many staunch atheists have hijacked Darwin for their own purposes, but I think Charles Darwin and the many great subsequent evolutionists have brought us a lot closer to understanding much of how God works in biology, certainly in studies of earthly activity and the biological interworkings of creatures on this planet. The Hand of God is written into every living thing. Perhaps a puerile approach to Christianity will insist that we dispense with trying to understanding the finer details, but clear thinking and determination leads us to remarkable discoveries.
When it comes to evolutionary theory, we have to admit that ‘I don’t know’ often means ‘I don’t want to know’. What one might call voluntary sightlessness - a prevalent attitude to which people are drawn by shutting themselves off from learning things which they feel might assail their sensibilities. Those that are open to embracing fresh knowledge and discovery are naturally those who are likely to embrace the free exchange of ideas, including those in political domains as well as scientific; for the embracing of freedom of expression and a free exchange of ideas is the very opposite of the backward, oppressive (and in the worst cases) autocratic, oligarchic and totalitarian states across the world that stultify educational growth, reject knowledge and technology, and circumscribe the development and well-being of others. Education and diligence opens the door to scientific innovations, economic growth, better health, better governments and more fruitful creativity and life satisfaction. It is incredible that it should be some Christians that would encourage the very opposite of all those things - stagnancy, stultification and futility by continuing to preach their nonsense. Unless we sensible, realistic Christians start ringing the alarm bells louder, exposing this nonsense and making it more conspicuous in public circles by proudly propagating the sensible and pro-science factual alternatives, I’m afraid this chasm between atheism and Christianity will remain wider than it need be.
It is true that there has been a mass influx of unholiness in this country - atheism has become the most prevalent position. It is very hard for any of us to get back ground that has been lost. Yet I believe that humankind shares the same eternal longing; the holiness that has been lost still echoes in our hearts, and most of us spend our lives trying to recreate that sound again. Despite all the cacophony of everyday life and the stillness of time, the motionless moments still reveal to us God’s voice among the calm.
We have spent all our lives either calling God back into our hearts or making gods of thing that aren’t Him. Whatever you see and whatever you hear, you will be no more that one faint step or one still voice away from Him. In that sense there is no distinction between a church and a science laboratory, or a holy shrine and a supermarket - you can find God equally in either; both are calling out His name – for He lives in our hearts. Nature is harsh, that much is true. But would you blame the trees for the badness of the cuckoo, would you blame the grass for the lion attacking the deer? Would you blame Beethoven if you saw a young child trying to play one of his piano concertos and mess it up? And in answering ‘No’ it is here we see the kernel of reality as we gaze into the eyes of nature; she is the child and we are children too. Don’t be afraid of the discoveries we make about her.
The importance of being wise Christians
In my experiences of reading lots of theology and lots of science, one of the most significant observations I have made is, I’m sorry to say, that the perceived conflict between science and theology is a misperception created exclusively by those who approach this subject with vested interests and unwillingness to consider contra opinions. I know quite a few Christians who think that the earth is only six thousand years old because that is what they think the first chapter of Genesis and the later genealogies tell them. Now the real danger of such misinformation is this. If a man can be in error on this matter how can he be sure that he is not in error when it comes to other parts of Christianity? Many of the greatest intellectuals have affirmed their belief in the veracity of the Christian faith, therefore it astounds me sometimes that there are lazy-thinking Christians who seem content to be embarrassed by their lack of understanding of the deeper parts of sound analysis - the paradox of which is that the most obvious things are often mysterious to those who cannot understand simple propositions. On the one hand they feel that they are right about their Christian belief yet in the next breath you will find them reluctant to open up the discussion into wider territories (many of which complement Christian truths and supplement our understanding of science and philosophy).
Some would object by saying the following; where is the harm in a man settling for the most simplest of positions when it comes to his faith? For himself, there is little harm at all - but for those on whom he might have a chance of making an impacting, there is every danger that they will see him for a fool and thus see his belief system as foolish. It might be easier to read the Bible and live life as though that is the only way that God communicates with His creation; it might be simpler to turn a deaf ear to science and philosophy; it might be easier to steer clear of debates; and it might be less stressful to avoid witnessing to the lost souls. But to act this way is to forget the diligent commitment that Christ talked about when He talked about our following Him. The easy option is not always the best option.
No doubt it would have been easier for the Good Samaritan to walk on by, but much harder later on. School life would be easier if we did not have to learn anything, but much harder later on. Good grades and a solid future depend on such achievements; thus it is going to be an easier ride in school to evade learning but a much harder ride in our adult years. The same is true in a sense when it comes to Christianity. Of course a Christian man’s salvation would not be affected by his belief in macroevolution nor by his belief in young earth creationism; for the Christian necessities are not conditioned by these interpretations. But it is going to matter a lot when he meets people who might have had a genuine interest in the life of Christ but couldn’t get beyond the fact that their interlocutor was so irrational that he was prepared to dismiss theories which are seen by most sensible folk as sound.
Thankfully this is not as common as one might fear (although one instance of it is one too many). I suppose it is a fact that if a man is hasty and a non-Christian, he will very likely be a hasty Christian (at least for a while). But it seems to me that to think this way is to miss the real potential of God’s blessings. If we seek wisdom He will give it to us in abundance - the hasty man will become wiser every time he wishes to leave hastiness behind; although all this depends upon two things.
In the first place he must want to grow in wisdom; and in the second place he must make the effort to grow in a way which is conducive to wisdom. Having established that it is a bad thing to be a hasty practitioner of Christianity, one might be wise in asking why this happens at all. Why do some Christians have so much trouble swimming from the shallow end to the deep end when God is supporting them at every point of the journey? I think I know the answer. To explain this we must look closely at what is happening when our thinking is accorded with many external things.
The complex dialectic of fact, myth, emotion and perception
It is important to remember first off that what is real and what is constituted are not necessarily the same things, in fact both can be elements of the same thing yet unable to overlap. You will find profitable reasoning in multiplication and indeed in laws themselves (although the exactitude might sometimes be unknowable) - but when you move into other areas of thought you find that it is never a closed cognitive system. To our mind a bookcase is very different to a jealous feeling, but both are seemingly real events. We can describe a bookcase in less abstract ways than we can a jealous feeling, for we find on close inspection that such feelings require external objects in order to make the feeling explicable. The same is true of goodness. The moment one tries to explain what goodness is, he immediately comes up against an image of a good act or he comes up against an inner sensation - a ‘feeling’ of goodness. But notice that the two things do not overlap very clearly. If he is thinking about an action he is no longer feeling the inner-sensation in the same way. If he is feeling the inner-sensation he is no longer thinking about a good action in the same way.
Any analysis of human thinking provides us with a multitude of examples. An itch that we desperately want to scratch is different to the feelings which exemplify an urge. When you have one you immediately make an abstraction of the other. An itch is a particularly good example because the alternate sensation of scratching and needing to scratch can be repetitive every minute or so. This is the true reality of our cognitive make-up. Either we scratch and that which we ’know’ temporarily disappears or we know and make the sensation of ‘scratching’ an abstraction. A woman can enjoy a thrilling crime novel; but the feelings of tense enjoyment during reading are very different to ‘thinking’ about those sensations afterwards. A man can love his wife dearly, but the moments when he is ‘feeling’ love the most are not the moments when he is ‘thinking’ about love. The deeper our thinking goes, the further we move away from the realities of the experience.
Having seen this it is easy to understand how lazy thinking can get a man in trouble when it comes to his thoughts about something as illuminating as the Christian faith. His dismissal of, say, evolution is very often the result of the reality of being caught in experience. And if he is really inattentive you might even find him thinking that giraffes always had long necks and that most of the many varying breeds of dogs were all initially created on the same day. Here the error is actually an opposite of normal thinking - for he is, in fact, (in his own mind) turning abstractions into facts and facts into abstractions.
The human mind will attach meaning to everything - whether it is filtered into ‘nonsense’ or ‘doubt’ or ‘elation’ or any such feeling. And of course to feel that something is nonsense is very different to feeling elated about something. And here we are beginning to touch upon some of deep mysteries of inner-psychology. If by the sheerest coincidence or the strongest bias the feelings attached to ‘myth’ are stronger that the feelings attached to ‘fact’ - we can end up thinking all sorts of nonsense is true.
A good example is found with my reference a moment ago, regarding feelings of elation and knowledge of nonsense. Finding out from your doctor that you have cancer but not knowing that he was mistakenly looking at someone else’s papers would no doubt cause the worst inner-sensations (while you were unaware of the error). But the feelings themselves are not linked to the truth in the same way that the truth is linked to the medical records. In the same way, if the sensations and feelings elicited from myths, fallacies, apocryphal tales and misinterpretations are not pressed against the glass, removing every smear when one is found, then a man can never be safe in his knowledge – the barrier impeding a man and the truth will remain.
What passes through from misinterpretation is not fact but some other constituent of reality (facts categorise something or explain something, but constituents of reality are the things which facts are about). If the feeling about a constituent of reality is well received by the emotions it can colonise truth but only on the abstract (and often misinformed) level. To miss this point is to be guilty of thinking that falsehoods are not reality. The situation is more concrete - they are real (at the very least at a conceptual level) because they are false. To relegate them to the position of non-entity is to remove the truthful corollaries from the picture as well; just as ‘amorality’ knows no such thing as ‘morality’.
It might not matter much to you on the devotional level whether evolution is true or whether the six days of creation were literal twenty four hour periods. But the consequences are more serious than you think. If a man does not know whether his simple propositions are trustworthy, how is he to know whether the devotion he is giving is being given to the right source? For as we see in other belief systems that are based on falsehood - a man is able to be devotional without knowing the whole truth. No, the practical importance of knowing that your beliefs are sound cannot be overstated - for we all know how easy it is to get spurious information propagated.
Everyday life furnishes us with so many opportunities to see spurious information being propagated. People spend their days believing things they are told even when there is no evidence for such beliefs. People who spend their lives receiving information without questioning it owe it to themselves to think these things through, for the truth is so much more rewarding when this happens. Truth is the strong oak on which the rain of mythology falls. It might soak in sometimes, but truth is able to suck out of myths all it needs to make itself stronger and more affirmed
Lazy thinking will get you every time if you make abstractions of truth and make particulars of experience, for the real lucidity comes when both are taken for the existent realities to which they belong. If evolution is a myth it is a myth only in the sense that it has not been observed in totality (which is, of course, an impossibility). But the same can be said of, say, the parting of the sea (in the book of Exodus). In fact, if one were following the laws of reason in the strictest sense, there is more evidence for evolution than there is for the parting of the sea (although knowledge of this depends on knowing about evolution). But that does not make the parting of the sea a myth, just on those ground alone.
The important thing to remember is that we are not being asked to isolate the parting of the sea as one separate event and base our whole faith on it - we are being asked to look at the collective evidence. There are myths in the sense that they cannot be proved as concrete realities but they do not cease to be facts because of this. This is, in one sense, the problem that young earth creationists and anti-evolutionists have - they have not observed the miraculous through the abstract, they have tried to observe it through concrete realities and missed the collective. To claim that the vast majority of science is wrong because it happens to conflict with your interpretation of texts which were never intended to be postulated as facts about science is a nonsensical position to take. You can be sure that if such a conflict occurs it is most likely true that it is your interpretation which needs correcting.
The only people who claim that science is an untrustworthy edifice are those who know virtually nothing about science. The same is true of Christianity - usually the only people who truly object are those who know virtually nothing about it - those who have pierced no deeper than the surface. This is why it is important to guard against double standards - for unfortunately some Christians are happy to stridently assert that one needs to explore further the Christian faith in order to absorb it, understand it, and embrace it (a claim which is certainly true), yet you will find them in the next breath failing to repeat this process when it comes to understanding science.
In a science based world there are many people who are resistant to the Christian claims because they perceive a dichotomy between science and theology. They think that they are forced to choose one or the other, and naturally, if they hear Christians speaking nonsense about science, it is not surprising that they choose science over Christianity. But the time has come for many Christians to be awakened from their intransigent slumber. One of the biggest failings is non-percolation - it has elicited stultification in every century since the Hellenists. To be truly Christian we must assent to the historical fact but also to the wondrous innovations which science and philosophy and psychology can teach us. Only then will we help people to realise that all of these things gloriously complement each other.
More next week!
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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