What Do We Say About,... Science?

Proverbs 1:20-33
January 15, 2011

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.

At the busiest corner she cries out;

   at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

      “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing

         and fools hate knowledge?

Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

Because I have called and you refused,

   have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,

   and because you have ignored all my counsel

      and would have none of my reproof,

      I also will laugh at your calamity;

      I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,

            and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,

         when distress and anguish come upon you.

Then they will call upon me,
      but I will not answer;

   they will seek me diligently,
      but will not find me.

Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,

      would have none of my counsel,

         and despised all my reproof,

      therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.

For waywardness kills the simple,

   and the complacency of fools destroys them;

but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

This may or may not matter to all of you, but I’m not involved in our local ministerium.  For those who don’t know what a ministrerium, it’s a meeting of local pastors who meet to talk about what we can do together in the community.  I was very involved in the ministerium in Murrysville, as an associate pastor there before I came to Calvin Church.  And I became involved in the Zelienople ministerium when I first moved here, but a series of events caused me to stop going. 

The first was the attempt to get Christian Coalition voter guides into the hands of all of our members back in 1996.  As a registered independent, I don’t like the affiliation of church organizations with one political party, and it was clear to me that these voter guides were completely biased toward the Republican Party.  Then, there was a discussion in one of the meetings about who was saved or not, and two of the pastors in town declared that the interim pastor of Park Presbyterian Church, Maxime Pardee, wasn’t saved because she was a woman pastor, which was against the Bible.  Also, the fact that some of the pastors of the ministerium have periodically approached our members over the years, telling them that we don’t preach the Gospel in the right way here at Calvin Church, has kept me from rejoining over the years. 

What got me to stop being part of the ministerium in 1998 was something that happened then.  I was at the center of a little controversy.  It was nothing serious, but it was enough to cause me to reconsider how much of a connection there was between the ministry of Calvin Presbyterian Church and that of the local ministerium.  The ministerium had an idea that I thought was a good idea, until it was put into practice.  The idea was to have a weeklong event in the park in Zelienople, an event that would make people more aware of the churches in town and hopefully get people to think about attending our churches.

            The event would start with a weeklong vacation Bible school in the park during the week, and then on Friday and Saturday nights it would bring in inspirational guest speakers with great music. The hope was that after going to these events, people would want to begin visiting our churches. I was supportive at first, but then two problems arose.  I had suggested that one of the speakers should be evangelical like the evangelical churches in town, while the other would be more moderate.  That way the speakers would represent the diversity of churches.  Instead, they chose two evangelical pastors—one a fundamentalist, and one a little bit less than a fundamentalist.  But what really did it for me was the vacation Bible school program that was chosen.  It was one that taught Creationism, the belief that only the creation account in the Bible is right, and that the theory of evolution is wrong.  There was no way I could agree with sending our church’s kids to that kind of program, not only because I didn’t agree with what Creationism teaches, but also because I knew that many of our members wouldn’t agree.  How could I involve us in something that goes so completely against Presbyterian principles, which has no problem with the theory of evolution, recognizing that it’s a theory. 

            I voiced my discontent, saying that I could support the program if we simply agree to pick Bible school material that moved away from this topic and was agreeable to all churches.  What was the response?  They decided to keep the material, and then had one of the pastors in town come and talk with me.  He came to my office on a Friday morning and asked me to go for a walk.  We walked out of the church, down Division Street, into the park, up around the softball field, and then back to the church.  It took about an hour.  For pretty much the whole hour the pastor told me politely, but also pointedly, why I was wrong for believing in evolution.  Of course, I never told him I believed in evolution.  I just told him that I didn’t believe in strict Creationism.  I never said what I actually believed, which is that I believe in both biblical and scientific views on creation.

            He kept giving me argument after argument, telling me why evolution was wrong, why biblical creationism was the only answer.  He had an answer for every question I asked, although many of the answers weren’t very convincing.  In the end he got to his point, which was pretty much to say that to be a Christian meant believing only what the Bible said about creation.  To believe anything else was to degrade the Christian faith.  He said to me, “You know, I’ve studied this question a lot.  I have a master’s degree in religion, and know how to think through these things.  I’ve come to the conclusion that to be a Christian means accepting only the biblical account.”  My response was a polite, but just as pointed, “Yeah, I understand where you are coming from.  You also have to realize that I have a Ph.D. and three masters degrees.  I’m fairly sharp when it comes to thinking my way through these things myself, and nothing you have said is convincing.” 

Very early on in that walk I realized that there was nothing I could say in return because he wasn’t actually interested in hearing from someone who had studied science more than he had.  My training has been almost as much in the scientific fields as it has in the religious field.  I was a psychology major in college, and had to take courses in experimental psychology, research statistics, and the like.  Because of this background, I had a hard time initially at seminary because research at seminary was done in a very different way.  Theological research isn’t based on scientific study, but on citing the works of accepted and respected theologians as they interpret scripture based on rational and spiritual techniques.  The problem was that there were no indications for who was accepted and respected and who wasn’t.  It didn’t feel very objective for me. 

For my master in social work, I also had to take a number of classes in research, classes that emphasized how to do scientific research that could be validated, replicated, and declared reliable.  My Ph.D. wasn’t in traditional theological studies, but in formative spirituality, which was an attempt, among other things, to create a science of spirituality.  The focus there wasn’t on empirical science, but on a different kind of science—phenomenological science.  But more on that later. 

Due to my background in both science and religion, I found the pastor’s lack of interest in hearing from someone with a science background to be a problem, a problem that persists among many in both the religion and the science fields.  Too many scientists have too little religious training, and too many religious have too little scientific training.  As Gerard Schroeder, an MIT trained, Ph.D. physicist, who left his post as a professor at MIT to study and teach religion in Israel, has said, “Acknowledged experts in science may assume that although scientific research requires diligent intellectual effort, biblical wisdom can be attained through a simple reading of the Bible. Conversely, theologians who have devoted decades of plumbing the depths of biblical wisdom often satisfy their scientific curiosity through articles in the popular press and then assume they can evaluate the validity of scientific discoveries.  The “opposition” is viewed with a level of knowledge frozen at a high school or pre-high school level.  No wonder the “other side:” seems superficial, even naïve.  To relate these two fields in a meaningful way requires and in-depth understanding of both.”

The result of this advanced knowledge in one field, and elementary knowledge in the other, means that often the two fields compete when they really should converge.  The problem both fields have is a difficulty that all people with advanced education have.  It is called the Curse of Knowledge.  The term was coined by Chip and Dan Heath, two writers in the area of marketing and business.  They recognized that in any field, the more knowledge we gain about a subject, the more the education “curses” us to an extent.  The curse works in two ways.  First, the more knowledge we gain, the less we can remember what it was like before we gained the knowledge.  Second, the more knowledge we gain, the less we can explain what we know.  This impacts both scientists and theologians.  Each is very good at knowing their own field, and usually terrible at explaining it to those who don’t know their field.  Thus, when scientists and theologians talk science and faith, they are both cursed by their own knowledge and tend to talk past each other. 

What I’ve learned through studying both science and faith is that modern American culture doesn’t really understand science very well, which is at the root of the problem.  Let’s start with the basics.  What is science?  If you were to give a definition, how would you define it?  To really define it, you have to start with the root of the word itself, scientis.  What does scientis mean?  It means “knowledge.”  What is science?  It is the pursuit of knowledge.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a pursuit through objective means only.  It is the pursuit of knowledge through a variety of means. 

Throughout history there have been two basic kinds of science (it might surprise some that even in ancient times people pursued scientific knowledge).  The two kinds of science are the “science of measurement” and the “science of meaning.”  We’re used to the first kind, but not the second.  The science of measurement is an attempt at objectivity through empirical and mathematical analysis of events.  It does so either through experiments or correlational studies (looking for relationships between variables that might indicate a possible cause and effect relationship).  The physical sciences are able to more directly measure something, while the social sciences have to “operationally define” variables in order to define them.  That means, for example, that we can’t measure anger, but if we operationally define anger as hitting, yelling, accelerated blood pressure and heart rate, we can measure those.  These are only one kind of scientific study pursuit.

Another kind is the science of meaning.  This is a scientific pursuit that philosophers, mathematicians, and even modern psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists have pursued.  When I studied at Duquesne, I was taught a kind of phenomenological scientific research, which meant diving into an experience and trying to understand it from the inside, rather than from the outside.  For instance, to study trust, we don’t operationally define it as “self-reporting that we are willing to rely on and depend upon another.”  We jump into the experience and ask people who have experienced trust, “what does deep trust feel like, and what is experienced by the person from her or his own perspective.”  This is just as legitimate a science as empirical science, but you wouldn’t know it from most Americans, who only know empirical science.  We are a scientific culture in many ways, but one with a limited scope in our scientific knowledge. 

The issue between faith and science is that American science often pursues empirical knowledge through measurement, while religious study often pursues experiential knowledge through meaning.  The two pursuits are exploring different areas of life. 

What many modern scientists also don’t understand about religious scholarship is that it has integrated empirical and measurement techniques into it.  For example, much of modern biblical scholarship uses the techniques of modern empirical science by integrating ideas and discoveries from archaeology, history, and anthropology.

The problem today is that people in each area of investigation, science and religion, tend to legitimize only the scientific exploration of their own area of expertise, while diminishing the legitimacy of other areas of expertise.  Thus, many biologists see their field of study as the preeminent one.  Many physicists see their field as preeminent.  Many psychologist see their field as preeminent.  Many theologians see their field of study as preeminent.  They all tend to suffer an arrogance of ignorance.  In other words, because they are ignorant of the other fields, they easily become arrogant about their own field. 

I’ve seen this many times.  For instance, I remember back in the early 1990s I was teaching a Sunday class in the church I was serving.  As part of the class I shared some psychological research.  An engineer, who worked at Westinghouse at the time, raised his hand and said, “You know, you’re citing stuff from a pseudo-science.  It’s not real science.”  There’s your arrogance of ignorance.  For him, only physical sciences were real.

So what are Christians to say about science?  For most of our history, we’ve had very little to say about it because our understanding—dating back to the Roman period—is that science and Christianity explore life in different ways.  Both want to unlock mysteries, both want to understand life, the world, ourselves, and both want to contribute tremendously to life.  Many people in the science field point to Christianity’s intolerance of science as evidence of our backwardness and ignorance.  But the reality is that these times have been rare.  There were short periods during the Renaissance when the church persecuted some scientific researchers, but that was the exception, not the rule.  For the most part, they looked at those doing biological, medical, or cosmological research as having little to say about religious life. 

The one growing area of intolerance toward science has been modern fundamentalism, which began in the late 1800s, and has always been an attempt at biblical science.  What fundamentalists have tried to do has been to turn the Bible into an objective document of scientific data regarding truth.  It has tried to reduce religious life to certain, “objective” fundamentals.  I’m not a fundamentalist because I don’t see these fundamentals as either fundamental or objective.  The Bible is about meaning, not measurement, and you can’t turn this book of meaning into one of measurement.  Unfortunately, many scientists, when they talk about Christianity, reduce us all to fundamentalists, believing that all of us think like that.  Not me. 

So what are we to say about science?  You can see our simple answer if you look at the majority of Christian colleges and universities.  If you had an opportunity to study biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, or some other science at Notre Dame University (Catholic) or Duke University (Methodist), would you consider it to be a lesser degree because it is a religious university?  What about studying at any of the Ivy League schools, which were all started as religious schools.  What about many of the area colleges such as Allegheny (Methodist), Westminster (Presbyterian), Thiel (Lutheran), or La Roche (Catholic), and most of the other area colleges?  Many of these universities and colleges have either good or great physical and social science departments. 

As Presbyterians, our approach is to respect every field of study in the same way we hope they respect us, and to integrate knowledge they offer into our own understanding of life.  Personally, my approach, as most of you who have taken classes with me recognize, is to integrate knowledge from different fields because I believe that this integration is what leads to wisdom.  Wisdom comes from gaining perspective, both scientific perspective and religious perspective.  And I think our approach should be in harmony with what Proverbs said to us this morning: 

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.

At the busiest corner she cries out;

   at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

      “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing

         and fools hate knowledge?