Much of the conflict between science and faith is a trumped-up contention, fed by a media (and to be fair, consumers of media) that is in love with conflict. The players have defined and consistent roles: science is smart, progressive and informed; religion is defensive, backwards and wary.
One response is to “keep the peace” by declaring science and faith to be independent, separate, and non- overlapping. Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionary biologist, best articulated this view and labeled it non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Although the term “magisteria” sounds fancy and very royal, it does not imply majesty.
Instead, it is derived from a Latin word that means “teacher”. A magisteria is a domain of teaching authority. Applying the concept of NOMA, science and faith can’t possibly be in conflict because they deal with completely different topics: science has authority in its domain; faith has authority in its domain. Science is only concerned with facts and theory, the “how and when” of the natural world. Faith is only concerned with moral meaning and values, the “who and why” of the story. NOMA therefore is sort of a “live and let live” approach – put the gloves away, no need to fight, science and faith are apples and oranges.
Warfare metaphors have been a part of the science/faith discussion from the nineteenth century till now (Language of Science and Faith, p. 84). The NOMA approach has certainly moderated the dramatics that are common in perceived science and faith conflicts.
NOMA, however, has its limitations. You might think NOMA would be a happy compromise for atheists, but that is not so. Richard Dawkins has called NOMA “rubbish” primarily because he believes that religion has nothing authoritative to say in any situation. To a Dawkins-style atheist, faith is not respectable and is therefore not worthy of recognition as a domain of teaching authority.
Even to a God-believer, NOMA has its limitations. NOMA draws over-simplified lines between factual knowledge and values. Giberson and Collins (Language of Science and Faith, p. 85) illustrate this limitation: If “child abuse is wrong” is said as a statement of fact, then it cannot be a religious statement. According to NOMA, religion doesn’t have authority in fact; religion only has authority in values. However, “rightness” or “wrongness” is not the authority of science. The NOMA model cannot address this type of statement.
Another area in which NOMA is limited is how religion responds to advances in science. At one point in history, the best a Christian could do for the sick was to pray and provide comfort as best he or she could. Medical advances and drugs now offer an opportunity to treat and even cure diseases, and many Christians support and participate in medical missions in order to extend these advantages to the poor.
Things get complicated for Christians, however, in other areas of medical advances. For example, reproduction control that can stem the rate of maternal death, inhibit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and limit the problems of overpopulation is not universally acceptable to Christians. Scientific advances raise many other moral and ethical questions that must be addressed by people of faith.
I certainly believe that the idea of NOMA has value. It is a great way to frame a conversation, either with a God-believer or with a non-believer. “Science tells us the how and when of the universe; faith tells us the Who and why” is my go-to jumping off point in this kind of conversation. Understand, though, that a model of absolutely separate faith and science breaks down (1) if someone believes that religion has no value or (2) in some areas of ethical and moral decision-making.
Can Science Inform Religion in Helpful Ways?
Before the Scopes trial, Galileo’s trial before the Church Inquisition was the most famous science vs. religion courtroom showdown. Unlike the players in the Scopes trial, Galileo did not see this as a forum for science to “win” and the Church to “lose”. Galileo was not interested in defeating religion – he remained a faithful Catholic till the end of his life. Galileo represented a group of Catholic astronomers who wanted to reform their church.
Galileo did not suggest that his discoveries contradicted the Bible, but that science had offered a refinement to a proper understanding (Language of Science and Faith, p. 89).
Learning that the sun – without a doubt – was the center of the solar system and that the earth did indeed move resulted in a revised understanding of the scriptures that say that the earth does not move. The earth-not-moving psalms (Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, Psalms 104:5) still speak truth, but we now understand this truth is told in a poetic, symbolic way.
Genesis is the grappling-ground for contemporary believers:
We suggest that Darwin’s theory of evolution, now that it has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt by science, offers the same sort of help in understanding the Genesis creation story as Galileo’s work helped his generation to better understand the psalmist’s references to the mobility of the earth (p. 89).
N.T. Wright observed that every generation must “chew through” the Bible afresh. As successive generations gain new knowledge, as cultures change, as societal pressure points change, as language changes – believers must continually work through scripture and revise understanding as needed.
New Understanding of Scripture
Is it really just that simple?
Several years ago, Mike Cope wrote a blog series about how to read the Bible. Mike outlined several simple yet deep “rules” to use when reading scripture. My two favorites are “the Bible wasn’t written to me” and “the Bible has to be interpreted”.
The Bible didn’t roll off the press in one grand printing – it was written by many authors in different languages, cultures, and time periods. We need to know what we’re reading if we want understanding. Ernest Lucas, a biochemist and theologian, summarized five questions to ask when approaching the Bible (Language of Science and Faith, pp. 91- 100). These five questions have been used since the time of the early church fathers:
What kind of language is being used? Is the passage written in a figurative, symbolic, historical, scientific or straightforward manner?
What kind of literature is it? Is the passage a historical narrative? An epic? Poetry? Law? Each of these genres has interpretive principles to help understanding.
Who is the audience? What is the cultural context of the original hearers? What were their traditions? What was important to the original hearers?
What is the purpose of the text? Was it written to teach a lesson? Was it written to correct misconceptions? Genesis, for example, appears to scholars to be a polemic – written to challenge a commonly held view or belief. In contrast to the dominant polytheistic cultures of the ancient near east that worshiped the sun, moon, and other aspects of creation as gods, Genesis presents the case for one God, outside of creation and creator of all.
What relevant extratexual knowledge exists? This is particularly useful when translating from ancient languages into modern.
Using what we know from science (or any other discipline for that matter) to readjust our understanding of scripture is not disrespectful of scripture. We are privileged to have insights others did not have, and future believers may again need to readjust.
This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with commentary and my observations.
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.