During my senior year, my high school decided to pilot what they called “individualized learning,” which ultimately meant that I spent every eighth block economics class two hallways away, in the library. A friend of mine regularly joined me: every other day, we checked into economics, assured our teacher we would cover the material on our own time (which we did, mind you), and shipped off to the library. Perhaps it was because of the environment—stacks of books always make me feel quite the philosopher—or perhaps it was just because of us—intellectually curious seniors, who nonetheless felt we already had one foot outside the school door, not to mention the Advanced Placement Economics classroom—but we rarely got around to marginal utility or colluding oligopolies or other such graphable economic phenomena.
Much of the time we just talked. About good books, about college, maybe—we flitted from topic to topic. But one resurfaced in many of our conversations. The Bible was a point of interest for us, both Christians, but we came to the mutually revered text with different questions, and saw it with differently trained eyes. My friend was a STEM student; I preferred the humanities. This difference appeared most clearly in our respective interpretations of the Creation account: he read the beginning of Genesis metaphorically, looking to modern science for the more technical explanations. I took a less expansive interpretation, attributing the gap between modern scientific findings and such a reading as a shortcoming of modern science, rather than a demarcation of the text’s bounds.
We went back and forth over Genesis that senior year, fueling our debates with new arguments found between Economics periods. The importance of these conversations was, to me, self-evident: I was defending the truth, bracing my back against Genesis to keep the Bible off the slippery slope of misinterpretation. Imagine my surprise, then, some time later, when on my first weekend at college, during a Sunday-morning Bible study, I overheard two students discussing Creation, and easily agreeing on my friend’s stance. It was the first moment that I sincerely admitted it to myself—I might be wrong. The memory of my defense lost the certainty that had billowed my sails. And yet, unfading, remained a sense that even if my argument was wrong, the conversation was nonetheless important. Why?
A starting point is the presence of faith. In our conversations, scientific inquiry was unobstructedly a part of faith, our “working out our salvation”, one might say. This practice immediately faces an important question: Why mix faith and science? Why not change the conjunction—faith or science—and not confuse Caesar’s dues with God’s? It was at this question that I landed in my recounting of those library debates.
It took some thought to get there, though. At first, the fashionable notion of the preeminence of the question tempted me. C.S. Lewis’s pedantic bishop from The Great Divorce personifies this idea: “For me there is no such thing as a final answer,” he quips. “The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’ … to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”1 If the crucial thing is the mere process—to do science within a framework of religious belief—then the question begins to eclipse the answer. Any conclusions cave inward, finding their support more in the nature of the process than in the process’s findings. The core of my arguments on Genesis centered on the reading of the text; seldom and shallow, in comparison, did I delve into modern cosmological arguments or geological findings. Doing so was begging the question of faith: I had presupposed a certain definition of it that weighed heavy on my view of science. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” wrote Pope John Paul II.2 If one wing holds the other down, then neither will beat, and we will fly no higher than we can jump. An overemphasis on the process is to forget that, as Lewis responds to his bishop, God dwells in the land of answers.3
The answer is indeed important, a truism that led me to an obvious consideration in the evaluation of those conversations: that my friend was right. His view of Genesis was in line with reality, and he was defending the truth. In that case he was, moreover, forming an important apologetic message. Science is the preferred currency of truth these days, the scientific method the assurance against counterfeit. Cosmology and evolution (the “big issues” of science in Genesis, if you will) are often a sticking point, in secular view, that divorces faith from science. To show that faith need not disagree with modern scientific accounts could be a powerful tool. And this message is undoubtedly needed today, when the purposely connected phrase “faith and science” sounds more like an irreconcilable dichotomy held together with a paradoxical tension in common parlance. From without, secular doubt that faith can seriously add to the corpus of knowledge; from within, as apologist Peter Kreeft writes, “fear that human reason is a Leftist tool, something invented in pagan Athens, or in pagan Boston.”4 But history reminds us that it was a Catholic priest who conceived the Big Bang theory, and of men like the devout scientist Asa Gray, Darwin’s exemplar of the obvious possibility of being both an “ardent Theist and evolutionist.”5 These men knew that even more than not being contradictory, science and faith are complementary. Imagine the beauty of evolutionary theory within the doctrine of divine grace: Man—formed out of the dust, out of what already was—and chosen, of all animals, to bear the imago Dei, not because of any bodily merit, but simply out of the love of the Creator. Perhaps, if allowed, science can become a part of the Grand Narrative, another piece in that magnificent stained-glass window through which we catch a glimpse of Heaven. Perhaps, if we let our ears hear it, the very stones would cry out.
But here again I had to check myself. Faith makes a Christian; it does not render one an Evolutionist, or a Young Earther, or an Empiricist. One, of course, may be a Christian and hold to some or other scientific theory, but the crucial and in “faith and science” must not be forgotten; some interpretation necessarily connects the two. Safe to say that the connection precludes some options—say, of a universe without beginning—but neither is it defined by dictates on theory. We are not observing subjectivism here. There is, of course, a right answer; the Earth cannot be both 6,000 and 4.5 billion years old, unless we are grossly mistaken about the very foundations of our reality (in which case, why bother with science at all!). Rather, what we see is the meeting of two areas of knowledge. Just as mathematics undergirds, without determining, science, so faith becomes the foundation from which the scientist reaches for the truth. At some points faith’s imperatives may be stronger, but there always remains the essential distinction between the two.
If the connection of faith and science is misunderstood, it is not because of science. It is more likely that the two seem like the odd couple because of a lack of clarity on the former. Faith, in both secular and Christian conversation, flies off lips with the size of a jetliner but the weight of a feather—it is a meaningful word, used without its meaning. The Biblical paradigm of faith comes from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The epistle does not propose “blind faith” any more than science is blind: as science reached out and found evidence for the unseeable atom, so faith is the reaching out and finding of evidence for the unseen God. Aquinas imagined faith and reason (which we can interchange for science) as two rungs in the same ladder, ascending to the knowledge of God. His Summa Contra Gentiles identifies two realms of truths about God: that within reach of human reason—e.g., philosophical arguments for the existence of God—and that beyond it—e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity. These latter truths, then, must be reached by other means. The step from the evidence of the Divine “clearly seen” in nature to “His eternal power and Godhead,” as Paul writes about in Romans, is the process of faith. Given, as a method of “knowing,” it might offend empirical sensibilities; but one can easily appeal to fields like mathematics or philosophy, non-empirical, but nonetheless respected. These are only beginning thoughts, but important—the argument being that faith is not flipping an off-switch on the mind. Faith is substance, faith is evidence.
For the Christian, faith and science share that goal of illuminating the knowledge of God. The conversations with my friend that time ago were important, above all, because we aimed our questions at God. By asking scientific questions within the framework of faith, we were entering into the cosmic processes of Wisdom—believing in a divine Logos who invites humans to inquire. “Come now, and let us reason together,” God calls to the scientist. Logos gives the Christian confidence that there are answers, and that no question—no matter how daunting—will unravel the one who knit the fabric of the universe. And that Logos is ultimately the end of all inquiry. The natural world is a gallery of the Divine’s attributes, creation an invitation for the inquirer to know the Creator. Herein lies the intrinsic worth of science, its value apart from and above its applications: science, from the Latin for knowledge, is another method of that preeminent practice of knowing God.
Joseph McDonough ’23 is a sophomore in Kirkland House studying Philosophy.
|C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1973), 40.
|John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio.” The Holy See, 14 Sept. 1998, w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html.
|Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 13-14.
|Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12041,” accessed on 5 March 2021, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-12041.xml