Religion and science

There is a phrase that you hear bandied about in a lot of different churches as if it were a sort of motto that was unique to a particular denomination: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I’ve heard various attributions for the phrase, but to the best of my knowledge, it comes from an obscure German Lutheran theologian writing during the Thirty Years War, a blood time in the history of Europe in which religious tensions played a significant role. Rupertus Meldenius wrote a tract on Christian unity that was published around 1627.

It is, I believe, an important statement on how Christians approach their faith. Of course we can (and do) argue about what is essential and what is non-essential, so the key phrase may be the third part of the statement, “In all things charity.”

The phrase came to my mind as I have been thinking once again about the artificial divide between science and religion that seems to be popular in the minds of some Christian and non Christian thinkers. On the one hand there are entrenched Christians, primarily fundamentalists from traditions that distain educated clergy, who use one or two verses of scripture to illustrate what they claim to be disagreements with contemporary scientific thought. On the other hand are secular scientists who use selected examples of mistaken church teachings and corruption within the church as examples for the rejection of all religion. Granted it seems that those two extremes will have trouble finding common ground, it is important to recognize that the rejection of scientific thought is not at the core of religion, nor is it an ancient tradition among Christians.

The rejection of science is relatively new in the history of Christianity, despite the fact that some Christian fundamentalists claim that there has been a separation from the beginning. First of all, Christianity is much older than modern scientific method. You don’t find debates about a divide between science and religion before the time of Francis Bacon who lived in the late 16th Century. Bacon, who was influenced by the works of Copernicus and Galileo, attempted to formalize the concept of scientific method. All of these founders of scientific method and thought were people of faith. They made no attempt to discredit religion at all.

The more ancient and interesting arguments about the relationship of faith and reason, however, go back much farther. Taking a look at those conversations can provide quite a bit of enlightenment to the contemporary and somewhat misguided arguments between science and religion.

From Roman times, and perhaps from even before the time fo Christ, there has been discussion of how much of ultimate truth is informed by reason and how much by faith. The ancients understood that our minds have a great capacity to figure things out and there is a great deal of truth that can be perceived by human thought. However, it is equally truth that there is much that is beyond our grasp. Modern attempts at a unified theory of mathematics illustrate that human minds and imagination are capable of understanding that universal truth exists, but our attempts to possess or conquer even just a bit of that truth fall short.

The fourth century philosopher and Christian Saint, Augustine, was well aware of the human capacity to comprehend logical truths. He was also aware of the capacity of the human imagination to deduce subjective truths that exist in our minds but are not the whole story. For example, Augustine claims that there is no external reality which is time. Time, for him, is a human construct that exists only in our perception of reality, not in reality itself.

I could spend a week’s worth of journal entries on the thoughts and writings of Augustine, and the result would mostly be intensely boring to those who read it, but there is an Augustinian principle that I believe informs contemporary discussions of faith and reason. Augustine wrote of his theory of universal truth. It was his belief that all truth comes from God. Since it is from a single source, eventually all truth will be reconciled, regardless of how it is obtained. Truth from scripture and truth from human investigations eventually are reconciled because they came from the same source. There is only one source so ultimately there is only one truth.

I don’t believe that if he were living today Augustine would be among those who reject modern scientific thought. He would have seen it as seeking the same ultimate truth as is sought by religion. Augustine did place reason in a slightly lower position than faith, acknowledging that faith is essential to the pursuit of truth.

His somewhat convoluted arguments about free will also show that some contemporary arguments have been going on for a very long time. He believes that there is within every human being a certain amount of free will and a certain amount of predestination. In contemporary language we might understand this as the evaluation of the role of nature and nurture. How much of our identity is a part of our genetic code and how much the result of decisions we have made? Augustine, of course, uses theological language in the discussion, referring to what modern thinkers might label biology as original sin. There is, in our very nature, a certain element of predestination. Despite the power of reason and the advances of thinking, there remains a part of each of us that is determined by events that occurred long before our birth.

I personally do not buy into the rejection of scientific method. With Augustine, I find that the pursuit of truth is not in any way a rejection of God or of religious practice. I am not threatened by differences between individual verses in the Bible and scientific discoveries. In fact, I believe that when we bring the same high standards of logic and human consistency of thought to the study of scripture as we bring to the study of nature we discover that truth always lies beyond our grasp.

Seeking truth, however, is worthy of the best of our investments of thought, creativity and energy.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!