Science and my Faith

(system) #1

The most remarkable scientific advances of our times have been in the fields of physics and genetics. Biology has taken major strides since Ernest Rutherford discovered the atom’s nucleus in 1909 and Francis Crick and James Watson announced the double helix in 1953. Among these advances is a new understanding of the nucleus of the atom as, essentially, a vacuum. This modification of our scientific understanding of material reality did not undermine our estimation of science. Rather it demonstrated one of its basic characteristics. No scientific thesis intends to be the last word. Its function is to improve understanding and, in turn, be tested by its predictive ability. In this way theories stimulate the design of experiments or other investigations that support or challenge their prognostics and make possible a more detailed understanding of a thesis. Thus, the validity of a scientific thesis is found in its capacity to stimulate the imagination of scientists who design ways to advance our knowledge of the universe in which we live. In small ways, both Newton’s “law” of gravity and Einstein’s “law” of relativity are being revised continually. The scientist who extends his predictions to fields in which he cannot either prove or challenge them, however, has ceased acting as a scientist.

The language of genomes has not been deciphered yet, but significant advances have been made in that direction. In 2006 a team of researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz, under the direction of David Haussler, published the results of a comparison of the genomes of different species (1). The researchers found two patches of DNA in the genome of vertebrates that appear to have been preserved through the transmutation of the species. One of them was designated HAR1 (Human Accelerated Region 1). This genome is found in chickens, mice, rats, chimpanzees and, highly modified, in humans. It is estimated that during 300 million years it remained almost intact from the common ancestor of chicken and mice to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. Then, according to the reports, during the last 6 million years it went through very significant modifications from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to modern human beings.

Compared to chimpanzees, HAR1 has 18 modifications in human beings. This genome regulates functions that were severely reconfigured. The researchers also observed that HAR1 is known to be very active in the cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester in utero, during which the essential details of the human brain are organized. A second RNA genome, called HAR2, is active during the development of the human wrist. These discoveries, considered by some scientists as important as those of Rutherford, Crick and Watson, open the door to a new scientific branch, the study of the distinct biology of humans at the molecular level, because they have to do with the brain and the wrist, the two characteristics that clearly differentiate humans from other vertebrates (2).

Without a doubt, science will continue to make advances in the description of the physical universe. Computers, as the team at Santa Cruz has amply demonstrated, are revolutionizing methods of investigation and accelerating its progress. Nevertheless, attempts to explain fundamental aspects of human history or biology using scientific methods provoke strong reactions among many. Some Christians see these advances as follies of human pride or as threats to Christian faith. Both of these reactions are based on misunderstandings.

Those who see the advances of science as the folly of “so-called science” think that true science of the physical universe is found in Genesis 1-3. To claim scientific value for the biblical accounts, however, is anachronistic, illusory and, at times, even fanatical. It is well known that science as knowledge acquired through specific methods that can be verified by others came to be part of our culture rather recently. It is also well known that writing history with the intention of describing with as much precision as possible what actually happened, making available to readers both the sources used and the reasons why one source is to be preferred over another when they do not agree, is also a rather modern development. To claim that the biblical authors wrote history or science is to do violence to the Bible. To further pretend that biblical “history” and “science” is superior to the history and the science written by “mere” human beings is doubly in error. It is wrong because in the Bible there is neither history nor science in the academic senses of the words. It is also wrong because just as history and science is written now, the Bible was also written by mere human beings. In other words, the biblical authors never ceased being fallible humans.

Those who see the advances of science as a threat to Christian faith misunderstand both science and faith. I agree with those who think that faith and science do not function in the same space, are not concerned with the same objects and do not establish the same truth. The truths of science are characterized by their ability to be displaced by new discoveries. The scientist who wishes to maintain what she or he was taught in school and rejects new discoveries has ceased being a scientist. The believer who has faith in God also searches continuously for better ways of understanding the God he or she believes in. Believers who remains pat in the beliefs and understandings they as children or adolescents become immature believers. What is true of beliefs, doctrines, understandings, is not true of faith. The faith of the child and the faith of the adult is the same faith. The faith of Abraham and my faith, I am convinced, is the same absolute trust that allows me to live by the grace and the loyalty of God. But my way of understanding God and God’s will when I was a child and now are very different, and the way in which Abraham understood God and the way in which I now conceive God is very different. Among others, I have the advantage of the revelation of God in Christ. The faith Abraham had, I had as a child and I have now is the same unchangeable and permanent faith, and it has nothing in common with the discoveries of science and the modern reconstruction of history. No scientific or historical understanding, contingent and temporal, can threaten faith.

As important as recognizing that science and history can not threaten faith in God as the Giver of Life is recognizing that science and history do not threaten the biblical stories of creation in Genesis 1-3. We all know that in these chapters we have two stories with very different perspectives that reflect theological arguments from different epochs. Neither story is an attempt at science or history. Anyone who wishes to argue that they were written with the intention of describing with as much precision as possible what actually happened in the past is obliged to provide evidence to that effect and to give the reasons why one story rather than the other is to be preferred. In other words, before God began creating, was there an ocean or a desert? Were the fish, the birds and the land animals created first, or was Adam created first and Eve created last? Is God a transcendent, immaterial being who remains hidden in space or an immanent, material being who plants trees, molds clay, cuts a rib and sows garments? Where is the evidence that supports preference for one story over the other?

The reason I have no problem taking seriously what scientists tell me about the way life has been and is evolving on this planet is not because I have placed my faith in science. I have no problem because my study of the Bible has convinced me that its objective has never been to provide historical or scientific information that the contemporaries of its authors did not ask for. If the Bible provides information that today someone may consider of historical or scientific interest, it is marginal, tangential, without details and inconsequential. The intention of its authors is to testify on behalf of God, to show God’s power, justice, loyalty and love. Many of the things they tell are not accurate and many are not edifying. The Bible reflects the way a people saw themselves guided, protected and chastised by God. It is a testimony of faith, and the faith of its authors is worthy of emulation. The believer who vetoes the advances of science, in a misguided defense of a misreading of the biblical stories, has ceased to be reasonable. In its efforts to integrate all aspects of the personality, faith goes beyond reason. Such faith enlarges the horizon and orients the person within the universe. When faith stands against reason, however, it becomes the destroyer of the unity of the person. Such faith reduces the horizon and debilitates, maybe even sickens, the person. Faith is a very powerful agent, but its power can be either beneficent or maleficent.

I have never placed, nor will I ever place, my faith in science or in history. Their truths are contingent until new evidence is presented. The same is true, I admit, of the doctrines or beliefs we formulate to make sense of God. My faith rests in God. God is my reason for living. For my faith I cannot give explanations, only my confession. In the meanwhile, I let science and history inform me about the past and about the way life and things function in the universe that God is continuously creating.

(1) K.S. Pollard, S.R. Salama, N. Lamber, M.-A. Lambot, S. Coppens, J.S. Pedersen, S. Katzman, B. King, C. Onodera, A. Siepel, A.D. Kern, C. Hehay, H. Igel, M. Ares Jr., P. Vanderhaeghen and D. Haussler, “An RNA gene expressed during cortical development evolved rapidly in humans,” Nature, vol. 443, Sept. 14, 2006, pp. 167-72. (2) Freeman Dyson, “When Science and Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 56, num. 13, August 13, 2009, pp. 15-18.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at