Theology, Twenty Feet Up

He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’

hang in there 2—Luke 10.27

OK, I am going to go out on a limb . . . ever so tentatively and out just a little ways.  I am on this limb for three reasons.  First, I am addressing what some might consider a rather sensitive issue, i.e., the relationship between faith and science.  Second, I am hoping to do so in these very limited pages of reflection.  Third, my thoughts here are prompted by reflex as much as by reflection, reacting to a recent movie trailer I saw, a trailer for the movie A Matter of Faith.  In other words, I am responding not to the movie itself, since I have not seen the movie.  Yet, I am taking the trailer at its word on the subject matter it covers and the purported and predictable means by which it appears to address that subject.  While potentially accurate in its portrayal of a debate that might actually occur on a university campus between conflicting world views, the premise upon which the movie rests has at its heart a false assumption of a presumed necessary conflict, i.e., the Bible and faith on one side verses scientific data and reason on the other.

While undeniably representative of ideas circulating in our world today, the film’s premises are theologically and philosophically shaky, at best, and almost certainly unfaithful for the Christian committed to Jesus’ admonition of a mindful-faith as recalled in Luke’s gospel, above.  Ultimately, it seems that this film perpetuates the false dichotomy between faith and science, advancing a kind of religion that is anti-intellectual and serves only to bolster neo-atheism’s caricaturizing and dismissal of all religion.  Such an anemic position discourages a kind of faith that demands rigorous intellectual investigation, the kind of rigorous religious investigation properly endemic to a liberal arts college of the church.  More than that, such a premise, as assumed in the film, concedes the necessary presence of a kind of rational explanation for how things are to philosophical ideas that rely on an understanding of the world that is fundamentally detached from the divine.  In other words, truth—narrowly defined—is discovered through observable facts. This philosophical presupposition looks for data to offer ultimate claims, forcing the Christian apologist to turn the scriptures into texts to be data-mined rather than a poetic telling of God’s enduring work to shape a people who love and live in the world as God does.  Said another way, the religious in the film have already lost the argument because they agreed to play by a set of rules that undermines the very fundamental claims they really want to affirm.

Let me (briefly) explain.

Alice Ogden Bellis and Terry Hufford in their text on the relationship between science and scripture labor to determine exactly what scientific research is attempting to do and what it is not attempting to do.  Parsing scientific claims from other claims, Bellis and Hufford hope to dispel any myths as to what scientific research says and what it never labors to purport.  Accordingly, they maintain that science is always probabilistic (Bellis and Hufford, 8).  That is to say, science refrains from making absolute truth claims about anything.  All scientific statements are statements that have been tested over time and have not, as yet, been disproven.  Bellis and Hufford maintain that—contra religious dogmatism—science is not concerned with truth but with probability (Bellis and Hufford, 20).  Bellis and Hufford, also, advance a second characteristic of science:  it is about empirical observation.  Science observes the natural world, attempting to identify patterns, connections, and the functions of natural phenomena.  Science, rarely, is purely speculative (Bellis and Hufford, 8).

Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse emphasize a similar point in their work on science and the church.  Following this initial agreement, Jones and Yarhouse diverge from Bellis and Hufford.  Unlike Bellis and Hufford, Jones and Yarhouse argue that science—challenging its given purview—does occasionally attempt to make truth claims (Jones and Yarhouse, 16).  In Jones and Yarhouse’s estimation, if both science and theology seek to make absolute truth claims, then an inevitable, possibly intractable, tension arises.  Jones and Yarhouse assume such a tension might realistically be resolved if both scientists and theologians understand what they are both actually endeavoring to do.  Jones and Yarhouse offer four possible postures to be assumed by the church and science, each differently suited to address this potential tension.

First, they consider perspectivalism.  Perspectivalism is the idea that science and theology are attempting to describe the same thing from different perspectives.  Science asks how something works and theology asks why.  Science is about the physical and theology is about the metaphysical. The two perspectives, while complementary, are mutually exclusive, not influencing the other (Jones and Yarhouse, 14).   Second, imperialism maintains that science and theology are competitors for the allegiance of their adherents.  As one advances, the other retreats (Jones and Yarhouse, 14).   (If it is not obvious, this is the premise assumed by the film’s producers.)  Third, they present the notion of postmodern relativism.  Postmodern relativism dismisses universal truth claims in favor of narrated, particularized realities.  Postmodern relativism questions our epistemological interpretative models, including both science and theology.  As such, both science and theology are open to reinterpretation (Jones and Yarhouse, 15).  Fourth, critical realism argues for a real and certain interpretation of an ultimate reality, but a reality that is interpreted conditionally through our hermeneutical biases.  This compromise theory attempts to incorporate the disparate acute angles of approach assumed by perspectivalism with the nuancing of postmodern relativism.  Here, science and theology are mutually informative.  And, in Jones’ and Yarhouse’s estimation, critical realism allows us to make absolute claims without sounding imperialistic (Jones and Yarhouse, 15-16).  While laudable, such a posture seems difficult given the preponderance of culturally conditioned conclusions that determine our claims to what is reality and what is absolute.  Nevertheless, their fourth model seems most useful for our thoughts, here.

The film assumes as position of imperialism as response, possibly rightly, to perceived imperialisms all around them.  However, as I have hoped to demonstrate above, imperialism is only one option, does not seem to be the most laudable one, nor the one option that takes into account the beautiful complexity of knowing and believing.  What would seem more useful would not be to attack or defend but to listen and share.

So, here, I sit, some distance from the ground and out on a limb wanting to make a potentially helpful yet risky claim, all the while not wanting to fall.  Mainly, I want us to use the vantage gained by sitting out on this limb to surveying our mental landscape, noticing the complex contours of our lives and our overlapping, shared world, filled with multiple intersections and blessed diversions.  While up here, may we resist the temptation to make definitive, debatable claims and be more willing first to be inspired by the view.

Have a great week and see you along the way.


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