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Christian Biblical Studies

 

 

Faith and Authority

 

PART I

 

All Scripture references are to the King James (Authorised) Version (KJV) unless stated otherwise.

If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.

Matthew 21: 21

 

ANY PARENT will be familiar with the child’s question, Why? The young mind’s inexhaustible curiosity to understand the world is a driving force for the child’s development. The parent who invents an answer or rebukes the tender shoots of inquisitiveness teaches the child that ignorance or fancy is better than insight and learning.

 

It is best to answer with a straightforward compliment to the child’s desire to know, followed by a frank statement in response – even if it is a humbling “I don’t know”. A trip to the library or a referral to someone who does know should satisfy the inquisitive mind, or at least provide a grander question to puzzle over.

 

Of course, some answers are beyond the grasp of the immature intellect and the wise parent will tactfully divert the curiosity, or postpone the answer to a time when the child is better able to use the information. If the child has been taught to trust, the loving authority of mother or father should be sufficient to put the young mind at rest.

 

The Relation of Science and Religion

Curiosity is not, of course, limited to children. As we grow we have new, more complex questions. The Christian is exhorted to earnestly seek wisdom and understanding – two necessary attributes of the intellect. Proverbs 4: 7, 8, uses the figure of a virtuous woman as an enchanting metaphor for wisdom:

 

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her.

 

The Christian ought not to be superstitious or too easily convinced, but should establish faith firmly on facts, questioning when necessary any who claim to be teachers of God’s truth. ‘Prove all things’ is St. Paul’s exhortation to the church at Thessalonica. And he advises Timothy to ‘study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’ (1 Thessalonians 5: 21; 2 Timothy 2: 15).

 

Faith is not simply a naïve submission of one mind to another, but a reasoned voluntary act of belief in things reasonably held to be true. Contrary to common assertion, Science can be reconciled with the Bible. Reason and intellectual honesty should be firmly seated in the Christian’s outlook.

 

The Empirical Method

These same virtues are at the heart of scientific inquiry. The nature of Science is to so dispossess the intellect of bias and partiality that any previously-held error can be refuted by the refinement of experiment. In seeking to impute any law to the Universe, the conscientious scientist must ensure that the theory holds up under all known and testable situations.

 

When established scientific principles are applied within a controlled environment with immediate results, one’s religion rarely matters – the results speak for themselves. But if the bridge collapses, the electronic circuit fails, or the fuel tank explodes – the law of nature leaves a signature in the trail of evidence. In other words, the facts of the case determine the integrity of the scientist’s work.

 

Both the scientist and the Christian have a common interest – to understand and act upon truth. On paper, there is no reason why the two cannot abide together in harmony. In practice, the steady course of enlightened scientific inquiry arouses controversy with the Church when experiment and theory contradict dogma and tradition.

 

A Scientist’s View of Religion

The modern scientific psyche in its quest for answers finds its archetype in the Royal Society. Founded in 1660, the Society met regularly to witness experiments and discuss scientific topics, publishing the fruit of their inquiries to much acclaim. An example is Robert Hooke’s ‛Micrographia’ – a wonderfully illustrated book that combines observations of the natural world with methods of their investigation.[fn1] The pattern is one upon which today’s academic establishments have built and defined themselves.

 

The Royal Society was born in an era scarred by the turmoil of the English Civil War – and so the Society’s motto Nullius in verba is fitting for the age. The Society’s website explains:

 

‛Nullius in verba’ roughly translates as ‛take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows [of the Royal Society] to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.[fn2]

 

It is a spirit of inquiry still strong in the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge which, with similar indifference to rank and hierarchy, have set their course to advance the frontiers of science. Boundaries and limits are those areas in which research is most concentrated. The impenetrable and difficult terrain of the undiscovered country are where the answers lie. (At one time both Cambridge and Oxford were explicitly Christian schools, but religion has long since been replaced as the engine of discovery.)

 

The scientist may believe he will ultimately come to the truth, but he cannot have faith that his theory is the best explanation. Authority alone is not a sufficient basis for certainty; the truth must be determined by experiment. And to uncover the facts the scientist must exercise doubt – for doubt is the driving force.

 

Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, explains:

 

I believe, although I have no direct statistics, that more than half of the scientists do not believe in their father’s God. . . . Why? . . . There are two sources of difficulty that the young man [the scientist] . . . would have, I think, when he studies science. The first is that he learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt. So he begins to question everything. The question that might have been before, ‛Is there a God or isn’t there a God?’ changes to the question ‛How sure am I that there is a God?’ [fn3]

 

Feynman further points out that the second source of difficulty for the scientist arises out of the conflict between facts that he learns from science and the explanations offered by revealed religion. From the scientist’s position of doubt, and the contemplation of all that modern science has proven to be true – the size and age of the universe, the nature and development of life on earth, and the ephemeral nature of the tiny atoms of which it is all made – the God of his father’s church “isn’t big enough”.

 

A Religious View of Science

For the religious, the journey begins from the opposite end of the spectrum – the standpoint of certainty. ‘He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him’ (Hebrews 11: 6). Once this fundamental truth is grasped – that God is good and trustworthy – the Christian advances in knowledge of the Creator and His plan. This type of faith is unfathomable to pure Science, which maintains it is heresy to hold onto adamant certainty in the face of conflicting material evidence.

 

The earnest Christian is too trustful to ask God for credentials. C. S. Lewis puts forward this eloquent case:

 

I do not think there is a demonstrative proof (like Euclid) of Christianity, nor of the existence of matter, nor of the good will and honesty of my best and oldest friends. I think all three (except perhaps the second) far more probable than the alternatives. . . . I demand from my friend a trust in my good faith which is certain without demonstrative proof. It wouldn’t be confidence at all if he waited for rigorous proof. Hang it all, the very fairy tales embody the truth. Othello believed in Desdemona’s innocence when it was proved: but that was too late. . . . ‘His praise is lost who stays till all commend.’ [fn4]

 

So while science stands in disregard of authority as grounds for belief, to the Christian a single word of God is sufficient. The mature Christian must be able to trust the God whom he cannot trace. This golden thread of faith keeps the religious mind steadfast amid severe trials of pain and suffering, at rest and confident that in the face of opposition, God is working out a greater and grander purpose.

 

On this solid rock of trust the Christian can withstand the intellectual perplexity which may appear to the scientist as dishonesty or stupidity. The faith of the religious gives assurance that in time the paradox will be resolved; while to the scientist any contrary fact disrupts certainty, and signals a return to the blackboard to refine the theory.

 

A Meeting of Minds

At the outset of the Royal Society it could be claimed that all but a few of its members were men of faith. Now, nearly four hundred years on, it is perhaps only a handful that believe in God. Since the astronomer Copernicus published his sun-centred theory of the universe, scientists entered into controversy with the Church. The same tug-of-war exists today, as the human genome gives up its secrets. And though there are sympathisers on both sides of the argument, fires still burn in the border country between religion and science.

 

The motto of the Royal Society serves the honest inquirer well – take nobody’s word for it. But to the sincere and humble, the debate seems to be poisoned by intellectual arrogance. Science may be in danger of becoming like the religion it seeks to discredit.

 

To Be Continued

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NOTES

Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.

 

[fn1] An explanation of Hooke’s work and some of his illustrations in pdf can be found at:

http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/special-collections/featuremicrographia.pdf (retrieved 27 February 2011)

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[fn2] The Royal Society elects its members on the merits of their scientific work. The Society disburses grants and scholarships as well as awarding medals and prizes for scientific achievement. A history of the Society can be found on its website here:

http://royalsociety.org/about-us/history/?from=basefeature (retrieved 27 February 2011)

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[fn3] Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of it All (1998; Allen Lane Penguin Press, London), 35-40.

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[fn4] C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series of children’s books, also wrote extensively on Christianity. Lewis penned several private letters to Sheldon Vanauken, who got Lewis’ permission to publish them. The quotation is taken from http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/lewis.txt (retrieved 27 February 2011)

The letters are now in the public domain and can be found here:

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0176.html (retrieved 27 February 2011)

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Article copyright February 2011 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk

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