Are Science and Theology Opposed?
In the same way that the thumb and fingers are opposed, according to William Bragg. Apart from this opposition, nothing can be grasped.
Science gives us facts, incredibly useful and life-enhancing facts at that. Smartphones, treatments for cancer and fibre-optic cables have massively augmented the lives of people I love. Yet for all the strides we’ve taken thanks to science, without theology – it remains blind to the meaning of life.
Indeed, science affirms that there is beauty and order pervading the cosmos. It tells us how the universe unraveled to this point. But what it cannot do is tell us why any of this is the case. Why there is something rather than nothing, why there is order rather than chaos.
To discover the why behind the what and the how, we need an entirely different faculty and reference point. I find this in Genesis 1.
Thanks to age-old interpretive battles, the Bible’s commencement chapter is delicate ground for many. A pity, as it was always meant to be solid ground for all. Written in a pre-scientific era, it was never meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe or the biodiversity that enshrouds our planet. Theologians as early as Augustine (with the likes of Calvin and Wesley following in tow) warn against this method of interpretation. In his own words:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
So what is Genesis 1? Systematic theologian, Michael Horton, provides a technical answer:
The creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2 is not intended as either a scientific description or as a myth conveying ostensibly higher and eternal principles. Rather, it announces God’s historical act and claim upon all of reality.
In layman’s terms, Genesis 1 is God’s image-rich disclosure of his involvement in the making and meaning of our world.
Read in this light, at least four insights become crystal clear.
God created an ordered world, according to scientific and natural laws. Einstein considered it the greatest wonder that not only is there pattern in the cosmos, but that we have minds that can perceive it. Genesis 1 reveals a God that encodes scientific laws into the material realm. For example, light and darkness cannot co-exist (v5), life reproduces after its kind (v11-12), the sun and moon create predictable cycles and seasons (v16,18), and God creates in stages – one stage building upon another. We can give ourselves to the study of science, biology, astronomy, genetics and more simply because God created an ordered world. So many of history’s greatest scientists – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz – believed their discoveries in ‘the book of nature’ were in themselves a kind of revelation, teaching us clues about our creator.
God created a world of variety and wonder. The world may be ordered, but it is also infinitely beautiful. God creates vegetation, birds, animals, sea creatures, stars, the moon, the sun, water, sky, light, darkness, food, pleasure and sex (as implied by verse 28). We’re meant to experience life in a way that inspires wonder and awe. God, it turns out, is not an engineer as much as he is an artist.
God created the world with us in mind. Days 1-5 are preparation for day 6 when humankind is created to enjoy a world that is habitable. Paul Davies, an astrophysicist, marvels that the chances of our universe being one that could sustain life, even just on our planet, are 1 in 10 to the power of 60. ‘That’s like aiming an arrow at a square-inch target at the other side of the universe – and hitting bull’s-eye!’ he says. Or in the words of astronomer, Fred Hoyle, ‘It’s as though the universe knew we were coming.’ The world is God’s gift to us, and what we do with this world is meant to be our gift to our progeny and to him (v28).
God created the world by the power of his word (v3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). God’s recurring words, ‘Let there be’ or ‘Let the…’ are followed by ‘and it was so’. Whatever God says, goes. He is totally sovereign, and free to create and do whatever he pleases. His power is absolute, his sovereignty unrivalled, his authority unmatched. What’s more, the sheer fact that God vocalizes words reveals that he is not an impersonal force. He (not It) thinks, imagines, acts, chooses, appreciates and speaks. God is not only powerful, but personal. Creation shouts back in wordless praise. Humanity’s unique privilege is to give intelligent and heart-felt vent to this cosmic anthem. Ah, the joy of seeing! And singing because of what I can see.
Quantum pioneer Edwin Schrodinger muses,
The scientific picture of the world around me … puts my experience in a magnificently orderly manner. But it is ghastly silent about all that is really near to our heart.’ William Cameron posits it like this, ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
Dawkins asserts that, if something cannot be counted, it does not count. In refreshing (and humbler) contrast, Peter Medawar, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on immunology, accepts the ceiling of scientific discovery:
That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer … I have in mind such questions as: How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living?
Thankfully, God has spoken both through the general revelation of nature, and through the special revelation of Moses, Jesus and their Scriptures. The former enriches our lives, yet also shows us (through our own conscience and collective history) our desperate need for salvation. The latter infuses us with meaning, summoning us to the One who alone saves both creature and creation.
Miss this voice, and all your attempts at a reality-congruent life can be likened to picking up a glass of wine with your thumb.