Seeing Science Anew
‘What is truth?’
This profound yet enigmatic question slips from Pilate’s lips at the end of his encounter with Jesus. Frustratingly, neither he nor Jesus provides an answer. This unanswered question has caused a history of consternation within the church and other communities of faith. From Augustine to Galileo to Descartes, Christian thinkers have created differing strategies to balance both science and faith. Within Christian circles, in particular, the rise of fundamentalism and biblical literalism in the early part of the 20th century was a direct result of one facet of the Christian community’s attempts to wrestle with truth. Fundamentalists determined that science and faith offered competing truths. As one area advanced, the other retreated. This rather combative posture expressed in fundamentalism’s stance toward science is categorized as a type of imperialism, i.e., this stance maintains that science and faith are competitors for the absolute allegiance of their adherents.
Yet, must science and faith be perpetually perceived as wholly oppositional? Are they always mutually exclusive options? Can someone be a person of faith and a person science? What is “truth” anyway? These are not only important questions but possibly the central questions of honest intellectual inquiry; they are at the very core of what it means to be a liberal arts college of the church. Other efforts to balance science and faith, e.g., perspectivalism, postmodern relativism, and critical realism, offer their own solutions. Providing greater or lesser degrees of continuity between science and faith, each stance, nevertheless, fails to provide an absolute solution. Yet, maybe, that is the solution. Maybe the very fact that we cannot completely reconcile those two parts of our brains is precisely the point. We might be looking for resolution where the struggle with mystery is meant to be the very (transformative) point.
In science, truth is probabilistic. That is, truth is only true as long as the observable data comports to that conclusion. If we discover other data that disproves a previous conclusion, then the understanding of truth shifts. Similarly, in faith, truth is always, primarily, a relational category. Emergent from the notion of “troth,” we know truth only when we are honestly and wholly willing to engage with what (or who) is True. Emblematic of this truthful engagement, the two sacraments of the church—baptism and communion: the two quintessentially relational moments of the faith—develop from a concept within Greek called mysterion. Mysterion, or mystery, is that moment of engagement with the Mystery that is God.
Our word “science” derives from a Latin word, scientia, meaning “having knowledge.” Scientia comes from another Latin root, scindere, meaning to split or cut off. For those familiar with Ockham’s Razor, such a definition of science seems most appropriate. In an almost identical way, the church has classified two ways to understand God: (1) kataphatic and (2) apophatic. Kataphatic is knowledge by analogy, i.e., by words. Apophatic is knowledge by negation, i.e., saying what cannot be said about God. Through negation, what is left unsaid is God. In this construction, God is the Mystery that we engage. In addition, as scientists remind us, simply discovering something does not lead to a sudden reduction of mystery but an expansion of mystery. Put another way, the answering of one question does not eliminate a question as much as produce countless additional questions.
This does not make God simply the “God of the gaps,” i.e., God becomes the default space filler for whatever we do not know. Rather, we come to realize that God is the very Reality, the Mystery, the Truth that we relate with in pursuing what we see as “reality” or “mystery” or “truth.” Science and faith are about “knowing” something or someone. Science and faith are not adversaries but cohorts. These disciplines, also, become more about intimate knowledge of a subject or, more accurately, a Subject. Both are activities that demand dedication, struggle, perseverance, passion, and love. They are disciplines not committed to accumulation of data but about the journey into the very heart of Mystery, as much interested in the questions as the answers.
Upon reflection, I think it is best that neither Pilate nor Jesus provided an answer to our original question. Such an answer would have carried the kind of absolute weight that seems completely antithetical to both science and faith. Such absolute claims demand simply our acknowledgement and not the kind of intimate knowing gained through passionate pursuit and honest intellectual inquiry. Such a knowledge and the journey necessary to acquire it is far more transformative and permanent than that found when simply being told what to believe.
This week in chapel, Paul Arnold will share his own unique perspective of faith as our “This I Believe” speaker. Come to support him and to journey deeper into the mystery of truth as we see how faith lets us see science anew.