Anglican Perspectives: Science and Faith, Class 3

Faithful knowing in science or faith: commitment and participation

Scientists are passionate about knowing about the world, what it is like, how it works (Feynman).  Scripture places great emphasis on “knowledge” of God (Hebrew yada, da’ath, Greek gnosis).  Paul prays for the Christians at Ephesus “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19)

Our knowledge of the world, whether in science or Christian faith, comes to us through a basic three-fold structure.  What is the source of authoritative guidance?  Where or to whom do I go to learn what I want or need to learn?

In scienceIn Christian faith
Primary source: Reality (nature), by way of observation of the worldPrimary source: Reality (God), by way of His revealing of Himself
Secondary source: the university, textbooks, the tradition and community of scientistsSecondary source: Scripture, tradition, worship,  the community of the Church
Tertiary source: My own study, observations, analysis, participation in the communityTertiary source: My own study, prayer, relationship to God, involvement with the Christian community

Both science and theology involve an interplay of …

  • Discovery: We come to know about what actually is real.  Scientists tend to be realists about the world; Christians see Jesus and God as real, not something we make up.
  • Construction: We make up our own socially and culturally conditioned view of things.  Science is carried out in a community of normative practices, resistant to paradigm changes (Thomas Kuhn, 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions); similarly for religion.

How does one represent entities that cannot be directly seen, such as electrons or other elementary particles?  In science we observe phenomena over a vast range of space and time.  In religion, we use concepts such as God, forgiveness, or eternal life.  What kind of language must be used to talk about such things?  Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), one of the founders of quantum physics, said “The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atoms. But we cannot speak about atoms in ordinary language.”  We need language adequate to its task.

Language has intrinsic limitations in what it can convey.

  • Can we adequately express in words the aroma of a cup of coffee?
  • Can we explain how to ride a bicycle? How to play a piano?
  • We know more than we can tell (Michael Polanyi).

Both science and theology involve the construction of pictures and metaphors of the reality they describe.  The reality is more than the picture.

Principle: Let the phenomena reveal itself.  In science, we observe the actual behavior of the world, and devise ways of understanding it on its own terms.  In biblical religion, we understand God through the ways he has chosen to reveal himself.  Our language must respect the reality and intrinsic nature of the phenomena being described. (Thomas Torrance)

Models: Simple partial representation of a complex entity (a gas as a collection of billiard ball atoms => ideal gas laws, universal for all gases), that can be corrected to some extent (atoms have specific interactions => non-ideal gas laws, i.e., oxygen and water vapor behave differently as gases; quantum gases as coherent matter waves)

  • Very important in the sciences
  • Models represent a significant aspect of a more complex reality, but have limits that must be respected.  Models are not identical with what they model
  • In particular, it must not be assumed that every aspect of the model corresponds to the entity being modeled

Analogies and metaphors

  • Point out similarities, but have limitations and break down at some point
  • Metaphors: “is and is not”, have an element of surprise, open-ended quality
  • God as “father”, “lion”, “rock.”  Jesus as the good shepherd.
  • Light as a “wave” and light as a “particle” (similarly for atoms)

In early Christian theology, the Fathers of the Greek east and the Latin west both understood the use and limitations of language in describing ultimate things.  Positive affirmations about God must be qualified by negation, saying what they are not.  This was expressed by apophatic theology in the east, the via negativa in the west. If we say God is a Father, we must also say that he certainly is not just like a human father.  God transcends all human categories. Like scientific knowing of the world of elementary particles, human knowledge of God is analogical,  expressing both similarity and likeness yet radical difference from ordinary everyday concepts.                 

Principle: complementarity.  Models with seemingly opposite and irreconcilable characteristics are needed to represent all aspects of a complex phenomenon.

  • The observational data that lead to the development of quantum physics required the description of light and matter as sometimes manifesting particle-like behavior and sometimes wave-like behavior.
  • This led to the particular mathematical forms of the theory in order to account for both aspects of the observations.
  • The early Christian church reflected on the meaning of Jesus, as expressed in the experience of the Apostles, the written record of the scriptures, and its own experience of worship.  Christian thinkers found it necessary to understand Jesus as being both human and divine.
  • This led to the form of the creeds expressed by the universal Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Calcedon (451): God as Trinity with three persons in one substance, Jesus as one person with two natures, human and divine.

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.

1 Cor. 2:9 (NKJV)