Warfare and Wedlock: Redeeming the Faith-Science Relationship

Article excerpt

The interaction of science and faith has most popularly been portrayed for over 100 years as warfare. This characterization, perhaps plausible as a competition between worldviews, and certainly a convenient simplification for rabble rousers in both camps, is a travesty of the logical and historical relationships that actually exist between these areas of life. This talk (1) seeks to give a sound intellectual basis for understanding the distinction between science, which grew from the fertile soil of a Christian view of creation, and scientism, the philosophical position that science is all the true knowledge there is. Christianity does indeed repudiate scientism, but a case can be made that science is already meaningfully Christian, recognizing the foundational values that science and faith hold in common.

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I think it is fair to say that when the relationship between science and faith is discussed today, the dominant view is that they are in conflict. This is not a new view. It has been an abiding part of the academic scene for at least 100 years. But, contrary to what is widely assumed, it is not historically the view that held sway prior to the mid-1800s.

Warfare

What happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in academia was that a myth became widely accepted: that science and faith had always been at war intellectually with one another. Of course, this myth was initially promoted largely by those who felt that this was a war that science was in the process of winning, or had already won. Probably the best known proponent of this position was Andrew Dickson White, who published in 1896 the famous book titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. (2) In it, White gathered and recounted numerous historical examples of areas in which the growth of what he called "science" encroached upon traditionally religious intellectual territory, initially meeting with stubborn resistance from the entrenched theological power structures, but eventually from sheer force of evidence and argument overthrowing that resistance and moving forward into greater knowledge and enlightenment. The theme is repeated over and over in this rather long book, but it is stirring stuff, complete with martyrs, heroes, and villains; intrigues and battles; all the elements that go to make a good story.

The first thing to realize about White's book is that, as White himself emphasized in his introduction, it was part of a much wider campaign. (3) White was, for a substantial period, the president of the newly founded Cornell University. He and his patron were determined that Cornell would represent a new model of university in which religious doctrine was to have no place. (4) His book, much of whose material he had previously published in pamphlets and other articles, was more a compendium of propaganda in support of the campaign than it was a work of scholarship.

Considered simply as a work of history, White's book has over the years been shown to be full of errors, misinterpretations, and in some cases apparently, fabrications. For example, talking about the Galileo affair, White says:

   Years before, the opponents of
   Copernicus had said to him, "If your
   doctrines were true, Venus would
   show phases like the moon."
   Copernicus answered: "You are right;
   I know not what to say; but God is
   good, and will in time find an answer
   to this objection." The God-given
   answer came when, in 1611, the rude
   telescope of Galileo showed the phases
   of Venus.

This is a pure fabrication that can be traced to a textbook of 1718.

Not to leave Protestantism out of the criticism, White cites a condemnation of Copernican cosmology by John Calvin who, according to White, referenced the Ninety-third Psalm ("Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm ...") and asked: "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit? …