Is There a Place for Science and Faith in a Postmodern World?
||Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.
The minds of many Christians today harbor an interesting mixture of premodern and modern ways of thinking. For example, we know we have one foot planted squarely in the premodern world when we express certainty in the promises of God, and accept the authority of His revelation. At the same time, we know we have the other foot planted squarely in the modern world when we use scientific reasoning to defend our faith, and when we encourage belief based on reasonable grounds, and a careful weighing of what others have to say.
The modern creation movement is itself a seething confluence of these two worlds. In Whitcomb and Morris’ The Genesis Flood (1961), we find an attempt to synthesize science with a literal understanding of the Bible. As far as they were able, the authors strove for scientific credibility by limiting divine interventions to those instances referred to explicitly by Scripture. In the end, however, the biblical text was to have the final say.
Modernism plays a greater role when consensus positions of science define a theological position. A fine example of such a project relevant to many of our readers can be found in the work of astronomer Hugh Ross. Implicit in Ross’ approach is the idea that the Big Bang provides the best scientific evidence available for the existence of a Creator-God. It would seem, from this perspective, that if Christians were to attack the Big Bang they would, in effect, be undermining their own faith and erecting barriers to the faith of others (Ross, 1991, pp. 163-164). Here is an apologetic that integrates entirely a modernistic agenda.
Traditionally, whether we have leaned toward premodern or modern ways of thinking, most of us in the West have cherished certain crucial ideas. These would include, for instance, the concept of truth—that there is a way to know that what is, is. It also would include the idea of an intelligible Universe—an idea that itself stems from the Christian view that we live in a world created by a rational, loving, intelligent Being. However, modern science eventually concluded that nature was the only thing we could understand—God was taken out of the picture altogether. Empiricism, in its extreme form, gave way to positivism, which writes off as nonsensical any utterances that include references to the nonempirical. To say, “God loves you,” is a meaningless noise in the ears of the positivist.
Postmodernism challenges Christianity and modernity because both claim to be “true” (Fields, 1995). For the postmodernist, truth neither is revealed (as it is in Scripture) nor is it discovered (as it is in science). That absolute truth and empirical science primarily are Western concepts is reason enough to reject their universal application. Different views of reality, held by other cultures, are no less true. If a tribe in Borneo believes that a certain ritual will cure a tumor, then who are Christians with their prayer, or Western doctors with their high-tech medicine, to tell them otherwise? In other words, truth is local and relative.
This immediately plunges the postmodernist into all sorts of difficulties. What would happen, for instance, if I were to claim that truth is absolute? If the postmodernist says I am wrong, then truth is not relative after all. If the postmodernist allows that I am right, then truth really is absolute as I claim.
Nonetheless, a limited idea of truth already is well ensconced in Western society, even if postmodernism’s greatest supporters are confined at present to a narrow segment of academia. There is no reason at this point to believe that such ideas will go away merely by closing our eyes. That Christian apologetics should have to reposition itself to this fresh challenge is nothing new. The first apologists used and responded to Greek philosophy, and the apologists of the modern era did the same with the arrival of empirical science.
Despite its horrible inconsistencies and rejection of traditional biblical faith, postmodern criticism could open certain doors for Christianity. Most important, it challenges positivism by asserting that empirical science does not have exclusive rights to truth. This move away from modernism may recover a place for a transcendent God (i.e, for something beyond nature).
Although hardly a postmodernist, this is precisely the tact taken by Berkeley law professor, Phillip E. Johnson (see, especially, his 1995 book, Reason in the Balance). Rather than affirming an overt belief in a Creator, he seeks official invitations from science and philosophy departments (still strongholds of modernism), in which he then challenges the supremacy of naturalism.
Creationists also have drawn upon works that critique the way science works (Numbers, 1992, p. 247). This is borne out of a sense of frustration that scientists, as a group, will not allow anybody else to join in unless they play by the rules of naturalism. It is on this point that the controversial work of Thomas Kuhn figures significantly.
In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn spoke of scientists as members of a community who hold to what he called a paradigm—a shared “constellation of beliefs, values, and techniques” (1970, p. 175). A revolution in the paradigm would be accomplished only by a process of conversion (when existing scientists accept new ideas on “faith”) or replacement (when a new generation takes over from the “old guard”). Here are elements that sound almost religious and political. Certainly it is not the picture of scientists always making an unimpassioned choice of the “best” theory. Dissenters may not have much of a say in this community, but they are not wrong merely because they disagree with the prevailing paradigm.
Many scientists who believe in a creation and global flood identify with this analysis. They feel that their dissent from majority opinions should not signal their expulsion from the community. Further, it is possible that science really may benefit from what they have to offer. For example, perhaps geology should consider the possibility of global catastrophes; perhaps anatomy should investigate “vestigial” organs and structures, rather than writing them off as useless remnants of previous evolutionary stages; and perhaps questions of origins should at least include the possibility that the answer may lie beyond nature itself.
Postmodernists have raised objections in other areas of interest to the believing scientist. For example, in the field of medical technology, some have questioned whether researchers should do anything merely because it is possible. In 1993, Robert Stillman and Jerry Hall reported the “cloning” (test-tube twinning) of human embryos. Stillman received approval for this work from an institutional review board, but he neglected to tell the board that the work already had been done because he thought it would “bias their judgment” (Science, 1994, 266:1949). Earlier, Hall admitted that pushing the ethical envelope was a prime motivation for doing the experiment (Kolberg, 1996, 262:652). Today, this aspect of modernism—pursuing the truth at any cost, regardless of what the rest of society thinks—seems terribly arrogant to many people outside of science. Christians can enter the discussion by upholding concern for others and valuing life itself.
On a similar vein, postmodernism perceives technology as driving a wedge between humanity and nature. Christians may be able to explain this sense of detachment by showing that while technology is useful, it is necessary only because sin separated us from an ideal state in which the first man and woman worked intimately with nature and in communion with God (Genesis 2:8; 3:8). Humans were granted a very special place in the order of things, but their role is one of stewardship, not exploitation (Genesis 2:15). Further, humans are uniquely situated to experience the wonders of creation in the world around them (Psalm 8).
It is too early to announce a winner in the debate between modernism and postmodernism. Christians may end up benefiting from the exchange, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. Principally, Christians should not feel compelled to defend the prevailing views of any historical period. Their prime concern is to preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). To depend on, rather than judiciously employ, the tools of culture is to make the Faith vulnerable to the sort of attacks leveled by postmodernism against systems established on its older rivals. If modernism really is adopted as the “Christian” way of thinking about our Universe, with God playing less and less of a role in His creation, then Christianity may fail to transcend culture. In something so impermanent as culture there is no foundation for concepts such as eternal truth (Psalm 119:52).
What would really happen to Ross’ apologetics if (and this is not a very big “if ”) the Big Bang were relegated to the trash heap of unfashionable scientific theories? Is this to be the best solution that theism can offer after more than two centuries of wrangling over faith and science? Perhaps Ross will succeed in reaching fellow modernists, but what will it tell them about God, and what will it do for the rest of society? In fact, we already have had ample lessons to teach us that matters of faith should not rest on prevailing scientific opinion. Few Christians today, for instance, would take up the cudgels for something like geocentrism. Surely scientific knowledge can grow, and benefit humanity, without dictating the content of religious belief.
Finally, if Christians expect to use the methods and findings of science as a testament to the Creator, then they must take care not to diminish the possibility of doing good science. There is always room for taking a second look at how science works, but making a mockery of it may confuse the real issue (i.e., questioning the assumptions and interpretations of the scientists themselves). Science arguably is the greatest tool bequeathed to us by the modern period. It is no friend of theism in its positivistic guise, but the master whose hands have been bitten should, nonetheless, foster those worthy aspects of science that may be used in the service of faith.
Fields, D. Martin (1995), “Postmodernism,” Premise, 2:5.
Johnson, Phillip E. (1995), Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
Kolberg, Rebecca (1993), “Human Embryo Cloning Reported,” Science, 262:652-653, October 29.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, second edition).
Numbers, Ronald (1992), The Creationists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
Ross, Hugh (1991), The Fingerprint of God (Orange, CA: Promise, second edition).
Science (1994), “Embryo Cloners Jumped the Gun,” 266:1949, December 23.
Whitcomb, John C., and Henry M. Morris (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).