Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.4 Christians v. Scientists, what’s the score?

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

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1.4 Christians v. Scientists, what’s the score?

In this section we look at just a few of the conflicts between science and the Bible. Of course, we now understand that they actually represent disputes between scientists and theologians, or scientists and Christians..

i. Heliocentricity

This is, perhaps, the most famous example. Does the sun rotate about the earth, or the earth about the sun? By now virtually everyone agrees23 that the earth rotates about the sun, and the sun rotates in the Milky Way, etc. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish astronomer and contemporary of Martin Luther, is generally credited with firmly establishing this fact scientifically.

Copernicus’ sun-centered cosmology provided simplicity in explaining the sixteenth century’s database of astronomical observations. For example, the retrograde motion of Mars’ orbit, quite inexplicable in an earth centered system, is easily understood, at least qualitatively, in Copernicus's heliocentric system.

When the earth is on the opposite side of the sun from Mars, clearly Mars will appear to be moving to the “left.” When they are on the same side the earth, which moves faster (because it is closer to the sun) will out race Mars, which will then appear to mover to the “right,” as shown.

Responding to Copernican theory, Martin Luther is purported to have stated, presumably referring to Copernicus: 24
There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth [Joshua 10:10–15]
The important fact to remember here is the Bible never states the sun rotates about the earth. It only uses figures of speech, such as the “sun rose.” If the Bible did say the earth was the center of the universe, then we would have a real problem on our hands, but it doesn’t. The insistence from some theologians was based, in part, on the assumption that God would place the pinnacle of creation at the center of the universe, and was reinforced by casual observation. But assuming God would do what we would do if we were god makes for very bad theology. That bad assumption is the basis for both types of liberal theology. The classic liberal theologian assumes that God is as “nice” as he would be if he were god, so all the vengeance-is-mine baggage gets tossed overboard. And the liberal theologian of the right, the legalist, assumes that even though God didn’t inspire scripture prohibiting this or that, surely he intended to.

In fact as we’ll discus in more detail later, not only did God not put us at the center of the universe, God could not do it, because God created a universe with no center. To put us at the center of a universe that has no center would be a violation of the Law of Non-contradiction. Nothing, not even God, can be something and its opposite at the same time and same place and in the same relationship.

This would seem to be a clear victory for the scientists, although perhaps an “asterisk” is in order, given that Copernicus was a devout believer, who wrote: 25
After I had pondered at length this lack of certainty in traditional mathematics concerning the movements of the spheres of the world, I became increasingly annoyed that the philosophers, who in other respects made such a careful scrutiny of the smallest details of the world, had nothing better to offer to explain the workings of the machinery of the world which is after all built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.

Still, this one goes to the scientists: Scientists 1, Theologians 0.

ii. The start of the Universe.

In its opening verse, the Bible makes its most profound scientific claim:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)
Our universe, according to the writer of Genesis, began. There was a “time” when it wasn’t, followed by a time when it was.

In the early twentieth century the scientific consensus was quite different. The prevailing cosmology was the Steady State theory. This held that while the earth and stars had a beginning, the universe as a whole “always was, and always will be.” Endless recycling occurred, powered by a matter-producing engine maintaining a steady density. Here is a rare case of scientists, including such luminaries as Eddington, Hoyle, and Einstein, claiming something that could not be reconciled with the Bible, ever. An infinitely old universe had no causal event that could be attributed to God. An infinitely old universe renders God unnecessary.

The support for the theory was largely philosophical. A universe with a beginning had obvious theistic overtones. Something that begins is something that was caused. The famous British astronomer, Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) said, with admirable honesty regarding his priorities: 26
Philosophically the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me. I should like to find a genuine loophole. I simply do not believe the present order of things started off with a bang …the expanding Universe is preposterous… it leaves me cold… We [must] allow evolution an infinite time to get started.”
The “bang” of Eddington refers to is the Big Bang, the cosmology that supplanted the Steady State model and remains, though in a more sophisticated form, the prevailing theory. The Big Bang resulted from the painstaking observations provided by American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) that the universe is expanding. Run that tape backwards and the implication of a beginning is clear. We will have more to say about the Big Bang later, but for it serves our purpose that science, in a certain sense reluctantly, came around to accept what the Bible taught. The universe is of finite age.

Scientists 1, Theologians 1.

iii. Homosexuality: Nature or Nurture?

First, a little relevant history. Many Christians, across denominations, consider Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to be the greatest theologian of the first millennium. One of many lasting contributions, a formulation of Original Sin that we still affirm, came about innocently enough. Augustine had a prayer:
Grant what You command, and command what You desire.
Enter the monk Pelagius (ca. 354- ca. 420/440) a native of the British Isles, although whether he was Irish or English is not clear (Augustine calls him English, Jerome calls him Irish.) He is the first Briton to make a contribution to literature, writing a Latin commentary to the Pauline epistles.

Pelagius disputed Augustine’s famous prayer. He argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches something quite different: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, moral inability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. And, apart from grace, we are doomed.

To put it as succinctly as possible:

  Pelagius: God would not punish us for how we are born.

Yes he would, each and every one of us, which is why we need a savior.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not absolutely required. At least in principle we can do without grace. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

As we know, Augustine won the day. Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.

Now consider the following imaginary yet familiar debate:

  Non-Christian: Homosexuals are born that way. They don’t choose to be gay.

  Christian: No they aren’t. They make a moral choice.

What do you call the Christian? Well, in a certain way you call him a heretic. For his premise in holding fast to the position that homosexuals are not born that way is not just semi but full-blown Pelagian. This Christian, like Pelagius, is insisting that God would never give the moral responsibility without the moral ability to comply. In fact, both sides in this debate accept the erroneous premise that God wouldn’t punish us for how we are born. One side says: "But we are born that way, therefore God would not punish us." The other side says: "You are correct, God would not punish you if you were born that way, therefore you weren’t.

Everything I know about Augustine and Pelagius tells me that in the little debate above over homosexuality, on the point of whether it was a condition of birth, Augustine, the saint, would be sympathetic with the “non-Christian” position and Pelagius, the heretic, with the “Christian.”

The Augustinian response would be: Maybe you are born that way, but that’s no get-out-of-jail-free card. We all are born sinners.

Now in terms of science, the data are ambiguous. The best guess at the moment is that the answer is “both.” There is a predisposition toward homosexuality but that is not always the explanation. The point here is that the fact that some people being born gay fits naturally with Christian theology. Christians should not be Pelagian in this question.

The jury’s still out on this one. Let’s call it a tie:

Scientists 1, Theologians 1, and 1 draw.

23 But not truly everyone. Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis argues strongly in favor of geocentrism. See here for more details.
24 There is some uncertainty here. It is from Luther’s Table Talk, or transcriptions of dinner conversations. The quote was reported by a student named Anton Lauterbach, who copied down the conversation.
25 Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543.
26 Eddington, The End of the World from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics, Nature, 127, p. 450, 1931.

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