Science, Faith, Mystery (1)

A few months ago I had a conversation about science and Christianity that has stuck with me ever since. Some friends and I were sitting around talking after dinner and the conversation swung around to whether religion stifles curiosity. A friend of mine made the statement that science was about testable and verifiable facts, in contrast to religion, which was based on faith, and by that he meant myth.

That and other comments along the same vein have stuck with me because he seemed to misrepresent both the nature of faith and the aims and boundaries of science. I think religion unnerves him because it proclaims mystery as somehow woven into the very fabric of knowledge. Anywhere there is mystery there is faith, and to him, the existence of faith is antithetical to science, which is built of the empirical rather than the mysterious. I would submit that this is misguided notion of science, which is a tool made for describing the world, not for rejecting everything which would not submit to it. Science is a means of understanding the universe; it is not a chopping block for all the pieces of the universe which have not yet been understood.

One of the central problems with his viewpoint was exactly that: under his understanding of the function and purpose of science humankind’s own capacity to know something becomes the arbiter of what is natural and what is supernatural. But surely a survey of the history of scientific advance will serve to chasten such a hubristic notion. Think of Copernicus and Galileo, who the “establishment” suppressed and punished for their scientific views. Then the world learned that they were right. This story is often heralded as a parable of the dangers of the religious viewpoint, which tried to shut up the scientists findings. But it is often overlooked that both Copernicus and Galileo were Christians and did not see a contradiction between their theories and their faith. We project the modern secularism backwards into the past when we see them as non-religious materialists and read our modern biases into their motivations. Rather it is more likely that they were driven on by a desire to explore God’s world and the conviction that it was because he designed that world to operate in an orderly way guided by unchangeable laws that the scientific endeavor could tell us true things about the world in the first place.

Those of a materialistic worldview today might like to identify with Copernicus and Galileo, however the failure of the authorities was not that they were religious, but that their worldviews were not chastened with humility and a deep sense that the universe is a place of vast, wonderful complexity and it is is under no obligation to disclose its secrets to us. This is an error that, in rejecting faith and mystery as unscientific, the materialist repeats, for they implicitly make the assumption that human science is capable of cracking the mystery of the universe like a nut. In that case, whatever will not crack can be safely placed in the category of “myth” and discounted.

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