Are Faith and Science Enemies or Allies?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

This time around I'd like to talk about what some have called my "scientific" approach to hermeneutics, and address some of the objections that have been raised. 

Let's begin with some background: What I specifically propose in Disarming Scripture is that we learn to "look at the fruits" of how we interpret and apply Scripture in our lives. That is, I propose that our interpretation and application of Scripture is right if, and only if, it leads to love, and further that the way we can tell if it leads to love is by evaluating the effects it has in our lives (i.e. by looking at the fruits). 

I make the argument that this reflects the approach of Jesus--not only because the phrase "look at the fruits" was his own, but more substantially because we can observe him doing this over and over with the Pharisees and his criticism of how they interpreted and applied the law in hurtful ways. In short, Jesus evaluated the effects of how the Pharisees understood and applied the law, and saw that it was hurting people. He consequently rebuked them, and went against their application -- healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, fellowshipping with sinners, and so on. 

In the eyes of the religious authorities Jesus was breaking the law. But Jesus saw this as fulfilling it. Not by unquestioningly following its commands, but by lovingly bringing it where it needs to go in the service of love, even when that meant changing those commands to something harder and better ("You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I tell you..."). 

Wrap your head around how that works, and you will understand how Jesus read Scripture. One thing is clear: Jesus was not popular with the religious or state authorities of his time. He was perceived as a threat to authority, so much so that he was executed. Jesus and authoritarian religion are in conflict with one another.

The Enlightenment and the Birth of Science

Fast forward to the birth of modern science. Let's consider the context that it arose from: Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms, had long ago merged with the state, and become very violent. People were burned at the stake for heresy. Others were tortured in the most cruel and inhumane ways imaginable. Crusades were waged in the name of Jesus. 

As a reaction against that authoritarian tradition and the violence and oppression that accompanied it, the Enlightenment arose. The Enlightenment focused on reason over authoritarian tradition. It is in this context that modern science was born. 

Science has consequently been seen as a threat to faith (and faith seen as a threat to science). From the get-go science  challenged the authoritarian claims of church tradition. Copernicus' discoveries challenged the Catholic Church's claim that earth was the center of the universe, showing instead that it revolved around the sun. When Galileo followed Copernicus he was declared a heretic and put under arrest for the rest of his life. 

Today we still can see that conflict between religion and science in the battle of evolution and creationism. However, I would propose that this is really not where the battle-line lie today. The conflict of evolution and natural science was the battle of the early 20th century that conservative Fundamentalism and  neo-Evangelicalism arose from. Today's front-line battle is about social science and its moral critique of authoritarian religion. If you listen to the "New Atheists" this is their focus (note that I have a lot of problems with the New Atheists, which I'll address in a moment. Here I'm simply saying where the battle-line are today).

Let me elaborate on that a little: Natural science tells us that the church was wrong about the cosmos or about the origin of life, but social science tells us that it was also wrong about morality. When religion is wrong about matters of science we can perhaps say "Well, the Bible is not a science book, but it is flawless in matters of faith and morality." Dodged that bullet! However,  when we start to see that it's wrong about matters of morality this hits us right at home because this is exactly what the Bible speaks to. 

This is not simply a matter of understanding things from the past (for example: Why did they commit genocide in the OT?), but of what is promoted right here and now in the name of conservative Christianity -- often despite what social science might tell us about how hurtful it is. I could name a long laundry list of examples here, and I suspect you could as well.

Let me further clarify that the conflict here is not really between science and religion, but more specifically it is a conflict between science and authoritarian religion. Science is simply about observing. We observe that something is hurtful, and this causes us to reassess our course. As we have seen above, Jesus and the Apostles' faith was characterized by those kinds of practical life observations leading them to question hurtful application of Scripture within their own religious tradition. So the conflict is not between science and faith. Faith is fully capable of questioning, too. This is known as the "prophetic spirit," and it runs all through the Hebrew tradition that Jesus identified with. The problem is authoritarianism.

Let me further state that science is not immune from authoritarianism. Or at least, a lot of people -- perhaps the majority of people -- understand science in an authoritarian way. We hear reports on the news that cite a "scientific authority." We read headlines with titles like "science has proven that..." Just as with the Bible, it appears that on a populist level if science says it, that settles it. 

This reflects a popular but fundamental misconception of what science is and how it works. Because of that misconception, science becomes a new kind of religion, a new source for unquestioning authoritarianism for some secularists. On the flip side of that coin are Christians who will object that science is not fool-proof and has often been wrong, so we cannot rely on science as a source for moral absolutes.

Confusing Methodology with Ideology

The problem here is that this all reflects a profound misunderstanding of what science is and how it functions. Science is not an ideology at all; it is a methodology. It does not claim to have objective absolute knowledge or to be immune from error. On the contrary, because science recognizes that we humans are not objective, it employs tools to eliminate bias as much as possible. That is at the very core of how the scientific method works. 

So when I say in Disarming Scripture that we should learn from this and incorporate it into how we interpret Scripture, I do not mean that we should simply give the theological car keys to the scientists, which would just mean switching the source of authority. Rather I am proposing that we would not only benefit from listening to scientists' conclusions, but also that we theologians could greatly benefit from learning about the methods they have developed for removing human bias from observation. Honestly, you'd think we theologians would really appreciate that, since it is about recognizing our human limitations and biases.

Further, let me stress that the scientific method functions by advancing in knowledge. Einstein builds upon Newton, quantum physics builds upon Einstein. Each recognizes limitations, blind spots, and even errors in earlier science. That's how it is supposed to work. So when people object that "science does not give us absolute answers," I stress that it never claims to be able to, and in fact the opposite is the case. The scientific method is not about naive optimism ("Yay, science gives us the right answer!"). Rather, it is a practical methodology focused on recognizing all the ways we can be biased, and coming up with safeguards and tools to eliminate that bias as much as possible -- including how that understanding develops and grows over time by the process of further inquiry. That's not a flaw in the methodology, it's how it is supposed to function.

Faith and Science as Allies
The way of unquestioning obedience always leads to hurt. We instead need to develop the art of faithful questioning in the name of compassion, and the methodology of science provides us with a tool proven effective in that pursuit. That is, learning how to observe the effects in people's lives as objectively as possible is a crucial and practical tool for evaluating whether we are applying Scripture wrongly or rightly. Understanding those tools for eliminating bias allow us to take Jesus' method of "looking at the fruits" beyond where it was in those pre-scientific times. Not taking advantage of those tools today is just as silly as saying a pastor can't wear a microphone because Peter and Paul didn't have one when they preached the gospel.

Let me underline again that the goal here is not to arrive at some perfect absolute via science. That is again just not how science works. So if the question is "how can we be sure we will not get it wrong?" I hate to break it to you, but we will get it wrong. History shows this over and over. We are humans, and humans get stuff wrong. Religion does not stop that from happening. The Bible does not stop that from happening. Science does not stop that from happening. It's part of being human, and there is just no way around it. 

However that does not mean that we need to continue on a course that we can see is hurtful. That is the mistake of authoritarianism. It says "this is the way we do this, and we cannot change, even when we see that it is hurtful." 

That we can avoid. 

Authoritarianism is the problem -- whether that's authoritarian religion or authoritarian science or whatever -- authoritarianism ignores evidence, it ignores conscience, it ignores reason, it ignores life. As a result it perpetuates hurt, and that's clearly bad. That is most definitely a mistake we can and should avoid. 

We instead need to find a way to move forward, to grow, to develop, to progress morally. In that pursuit faith and science can be great allies. Science is not a replacement for faith, mind you, but an ally. From Jesus we have the content of the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. Science as a methodology helps us to evaluate this so we can see if we are getting it right, and to help us to grow in it. 

Finally, let me say that recognizing how the scientific methodology can provide us with a valuable hermeneutical tool in our pursuit of applying the way of Jesus in our lives and world does not invalidate other tools. We can certainly learn from the wisdom of the past as we can learn from community. I myself have learned a great deal about enemy love from the inner promptings of the Spirit. The only thing I reject is authoritarianism. That means for example that I would never want to claim that my view of enemy love is right because I heard it from the Spirit (even though I did). Rather, for me listening to the Spirit means having a heart that is humble, open, seeking, self-reflected, and always wanting to grow in love.  

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At 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Small correction; it wasn't just the church that Galileo was going against but the Aristotelian philosophers of the time too (who admittedly were pretty much bedfellows with the church). Otherwise great piece :)

I touched on something similar in

At 4:21 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

I think there is a place for your hermeneutic principle but I also think it needs to be applied by something like the community of scientists. The church needs the wisdom to decide which occurrences are really compatible with love and which are not. It also needs law as given in the Bible. Even then like scientists do it will make mistakes.

You never answered Boyd's point or mine in the earlier post about Boyd's comments to the effect you seem too subjective. Specifically I again raise the issue of a retroactive abortion that our gp tried to perform on me.
More serious to my mind was Derek's rejection of anything in the NT that sounds negative to him or that smacks of law or punishment. The summer after I finished high school I ended up with very severe asthma in late August. My parents were in Newfoundland, which is half way to Europe from where we lived in Ontario, for the summer running a children's camp. When they got home my dad took me to our family doctor's home as he had an office there as well as a regular office down town. He was a "good" evangelical Christian but he gave me a shot of demerol which made me extremely ill such that I ended up in the hospital for a week or ten days being given oxygen for most of the time. Passing out from lack of oxygen is no fun. My mother did not expect to see me alive again after dad put me in the car for the trip to the hospital. She never forgave my father for not calling an ambulance, His reason was that the noise might disturb the neighbors, ie neighbor love. This all was back in the days when GPs made hospital rounds, especially in smaller towns. Our dr was never allowed to visit me and my friends who were in nurses training told me never to see him again. I expect they were reflecting what the hospital specialists were saying. When I got moved to the town, where the university I attended was located, my dr there said essentially the same thing. My thought has been that our family dr had tried to perform euthanasia on me and failed to give me a large enough dose of demerol. For most my last year of high school, we had been to emerg about twice a week for treatment of my asthma. As I see it our dr was tired to treating me and tried to do the "loving" thing, not tempered/guided by the scriptural law against murder. Our family dr told my parents that he was on drugs (uppers and downers) and simply made a mistake which is an almost equally damaging admission as I see it. DaveW

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


What you are describing is simply a crime. I'm so sorry that happened to you, but I don't see how it applies here.

As to being subjective: everything we humans do is subjective. The difference is whether we will take that subjectivity into account by creating ways to account for it as the scientific method does, or whether we will pretend like we are not subjective with an appeal to authority.

In other words, the problem with subjectivity belongs to those who make the claim that because of tradition or because of the Bible they have absolute truth and so their application of the Bible is beyond question.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The subjective charge is an interesting one. Because we were forbidden to judge for ourselves what is good and evil, that might lead us to believe blind obedience is the only way to remove the human factor that makes right and wrong subjective. But Derek is arguing for a vision of being life giving that goes against the way of seeing Christianity as commands to be obeyed which is the best version of good. The problem he raises is Jesus is interested in bringing life more than simply , he says blindly, following Gods commands without fully understanding why they are good and how to apply them and not apply them. I get his approach, and Boyds objection, but I think to not see the substance of what he is saying is worth talking about and not get bogged down that it doesn't sound like it fits in the evangelical box that prizes thinking objectively, not feeling subjectively, would be a huge mistake. Bottom line, while not perfect, I believe Derek's hermeneutics to be a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

Boyd is so apologetic he is concerned with staying within the lines. But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm confused you are saying Derek's definition of love is too subjective? Are you comparing the doctors subjective opinion to love you is to kill you? Yeah I get you get nervous about not nailing down love so that good evangelical doctors don't mix up evil and good or do evil and call it good.

Love begins with showing care and consideration for the well being of others. Is that too subjective? Maybe Paul's words in Romans "love does no harm to it's neighbor." Maybe that could be taken subjectively, I mean what is harming someone right? I hope at some point you'll see the more objective you or I want to be, the more we can take scripture and make it into whatever we want it to say if we are twisted enough.

I don't think the problem was the man's subjective understanding of what is good and loving. I think it may have been some more serious problems mentally and psychologically. So how will we be okay from crazy doctors who want to kill us and call it love? That is one question. A better question is how do we posture our heart and life to recognize when we see good and love in action. Totally different question.

One is concerned with protecting us from subjective interpretations, the other is about training us to discern good and evil and love and hurt by observing the effects upon the people. The wise train themselves to spot foolishness. Jesus was wise and He was good and He was love in action. Let's focus more on moving towards the substance of that and less on whether we are being too subjective.

At 2:06 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

Derek How do you know it was a crime? My dad and I went to emerg twice a week during my last year of high school so one could make an argument that killing me with an over dose of demerol was the Christian thing to do in love. My life was not worth living, according to that way of thinking and at times I would have agreed.

In your book you seem to deprecate any commands that don't fit your rule of interpretation ie love. Don't get me wrong I think we must take love and results into consideration when we think about how to apply the commands. DaveW
ps I hate writing comments in Blogger with such a small comment box.

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, how do we decide what is right and wrong? Are you basically saying that if is not loving, then it is wrong? Am I correct in stating that?

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think the proper word people are looking for here is not "subjective" but "arbitrary"

In that regard, let me stress this: I am not making the argument that we should look to whether something is "loving" or not.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am all for love. But people often call things "loving" that are not loving at all. The term "love" by itself is too arbitrary.

So I instead suggest something that is more concrete and practical: I propose that if we can recognize that something is causing harm, then we need to stop and re-think our course.

So how does one recognize psychological harm or damage?

When a mental health professionals determine that something is harmful, this is not based on their saying "I don't like that" or "that is not loving" which may indeed be arbitrary. It is not a matter of their feelings or likes. It is about empirical observation. They look at the effects in people's lives. They look at the long term psychological trauma that something causes.

So for example we can recognize the trauma and damage caused by child abuse and say from this that-- despite what the author or Proverbs may have thought in his pre-scientific world--it is most certainly not "good" for your kids to kit them with a rod leaving bruises and wounds to "cleanse their soul." In fact the reason this is considered a crime today (hitting kids so as to leave wounds) is because of what we now understand from psychology of how this damages people.

Now can we say more than this? Certainly. I am speaking negatively here, speaking about what NOT to do. Much could be said about how we SHOULD treat people, and what is good. How do we for example forgive in a healthy way as opposed to forgiving in an unhealthy way?

Here again the methodology of science is helpful in evaluating what works and is good as well. It provides us with sophisticated and highly developed way of looking at the evidence of our lives. Employing that evaluative methodology does not replace the content of the way of Jesus. It is simply an evaluative tool that helps us to apply it in the most objective way possible.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me give a contemporary example of how science can be wrong, and how what I am proposing helps with this:

Currently in most States what is popularly known as gay "reparative therapy" or "conversion therapy" is legal and practiced. So we have these "experts" and "authorities" endorsing this in the name of "science." However, when we look at the evidence we can see that so-called "reparative therapy" is not at all effective in changing a person's sexual orientation, and can be profoundly psychologically damaging to them.

In other words, we see that something that "professionals" and "science" is advocating is in fact really really harmful and bad. What do we make of that?

Critical here is to understand that authoritarianism is bad news and leads to abuse. This is true regardless of whether that authority claims the Bible or science.

Instead of relying on an authority to have the "right" answer, we instead need to learn to look at the evidence in order to evaluate and understand what is harmful and what is good.

The methodology of science is very helpful in seeking to evaluate these things, including uncovering when things are damaging--even things that science is endorsing. That process allows for the scientific community to learn and adapt and grow.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Thank you Derek for this post. I know I have used the Bible in the past to "force" people to believe how I do, and, more recently, I have used science to "force" people to obey in a certain application of the facts. Both are an authoritarian use of the verses in the Bible or the research in the scientific community. I thank you for this post, and I also want to thank "Brad" for pointing out that in his comment where he said, 'Maybe Paul's words in Romans "love does no harm to it's neighbor'" is a great verse to complement this post. Loving life right now while I'm learning to Love God and others with my mind. God bless you all.

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Joel, That's really important that you are able to recognize authoritarian thinking in both your application of faith and science.

Lots of times we are blind to that, so seeing it in ourselves is really a big deal. Ironically, when we think we are objective is when we are being authoritarian, and when we instead recognize our bias and subjectivity is when we truly step outside ourselves and look at things objectively.


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