In the final post of this blog series on natural science and the Christian faith, I suggest three reasons that we as followers of Christ ought to familiarize ourselves with the “science-religion dialogue.” These are: first, to dispel the myth of NOMA, “nonoverlapping magisteria” (cf. Stephen Jay Gould); secondly, to clarify the notion of “levels of description”; and thirdly, to commend the Christian worldview in the public square. Let us begin with the first.
To dispel the myth of NOMA. The idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria” comes from the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould believed that where science deals strictly with facts, faith was in the business of mere opinions and feelings; and that these two domains—science and faith—ought, therefore, be considered “nonoverlapping magisterial” each with its proper and mutually exclusive sets of issues. In a journal article where he coined the phrase, Gould writes: “[S]cience covers the empirical universe . . . religion extends over questions of moral[ity]. These two magisteria do not overlap . . . To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven” (Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History Magazine, 106 (March 1997): 16-22).
As eloquent as it may sound, the question begs: Is this view sound? A couple of simple counterexamples should suggest otherwise. Consider the status of moral beliefs. If, as is recently being considered, morality is reducible merely to an evolutionary story of human biology and a neurological account of its being merely a set of brain states, then science does have something to say about what Gould suggests is in the realm of religion. Conversely, since faith—the Christian faith at least—builds its case on (among other things) historical facts such as the resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15), then Gould’s “religion” too draws on facts which allegedly is in the realm of science. The story told by Gould that science and religion occupy different and nonoverlapping magisterial is just that: a mere untrue myth.
The second reason I suggest that we study the science-religion dialogue is to clarify the insight which the world renown physicist-priest John Polkinghone calls “levels of description” (see John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology, 2nd ed. (London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2007 ), pp. 115-16; cf. Donald MacKay, “‘Complementarity’ in Theology and Science,” Zygon 9, no. 3 (1974): 225-44). Returning to the illustration of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, one could see that while there is an entirely consistent way of describing the painting in terms of CMYK color codes and oxidation—one level of description—it is also entirely consistent to speak in terms of sheer artistry. There are different levels of description—e.g., aesthetic, ethical, neurological, natural scientific—and each may have a role to play in describing a given phenomenon. These levels are not mutually exclusive but jointly exhaustive. In other words, describing something at one level (say, natural scientific) does not negate or nullify description at an entirely different level (say, theological or moral).
A final reason I suggest that we as followers of Christ ought to familiarize ourselves with the issues surrounding the science-religion dialogue is to commend the Christian worldview. The richness of the Christian theological tradition, of which we have only begun to scratch the surface in this series of blogs, is one which holds that all truth is God’s truth. And as such, God’s truth can be found in the deliverances of natural science as it can be at other levels of description. We need not fear that there be any conflict between natural science (or any other science for that matter) and the Christian worldview. Since God is the author of all truth, wherever any truth is found it will necessarily cohere with every other piece of truth. Much in the same vein as Robert Jastrow, founder NASA’s Goddard Institute and director of Mount Wilson Institute, we would do well to recognize along with this secular thinker that:
“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth… [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries” (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978), pp. 115-16).
We would do well to draw on the grand tradition of Christian thought, and to take up the baton of past theologians in order to explore and explain with confidence and kindness the wonders of our Creator and the veracity of our faith.
In closing, not only is there no conflict between miracles and modern science – they are comfortably compatible. Furthermore, because of the mutually reinforcing character of science and the Christian faith, we are encouraged to take up the mantle of the light of the knowledge of God, seeking creative ways to illumine God’s truth in every area of knowledge and to everyone for whom Christ died – to the glory of God and the witness of His name.