Book Review – The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions
The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2011. Pp. 251
October 18th, 2012
By Michael Gulker, Executive Director, The Colossian Forum
Before reading The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, one needs to appreciate the difficult task Karl Giberson took up in putting this book together. The raw material for the book originated from a set of “Frequently Asked Questions” Francis Collins responded to after publishing his Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. These FAQs eventually became the core of the BioLogos website. When Collins was appointed head of the National Institutes of Health, Giberson inherited the unenviable task of translating these “Frequently Asked Questions” into a coherent, readable narrative. Giberson’s skilled pen extends Collins’s project to create an acceptable public space for evangelicals who are also evolutionary creationists by arguing for the essential harmony between faith and science. Although the harmony pronounced may be a bit premature, Collins puts to work the power of his scientific mind and the power of his conversion to clear roadblocks that prevent the smooth traffic of ideas, and even praise, between the language of science and the language of faith.
The authors presume that the faith/science controversy results largely from a few loud atheists who misconstrue “science” as inherently “anti-religious” and a few loud Christians who misconstrue “faith” as “anti-science.” This allows the authors to quickly proclaim the good news that their book will disprove both groups (17-18) such that “the negative baggage of evolution can be tossed overboard without harm to the faith” (28).
The book nicely models what it hopes to achieve by opening and closing with worship that flows smoothly between the language of faith and the language of science. Beginning with Genesis 1:1, Psalms, and hymns, the authors proclaim the wonder, majesty and beauty of God. Then the text moves seamlessly from the church’s more traditional praise into scientific revelations of God’s glory, which have “uncovered the elegant and hidden foundations of our world” (16). The authors proclaim that “the richest appreciation of creation requires that we ponder how the wonder encountered on the surface of the world relates to the beauty in the hidden patterns of nature, how the laws of physics illuminate the beauty of a sunset, … how genetics opens up the mysteries of life” (17). While one wonders if knowledge of genetics rather than knowledge of the resurrection is “required” for the richest appreciation of creation, the two knowledges or languages, if rightly ordered, clearly have tremendous potential to increase our delight in the gift of creation.
The unusual blending of science and faith concludes in chapter nine with an extended doxology entitled, “The Grand Narrative of Creation.” In this statement of praise, the authors attempt to “recast the scientific creation story to open up its grandeur” (216). The ending returns to the beginning when “God created the heavens and the earth.” After an awkward transition between scriptural and scientific language falling just short of harmony, the text moves into an elegant exposition of the interaction between quarks, leptons and the four forces: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear (216). The authors praise the ordering Logos of John 1 for the astonishing development of these two particles and four forces from simple elements, stars, planets, increasingly complex molecules, and finally – life. At the crown of creation and at the pinnacle of life is humanity in praise of its creator, putting into words for all heaven and earth to hear – “God saw that it was good” (221). Even if one quibbles with the details of the new narrative, framing the entire conversation in worship seems a hopeful starting point for moving the conversation forward.
Between opening and closing worship, the book seeks to remove scientific and theological stumbling blocks that exclude evangelicals from worshipful participation in the “richest appreciation of creation.” Dealing directly with issues of evolution and the age of the earth in the first two chapters opens up philosophical and theological questions engaged in the following six chapters. Each chapter surveys a vast field of research, publishing and debate as the authors clearly and persuasively introduce the reader to the “Bioogos” perspective that life (Bio) evolves by the ordering wisdom of God (Logos). And this ordering wisdom, when uncovered by science, rightly leads to praise.
Chapter 1 asks what many evangelicals feel to be the central question in the faith and science debate, namely, “Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?” And while the authors never answer the question directly, they do modestly suggest that when the majority of the scientific establishment speaks, Christians ought to at least give it an honest hearing, even if they are not required to believe what they hear (29). Yet on that hearing, the authors believe evolution, rightly defined and stripped of its materialist metaphysics, is undeniable. Presenting their scientific case, they locate the center of the controversy n a dichotomy between macro and microevolution (45). The authors argue that this distinction, held to so vociferously by anti-evolutionists, simply breaks over the eons as micro-evolutionary changes eventually elide into macro-evolutionary changes and even new species (45). Add to this the massive supporting weight of DNA evidence and the responsible thinker must recognize that evolution is as certain as a heliocentric universe (49).
Yet by writing off the dilemma as either ideological posturing or simple chronological naiveté, the authors may have missed an opportunity to open a dialogue about the question itself and why its enduring nature might prove significant theologically. Instead of answering the question, “Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?”, the authors might have asked, “What Fears Are Preventing Christians From Believing in Evolution?” What might the authors and their readers learn from the hesitation of their fellow believers? Instead of only providing “Straight Answers to Genuine Questions,” the book might raise a few surprising genuine questions of its own.
Since chapter 1 presumes an ancient earth in order to overcome the dichotomy between micro and macroevolution, chapter 2 takes up the question “Can We Really Know the Earth Is Billions of Years Old?” As the authors remind the reader, “A mountain of scientific data supports the idea that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old” (53). As the authors display this data, they ask how it is then that so many evangelical Christians refuse to believe it. Giberson and Collins suggest, “Young earth creationists often appear to be reading an anti-evolutionary agenda into the Bible and forcing it to fit assumptions they bring to the text” (54). In their attempt to understand this agenda, the authors suggest that the enthusiastic and enduring reception of the position articulated in The Genesis Flood “seemed like the best way to simultaneously respect the Bible and fight off atheistic worldviews that were claiming support from evolution” (77).
Yet Giberson and Collins reject the young earth creationists’ (YEC) response to atheism as an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of Genesis. They make their case against the YEC hermeneutic on two grounds. The first is based on their understanding of historical and contemporary biblical scholarship, which they employ to deconstruct the anti-evolutionary agenda reading of the biblical text (69). The second is based on the authors’ confession that “God’s revelation in nature, studied by science, should agree with God’s revelation in Scripture, studied by theology. Since revelation from science is so crystal clear about the age of the earth, we believe we should think twice before embracing an approach to the Bible that contradicts this revelation” (70). Again, one wonders whether the most helpful question to ask is “Can We Really Know the Earth Is Billions of Years Old?” when perhaps a more illuminative question might have been “Why Do So Many Christians Still Refuse to Know It?” Perhaps one reason Christians refuse to believe “revelation from science” demanding they “think twice before embracing an approach to the Bible that contradicts this revelation” is because it is just this kind of hubristic claim equating science with “revelation” that repels them. For evangelicals, the Bible, and not science, is the source of God’s special revelation to humanity. And nature, not science, is the source of general revelation. The flat equivocation between science and revelation – general or special – will only draw ire.
Aware they have opened a serious can of worms, Giberson and Collins engage a different set of questions. What exactly is the relationship between science and religion? If God’s two revelations cannot be at odds, how are they to be reconciled? What can we say and not say about God? Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial? And finally,what about evolution and human beings? Can humans be both specially created in the image of God and simultaneously share a common ancestry with all other living organisms on earth?
The authors attempt to answer these questions with admirable grace and scientific expertise. There is much to be commended in these chapters, such as their rejection of natural theology and Paley’s proofs (125-26). And one simply cannot overstate the significance of the authors’ efforts to relate scientific and scriptural truth through the incarnation of Jesus, who enters into the natural order without violating it (115). It is at this point where the authors depart from the deist, materialist metaphysics so troublingly ubiquitous in faith and science debates, embracing instead the exciting Christological conception of creation that provides a confessional grounding capable of adequately holding faith and science together. This is a hopeful sign, a sign that if followed, could open exciting possibilities for BioLogos. (For more on this exciting possibility, see TCF’s pamphlet, Come and See, an abridgment of the sixth chapter of Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind).
Despite these significant high points, the authors sometimes fail to discern the theological significance behind the questions they are seeking to answer. In defense of the scientists, theological questions often come to them dressed up in scientific drag. Yet even if their interlocutors mischaracterize their questions, giving scientific answers to theological questions creates new roadblocks between science and faith as quickly as the old roadblocks are removed.
The presumption of the book to quickly bring about harmony between faith and science risks belittling the genuine and profound theological questions the book so desperately seeks to engage. The bottom line is that current mainstream science does in fact raise very serious theological questions that the church absolutely must wrestle through. The church needs no only more straight answers but also more genuine questions. Furthermore, the presumption that entrenched Christian resistance to evolutionary creationism can be reduced to a few loud Christians who misconstrue “faith” as “anti-science” risks cutting off the possibility that Christians who do not believe in evolution might still have gifts to offer their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Rather than presume that opposition to evolution is simply the result of mass deception by anti-evolutionary ideologues, the authors might have effectively spent more energy seeking to understand why so many Christians are taken in by such ideas. One cannot help but wonder if extremists appeal to broader constituencies because they tap into real and unresolved conflicts for which adequate answers, scientific or otherwise, are not easily yet available. Certainly, extremists might muddle the debate by misnaming or unhelpfully stoking those conflicts or fears. Yet too easy a dismissal of those concerns might only extend the muddled misnaming.
This is not to say the authors ought to defer to the unhelpful extremist rhetoric pronouncing mainstream science and faith to be radically at odds. In fact, one positive impact of this book and of the BioLogos project more generally is the clearing out of this sort of unhelpful rhetoric. Yet the authors over-steer into rhetoric of their own when they presume to occupy an easy and harmonious middle ground between the faith and science. In Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, John Hedley Brooke offers a slightly different set of categories by which one might better understand the debate. Instead of casting the debate as primarily between faith and science, Brooke suggest the tensions lie primarily between those proclaiming eternal warfare between faith and science and those proclaiming complete harmony. Either posture drastically oversimplifies the actual historical reality that the relationship and boundaries between faith and science are constantly in flux, always defining and redefining themselves and each other in the light of new historical experience and new scientific discoveries.
If the language of science and the language of faith are indeed always in flux, then it will require discernment of experts in both languages, guided by the Holy Spirit of truth and the sense of the faithful, to incorporate into the faith new historical experience and new scientific discoveries in ways that build up love of God and love of neighbor. In other words, whether or not evolution actually threatens the Christian faith is a matter the church has been wrestling and will continue to wrestle with for some time. Collins and Giberson are to be commended for the great service of generously sharing how they have integrated their confession and their profession. They have opened a public space for evangelical scientists to raise questions about how to integrate the language of science and the language of faith.
Yet at some point, the language of science and the testimonies of scientists must be offered as gifts to the church, waiting for the church to respond in its own language. Given the church’s rather lackluster capacity to receive such gifts makes this a risky endeavor. But as Jesus passion taught us, love is always a risky affair.
In other words, what is required for the BioLogos perspective to evolve is not only more straight answers to genuine questions. Rather, if more Christians are to be able to join in the praise with which the book opens and concludes, BioLogos will need to develop a deeper receptivity to questions science might not be able to answer – even questions that come from a young earth creationist. The authors are obviously committed Christians, which means they are also committed to the belief that every member of the body is necessary to the church. And this means all members of the body have something to contribute to the faith, even if one believes their science to be inadequate. Now, what might that be?
Michael Gulker is President of The Colossian Forum. Michael has a longstanding interest in the intersection of faith and culture and how both thrive best when rooted in worship. A native of West Michigan, he studied philosophy and theology at Calvin College, has a divinity degree from Duke and is an ordained Mennonite pastor. Before coming to the Forum, Michael served as pastor of Christ Community Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He and his wife Jodie have two young children.