The Dilemma of Science and Faith


First, Jesus said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6: 24)

But he later said,
The Greatest Commandment

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6: 5) This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18) All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 34 – 40)

A report was released the other day by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – “Faith, Science, and Academic Freedom” – charging two colleges with religious affiliations with violating the academic freedom of two professors who had tenure.

The first case reported in this article focused on a biology professor and evolution at one college while the other case focused on a theology professor and a doctrinal issue. I will leave the question of the second case to others more versed in the issue of tradition and its relevance to theology, though perhaps that does have some impact on the first case. But the first case is a question of science and faith and what it means in today’s society.

Richard Colling, a tenured professor of Biology at Olivet Nazarene University wrote a book entitled Random Designer in 2004. In his book, Dr. Colling put forth the proposition that one could believe in both God and evolution. He did so because he wanted to help students see that one did not have to make a choice between science and faith and that one could easily walk a path that included both. Dr. Colling suggested that such a decision was neither needed nor necessary, that one could believe in God and in evolution without conflict.

As one might expect, the more conservative elements of the denomination immediately demanded that Dr. Colling be fired. At first, the university administration backed Dr. Colling and resisted such efforts but, as the pressure from outside the university mounted, they gave in and barred him from teaching General Biology and they barred the Biology Department from using his book in their courses.

Now, it is not clear if Dr. Colling has violated any rules or statement of faith in this problem. If the university has a policy that specifically states what can and cannot be taught, then Dr. Colling was wrong. But nothing in the reports (“Faith, Science, and Academic Freedom” and the related article “Academic Freedom and Evolution”) suggest that he did violate any stated policy. The efforts to remove him from the classroom apparently came from outside the university environment.

Interestingly enough, and perhaps thankfully, they did not ban the book or prevent students from reading it. It is almost as if the college administrators wanted a 21st century version of Genesis 2: 16 – 17:

God commanded the Man, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”

In other words, the book is there but you cannot read it.

But can a college or any institution prevent someone from teaching what they believe to be the truth if it conflicts with the beliefs of the faith? For some, faith and science are two entirely separate entities, each demanding total allegiance and rejection of the other.

What Dr. Colling tried to do was put this into the proper perspective. How do you use the evidence before you? Do you “fiddle” with the evidence so that it matches your theories or do you frame your theories in terms of the evidence?

I noted last October the problems that Michael Reiss had when he argued that the beliefs of students should not be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. (“The Challenge of Education”) In this case, it was the secular fundamentalists who pushed for Dr. Reiss’s removal. In Dr. Colling’s case, it was the sectarian fundamentalists who pushed.

And as I implied in “The Challenge of Education”, they are both wrong. In “Academic Freedom and Evolution”, Dr. Colling noted that “you cannot check your intellect at the door of the church”. He also noted that institutions which frame science and faith as incompatible will lose some of their best minds.

In Matthew 22: 34 -40, Jesus speaks of honoring God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. But if we force ourselves or our students to differentiate between science and faith, then we are not honoring God with our heart and our mind but only one of the two.

As Dr. Colling said, you cannot check your intellect at the door of the church. You cannot say to a student that they must accept one viewpoint as the truth when the evidence suggests otherwise. And you cannot live in a world where the truth is one thing on Sunday and an entirely different thing the other days of the week (though many people certainly try to do just that).

It seems to me that fundamentalists, be they sectarian or secular, have a hard time with the other side of the faith and reason issue. They would much rather throw out the side they disagree with and force individuals to accept their view. We are reminded that the Church literally banned Galileo from believing in the heliocentric theory of the universe. Galileo accepted his punishment but it has been said that he muttered that it didn’t change the facts.

Faith is not meant to challenge science and science is not meant to challenge faith. Yet that is what we are doing right now. The consequences of this effort are, at least to me, troubling.

It cheapens our faith because it presents faith as a monolithic monument to the past, to days when the church tried to control the thoughts of the populace. And such control, be it secular or sectarian, is anathema to the very notion of who we say we are.

It limits our ability to use science as science is meant to be used because it imposes on science skills and thoughts science cannot provide. We risk alienated many students who are struggling with their own identity and the ability to characterize their own belief. The debate today is framed within the notion that it is one or the other.

That is why I included the second passage from Matthew at the beginning of this piece. If we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we cannot split the difference between faith and reason. Faith and reason are two parts of one mind and you cannot exist without both parts.

The difficulty arises when we use one side (faith or reason) and exclude the other. I will say this: A belief, be it sectarian or secular, which cannot stand scrutiny, is not a very good belief and stand the test of time or the mind. By the same token, we live in a world that demands exploration. Our boundaries can only be limited if we do not have the ability to reason and analyze. To deny either side of the faith/reason boundary is to limit our ability to grow in both.

We have to ask ourselves this question, “Why did God give us an inquiring mind if He did not want us to use our minds to explore the question of faith and science?”

Life is both science and faith. Attempts to differentiate and divide the two will destroy life. That’s not what we are about.

4 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Science and Faith

  1. Pingback: To Teach Or Not to Teach « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: Top posts for 2009 « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  3. Pingback: “Notes On Academic Freedom” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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