Sunday, January 19, 2014

The true reconciliation of Science and Theology

From the Book of Kells

So I've begun reading Andrew D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), which is a very fun title to repeat. The two-volume tome is an exhaustive record of how the medieval Christian conception of the physical world was formed and calcified, how natural inquiry gradually rose amid the scholastic autofellatio of the Dark Ages and early Renaissance, and how the scientific view pushed back against church doctrine in the human imagination.

In the introduction, White writes:

I simply try to aid in letting the light of historical truth into that decaying mass of outworn thought which attaches the modern world to mediaeval conceptions of Christianity, and which still lingers among usa most serious barrier to religion and morals, and a menace to the whole normal evolution of society."

The italics are mine; it's worth emphasizing that White isn't writing as an agnostic or atheist, but as a confessedly devout Christian who's exasperated with the outspoken, intransigent dogmatists sacrificing the faith's credibility waging stupid battles they're not going to win because reality simply isn't on their side. White argues that when perfervid fundamentalists assert the position that belief in evolution and belief in Scripture must be mutually exclusive (for instance), the faith is done a double disservice. After the theory of evolution withstands the theological attacks -- as it did, and as it does -- the thoughtful Christians who had it drilled into them that if Darwin is right then Bible is wrong are likely to jump ship. And, more importantly, when the Church so consistently acts so backwards and so thickheaded, the teachings that underlie it become hard to take seriously, and everything the faith might have to offer -- even the stuff that might be useful to people -- becomes deprecated and even ridiculous in the public mind.

(Full disclosure: still an atheist, in case you were wondering.)

I'd like to share an excerpt from an early section of the book, subtitled "The true reconciliation of Science and Theology" in the contents.

The revelations of another group of sciences, though sometimes bitterly opposed and sometimes "reconciled" by theologians, have finally set the whole question at rest. First, there have come the biblical criticsearnest Christian scholars, working for the sake of truthand these have revealed beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt the existence of at least two distinct accounts of creation in our book of Genesis, which can sometimes be forced to agree, but which are generally absolutely at variance with each other. These scholars have further shown the two accounts to be not the cunningly devised fables of priestcraft, but evidently fragments of earlier legends, myths, and theologies, accepted in good faith and brought together for the noblest of purposes by those who put in order the first of our sacred books.

Next have come the archaeologists and philologists, the devoted students of ancient monuments and records; of these are such as Rawlinson, George Smith, Sayce, Oppert, Jensen, Schrader, Delitzsch, and a phalanx of similarly devoted scholars, who have deciphered a multitude of ancient texts, especially the inscriptions found in the great library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh, and have discovered therein an account of the origin of the world identical in its most important features with the later accounts in our own book of Genesis.

These men have had the courage to point out these facts and to connect them with the truth that these Chaldean and Babylonian myths, legends, and theories were far earlier than those of the Hebrews, which so strikingly resemble them, and which we have in our sacred books; and they have also shown us how natural it was that the Jewish accounts of the creation should have been obtained at that remote period when the earliest Hebrews were among the Chaldeans, and how the great Hebrew poetic accounts of creation were drawn either from the sacred traditions of these earlier peoples or from antecedent sources common to various ancient nations.

In a summary which for profound thought and fearless integrity does honour not only to himself but to the great position which he holds, the Rev. Dr. Driver, Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church at Oxford, has recently stated the case fully and fairly. Having pointed out the fact that the Hebrews were one people out of many who thought upon the origin of the universe, he says that they "framed theories to account for the beginnings of the earth and man"; that "they either did this for themselves or borrowed those of their neighbours"; that "of the theories current in Assyria and Phoenicia fragments have been preserved, and these exhibit points of resemblance with the biblical narrative sufficient to warrant the inference that both are derived from the same cycle of tradition."

After giving some extracts from the Chaldean creation tablets he says: "In the light of these facts it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the biblical narrative is drawn from the same source as these other records. The biblical historians, it is plain, derived their materials from the best human sources available.... The materials which with other nations were combined into the crudest physical theories or associated with a grotesque polytheism were vivified and transformed by the inspired genius of the Hebrew historians, and adapted to become the vehicle of profound religious truth."

Not less honourable to the sister university and to himself is the statement recently made by the Rev. Dr. Ryle, Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He says that to suppose that a Christian "must either renounce his confidence in the achievements of scientific research or abandon his faith in Scripture is a monstrous perversion of Christian freedom." He declares: "The old position is no longer tenable; a new position has to be taken up at once, prayerfully chosen, and hopefully held." He then goes on to compare the Hebrew story of creation with the earlier stories developed among kindred peoples, and especially with the pre-existing Assyro-Babylonian cosmogony, and shows that they are from the same source. He points out that any attempt to explain particular features of the story into harmony with the modern scientific ideas necessitates "a non-natural" interpretation; but he says that, if we adopt a natural interpretation, "we shall consider that the Hebrew description of the visible universe is unscientific as judged by modern standards, and that it shares the limitations of the imperfect knowledge of the age at which it was committed to writing." Regarding the account in Genesis of man's physical origin, he says that it "is expressed in the simple terms of prehistoric legend, of unscientific pictorial description."

In these statements and in a multitude of others made by eminent Christian investigators in other countries is indicated what the victory is which has now been fully won over the older theology.

Thus, from the Assyrian researches as well as from other sources, it has come to be acknowledged by the most eminent scholars at the leading seats of Christian learning that the accounts of creation with which for nearly two thousand years all scientific discoveries have had to be "reconciled"the accounts which blocked the way of Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and Laplacewere simply transcribed or evolved from a mass of myths and legends largely derived by the Hebrews from their ancient relations with Chaldea, rewrought in a monotheistic sense, imperfectly welded together, and then thrown into poetic forms in the sacred books which we have inherited.

On one hand, then, we have the various groups of men devoted to the physical sciences all converging toward the proofs that the universe, as we at present know it, is the result of an evolutionary processthat is, of the gradual working of physical laws upon an early condition of matter; on the other hand, we have other great groups of men devoted to historical, philological, and archaeological science whose researches all converge toward the conclusion that our sacred accounts of creation were the result of an evolution from an early chaos of rude opinion.

The great body of theologians who have so long resisted the conclusions of the men of science have claimed to be fighting especially for "the truth of Scripture," and their final answer to the simple conclusions of science regarding the evolution of the material universe has been the cry, "The Bible is true." And they are rightthough in a sense nobler than they have dreamed. Science, while conquering them, has found in our Scriptures a far nobler truth than that literal historical exactness for which theologians have so long and so vainly contended. More and more as we consider the results of the long struggle in this field we are brought to the conclusion that the inestimable value of the great sacred books of the world is found in their revelation of the steady striving of our race after higher conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations, both in morals and religion. Unfolding and exhibiting this long-continued effort, each of the great sacred books of the world is precious, and all, in the highest sense, are true. Not one of them, indeed, conforms to the measure of what mankind has now reached in historical and scientific truth; to make a claim to such conformity is folly, for it simply exposes those who make it and the books for which it is made to loss of their just influence.

That to which the great sacred books of the world conform, and our own most of all, is the evolution of the highest conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations of our race from its childhood through the great turning-points in its history. Herein lies the truth of all bibles, and especially of our own. Of vast value they indeed often are as a record of historical outward fact; recent researches in the East are constantly increasing this value; but it is not for this that we prize them most: they are eminently precious, not as a record of outward fact, but as a mirror of the evolving heart, mind, and soul of man. They are true because they have been developed in accordance with the laws governing the evolution of truth in human history, and because in poem, chronicle, code, legend, myth, apologue, or parable they reflect this development of what is best in the onward march of humanity. To say that they are not true is as if one should say that a flower or a tree or a planet is not true; to scoff at them is to scoff at the law of the universe. In welding together into noble form, whether in the book of Genesis, or in the Psalms, or in the book of Job, or elsewhere, the great conceptions of men acting under earlier inspiration, whether in Egypt, or Chaldea, or India, or Persia, the compilers of our sacred books have given to humanity a possession ever becoming more and more precious; and modern science, in substituting a new heaven and a new earth for the oldthe reign of law for the reign of caprice, and the idea of evolution for that of creationhas added and is steadily adding a new revelation divinely inspired.

In the light of these two evolutions, thenone of the visible universe, the other of a sacred creation-legendscience and theology, if the master minds in both are wise, may at last be reconciled. A great step in this reconciliation was recently seen at the main centre of theological thought among English-speaking people, when, in the collection of essays entitled Lux Mundi, emanating from the college established in these latter days as a fortress of orthodoxy at Oxford, the legendary character of the creation accounts in our sacred books was acknowledged, and when the Archbishop of Canterbury asked, "May not the Holy Spirit at times have made use of myth and legend?"


  1. Fred 'Slacktivist' Clark has come to this time and again, the fact that people like Ken Ham pushing a "The Bible is 100% literally true" mindset are setting themselves up for ridicule because there just simply is no evidence for the Genesis creation myth.

    Though he never follows this idea to the next logical question: the morality of Christianity is not much different than what you'd find in any other culture, so if the Bible is not 100% divinely inspired, why assume any of it is? And if it's not, why bother using it as a source of morality or inspiration? Particularly when you have to pick and choose which verses to apply to today's morality. Nonstampcollector has done a few videos about how the Old Testament is little more than genocide and conquest, making the New Testament's "Everyone live together" mindset rather silly and hypocritical.

    1. I think there's something to be said for cultural continuity, and for the value of established texts and myths as entry plugs. Plato and Aristotle say a lot of stuff that's obtuse or even indefensible by modern standards, but they still serve as useful starting points in discussions about philosophy.

      You won't hear me arguing that religion is a necessary prerequisite for morality and ethics, but I don't think it hurts more than it helps. I keep going back to the people I met at the Quaker center -- some of them were the most intelligent and superlatively decent people I've ever known, and they all relied on religion as their moral compass. If faith is capable of producing people like them, I'm not ready to say we'd be completely better off without it -- particularly since the secular alternatives aren't yet up to snuff.