Can an Intellectual be a Christian?
If I answer “no,” the meeting is likely to be very short and some of you may drop classes, so I’d better ponder the question carefully. The answer must surely be “yes,” since there are many living examples of Christian who are scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists of every flavor. I’m not sure that I qualify as an intellectual, however, so let’s start there.
My O.E.D says an intellectual is someone, “possessing a good understanding, [an] enlightened person.” The Buddhists might argue with this definition since they have a special meaning for the term “enlightenment.” The American Heritage dictionary probably gets closer to our modern usage: “A person of great wisdom or extensive knowledge: savant, sage, polymath, pundit, scholar, arbiter, authority, diviner, expert, genius, guru, highbrow.”
Perhaps we can settle on the notion of a scholar whose opinions are the result of careful research and deliberation; someone of calculated discernment and careful judgment. Whilst these are lofty ideals, they say nothing of the morality of the person. We can as easily have an intellectual villain as an intellectual saint.
Most of us understand the meaning of the title, “Christian,” but, just in case, I will assume we can agree that a Christian is someone who believes in the Gospel, that Jesus IS fully God, was fully man, lived amongst us, died for our sins, and was resurrected and now abides in Heaven. The Christian’s hope is that through faith in Jesus, his or her sins will be forgiven and everlasting life in heaven with Christ will be theirs after death.
We will move forward keeping in mind Paul’s warning that the Gospel will be a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
Since we are meeting within a state university that prides itself in scientific achievement, it is clear that our discussion must address the apparent tension between science and philosophy on the one hand, and religion on the other. Indeed our topic begs for us to do so because we are surrounded by science and the technology that it has produced and we could not possibly call ourselves intellectuals if we avoided this tension. I will not say very much about the details of our Christian faith. I assume that everyone understands it pretty well and I really don’t want to get into details of doctrine. These are intensely personal matters in which we are bound to find differences of opinion. This is also not an attempt at Christian apologetics. You’ll have to come back another time if you expected one.
I do not profess to be a philosopher, but I will attempt my own explanation of some of the important points that must be considered in understanding the tension between science and religion. First, we must understand that belief and science may not be natural enemies. They are different things. For example, it is probably foolish these days to oppose the theory that the universe began with a Big Bang-like event some 10 to 20 billion years ago, yet there is actually nothing to be gained from believing in the Big Bang. Let me explain with the aid of an experiment.
What is science?
What just happened? Some law of physics had a few seconds of glory right before our eyes. What do we call that law? Gravity.
How do we explain the law? Newton’s laws give us f = (m_1*m_2)/d
These laws are impressive because they account for the orbits of the planets and many other observable phenomena, but they only give us equations. What is really going on?
You might offer a relativistic description in which mass distorts space-time, but you would only be replacing one set of equations for another.
Consider surface tension in which it is possible to float a steel needle on the surface of water. What is going on in such an experiment?
Again, I fear that I will inspire a lot of equations and explanations that require me to understand something beyond what I can observe. You might have to explain weak and strong forces at the atomic level before you are done.
Now let’s jump inside the head of the observer. What happens when I observe something; I recognize a face, or I have a little trouble remembering your name, then it suddenly comes to me? You will explain all sorts of anatomical and neurological partitions of the brain and the neurons themselves and the latest theories on memory. While there is no doubt that great strides have taken place in neuro-physiology, I still hesitate to give credence to anyone who claims to understand what is actually going on in a network of neurons, each of which has 200 or so inputs.
In all these discussions, we are doing science. We are explaining phenomena through the language of science. A language that has been developed through painstaking experiments repeated thousands of times by hundreds of scientists of all races and religions. But when we talk science, we talk models. We draw pictures of sub-atomic particles orbiting other particles that are bound in atomic nuclei. The particles may or may not have mass and charge and some spin. We draw boxes to represent receptors, such as eyes, and lines to represent nerve fibers, and strange symbols to represent neurons and neural nets and we say, “A-ha,” we understand.
What precisely do we mean? We mean that we have a model, mathematical, graphical, or just in words, that behaves similarly to our observations of nature. In fact the level of similarity is often so very close that we can, for practical purposes, assume that our model is correct. But do we take that leap of faith and say that our model is irrefutably correct? Why would we?
Do scientists say, “I believe Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity?” I’ve been reading scientific papers for 30 years and not once have I seen such a statement. Why would anyone say such a thing? Wisdom has it, of course, that science evolves fairly rapidly. Although we remain comfortable in our acceptance of Relativity, there is a lot more science to be done. The great unifying theory of the forces still remains illusive. My school-day image of the atom, due to Bohr, has been outdated by quarks and superstrings. Science evolves.
When will we know that our scientific models are completely true? Some scientists have taken a leap of faith and suggested that a completely accurate model of matter would be discovered within their lifetimes. Most of them are dead. They were not behaving as scientists when they made such predictions.
Please understand that I am not trying to discredit science, but merely establishing a difference between it and something we call a belief system.
Completeness and Consistency:
Let’s turn to some dark holes in science that it seems will never be filled. We have known for many years that we need at least 2 models to simulate the behavior sub-atomic particles. They behave as particles and as waves. In the two-particle experiment, a pair of sympathetic particles fly off in opposite directions from a certain reaction. Their spins must be opposite for the rest of their lives. If one of them passes through a field that alters its spin, then the spin of the other must instantly change. The problem is that, in the world in which we live, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, yet the experiment requires an instant change. It turns out that quantum information flow is not limited by the speed of light.
There is nothing offensive about the need for dual theories. It should be clear that we may well require dozens models to explain the behavior of matter. If the physicist uses the correct model, or family of models, then close agreement with nature may be achieved.
Some famous physicists hold the view that there are some theories in physics that can never be reconciled with others – there will always be some areas of physics in which our knowledge is incomplete or inconsistent. Roger Penrose suggested this in his talk at UTD last year.
In mathematics we have a similar situation.
By 1900, all was well with mathematics. One example of its great achievements was the proof of Gauss's Theorem (that every integer could be expressed as the sum of the squares of 4 integers) that literally took hundreds of steps to prove. It was believed that mathematics was complete, consistent, and decidable. The term completeness requires that all true statements in a mathematical system can be proved from the axioms of that system. Consistency means that it is impossible to derive two conflicting theorems from the axioms, while decidability requires that, for every problem in mathematics, a definite, or mechanical method exists within mathematics to solve the problem. In 1928 Hilbert asked exactly these three questions of mathematics, saying that in his opinion all three were in fact true properties of mathematics.
Kurt Gödel was able to show that mathematics is incomplete. There are true assertions that can never be proven using the axioms within the system. He also showed that mathematics must be either incomplete or inconsistent. If arithmetic were consistent, he reasoned, then every assertion would be provable. In fact, arithmetic cannot be proved consistent within its own axiomatic system.
Suppose we classify all the assertions in a given mathematical system into two groups, Group I contains all true, but unprovable assertions and Group II contains all true assertions that can be proved. Gödel constructed a sentence that asserts that it is in Group II. He said, “This sentence is not provable in this system.” If this statement is false, then what it says would be untrue, and hence the sentence would be provable in the system, but all provable sentences must be true, hence a contradiction. The sentence must be true. Therefore there are indeed assertions in mathematics that, while true, cannot be proved. It is important to realize that we can only deduce the truth of the statement by considering it from the outside. Its truth cannot be proved from within the system of mathematical logic, hence mathematical logic is an incomplete system.
Alan Turing, a British mathematician and Computer Scientist, showed that mathematics is also undecidable.
These discoveries do not weaken the powers of science or mathematics, or weaken the resolve of scientists and mathematicians to continue their search for new meaning and new applications of their theorems. They are truths that we must accept.
Mathematics deals with the abstract. One can invent worlds way beyond those that we have consciously observed and solve problems in these strange worlds. Sometimes these domains, as they are called, contain the real world at certain points and, of course, a great deal of mathematics deals with simplifications of, or special cases of our world. Does anyone believe in mathematics? It would be a strange statement to make. No doubt someone will say that farmers have complete faith in the ability of arithmetic to count sheep. We might hear a child say, “I believe 2 plus 2 equals 4,” and the computer scientist will add, “except for very large values of 2,” but it is still a strange statement to make. Why, because there isn’t ANY doubt in our minds about these applications of the world of mathematics. We rarely say that we believe something that is irrefutable. It has become much more compelling to say, “I know it to be true.”
Our difficulty rests in the need for a definition of the verb “to believe”. Say we use the definition, “to live one’s life as if the object of one’s belief was without doubt true.” With this definition at hand, it seems safe to assume that we do believe in the veracity of arithmetic and most of us do believe in a great deal of science. We never consciously commit to such beliefs. There is no public profession of faith in trigonometry or geometry, save for those SATs. For most of us, the phrase, “I understand” is a sufficient stretch. This definition of belief falls short because we CAN live as if Newton’s laws are true, knowing fully well that they have limitations. Similarly, we can conduct research in our physics labs as if particles really are super-strings while knowing that some day a better model may appear. Even more troubling, we can live our lives as if God exists without actually believing in His existence. Paul tells us that we will fall short, because no one can be without sin, whether we believe or not.
We need something stronger than “to live one’s life as if.” Perhaps we could try an analogy. We might say that I believe X to be true in much the same way as I believe 2+2=4. In other words, I have absolutely no doubt that X is true now and always will be.
Clearly this enables belief in mathematics, but makes belief of science less attractive.
This definition probably isn’t the same as belief in God as expressed in the New Testament. To rectify this, I would argue that the Christian should possess this kind of belief AND be totally devoted to following the Christian life and leave it to you to decide what that last clause means.
I contend that belief in science is unnecessary. Neither science nor I benefit from such belief, but I suppose such logic will not prevent some from doing so. One may believe almost anything. I recall my daughter asking why she should believe in Jesus when we had lied to her about Santa Clause. Beliefs are often traded with great flippancy.
Brief History of Philosophy:
If we look back at the great scientists who lived before about 1650, many openly gave thanks to God for their discoveries. Science was carried out in religious establishments and many of the early universities were religious institutions. Artists and great thinkers of medieval times devoted themselves to religious thoughts. Francis Shaeffer, in a little book entitled “Escape from Reason” discussed the gradual separation in Europe between God and the pursuits of the intellectuals: the artists, scientists, and philosophers. I will only give a few highlights.
It was Aquinas (1225-1274) who first tried to understand the split between the universals and the particulars, between grace and nature. Art had glorified the Holy Family up to this time by depicting them symbolically in gold, larger than life. This was the birth of the humanistic renaissance. Aquinas had drawn a line separating grace and nature, thus freeing nature from the Holy, and allowing man to consider it apart from the Creator. The thinker could suspend faith while reasoning about natural things. Aquinas felt that the will of man had fallen in the garden, but not his intellect. Thus philosophy was separated from the scriptures and divine revelation and could fly where it wished. Aquinas hoped that this free spirit in philosophy would eventually lead to unity, but it did not. In simple terms, he had taken God out of school and the result was the gradual erosion of God from the entire man.
As nature was made free of God, it began to eat up grace. Philosophers, artists, and scientists eventually worked in a rational way, without mention of God at all. Artists used realism in religious paintings and began to use models, as in Lippi's Madonna (1469) (his mistress), and Fouquet's Madonna (1450) (the king's mistress, painted with one breast exposed.) These paintings must have been seen by Christians of the day as the ultimate blasphemy, but nothing in comparison with the more recent depiction of the Madonna embellished with elephant dung.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) thought that if you start with rational thought, void of God, you get a kind of machine. The universe and all of its inhabitants are in a machine. He tried to paint the spirit of man in an attempt to find a universal to put above the line, but he failed. According to Shaeffer, Leonardo died of despondency trying to find a unity between the universals and the particulars.
reasonable universe which could be studied and understood by man as God's revelation through nature. So science was not free from God. By the time of Kant (1724-1804) and Rousseau (1712-1778) philosophy and science were completely free from God. This was the beginning of rationalism: that all things can be understood by rational thought without need of God. In Physics, determinism is the term used to explain everything without God. Nature had totally devoured grace and there were no universals.
There is another way of looking at the separation. Philosophers of the 18th century argued that science must be free from religion simply because it must confine itself to the study of the repeatable, consistent, laws of nature. In other words, it must avoid the miraculous. This makes sense. In the same way, religion ought to be careful not to interfere with science. The arguments can be understood in Hume’s writings (1711-1776). On the subject of miracles, he wrote:
There must therefore be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof which is superior.
He defined a miracle to be an event that is and always will be a profound violation of concrete, well understood, and eternal laws of nature. He went on to explain how we should behave when faced with an account of a miracle:
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should have really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other and; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.
Science must always reject the greater miracle.
Hume was an atheist philosopher. He said that miracles are the result of lies, ignorance, and the susceptibility of the human race to the sensational.
Pollution of Politics:
Unfortunately politics and the desire for fame and power have invaded both science and religion throughout our history.
Natural history is replete with fake bones and bone collections that were supposed to be from transitional forms. The best-known examples of transitional ape-men species are Java man, Peking man, Piltdown man, Kenya man, and Nebraska man. The bones of Java man came from two different subjects, the skull of a gibbon and the femur of a man. The remains of Peking man were found in China in 1927. Several skullcaps and other bones were found and dated 350,000 years old by using nearby fossils and the geological column. The skull capacity and major bones resemble those of modern man. The samples remained controversial and were mysteriously lost in World War 2.
Piltdown man was a hoax. It was supposedly discovered in 1912 in England, but found later to be composed of an orangutan jaw and a relatively modern cranium of a man. It fooled the experts for 40 years. Orangutans have never been natives of England. Another example of our gullibility is Nebraska man. The sample was of a single tooth found in Nebraska in 1922 and touted for years to be from an ape-man. When the rest of the skeleton was finally found, it was clearly an extinct pig.
Francis Hitching wrote the following of the geological column:
It was as much for political reasons as scientific reasons that the new theory of uniformitarianism grew up to challenge the Biblical theory of creation. If the Bible told the truth, then there was no way of peaceably challenging the monarchy in Britain, for sovereignty was supposed to descend from God to the king; but if the Bible could be shown to be inaccurate, particularly in respect to the key event of the Deluge, then the whole philosophical foundation on which the monarchy based its power would be shattered.
In one further example, recapitulation theory suggested that the embryo of any species undergoes a complete evolution from a single cell through all transitional forms to its final form during gestation. A human baby goes through fish and monkey stages in the womb before acquiring the master race characteristics. Haeckel vigorously touted this idea in Germany. Hitler, amongst others, was greatly influenced by it. White supremacists and other racists have used this theory to justify their cruelty and bigotry. It is nonsense.
The behavior of established churches through the ages has also been highly politically motivated, void of Godly grace.
We arrive at the great divide; science and grace going their own ways. Scientists and
philosophers suspend faith in God while they reason about nature, just as Aquinas had suggested. They may independently give thanks and pray to God, just as anyone else but, in the execution of their professions, they behave as if God created a universe that is reasonable and can be studied without reference to God.
Do the rigid disciplines of science and philosophy threaten our beliefs in a loving Creator God? Apparently not. Even when we accept the cautions of Hume, recognize our vulnerability to an amazing story, and realize that our belief requires us to accept the miraculous, we still believe. Are we weak and pathetic individuals who need the crutch of religion? I argue that many of us are not. The intellectual carefully studies the evidence before making a commitment. For the Christian, the evidence begins with the Bible and includes the literary and archaeological discoveries from the Holy Land, as well as the great wealth of scientific discovery. We look at the evidence that God created the universe and we look at the science that says that it came about without the hand of a loving Creator God, and we reject the greater miracle.
It is easy to discount the OT writers as ignorant nomads, but just an hour or two in the book of Job, considered to be one of the earliest books of the Bible, will convince most that there were some pretty fancy lawyers in those days. We think that we have progressed so much since Job, but read and learn.
The wisdom of Solomon is a clear testament to the desire of the philosopher to understand and control nature. Solomon was a control freak who did not rejoice in the order of nature (as expressed in the “Times for everything” poem). He wanted to understand the reasons for the seasons and all the other features of nature that he observed and was frustrated in his efforts. In a little exuberance unbecoming a great philosopher, he took 300 wives and 700 concubines, many from pagan tribes, and experimented with every drug and wine that could be found. In the end, he returned to God.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to compare Solomon’s life with those of the existential movement, such as Aldus Huxley and Sartre who, without the universal in their lives, were troubled by being parts of Leonardo’s machine. They spent their lives in futile searches for defining moments. For Huxley, drugs were to play a vital role in looking for that defining moment.
In my previous talk to this group I spoke of the Levitical food laws and their efficacy for preventing disease amongst God’s people. These are remarkably valuable rules that sustained the race through the centuries and it is hard to understand how they could possibly have been devised by anyone who did not possess an intimate knowledge of microbiology and the ways of parasites, pathogens, and diseases.
I could go on, but our time is short. The thinking Christian, to my mind, continues to gather the evidence available, weighs it carefully, and then rejects the greater miracle. The miracles of the Bible are not a problem if we first accept the presence of a Creator God and we see that those miracles are consistent with His stated mission and His nature.
Where science and the Scriptures come head to head, such as in the story of the Flood, and the Genesis account of creation, the intellectual Christian must continue to weigh the evidence, understanding that the scientific evidence continues to pour in. Inevitably our understanding of these things will be limited and many ideas will be left for (almost) endless debate.
For those who are interested in what one group of Christian scientists has to say about the reconciliation of the Creation story and scientific discoveries, Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org) is a great source. He shows that the ordering of events, including the appearance of the species, given in Genesis is in close agreement with the scientific model. His exegesis is based on the “long day,” or “old earth” interpretation of the creation week. Hugh is an astronomer with a Ph.D from Toronto. He did research at Cal. Tech. on Quasars.