Science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria that cannot comment on each other’s business, according to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” according to philosopher David Hume. Taking these commonly held ideas together, one might think that scientific investigations have nothing important to add when thinking about theology.
Critics of these ideas point out that the goal of moral and theological reasoning is to comment on the real world. How can scientific facts not affect how we should live? On the flip-side, if our theology is true, how can it not intersect practically with natural reality? The trouble is that if some theological idea is thought up in a completely abstract manner–far from contact with any physical reality–it’s not hard to drift off into some bizarre territory.
But that sort of drifting around in crazy town is an unfortunate tendency of Protestant traditions, where “Sola Scriptura” is an important principle. Take John Piper for example. Piper has some pretty specific ideas about how he thinks men and women are supposed to be, which he has derived from his interpretation of scripture. But have a look at what he has to say in this article about how men “should” behave:
“suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”
So according to Piper, men “should” get killed and then allow the surviving woman to competently take care of a threat rather than just letting a competent woman defend both of them. Apparently, “manhood” is more important than life itself. It’s a statement that would seem absolutely bizarre to anyone standing outside of Piper’s echo-chamber of completely abstract reasoning. Life is good, and important. Zero deaths is better than the death of a fragile “manhood.” This is not a complicated moral calculus. The solution is obvious from an empirical standpoint. But in the land of purely abstract thinking, where men and women acting in certain ways are abstract values of critical importance, it doesn’t seem so bizarre.
It honestly makes me sad to see Piper so off the deep end. I can remember reading Desiring God years ago, and still think there is some great stuff in there. Times and people change, I guess, as well as our perceptions of them.
Piper is far from alone in the history of Protestants refusing to consider the value of scientific conclusions. Well into the 20th century, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) still had at least one major theologian arguing for geocentricism. That’s about 400 years since Copernicus argued for a heliocentric solar system. Seem silly? Not in the land of Sola Scriptura minus Science:
“It is unworthy of a Christian to interpret Scripture, which he knows to be God’s own Word, according to human opinions (hypotheses), and that includes the Copernican cosmic system, or to have others thus to interpret Scripture to him.” – Franz Pieper (Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, page 473)
Substitute “Copernican cosmic system” for “Modern theory of Evolution” and this sort of thinking will still pass in LCMS today. It’s par for the course in many conservative Protestant churches.
So what’s the solution? Ignoring concrete reality when working out theology is a great way to go off the deep end. I would suggest that there is an important relationship between physical facts and spiritual realities. Christians certainly ought to derive their values from a careful interpretation of scripture. But there must be the humility of realizing that any conclusions we make are interpretations. Assuming there is any truth at all, some interpretations will be better than others. There is always the serious possibility of being wrong. Even insanely wrong.
If a well understood and strongly supported scientific idea disagrees with a theological interpretation, the theology might be wrong. Science clearly shows that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. A man preserving his life by not going on a useless suicide mission to stand in the way of a far more combat-competent woman defending herself is obviously the better option. Refusing to admit the scientific/empirical voice into the conversation here not only makes a mockery of Christianity, but it can be downright dangerous.
That’s why all serious theological reasoning needs to take physical findings into account. Physical findings cannot conclude abstract values, but they must inform how we apply our values. We are physical people living in a physical world. We can use physical facts to investigate how to apply our value of human life to early stages of development and concepts of personhood. Research findings can discover how best to help and counsel victims of abuse. Science is an essential ingredient in understanding our reality and how to love our neighbors.
Christians need science and scripture when working out our theology. All truth is God’s truth, and we need all the truth we can get.