Sermon: The Problem of God and Science

Preaching Text: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses the commonly held view that science has rendered belief “unnecessary and obsolete.”

Science, or so the argument goes, has “disproved” Christianity and its miracles as a product of a lesser, prescientific age, one lacking the necessary resources for explaining the seemingly inexplicable.

To underscore the point, Keller references the brash, evangelical British atheist, Richard Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, has been much discussed. There Dawkins argues that science has made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” He even goes so far as to say that one “cannot be an intelligent scientific thinker and still hold religious beliefs.”

“The more intelligent, rational, and scientifically minded you are,” he explains, “the less you will be able to believe in God.” Thus we must choose between thinking scientifically and believing in God.

Keller locates the origins of this type of thinking in the Enlightenment where miracles (in particular) were considered irreconcilable with a new, modern, rational understanding of the world. As such, Scripture, among other things, was no longer considered a reliable guide to life.

This new means of interpretation, however, ignores one simple fact – that science only addresses natural causes, not supernatural ones. Science is incapable of testing, much less understanding, supernatural or spiritual causes.

“The existence of God,” Keller writes, stating here the obvious, “can be neither demonstrably proven nor disproven.”

What Keller doesn’t discuss is that in rejecting traditional religion (in this case Christianity), modernity has simply replaced one religion for another. For every single human being is created as a spiritual being who by necessity requires an overarching explanation for the non-physical mysteries of life.

The problem is that science has been hijacked, i.e., recruited to play a role for which it is unsuited – that of answering religious questions.

Science is capable only of describing and categorizing what is. It’s entirely at sea when tasked to explain, say, the origins of life, or its purpose or meaning, or to what end it all is leading. Such questions are metaphysical ones well beyond the scope and reach of science.

Nonetheless science has indeed been recruited to answer these big questions, questions previously thought within the purview of the “queen of sciences” alone, i.e., theology. This misapplication of science has led to the often tortured explanations about life found in much contemporary secular thought.

Perhaps the most egregious examples are those seeking to explain ethics or human traditions. Just pick up a copy of, say, the New York Times and you’ll likely read something somewhere about how we humans hold to certain ideas or beliefs due entirely to Darwinian natural selection.

Our ancestors’ behavior, you see, born of the survival instinct (wherever that comes from!?), has been passed down to us by means of the genetic coding in our DNA. And because of this coding we today choose to be nice rather than mean.

We are bound inexorably by our genetics in deterministic fashion. There’s no external reality to which we must adhere, no structures built into the universe, much less any God-directing human activity.

Life instead is determined solely by random events and in-coded purposeless laws. There simply is no overarching mind or guiding spiritual force.

Modernity’s “physical naturalism,” writes Thomas Nagel, assumes that “the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the element of which the material world is composed.”

Which leads Nagel to ask, incredulously: “Are our moral intuitions, such as that genocide is wrong, the result of neurochemistry hardwired into us?”

As we’ve said, modernity’s “reductionist project” does seem to suggest that everything is physical, that is, behavioral or neurophysical. Then again, writes Nagel, “Conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.”

Besides, Keller points out, science and religion do not necessarily conflict with one another, as evidenced by many a believing scientist. In fact, Keller says, a majority of scientists today, believe it or not, consider themselves deeply or moderately religious! And the numbers, he says, are growing.

But what about evolution, you ask.

Well, the Roman Catholic Church, not exactly a hotbed of atheistic scientism, has maintained for some time that evolution is not at all incompatible with Church doctrine.

Which leads us to the problem of biblical interpretation. Much modern interpretation, if truth be told, forces Scripture to say things it never intended to say. Take the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Neither was ever meant to be a literal, factual account of a historical event. Rather, they were meant to be stories, or songs, or poetry that express something true about God and human existence.

G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, likens this modern error as akin to asking a mechanic to interpret a Shakespearean sonnet. The one best suited to interpret Shakespeare’s poetic metaphors is someone attuned to poetry and metaphor, not, as in our case, by means of modern, rationalistic scientism.

In the end, the Bible is rightly a compendium of history, poetry, song, metaphor, etc. Each must be approached in accordance with their author’s original intent rather than interpreted woodenly, clumsily, or by the often presumptuous biases of a rationalistic, fundamentalist modernity.

And of these modernist biases perhaps the most common assumes humanity today to be vastly more intelligent and discerning than our forebears, those thought hopelessly primitive and naive.

Such a bias ignores something our gospel reading this morning illustrates clearly, that even some of the original disciples doubted even while seeing the risen Christ with their own eyes. Doubts about the supernatural or the miraculous, in other words, are hardly unique to us contemporary folk. They are as old as the hills.

Keller ends his chapter by making an important point regarding miracles, a point entirely lost on the scientific worldview. The purpose of biblical miracles, he says, is to lead us to worship, to awe and wonder, and not to elicit within us mere “cognitive belief.”

Jesus’ miracles are not “mere magic designed to impress and coerce.” Rather, they are the means to “heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead.”

“We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order,” Keller explains further, “but Jesus meant them to be a restoration [italics mine] of the natural order.”

The world, in other words, was not created with disease, hunger, and death. So Jesus comes “to redeem [the world] where it is wrong and heal…where it is broken.” Miracles therefore are not intended as scientific “proof” of anything, but as “a wonderful foretaste of what [Christ] is going to do with [his] power.”

“Jesus’ miracles,” Keller concludes, “are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.” Amen.