A Credible Faith
Douglas G. Frank*
ADAM Instrument Company, Inc.
5342 Hickory Trail Lane
Blue Ash, OH 45242
Western culture is undergoing a fundamental ideological transformation. Historically based on Judeo-Christian ideology, scientific methodology, and critical reasoning, it is now migrating toward a culture based on far less reliable guides. Social scientists refer to this trend as "postmodernism."
Modern western societies have advanced technologically far beyond all historical precedents. Advances in medicine, engineering, and agriculture have produced higher standards of living for more individuals than ever before. Scientific methodology has played a critical role in this success, and is thus highly esteemed in western cultures. This esteem is so high that scientific opinions are often more highly regarded than "Judeo-Christian" ones, even among people of faith. And why not? Science has put a man on the moon, split the atom, given us the telephone, television, computer, genetic engineering, and promises to eventually cure all of our medical ills - even to reverse the aging process. Who needs God? Judeo-Christian ideology has given us irrational, intolerant radicals who lead violent crusades, teach that the Earth is flat, deny the existence of dinosaurs, and try to make us feel guilty about everything. Despite its apparent failures, conservative historians correctly argue that the Judeo-Christian ethic has played an essential role in the success of Western culture.1 Nevertheless, the preference for science over faith is so much a part of our society's structure that the argument carries little sway.
Although the situation is changing, I have been convinced that the preference for science over faith is more prevalent in western culture than many people recognize. One obvious consequence of this preference is the widespread notion that science and religion are fundamentally in conflict, to the degree that it is difficult to reconcile how a person can be both a scientist and a devoted person of faith. Although I find this notion preposterous, it is somewhat understandable given the behavior of scientists and religious leaders.
On the one hand, the general public does not understand what science is, due in large part to the deteriorating state of modern education. The situation is aggravated by scientists who do not consider the listener when making scientific statements. That is, the average listener understands scientists to be sources of objective, absolute facts. He doesn't realize that when a scientist says that he has "proven" something, he is really saying, "based on this set of assumptions and this set of data, this explanation is the most probable one offered to date."
On the other hand, we must recognize that some scientists have behaved poorly. Scientists, too, are human. Too many scientists have abused their credibility, making stronger claims than are justified by their data without qualifying them accordingly. They have presented as fact conclusions which flow from personal biases rather than from objective data: "expert" witnesses are paid substantially for scientific testimony which incidentally bolsters the client's case, and researchers perform "objective" studies which conveniently justify the social/economic agenda of their political/industrial sponsor. The situation has so deteriorated in recent years that scientific societies are now publishing guidelines on ethical scientific behavior and establishing courts to enforce them. Some universities now include a required course on ethical scientific behavior in their curriculum. This situation has not gone unnoticed by the general public, and the credibility of science is lower today than it has been for decades.
As a result, postmodernism is on the rise. Increasingly, individuals are looking to nontraditional means to obtain "truth, such as intuition, mysticism, or psychic phenomena."2 Sadly, the organized church and practitioners of science have so violated the public trust that they have lost credibility, and society is now obsessing on their failures. Traditional approaches are viewed as inept in the face of persistent problems such as crime, violence, and disease. Cultural relativism, political correctness, revisionist history, pathological science,3 and alternative medicine are clear symptoms of this postmodernist trend. Although the trend may persist for only a few decades, the long-term consequences of reimagining4 one's faith or reinventing history will be significant. Generations of minds will be ungrounded in rational thought, and the practice of more reliable methodologies will diminish. I don't know how long this damaging trend will persist, but I don't like the view from here.
I personally embrace a paradigm based on Judeo-Christian and scientific foundations, where both are rooted in analytical reasoning and are complementary, yet equally reliable means of knowing. This does not mean that I am not open to new discoveries and ideas; only that I will not assimilate them until they have passed through the same rigorous analytical filters which I have found to be the most reliable. In this synthesis, I evaluate new ideas in the context of history and against the most successful prior paradigms. The rigorous combination of scientific methodology and Christian ideology is not new. Science finds its origins in Christianity. Modern science was born in an environment in which the rigorous pursuit of truth and knowledge was fostered by the church. Unfortunately, the organized church failed then, and persists in mishandling scientific results today. However, foolish behavior by churches does not make Christianity foolish. Likewise, foolish behavior by some scientists does not invalidate the scientific method.
In my personal paradigm, science and Christianity are more than just compatible, they are complementary and mutually supporting. One discipline does not supplant the other, but faith provides the why and science the how. Albert Einstein also expressed this conviction, writing, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."5 Because scientific methodology presupposes a physical explanation for all phenomena, scientists who deny the existence of God are actually practicing the religious philosophy of Naturalism. Ironically, it is actually more objective to allow for the possibility of supernatural phenomena than not. Conversely, persons of faith who deny empirical conclusions deny that "the universe is full of logic,"6 and require a "God of the gaps" mentality to account for God's constant intervention in physical reality. Thus, when natural explanations are found for events originally considered "miraculous," superstition is exposed and the need for God appears diminished.
Combining faith and science in this way allows each discipline to embellish the other, affecting the other's motivation, not methodology. Thus, I experience the spiritual joy of wonderment when I explore a natural phenomenon with scientific eyes, free to explore how nature behaves, undistracted by why. The wonderment leads to a sense of humility, which experience has shown is the best way to approach scientific questions. I am then free both to explore and appreciate nature. Copernicus expressed this elegantly:
"To know the mighty works of God; to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful working of His Laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge."7
Admittedly, this paradigm is traditional and conservative. It is anchored in critical reasoning, objective observation, and 4000 years of collected history and wisdom. But it is not antiquated. For of what use is a faith that cannot withstand one's own scrutiny?
1 R. Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony Books, 1991).
2 D. P. L'Mathuana, C&E News (May 27, 1996): 2.
3 D. L. Rousseau, "Case Studies in Pathological Science," American Scientist 80 (1992): 54.
4 S. Cyre, The Presbyterian Layman 29, no. 3 (1996): 6.
5 A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954), 46.
6 C. H. Townes, Making Waves (New York: American Institute of Physics, 1995).
7 "Copernicus," in E. Hubbard, Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Scientists (New York: The Roycrofters, 1905), v.
From PSCF 46 No. 4, (December 1996): 254-255.
Al Eterno Enthusiasmo
Faith, Enthusiasm, and Botany
Lytton J. Musselman*
Department of Biological Sciences
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA 23529-0266
"And I attribute that to your faith," said Dan, my department chairman. My enthusiasm for plants and botanical research linked to my faith? I fumbled some hasty response attributing this to a personality trait more than my Christian faith. Dan knew my faith as well as my often irrational excitement about plants. According to him, this enthusiasm had not wavered in the almost quarter century we have been colleagues. Dan saw a link between my botanical zeal and my Christian faith that I didn't.
At a botanical symposium in Cordoba, Spain, just a few weeks earlier, I was presented with the Al eterno entusiasmo award. Honored by the recognition, I had failed to see any interplay between enthusiasm and faith. I did not appreciate Dan's comment nor did I see its connection with the Cordoba award until I read the editorial in the June issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (48/2:73) titled, "Are evangelical and scientists practical atheists?" In it, we were challenged to consider "...the question of how...Christian faith plays a role in...scientific work."
Okay, I confess. Until recently, I have been operating as a practical atheist. As Mark Noll painfully reminded us is in Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, many evangelicals are good, even notable, scientists but few explore the link between their faith and their practice of science. Reasons for that hiatus are many and would be a worthwhile study on their own. Opposition to a personal God, embarrassment by well-meaning, but often ignorant, supporters of a "young earth," and a pervasive mechanistic philosophy are some of the reasons. We all bring our tenets of belief into our science consciously or unconsciously. For me, one outcome of my belief system is enthusiasm.
Embarrassed that I had never considered the question before caused me to ponder it carefully, "What is the link between faith and enthusiasm?" At its simplest, I believe my unabashed enthusiasm for plants is because I know, really know in my heart of hearts, that these wonderful organisms have been designed by a skillful Creator! And I know that Creator in the person of Jesus Christ! He has given me the opportunity to spend a career engaged with plants, studying their beauty, diversity, and utility.
As an ethnobotanist, I am awed at how plants are used in a multitude of ways by people around the world. My own thrill of discovery has involved research on the bizarre Hydnora along the Nile and Sudan that is totally subterranean except for flowers that break through the cracked clay. Also in Africa, I am researching the witchweed of the genus Striga that are some of the most refractory problems in subsistence agriculture in the African Sahel. Even after two decades, I am still amazed at their parasitic behavior. Closer to home, I am working with an engaging group of furtive fern allies, Isoetes, abundant in parts of the Southeast, yet so poorly known that new species are being discovered. It has been exhilarating to have the responsibility to maintain and restore the northern most stand of longleaf pine. I could go on - and usually do - but the bottom line is that I find something intrinsically interesting in each plant, population, and community. And behind it all, I see the Creator.
Are there biblical patterns for this deep appreciation of plants? Certainly. Although not one of the best known biblical characters, Jotham is one of my heroes. Like myself, he lectured on Mount Gerazim. He was addressing a political question; I was a Fulbright Professor at an Najah National University located on the same mountain. In Judges 9:8-15, Jotham outlines the salient features of important plants. To do this, Jotham had to have a knowledge of plants and the enthusiasm to lecture on them.
The greatest student of natural history in the Bible is Solomon. He had a profound appreciation of plants, perhaps inherited from his shepherd father who wrote worshipful psalms about creation. More plants are mentioned in connection with Solomon than anywhere else in the Bible. "He (Solomon) described (Hebrew dabar, Greek equivalent is logos) plant life, from the Cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall" (1 Kings 4:33). Dabar implies more than verbal description, it incorporates the idea of speaking with authority and, I would suggest, enthusiasm.
The Lord Jesus spoke about plants and linked them with Solomon. In Luke 12:27, Jesus says that one of the common "lilies" (likely Anemone coronaria) was more resplendent than Solomon in all his glory! And Solomon was the most glorious king recorded in all of Scripture! Doesn't this imply an appreciation and enthusiasm for this strikingly beautiful but common wildflower?
Ultimately, enthusiasm for the creation leads to worship of the Creator. This is the paramount eterno entusiasmo! I am thankful to have been reminded of this and jolted into considering the connection between my faith and the practice of science.
From PSCF 46 No. 4, (December 1996): 256-257.