Where Science & Faith IntersectEssays, Featured — By Kristen Bennett Marble on October 10, 2012 at 5:15 am
Increasingly, faith and science are exploring ways they can learn from each other. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, shares an example of the Dalai Lama engaging with MIT scientists at the “Investigating the Mind” conference. Pink suggests the two seemingly divergent disciplines can actually inform one another. As humankind delves more deeply into seeking out life’s meaning and purpose, surprising developments can be observed as spirituality begins to be taken seriously.
Pink’s observations prompt several questions and observations. Can theology, faith and spirituality be informed by, and learn from, science? Is there any benefit to our theological understanding and spiritual practices when we engage with scientific research, molecular biologists, and neurophysiologists? While Pink’s statements are interesting by themselves, they also suggest a larger question: can not only science, but any other discipline, inform our theology? Should our theology be moldable by outside sources?
This question parallels an article I recently read, asking these very questions. Karl Barth and Paul Tillich drew two different conclusions about the influence and interaction between culture and theology. Whereas Barth concluded theology, as revealed by God, stands above cultural influence, Tillich saw their interaction quite differently, concluding culture and theology actually inform, influence and correlate, one with another.1 Pink’s observations of our current approach to science and faith coincide most closely with Tillich’s paradigm.
As Christians, even with ready access to the Word of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we cannot presume our understanding and expression of not only God’s revelation, but God Himself, is perfectly complete. Science, and other disciplines, may inform and improve our understanding of God’s creation, and possibly even God Himself. Facing challenges of limited perception and limited expression of our theology, we must be humble enough to learn from those outside the church. Ultimately, wherever truth is found, be it in a research lab, on an MRI scan, or within the pews of a church, that truth is of God. Historically, sometimes the most prophetic and corrective voices have come from outsiders, not insiders.
While we should optimistically approach the intersection of faith and science, we must also do so cautiously. The god, for example, that the Dalai Lama seeks after and worships, is not the biblical God we preach. Scientific research cannot supplant divine revelation and personal faith. While the MRI scans of a Buddhist meditating and a Evangelical pastor praying may resemble one another, and may suggest identical activity physiologically, the vastly divergent eternal consequences of each cannot be overlooked. Certainly exhibiting a humble, inquisitive spirit offers us great potential for learning, as we allow science to support and inform our faith. However, prudent vigilance must also be practiced so that falsehood disguised as truth does not infect our theology.
Mankind’s desire and adamant search for meaning and purpose in life is a clarion call to the importance and need for God. As science begins to take spirituality seriously, researching and discovering truths about the physical and emotional benefits of spiritual practices, the Church also must respond. Firstly, we can accept that our theological understanding can be informed and influenced by scientific research. Ultimately these conclusions point to God, but may also form and mold our approach and conceptualization of faith and spirituality. Secondly, the Church must respond directly in relevant, meaningful ways to humankind’s unending search for meaning. Unlike many scientists searching for meaning and purpose in their research findings, we know that God is in fact the answer. After all, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” [Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV]
What do you think? Can theology learn from science and research? Should it? Where have you seen science and faith intersect in your own life?
1 A.J. Swoboda. “Culture and Theology: Do They Learn From Each Other?”