Scientific uncertainty and faith

by Tom Tredway

There have been plenty of people worrying about how to relate modern science and Christianity, and there are many ways to try to do it. Of these many ways, some are positive, some negative. I can explain what I mean by “negative” by referring to two Christians I have known. And a third Christian whom I also know can explain the “positive” better than I can.1

The Swedish-American theologian and historian Conrad Bergendoff often thought about science and religion. He was president of a church-related college where faculty salaries weren’t so great, but in spite of that the school had a pretty good staff in the natural sciences. So he had to address the religion/science question—on at least a practical level. But it wasn’t just that he tried to lure PhD’s in chemistry or physics to Rock Island, Ill. by appealing to their Christian loyalty (though he did). It was also that he thought that certain recent developments in scientific theory were important for the possibility of being Christian in the contemporary intellectual world, scientific and otherwise.

Then there’s my life-long grad school friend Ron Goetz, a theology professor and contributing editor of the Christian Century, who passed way five years ago. Goetz didn’t know Bergendoff, but they were both “orthodox” Christians, one from each of the two main branches of the Protestant Reformation. Bergendoff held to a traditional Lutheran understanding of the Gospel, while Goetz was a Calvinist of the Barthian variety. But they thought the same thing about recent scientific theory and its implications for religion, maintaining that holding a Christian view of moral and spiritual life was as coherent as anything modern science had to say about physical reality.

Bergendoff wrote about the escape of modern science and culture from “a closed system of laws which God Himself cannot break.” He meant eighteenth century science. Goetz said Sir Isaac Newton’s view of universe had put Christianity in “a hammer-lock.” The closed cosmos of Newton’s Principia Mathematic operated on fixed laws. In the over-all development of western culture, the more that scientific explanation and natural law filled in the unknown places in our knowledge of the universe, the less we needed the “God of the Gaps,” that divine force that explained what men could not.

Newton seemed to have figured out the fundamental laws by which the whole universe operated. God set it in motion and then left it alone to run by these laws. At first religious people welcomed a science that said that a Grand Designer had set things up, but on second thought they realized that it took God out of involvement in everyday life. The result was Deism, the religious outlook of many eighteenth century thinkers, including some of our Founding Fathers. It supposed God as the First Cause, who having set things in motion to run by unshakeable laws, then backed away.

My friends Goetz and Bergendoff recognized that for many moderns the more completely natural law explained the functioning of the universe, the less need there was to suppose God had created and was managing it on an on-going basis. That’s why these two welcomed the quantum physics that replaced Newtonian science in the early twentieth century. I’m sure I don’t understand its subtleties, though the two of them may have. What I do get is that both doctors, B and G, thought that reintroduction of the necessity of uncertainty and probability into scientific thinking opened up new possibilities for religious thought. President Bergendoff welcomed the fact that “the rigor of law” had been replaced by a science that operated on statistical probability, and Professor Goetz said the Christian worldview was ultimately as likely an interpretation of life as the one atheists (some of them scientists) offered. Neither Bergendoff nor Goetz thought you could prove the Gospel; they were satisfied that with the passing of Newtonian science, there was room for faith.

So it wasn’t that modern science established a God that Newton had not. Rather the uncertainty about whether light is a wave or a particle or the (at least until now) failure of physics to reduce electro-magnetism and gravity to a single unified force meant that science operated on probabilities and lived with contradictions. In spite of these it worked. Science was no longer a way of thinking that claimed to remove all uncertainty or contradiction, leaving it to religion to settle for paradox and imprecision. Both science and religion could be viewed as human attempts to explain what ultimately might be beyond final and absolute measure, or even comprehension. Science dealt with the physical, religion with the spiritual. Christians lived by faith.

That was an essentially negative use of science. The ultimate certainties of Newtonian physics which had reduced God to the First Cause had given way to a view of the physical universe that was more tentative and incomplete. That left, as Bergendoff said (following Luther), the field open for a faith which responded to the side of God which He revealed to the world, most particularly in Christ. The rest of His being was mystery or hidden, the Deus absconditus. Goetz liked to quote Robert Frost: “Heaven gives its glimpses only to those/ Not in position to look too close.” That, Ron felt, applied to both science and religion.

But others have wanted to make more positive use of modern science, particularly the evolutionary view which both biology and cosmology reached in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These others are not satisfied merely to maintain that science is beset with enough uncertainty that it cannot be taken as a complete guide for human life. They want to work at a view of the world and life that makes use of modern science in understanding Christianity and tries to some degree to harmonize or at least coordinate the two.

Today both biological life and the cosmos itself are seen as the result of unimaginably long processes of development or evolution: life perhaps from the moment when sunlight struck the molecules along some Proterozoic seashore and they reproduced themselves, the cosmos perhaps from the “singularity” 14 billion years ago when in a Big Bang nothing exploded into being. The minds which have tried to bend themselves around those biological and cosmological visions range from the Pulitzer-winning American novelist Anne Dillard (b. 1945) to the exiled-to-China French Jesuit Teilhard Chardin (1881-1955).

In For the Time Being (1999) Dillard, who has been both a Presbyterian and a Catholic and who once described herself as “spiritually promiscuous,” wrestles with the ugliness and wickedness we find in the world and concludes that all we can do is to cooperate with the forces that compel the world toward good and sense and harmony. The Jesuit was sent off by his superiors to excavate archeological remains in Asia. His ideas were condemned in the papal encyclical Humani generis in 1950, though he has more recently been rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church, at least to the extent that his concept of the universe as a “host to life” has been praised by Benedict XVI. Both Dillard and Chardin believe that things are evolving to something higher and better than what has been and now is.

Here is a more positive use of contemporary science than simply arguing that it clears the deck for a religious interpretation of reality. Both the novelist and the priest accept as valid what the life sciences and the physical sciences say about existence itself. It is in a process of becoming, evolving toward a higher state. Of course, there are philosophers and theologians--not banished to dig in China or to write novels--who have also made a more positive effort to reconcile evolutionary thought about the universe and life with religion.

1. (And this is where my third friend and North Park classmate Dr. Arvid Adell comes in. I don’t presume to say I can keep up with him, but I do think that what he knows about Process Theology and Philosophy is worth paying attention to.)

Tom Tredway is President Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Tom Tredway