Truth, Faith, and Common Sense

The line between religion and science seems to be increasingly sharp and abrasive these days, which is bit of a puzzle if you know something about history.  Scientists have not been atheists, by and large, and believers have not always been so certain of their beliefs.

Sir Isaac Newton devoted the major part of his energies to writing religious tracts, after he completed his monumental work on celestial mechanics and the laws of motion.  Blaise Pascal, noting that God’s existence could not be definitively proved, developed his famous wager:  it is better to believe in god as the benefits of belief outweigh the consequences of doubt.

But strident politicians today seem to have few scruples in asserting their fundamentalist convictions.  For them everything is black or white.

One historian of the evangelical movement referred to such beliefs, for example, as the world is 10,000 years old (based on a literal reading of Genesis) as an “intellectual disaster.” “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” he wrote, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

It appears to be contagious.  Political candidates refer to evolution as “a theory” as if other theories had just as much accumulated evidence to back them up.  Or they challenge global warming as a conspiracy.  Or they believe that Obama was not born on American soil because – well – it just doesn’t seem right to them that all those rumors could be wrong.

So it’s refreshing to hear different voices from the evangelical Christian community speak up about trying to maintain a balance between knowledge and faith.

Karl W. Gilberson, a former professor of physics, and Randall J. Stephens an associate professor of history, both evangelical Christians, have recently written:  “Within the evangelical world, tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge, and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith.”  (See. “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.”)

Gilberson and Stephens note:  “Almost all evangelical colleges employ faculty members with degrees from major research universities — a conduit for knowledge from the larger world. We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, and more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.”

War can’t be the basis of education.  You can’t learn anything new or complicated if you have to defend established ideas at all costs.  Yes, someone may “win” the battle in the sense that the enemy of the moment will retire from the field silenced and shaken.  And the enemy may even be sufficiently discouraged to give up trying altogether.  But ideas are resilient and indestructible, and someone else is likely to take them up again.

Common sense suggests we could be wrong, or we could change our ideas.  It has happened before – and can happen again.  What is the threat that makes such openness feel so dangerous?

On the other hand, to know everything with such certainty is to live in a very dark place.