I had the opportunity last November to be part of a group of Christians who met in New York to discuss the issues of science and Christian faith. The statement posted last Thursday came from the discussions at that meeting. The first section of the statement affirms the power and value of science in describing the glory of God’s creation while denying that the material world constitutes the whole of reality. The power and value of science includes its explanatory ability in cosmology, geology and evolutionary biology. But science has limits and these limits should be recognized. In particular science has limits in fully describing and explaining reality, including, as it is put in the statement, such matters as beauty, history, love, justice, friendship, and indeed science itself.
This concept, that there are limits to scientific explanation, is something of a radical idea in the University today. Scientific materialism is a pervasive view, in the air we breath and the water we drink. It is an underlying assumption, implicit rather than explicit. Scientific understanding, it is believed, undermines the reason for God except, perhaps, in a vague spiritual sense. There are no necessary gaps, nothing need be explained by resort to supernatural superstition. This is a bit of an overstatement perhaps, although not by much. Few Christians, and fewer skeptics appreciate the depth of thinking through the ages on the reason for faith and the nature of God. The arguments are rational and sophisticated, these are not explanations cobbled together to fill a pre-scientific vacuum. Very few are undermined or even seriously impacted by the advance of scientific knowledge. And this leads me to a book I picked up at the meeting …
Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.
Faith and reason are not, as many seem to be arguing today, mutually exclusive. They never have been. The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Evidence! Down through the centuries, humanity’s greatest minds have developed interesting and compelling arguments about faith, based on moral philosophy, observations about nature, and examination of sacred texts. But outside of limited academic circles, these deeper perspectives are not head from much these days. The goal of this anthology is to present some of these points of view, to spur on a more nuanced and intellectually rich discussion of the most profound questions that humanity asks: Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Does God care about me? And what, if anything, is the meaning of life? (Introduction p. xi)
The selections included in the anthology span authors from NT Wright, Tim Keller, and CS Lewis to Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas; oh … with Plato, Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Dorothy Sayers and Mother Theresa thrown in for good measure. Over the next many months, in an occasional series of posts, I will read through this book and consider the questions raised by the various authors. To set the stage as we begin today …
If someone approached you in a coffee shop and asked you what argument for faith you found most persuasive, what would it be? Why?
Who has had the greatest impact on your thinking?
In the introduction to the book Dr. Collins gives a very brief sketch of the arguments he found compelling as he considered the evidence for God; evidence including the profound experience of people, the existence of the moral law, the fine tuning of the universe. None of these provide proofs for the existence of God – but they can provide signposts pointing in the direction of God, and they did so for him. The very order and intelligibility of the universe, the natural processes studied by science, the assumption of naturalism underlying science, is a signpost pointing to God. Evolution and the effectiveness of evolutionary processes in producing “the marvelous diversity of living things on a blue planet near the outer edge of a spiral galaxy” in a universe billions of years old, is not an acid to dissolve away religious thinking, but a reason for awe and worship of the creator.
The moral law was a particularly persuasive argument for Dr. Collins and led him to take the claims of faith seriously.
Do not get me wrong. I am not arguing that the existence of the Moral Law somehow proves God’s existence. Such proofs cannot be provided by the study of nature. … But even if radically altruistic human acts can ultimately be explained on the basis of evolutionary mechanisms, this would do nothing to exclude God’s hand. For if God chose the process of evolution in the beginning to create humans in imago dei (“the image of God”), it would also be perfectly reasonable for God to use the same process to instill knowledge of the Moral Law.
A deeper question raised by this debate is the fundamental nature of good and evil. Does morality actually have any foundation? To be consistent, a committed atheist, who argues that evolution can fully account for all aspects of human nature, must also argue that the human urge toward altruism, including its most radical and self-sacrificial forms, is a purely evolutionary artifact. This forces the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil have no real foundation, and that we have been hoodwinked by evolution into thinking that morality provides meaningful standards of judgment.(xv-xvi)
An evolutionary explanation for morality and altruism, in the absence of any underlying transcendent reality, is an empirical natural law that preserves a specific arrangement or collection of possible arrangements of atoms in molecules. This is intrinsically unsatisfactory as a ground for life and death. What is true here for the moral law is true as well for other areas of reality where scientific explanations, even if correct, are incomplete … aspects of life such as love, justice, friendship and beauty. The most compelling evidence for God is not found in gaps in scientific understanding of the natural world, but in a layer of reality that transcends the material and provides meaning to the material reality.
What do you think? Is the existence of the Moral Law an argument for the existence of God?
If the development of the Moral Law can be explained by natural process – does the existence of morality itself, separate from the means by which we are driven to moral behavior, point toward the existence of God?
Dr. Collins concludes the introduction reflecting on the greatest commandment as quoted by Jesus – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind (Mt 22). The addition of ‘mind’ is significant. As Christians we ought not construct a firewall between the life of faith and the life of the mind.
Surely humanity’s ongoing search for truth is not enriched by such limitations. In the words of Socrates (at least as imagined by Plato), the key to a fully mature, fully rewarding life, both for us as individuals, and as a society, is “to follow the argument wherever it leads” unafraid of the consequences. If this collection of essays provides even a small encouragement in this direction for the seeker, the believer, or the skeptic, that will be gratifying indeed! (xviii)
Join us for the consideration of the other readings in the book.
It you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net