(This post began as a response to James Olsen’s question in my recent post on my personal articles of faith. As I put it together it got to be too big for a comment, so it gets its own post here.)
Each church member responds to problematic issues in church history, doctrine, and culture in their own way. [Why, yes, that was “their” in the singular neuter, thanks for noticing.] Some people ignore them, some engage in apologetics, and some leave the church entirely.
As for me, I’m a categorizer. I categorize them away.
I separate human knowledge and experience into two overarching spheres — science and religion. For this to make sense, let me start with my definitions of those two spheres.
Science answers questions about what is, what was, and what will be. Science is descriptive and predictive. It describes things, how they work, and it predicts outcomes based on inputs. If you release two spheres from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, science can tell you what will happen.
Religion answers questions about what we, as human beings, should do with the knowledge we gain from science. Religion is about distinguishing the good from the bad and choosing the good. Religion is about being able to envision an ideal and then act toward achieving that ideal.
Using these definitions, hope and charity sit squarely in religion. Faith — being our belief in how the world works —is part of science.
Science is about “is-ness”; religion is about “ought-ness”.
Science is about determining what is true. Religion is about determining what is good.
Science asks, “How did we get here?” Religion asks, “Given that we are here, what should we do?”
I believe that most of our problematic issues in the church are the result of getting these two spheres confused. When religion attempts to answer scientific questions with religious tools, the outcome isn’t pretty.
“How was the universe created?” and “Where did people come from?” are questions for science to answer. They deal with objective truth. It’s possible that the big bang and evolution will eventually lose their status as the favored scientific theories to answer those questions, but should that happen it will be in the wake of a superior scientific explanation, not a religious one.
What are the tools of each, then?
Both science and religion are founded on the concept of experimentation.
In science, someone suggests a possible truth — a hypothesis. Then an experiment is devised to test whether the hypothesis is false. After the experiment is run, the hypothesis is either rejected or strengthened depending on the results. That’s the scientific method for discovering truth.
As I said earlier, religion’s role isn’t to determine what is true, but rather what is good. We are directed to “experiment upon the word”. So how does religion go about that? What is religion’s “scientific method”?
I believe that it is what we call “the admonition of Paul”: “[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
While this begins with truth (“whatsoever things are true”), it then moves on. Science is a tool of religion, but religion expands beyond science, from just “truth” on to honest, just, pure, and lovely.
The difference is that the scientific method provides results that are independently verifiable, while the admonition of Paul is subjective and personal. There’s no way to demonstrate that a principle is “good”. The best we can do is present it to people, and trust that their hearts and minds will judge the principle on its merits.
If life is a process of building a house, then religion is the blueprint and science is the tool set. Good religion assists us in getting where we want to go, but it can’t ignore the principles of science in the process. When science tries to answer religious questions, or when religion tries to answer scientific questions, problems arise.
Neither scientific nor religious truth can be asserted through authority. Indiana’s infamous attempt to declare the value of pi to be 3.2 is as laughable as the long-lived belief that left-handedness is a sin. The scientific method tells us that the first is false, and the admonition Paul tells me (I say “me” because I can’t use “us” for religious knowledge — it is personal and subjective) that the second is wrong.