This is an article I wrote for the December issue of British Lutheran, the ELCE’s monthly magazine. Long-time readers of this blog may find the themes (and indeed much of the content!) familiar from previous posts on this subject.
Science, religion and the “hidden God”
2009 has been a year of significant anniversaries for science: the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope in astronomy and both the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author, Charles Darwin. Such scientific commemorations provide a good opportunity to reflect on the often controversial question of how “religion” and “science” relate to one another.
Religion and science are often presented as being in irreconcilable conflict. However the roots of western science can be found in the Christian worldview, in which a God of order presides over a creation that is regular and predictable in its workings. Christians can be found working in all areas of mainstream science – in astronomy, biology, physics, geology and many more – without believing that their vocations are in conflict with their faith. Some of these are highly respected as scientists and communicators on science and religion: the likes of Kenneth Miller, Owen Gingerich and John Polkinghorne. Even scientists who are not Christians often have a far more nuanced and sympathetic view towards religion than familiar and strident voices such as Richard Dawkins.
It seems to me that the conflict between science and religion has frequently been exaggerated by people on both “sides”. Rather than going over the familiar areas of conflict in this article, I want to consider whether there are any distinctively Lutheran perspectives that can help us understand the relationship between science and religion; and in particular, between the findings of science and biblical teachings that appear to contradict them.
1. The “hidden God”
The “theology of the cross” is central to Luther’s thought. In his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther contrasted the “theologian of glory” with the “theologian of the cross”. The theologian of glory seeks “the revealed God”: the God whose nature and will can be discerned from visible things and events. As Luther writes, the theologian of glory “looks upon the “invisible” things of God as though they were clearly “perceptible in those things which have actually happened” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 19).
By contrast, the “theologian of the cross” recognises God as the God who is hidden under suffering and the cross and who can be known only through the church’s proclamation of the crucified Christ. As Luther puts it, “true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ” (Heidelberg Disputation, Proof 20).
Both Christians and scientists can fall into the trap of thinking that God’s existence and nature should be visible from “those things which have actually happened”. This leads some to conclude that God does not exist, since they see no evidence for him in the findings of science. It leads others to reject those findings and look for alternative “scientific” models in which God’s handiwork is more plainly evident.
However, the theology of the cross suggests another approach: one in which God’s work in creation is hidden beneath the visible things that are the concern of science – “in, with and under” them, we might say – and discernible only by faith, not by sight. As the writer to the Hebrews observes:
- By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Hence there is no need for us to insist that evidence of God’s work in creation should be discernible in the findings of science – and attempts to do so usually end up as both bad science and bad theology.
The doctrine of vocation is another of Luther’s distinctive contributions to the life of the church. He broke down the medieval barrier between “sacred” and “secular” callings and taught that the roles of ordinary life – as spouse, parent, employee – are themselves “masks of God” through which God works to serve our neighbour.
The work of a scientist is one vocation through which God can work in this way; and a highly valuable one. Christians who have an aptitude and interest in science should be encouraged to see this as a way in which they can live out their faith in service to others – not as something which is in conflict with their faith.
The doctrine of vocation can also be valuable in telling us what not to do. I have no aptitude for car maintenance, so it would be a denial of both my calling and that of the car mechanic to attempt to service our car for myself. Richard Dawkins is an engaging and persuasive writer on science but when he attempts to write about religion or theology he becomes shrill and ignorant, to the embarrassment of many more thoughtful atheists. Equally, pastors should be cautious when engaging with scientific arguments that lie outside their vocation.
But there is another, deeper way in which the doctrine of vocation can provide an insight into the relationship between science and religion. That is to see the whole of creation as a vocational universe, in which natural processes are themselves “masks of God” through which God works. This is shown by Psalm 104, in which God is revealed to be intimately involved in processes which everyone agrees are capable of scientific description without reference to the Bible: the rising of rivers, the growth of plants, the rising and setting of the sun, the activities of predators, and so on.
Many Christians are concerned that science leaves “no room for God to work”. But God does not need “room to work”, fitting himself into the gaps around natural processes. Rather, he hides himself within those natural processes and uses them to accomplish his purposes, in a manner beyond scientific observation.
Lutherans, like Christians of all traditions, will no doubt continue to disagree on how to relate the findings of science to the teachings of Scripture. I have suggested a couple of ways in which distinctively Lutheran perspectives can provide a way of looking at science and religion and the relationship between them. Whatever conclusions we reach on scientific questions, however, what remains of first importance is our confession, with Luther and the whole church throughout the ages, that “God has made me and all creatures”, and that “for all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him” (SC III). This is most certainly true!