Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Bible: Outdated in Light of Science?

As I’ve been interviewing emerging adults (age 18-30) about their views on science and religion, here’s one key discovery: Ancient religious texts seem outdated and therefore unscientific. Why? Scientific knowledge and technology looks forward; it advances and improves. Religious knowledge seems to always look in the rearview mirror, and therefore religion stagnates.
      And though I try assiduously not to invoke “Saint Clive” (aka Clive Staples, or C. S., Lewis) at every turn, with angels singing in the background, thereby invoking putative infallibility, I can’t deny that Lewis both addressed this question and presented a thoughtful and entirely defensible answer.
      In his 1955 paper delivered at Oxford’s Socratic Club, “On the Obstinacy of Belief,” Lewis presented the contention (which he then sought to disprove) that scientists give up their beliefs in proportion to contrary evidence; believers cling to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. How can that be justified?
      Lewis resolved this problem by distinguishing between the “logic of speculative thought” (which dominates science) and the “logic of personal relations” (which is essential to belief in, and relationship with, God). But here I want to change the focus not to belief in God, but in the veracity of the Bible. I return to Lewis on this particular task in a moment (and more generally, I discuss it in chapter 6 of my book on St. Clive, which you can find here.) Shouldn’t we give up the Bible in light of science? 
      Certainly, the Bible does need to be updated and correlated with good science. Frankly, there are some notions that may appear “biblical,” which have to be jettisoned. When I’ve read various accounts of the Galileo trial—which, incidentally was not primarily about “science versus religion” since both Galileo and his adversaries were believing Catholics—there was considerable dispute about how to interpret the Bible’s assertion that the sun circled the earth (as in Psalm 19). Today, I doubt many Christians would conclude that the Bible teaches geocentricism. Instead the image of the sun’s running its “circuit” around the sky doesn’t teach that it revolves around the earth, but it metaphorically depicts what we actually see every day. In the same way, Galileo, along with Augustine over 1200 years before, concluded that if scriptural interpretation disagreed with known science, we should revise our interpretation.
      And so we should. Today, floating around many Christian circles are the dualistic versions of the soul—that there is an entirely separable substance within our bodies—something like air inside a tire, or more philosophically, a “ghost in the machine.” This owes much more to Plato than the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, we can update and correct our doctrine of the soul by looking at the Scripture, which sees human beings as body/soul, a psychosomatic unity. We can also learn this from contemporary neuroscience, which certainly cannot find an immaterial soul. Or we can remember that a sharp tap on the head with a hammer will probably interrupt our prayer life.
      All this means we need to follow the truth wherever it leads and, whenever appropriate, update our biblical interpretation. As John Calvin rightly commented in his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion,
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
If the truth appears in natural science, we need to learn and follow it. For this reason, a six twenty-four hour day creation is untenable if Christians want to take on mainstream science. But this is not a new idea. Back now to Lewis who pointed out that Genesis 1-2 probably “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,” or as the church Father Jerome put it, was written “after the manner of a popular poet” (thus a myth).  Put another way, the Bible is not a scientific textbook and doesn’t claim to be.
      Indeed and paradoxically, there is a grand positive here: science is not the sole arbiter of truth, and that our biblical interpretation is about learning to live within the narrative of the Scripture, to let God’s story become our story, as it were. We don’t memorize the Bible as we do the Periodic Table. Again to cite Lewis: the Bible
carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.

So, no, Lewis wasn’t infallible, nor does he have an answer for everything we face today. But he did get some things right, and we do well to listen and learn.