Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your
thinking be adults.
--1 Corinthians 14:20 NIV
In high school I was in the play Inherit the Wind. Unfortunately, I did not have the part of the Matthew Harrison Brady or Henry Drummond, the two legal heavyweights debating the legality of teaching evolution. My role was a combination of three different roles: hot dog vendor, Eskimo Pie vendor and a juror. The juror had no lines, and the hot dog vendor and Eskimo Pie vendor had only one line each. As I sat through hours of play practice waiting for my few lines, I practically memorized the arguments for and against the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The play was based on the real life so called “Scopes Monkey Trial” which happened in 1925 in Dayton, TN. The simplistic religious beliefs of the town minister in the play were easy to poke holes in, and I assumed such beliefs were confined to an earlier age. I didn’t realize back in high school that the debates between science and Christian fundamentalism in the early 20th century would resurface later in my life.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, but my minister father and my schoolteacher mother valued education. I was taught by them to try and read the Bible with an eye towards its historical context which was different than our own. They also taught to be suspicious of Christians who refused to accept modern science. I never felt much of a personal conflict in regards to balancing the claims of science and the claims of faith. The conflict between science and faith never seemed like an either/or proposition to me.
As I went to college, seminary and graduate school, I learned there were deep streams within Christianity of valuing reason and the best science of a particular age. You wouldn’t know it from the arguments of the most visible purveyors of the faith in our culture. Much of the animosity towards science in Christianity came after the Enlightenment and the rise of modern scientific study. Fundamentalisms of every religion developed as an antagonistic response to science and modernism. Christian fundamentalism flared up brightly in the early 20th century, such as in the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” but after public debacles that hurt their cause more than it helped, fundamentalism eschewed the public eye. With the rise of the Religious Right at the end of the 1970’s, old fights were new again, as Christian fundamentalists sought control of political offices to reinstate prayer in schools, ban the teaching of evolution and more activities hostile to science. These critics of modern science and the use of reason seemed ignorant of Christian tradition valuing both.
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have always been better at using the media than their more open-minded counterparts. With the rise of the internet, it seems Christian ignorance has spread ever wider. In many circles today, to be Christian equals rejecting science, reason and critical inquiry—at least all kinds that do not support its own worldview. Some of us may scoff at the Creation Museum in Kentucky with its life size Noah’s ark (complete with cargo holds to contain dinosaurs!) but for many American Christians this is an acceptable view of history.
If Christianity is going to survive, it must reject the false dichotomy between faith and science. I appreciate the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explanation of how the two are really pursuing different things. To put faith and science in opposition to one another is to misunderstand both. Sacks writes, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Similarly, in an interview, Adam Gopnik shares that even Darwin understood this difference. Gopnik says, “You can be completely committed to a rational, if you like, material explanation of existence, of why — how we got here, without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but that you can never fully rationalize what we feel here.” One of the big reasons younger generations of Americans are rejecting organized religion is because they are asked to choose between a science-less religion and a religion-less science. If those are the only two choices, the latter seems like a more honest course of action. Christians who are faithful and who value science must be more visible and more vocal if Christianity is to survive.
In navigating the contours of my own faith and the use of reason and science, I have always appreciated the simple elegance of John Wesley’s thoughts on the matter. He promoted theological reflection via scripture, faith tradition, reason and experience, what is called “Wesley’s Quadrilateral.” In his Sermon #70, which is titled “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” Wesley takes on those who value reason too little and those who value reason too much. (He takes as his scripture 1 Corinthians 14:20 which is printed above.) It’s a nice argument that explains the important things reason can do for us and the important things reason cannot do for us. He finds a middle way between an ignorant faith on one hand and a reductionistic non-faith on the other. When it comes to Christians who don’t value reason, Wesley has the following words to say:
When therefore you despise or depreciate reason, you must not imagine you are doing God
service: Least of all, are you promoting the cause of God when you are endeavouring to
exclude reason out of religion. Unless you wilfully shut your eyes, you cannot but see of what
service it is both in laying the foundation of true religion, under the guidance of the Spirit of
God, and in raising the superstructure. You see it directs us in every point both of faith and
practice: It guides us with regard to every branch both of inward and outward holiness.
In other words, a healthy Christian faith is one that employs reason. Of course, there are things in a Christian’s experience and their beliefs which are outside the bounds of what science can ascertain, such as eternal life, divine revelation, etc., but a responsible faith uses the mind along with the heart. I’ve often heard more open-minded churches say, “Here at our church, you don’t have to check your brain at the door.” That is reassuring to hear, but it’s a wonder any Christian ever thought such a step was necessary.
Today when denial of science literally has lethal consequences—e.g. refusal to believe in the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines—we need Christians who will set aside internet conspiracy theories and science nightmares found in sensational movies and TV shows. We need Christians who will trust the advances of science while realizing that science cannot possess all the knowledge of what makes life worth living. If people of faith refuse to trust the advances of science, then the consequences will be not only fatal for Christianity but also for the lives of people like you and me.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851