Online Conversation | Faith in an Empirical World: an Online Conversation with Ard Louis and Tremper Longman
We live in an era where science and faith are widely believed to be in conflict. A spreading materialism asserts, even assumes, that only empirical knowledge is reliable, and denigrates ways of understanding reality beyond the quantitative. Others believe that the realms of science and religion are entirely separate — each with interesting things to say, but nothing to say to each other. In this Online Conversation, we’ll offer a different hypothesis: that science and faith actually have things to say to each other and to us in enabling us to better understand ourselves, our minds, our world, and its originator and designer. And that contemplating the complexity of our Cosmos, and the mystery of our self and soul, may cultivate a new sense of wonder, awe, and even worship – a doxology amidst discovery.
On Friday, May 20th, we invite you to join us for an Online Conversation with Dr. Tremper Longman, professor of biblical studies, and Ard Louis, professor of theoretical physics, to discuss how we can cultivate faithful epistemology in a culture marked by conflict and confusion.
This event is held in partnership with Biologos and Church of the Advent and made possible through the support of Templeton Religion Trust.
Transcript | Louis + Longman | May 20, 2022
Richard Miles: Welcome to each of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Ard Louis and Tremper Longman on “Faith in an Empirical World.” I’m Richard Miles, board chairman of the Trinity Forum, as well as co-founder of the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, where we teach science through the lens of invention. I’d also like to thank the Templeton Religion Trust, whose support has made this program possible. This program is actually part of a series of conversations on science and faith, which is being sponsored by the trust and hosted in partnership with our friends at BioLogos and Church of the Advent.
We want to especially welcome our more than 190 first-time guests today and international guests joining us from at least 29 different countries, ranging from Australia to Zambia. If you’d like, please let us know where you are joining us from in the chat feature. And if you are one of the many first-time guests and are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope you’ll get a taste of that from our discussion today.
We live in an era where science and faith are widely believed to be in conflict. A spreading materialism asserts, even assumes, that only empirical knowledge is reliable and denigrates ways of understanding reality beyond the quantitative. Others believe that the realms of science and religion are entirely separate, each with interesting things to say, but nothing to say to each other. But is that, in fact, the case? And in this Online Conversation, we’ll explore a different hypothesis: the idea that science and faith actually do have things to say to each other and to us in enabling us to better understand ourselves, our minds, our world, and its originator and designer, and that contemplating the complexity of our cosmos and the mystery of our self and soul may cultivate a new sense of wonder, awe, and even worship—and as Deb said, “a doxology amidst discovery.”
Our two guests today, Ard Louis and Tremper Longman, have written and lectured extensively on this very hypothesis, and it is an honor for me to moderate what I believe will be a very fruitful discussion.
Dr. Ard Louis is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads an interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics, and biology. He’s also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where he also sits on the board of directors. Prior to his post at Oxford, he taught theoretical chemistry at Cambridge University, where he was also director of studies in natural sciences at Hughes Hall. Dr. Louis was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon, and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his PhD in theoretical physics from Cornell University.
Dr. Tremper Longman serves as distinguished scholar and professor emeritus of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He’s written over 30 books, including most recently Revelation in the Light of the Old Testament. He also has served on the advisory council of both BioLogos and the Science for Seminaries program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is the author of Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, Violence, and History.
Ard and Tremper, welcome.
Tremper Longman: Thank you, Richard.
Ard Louis: Thank you. Look forward to chatting with you.
Richard Miles: So I thought maybe we’d start with the really easy questions here. Let’s talk about sort of the difference between theological versus empirical knowledge. And, as I said, we live in a time where it is often only empirical knowledge that is widely considered reliable or authoritative. Moral or spiritual knowledge is at best considered to be a constructed rather than discovered truth. In your respective views, what is the reliability of theological versus empirical knowledge, the things that can’t be measured versus the things that can? And if you could, each give us a few practical examples of how the two worlds both interpret the truth. Tremper, why don’t we start with you?
Tremper Longman: Sure. And thanks for that softball to start. And of course, it’s a very complex question, but I’ll lay out what I think are some basic ideas about it and give at least one example. And I’d start, as I contemplate that question, I would start with the long-time teaching from the Christian tradition that God has given us two books, right? He’s given us Scripture and he’s given us nature. And he speaks to us through both. He reveals himself to us through both. And perhaps oversimplifying, I might start by saying theology focuses on Scripture and science focuses on nature, which would lead to, I think, a first important point, which is, if that is true, then when science and theology or the Bible are both interpreted correctly, then there’s not going to be a conflict there. And therefore we shouldn’t, as Christians at least, fear science. But of course, it’s the issue of proper interpretation that comes to the fore for both science and theology. And we’ll probably drill down on that a little bit later as well.
It does strike me that scientific knowledge and theological knowledge are acquired in different ways, at least in degree. Scientific knowledge is acquired through experimentation, observation, and reason in the main. And one of the implications of that, though, is that scientific knowledge is constrained to a certain arena, what can be demonstrated, say, in the lab, or perhaps by math. Theological knowledge, which focuses on Scripture, therefore primarily focuses on revelation. God reveals himself in Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Scripture is perhaps the clearest self disclosure of the triune God, which is what the Church typically means when we call it “canon.”
So let me give a quick example, then, in the matter of origins. Scientific knowledge is acquired through the study of the fossil record, say, and genetic evidence, and over the years has accumulated strong support for the theory of evolution and common descent. The reliability of the knowledge in science seems to be built on accumulated evidence. The theological claim derived from Scripture is that God created everything. And from a New Testament perspective, the Christian contention is that the triune God created everything. And that’s not supported by material evidence. True, you know, Psalm 19, Romans 1, talks about the glory of God, that the heavens reveal the glory of God. And that is true, that you can derive a sense of awe and transcendence from creation. But that doesn’t specifically support the biblical contention that it’s Yahweh or the triune God who created everything. And that’s why those of us who believe this revelation is reliable find it hard to convince, say, a materialist, because the latter’s perspective is constrained or limited by what he or she requires for evidence.
As quick aside, I think that’s why some people are attracted to sort of a “God of the gaps” kind of approach, that is, “well, science can’t explain this or that; therefore, that can only be explained by the possibility that God is there.” The problem with that kind of argument is that it’s a very weak read as science continues to develop.
Let me just cite here too Hebrews 11:1-2, where it says, “Now, faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we don’t see. By faith, we understand the universe was formed at God’s command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” So I would say faith is absolutely not contrary to reason, but it’s not gained through reason or scientific endeavor. Faith, though, helps me make sense of my world. It brings coherence and purpose to life. It can transform life. It also provides a basis, I would argue, that I don’t think the materialist position can: a basis for morality, justice, and equality that centered in what we learned from biblical revelation that every human being is created in the image of God.
Just one last quick point, and that is, again, we can’t prove the existence of God from nature, but there are scientific observations, I would suggest, that are worthy of contemplation. One that’s particularly striking to me is this idea of fine-tuning, that the cosmos is fine-tuned so that the laws of nature can allow life to develop, or even perhaps the recognition that the universe has a beginning, which is a scientific observation, as I understand it, only since the mid-20th century. So those are some thoughts, Richard.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Tremper. Ard, I’m sure you have some thoughts about the reliability of theological versus empirical knowledge.
Ard Louis: Well, thanks so much. And thanks, Tremper, for your very interesting points, which I completely agree. I’m going to take the question a step back and say, I often get asked that question. And I think what’s really underlying it is something like this: So here I have in my hands my phone. It has more power than the computers that were used to put the first people on the moon. So the speed of technological advance that we’ve experienced, even in our own lifetimes, has been extraordinary. We think about medicine, the way it’s transformed our health. Extraordinary. It’s absolutely amazing. So you see the incredible way that science brings progress. And it’s very natural to feel that somehow we ought to use that same method to also understand other questions of life. I put it to you that nobody can actually live that way because most of the truly important questions of life are not amenable to empirical investigation.
I’ll give you one very simple example. So let’s say I want to answer a question about the value of human beings. Do human beings, for example, have intrinsic value? Well, certainly in our Western societies, this is an incredibly important shared value that people of a wide range of different religious beliefs all agree upon. And we might even say it’s really important that we all agree that human beings have some intrinsic value. But how would I measure your value in an empirical way? Well, not to be too facetious, but if I was a psychologist, I’d measure how smart you are, or a physiologist, maybe how big your brain is. If I was a chemist, I might measure your value by looking at the value of the elements in your body. Somebody with gold fillings is clearly not worth more than somebody without gold fillings. That’s kind of silly. Maybe if I were an anthropologist, I would measure how you’re viewed by your community. Or if I’m an economist, I’d measure what your productive output is. And sometimes I worry that our overlords do value us primarily that way.
But clearly, as I’m giving you these kind of ways of empirically measuring what the value of human beings is, they’re silly, they’re nonsensical. And the reason for that is that there is no empirical way of measuring the value of a human being. Even more so, if you were to try to do so, I think it’s dangerous, and I think most reasonable people would agree with that. Therefore, we have other arguments for coming to the conclusion that human beings have intrinsic value, that maybe that can be expressed in the language of human rights or in other ways. Christians would say that comes from the fact that we are created and loved by God and that it’s really important that our value is not related to our status in society or our race or our wealth or any other characteristic. But we have intrinsic value that comes from God. And, you know, Western society has basically picked up that idea, has deeply Christian roots, and codified it in various ways.
But the point I’m making to you is that empirical knowledge can’t answer that question, even though I’m very strongly convinced that it is true. So I think that most of the truly important things in our lives are governed by these kinds of non-empirical truths. So therefore the idea that somehow these should be in conflict is slightly odd because clearly empirical science is not going to give us these really important answers to really important questions, questions of morality, questions of “how should I live?” And yet we all have ideas about them. I think what might be playing in the background is obviously it’s harder to agree in society on these kinds of questions. And I think that’s true, and that’s an issue that we think through. But just because something is harder to adjudicate on doesn’t mean that it’s less valuable. And so it’s a fact that nobody really lives their lives completely following empirical methods to adjudicate what they believe in and not believe in, because empirical methods simply cannot answer most of the questions that we really care about.
And so if somebody claims to do so or that empirical methods are the way of understanding answers to these kind of questions of first and last things, then they’re often really playing a kind of game, a trick on you. They might wrap themselves in the mantle of science if they’re scientists, but then when they proclaim on all kinds of other issues of importance, they are importing all kinds of non-empirical value systems into those claims. So I think it’s better for us to be honest about the fact that empirical science doesn’t answer many of the important questions that we care about. That doesn’t mean that science is not important. I think science is probably the greatest invention that human beings have ever made. I think it’s unbelievably exciting. I pinch myself that I get paid money to think about science and people. It’s not your money probably, but for all the Brits, it’s your tax money primarily, so thank you very much. And it pays me to think about science, because I think science brings us great advances, advances our lives in all kinds of incredible ways. But science and no conceivable advance of science is going to answer these ultimate questions.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Ard. Let’s move on and talk about the relationship between empiricism and faith. And specifically, I’d like your thoughts on some of our core assumptions about that relationship between empiricism and faith, between science and religion. As I noticed earlier, each have interesting things to say, but do they have anything to say to each other? Are our scientists, in fact, predominantly secular and antagonistic to faith, or is that a false impression driven by celebrity atheists? Are most Christians distrustful of science, or is this a mistaken caricature driven by celebrity pastors? Ard, I know you’ve talked about several “zombie myths,” as you term them, with regards to the supposed battle between faith and science. Could you elaborate a little bit about what those myths are?
Ard Louis: Well, right. So one of the myths is the one that you brought up very helpfully, which is this myth that somehow scientists are not religious or against religion. So not too long ago you had Elaine Howard Eklund on your podcast or on your—I was going call this on your show, but it’s really just on your conversation. And she has done the largest empirical studies of what scientists believe across, I think, eight different countries. And what it more or less shows is that scientists, many scientists, have a faith. Actually a very small minority of scientists are the kind of Dawkinsian hardcore atheists. And so this is not an accurate depiction of what scientists are like today. Of course, historically, scientists have often been people of deep faith. You can think of people like Newton, someone of deep faith, perhaps of unconventional theology, but nevertheless somebody for whom faith played a very important role. Here in Oxford, one of our greats is Sir Robert Boyle, from Boyle’s Law, the father of physical chemistry, who was deeply, profoundly religious, much more so than the people in his kind of social class at the time. I think of Maxwell. I think of many, many of the greats who were Christians of deep faith in the past. So empirically, it’s not true that scientists don’t believe in God. And I think it’s for the obvious reasons that we need our answers to ultimate questions to come from somewhere. And the Christian faith offers very deep and profound answers to that.
The other question you asked is how do empiricism and, say, theological knowledge interact with each other? Well, they clearly do in the sense that if I—so our scientific understanding helps clarify questions. It helps us understand perhaps where you might have misunderstood questions. For example, historical knowledge helps us to understand the background of the Bible, which helps us understand the Bible better, for example. In the same way, actually, interestingly, the Bible has played an incredibly important role in the emergence of modern science—so we’re used to this now, but the idea that you should be able to study the world and do a repeatable experiment and get the same results. If I do an experiment here in Oxford, I get certain results and somebody in Cambridge, [inaudible], should get the same result in the same conditions. Kind of idea of uniformity. Well, that’s not at all obvious to most people in history for whom the world feels capricious and not predictable. And historians have shown that theological reflections on the faithfulness of God, of a God behind this world who sustains this world, made them think perhaps we would have some uniformity, we’d have some kind of laws of nature that we could understand. If there’s a lawgiver, there might be laws that we could therefore understand. And that’s a big foundation of modern empiricism, modern science, comes from those kind of theological roots. It’s now so baked in that nobody questions those roots anymore or even wonders where they came from. But they are profoundly theological.
Richard Miles: Tremper, how about from the other side? You know, is it true or is it, as I said, a caricature that Christians—and, in this case, I’m talking about the American church, I know maybe most of your experience is with the American church—are American Christians profoundly suspicious or antagonistic to scientists and to the scientific process?
Tremper Longman: Well, Richard, it’s always dangerous to overgeneralize, but—and there’s a lot of fragmentation and polarization here in the United States. You mentioned, is it just connected to celebrity pastors? Celebrity pastors, there’s some wonderful ones and some that encourage a kind of distrust of science, and they have influence on laypeople who listen to them. But, I mean, from my perspective, which is limited, of course, the good news is that, you know, through the work of BioLogos and other organizations, the message is getting out there that you can affirm both, you know, consensus science and theology, that they’re not in conflict. And also that program I was involved with at AAAS, the Science for Seminaries program, is trying to—has been working through seminary education not to force people or seminaries to believe certain scientific things, but at least to become aware of really good science, not kind of pseudo-science that’s out there. So I guess maybe I’m not as positive as Ard was in terms of his assessment of the scientific community, which, by the way, hanging out with scientists for the past decade or so really opened my eyes to what Ard was talking about. But there’s reason for optimism. Yeah.
Richard Miles: So as promised, we are going to start out with the easy questions. So now we’re going to get to the hard section of the interview. And I wanted to talk a bit about miracles. How are we to make sense of miracles? And for many scientists, a belief in miracles is a red line they simply aren’t going to cross, that miracles seem to stand outside our understanding of how the natural world works. They seem to be this barrier to believing in the Scriptures, to the Bible, or really any metaphysical understanding of the world. Is it possible to be grounded in science and yet still accept the miracles in, for instance, the Bible? Tremper, why don’t we actually start with you. If you could maybe help us understand, first of all, miracles from a theological standpoint. What is their purpose, and are all miracles the same?
Tremper Longman: Yeah, so happy to answer that and also happy to have Ard deal with the scientific perspective on that. Yeah. So as I read the Bible and I look at how God acts in space and time and history, I think in terms of three categories—of course, that’s a modern imposition on it. The important point will be that God is active in each of these. But in matters of what we call “providence,” God is involved, and God is as involved in providential acts as he is in miraculous acts. I think that’s a really important point to underline. And again, getting back to the question of evolution, I think that’s one thing that worries people, that there isn’t a kind of miraculous origin to human beings. And so God sustains regular patterns of the natural world. Before I leave providence per say, I also want to draw attention to the book of Esther, which is not about sort of the regular laws of nature, but it’s about redemption. I mean, Esther is the story of the redemption of the Jews during the Persian period from a horrible possible annihilation. And it’s a very interesting story of rescue, and God is not mentioned explicitly once, but the story is told in such a way that there’s so many interesting, ironic, and unexpected reversals that you can’t help but think God’s involved.
And perhaps we should call this, and this is my second category, “extraordinary providence,” what, in an article that Ard wrote, he refers to as miracle “ones. They’re basically timing issues that, yeah, they result from secondary causes but at the right moment, say, whether it’s the stopping of the Jordan River in Joshua chapter three or even the crossing of the sea at the Exodus where God uses a wind to do it.
And then there are miracles, per se, that can’t be explained by secondary causes. Just to mention one kind of minor one, in a sense, the floating axe head. When some workman loses his iron axe in the waters, the Prophet Elisha prays and the axe head floats. Or, of course, the bigger miracles, like the virgin birth or the resurrection.
So now I’ll say that the purpose of miracles is not to simply titillate or draw attention to itself. Miracles are sort of bolstering redemptive acts and making it very clear that God is involved in these acts and drawing attention to the act itself. I mean, even the floating axe head, if you read it in its Old Testament context, is not kind of an arbitrary thing to titillate, but it’s actually an anti-Baal polemic. Baal was the god of the waters. And through this miracle, Yahweh has demonstrated, first of all, that the prophet—you know, Yahweh is with the prophet and that Yahweh is the one who’s in control of the waters, not Baal himself. So with that, I’ll turn it over to Ard for some further comments.
Ard Louis: Well, thanks, Tremper, very much for that. So I think the article I wrote on this a while back was put on or sent to the viewers. And maybe the one thing I’d add to this from the scientific point of view is in order to understand miracles, you’ve got to first understand what science is. And as a Christian, the way I think about science is science is studying the ordinary ways that God sustains a universe. So we believe that God—it’s very important that we don’t think of God in a kind of deistic way. And I worry sometimes that modern Christians have turned God into kind of deistic. There’s our world that goes along and every so often God pokes into it and does something and they’ll say, “God was present in the service today” by which we, if you interpret that badly, it means that somehow he wasn’t present at other times, which is— I think what we mean is we particularly experienced his presence or felt his presence. Now, God is always present. And so if we think that God sustains the world, that means that if God was to stop sustaining the world, it’s not like it would slowly grind to a halt and not work anymore. It would simply stop existing. It would [inaudible].
So once you think about the world that way, then the question is, what is science? Well, science is studying these regular ways that God sustains the universe. And we read all about them in Scripture. And Scripture often bounces back and forth between a language that is God doing it, and the language is nature doing it, because these things are very closely linked to each other.
So in my laboratory, if I’m studying something, if a student comes to me and says, you know, “A miracle happened,” I would be surprised because I think God does miracles, as Tremper said, for redemptive purposes. And that could be true. But I’d be surprised. I wouldn’t publish it because you can’t control the mind of God. I don’t expect there to be miracles in my lab on theological grounds, not on scientific grounds. So when my scientific colleagues who are not Christians worry about miracles, they’re actually, that’s a perfectly valid worry. But actually it works a little bit like this: In order to properly assess whether miracles are possible or not, you’ve got to first ask the question whether there is a God or is no God. Those are two options you have. If there is no God, well then the miracles are obviously very unlikely. If there is a God, why on earth would there not be miracles? If there is a God who sustains the world as we believe it does, it’d be very surprising if God couldn’t occasionally sustain the world in a different way. So really, the question about miracles is a proxy for the question about whether you believe in God or not. Science has nothing to say about miracles. A theological view of the world is actually—it’s the other way around. Theological view of the world, that the world is regular and intelligible, comes from theological grounds, and that’s why we can do science.
So really the question, if somebody asks the question, how could you believe— if someone asked me the question, “How can you believe in God and believe in miracles?” I’d say, “Well, actually, the minute I believe in God, a God who sustains, who is a powerful God, the God who is a source of all being, it’s not at all surprising that something like miracles happen.” What’s maybe more surprising is that the miracles are relatively rare. My friend Simon Conway Morris, who’s a very famous paleontologist in Cambridge, pointed this out to me one day. He said, when it came to faith, he said, you know, he read the New Testament and there’s obviously lots of miracles happening, but why weren’t there more? That’s really the question that I think scientists should be asking.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Ard. Ard, you’ve eloquently described your personal journey to faith, starting with being a missionary kid in Gabon. Then as you began your studies in the Netherlands, you were warned by some of your Christian friends not to study too much science. And their fear was that as your understanding of the world went up, there would be less room for God. Can you just briefly tell us how you reconcile that fear expressed by your friends with your decision to carry on with your scientific studies?
Ard Louis: Well, that’s an interesting fear, and I’ve actually encountered it many times in other people as well, that they’ve had that fear. Interestingly, they expressed that to me, but I didn’t sense that fear at all, because the more I studied about science, the more amazing I thought it was. And to me it pointed me towards God. So although that was not uncommon fear, it actually, rather sadly, I’ve quite often given talks, particularly in the US, where students have later come up to me and said, you know, “I want to study science, but my church tells me be careful about it.” And I tell them, you know, listen to your church, but not on this particular issue.
And so, actually, I’ll tell you another story. Here in Oxford, we have a fairly— I run a course with some friends of mine called “Developing a Christian Mind,” where we give lectures to graduate students to help them think Christianly about their subjects. And interestingly, it’s the sciences we have got tons of speakers, and I’ve got to kind of try to balance them off so they each get their turn. It’s in the humanities and social sciences where you see a lot fewer. It’s much harder for us to find academics who speak. And when we have a talk on science and faith, we’re not really worried about the science undermining our faith. We talk about lots of other questions. That’s not really something that comes up or something that we worry about. So interestingly, I think it is true that there are corrosive aspects to the academic world that are maybe dangerous to your faith. It’s not the science itself, it’s the accouterments around us that can be unhelpful for faith. And interestingly, I think it’s harder often in the humanities or in the social sciences; those are fields that are often more antagonistic to faith. And if somebody tells to me, “I want to go study social sciences,” I might be— I would tell them definitely go ahead. But here’s the thing you should think about before you do, so you don’t get caught up in what are sometimes anti-Christian attitudes there. In the sciences, by and large, I think it’s the other way around. Your faith often gets strengthened by what you learn.
Richard Miles: Interesting. Tremper, you’ve encountered varied reactions to your arguments regarding how scientific inquiry can inform and even improve our theological understanding of the world. What has that journey been, that personal journey, been like for you? And has anything changed since you began?
Tremper Longman: Yeah, that’s a great question. And first of all, I’d underline what Ard said about the humanities, at least the social sciences, that they’ll be challenges to a person’s faith if they go into, you know, academic career in humanities or even biblical studies. So, on the other hand, yeah, it’s been, well, I think it hasn’t been really emotionally difficult because I’ve always been supported by my home base, so to speak. So I was teaching at Westmont College when I started talking about science and faith issues, and that was a very friendly and supportive place to be, to talk honestly about those kind of topics. But there was a lot of very harsh kind of rhetoric directed at me. But the one thing I want people to understand, and if I’m talking about it publicly, I want people—I always start by affirming my high regard for Scripture, that Scripture is God’s Word. And so it’s true in everything it intends to teach us. And so I want to tell them that because that’s authentically where I’m coming from. And I’ve found that as I do that, people are more open to listening. They may not eventually agree with me. And so I’m not trying to turn people into evolutionary creationists. I’m trying to convince people that you can be a Bible-loving Christian and be an evolutionary creationist, that it’s not a litmus test of faith or anything like that.
Richard Miles: Thank you. So now we turn to arguably the best part of these Online Conversations, and that is questions from you, the audience. And just as a reminder, you can both ask a question and “like” a question, which points us to the most popular questions. So our first question here is from Michael Lundy, and he writes, “David Alcalde warns that many empirical efforts to include God in a coherent cosmology fall victim to ground rules set by atheistic presuppositions, leaving us with an ever-shrinking God of the gaps. What are your perspectives on this?” Ard, do you want to take that one? Or, Tremper, who wants to?
Ard Louis: Well, I’ll take the “God of the gaps”, because actually one of the great popular—I mean, the word “God of the gaps” has been used by theologians for a long time. Bonhoeffer uses it. Actually, one of our great Oxford heroes, Charles Coulson, who was the first professor of theoretical chemistry here, a really great—one of the world’s greatest chemists—writes about this quite extensively in the 1960s. He kind of popularized, again, the word “God of the gaps.” And he basically says, you know, it’s really important that we don’t put a fence somehow where we say God is on one side and science is on the other side. Either God is in it all or God is in none of it. And so it’s true that Christians are often tempted by kind of “God of the gaps,” and atheists also create a kind of God of the gaps. Often when they try to look for evidence for God, they’ll say, “Well, please give me evidence for God. Show me something that I can’t explain by science,” as if that would be where you would find God. And I often say that’s not really the kind of God that I’m believing in. I’m not believing in a God who kind of pokes into the world and does little tricks here and there. I believe in a God who’s behind the whole shebang, the God for whom and by whom we exist. And that’s a very different kind of God. That is the God of the Bible.
Richard Miles: Our next question is from an anonymous viewer. “What are simple ways for laymen to experience the overlap of science and faith and begin to explore that connection?” Tremper?
Tremper Longman: Again, I’m promoting happily our sponsor BioLogos. I think one place to go is the BioLogos web page, which I was just recently visiting myself to look over the resource. I hadn’t been there in a while. And I found it a wealth of information. Now, if you want a source that has different perspectives on controversial issues, there’s a Dictionary of Christianity and Science, which I co-edited for Zondervan, which has, besides descriptive articles, it also has what we call advocacy articles, and representatives from what we saw as the four main kind of evangelical Christian perspectives on science and faith, which is young-earth creationism; reasons to believe, kind of a concordism; intelligent design; and evolutionary creationists.
Richard Miles: Thanks, Tremper.
Ard Louis: I may add, another good way of starting is by just reading biographies or autobiographies of Christians who are scientists. So a classic, a great classic, is The Language of God by Francis Collins. There’s lots of good books. Deb Haarsman, who introduced me, has a few really good books. Not biographical, but just very good, easy-to-read books.
My other point would be, if we look in the Psalms, we see many examples of the writer looking up at the stars and saying, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” And all that our telescopes and our microscopes have done is enhance that feeling. So another way that you can interact with science in faith is actually just going out and looking at the world. And if you have the chance to look through a microscope or through a telescope, then do it. And just remember when you’re looking at it, this is not a scary thing. This is actually showing you something even more about the greatness and grandness of God. And so do it and worship. That, I think, is my number one advice to engaging with science and faith is look at the science and remember what this tells us about our greatness of God and use it as a source of worship. That’s a really great way to start.
Richard Miles: Our next question is from David Groisel. “Do the social sciences reveal truths about human life that can answer any of the big questions? For example, what is the good life?” Who wants to take a stab at that? Tremper, you want to start?
Tremper Longman: Well, I’ve been in the humanities and arts and the sciences, but, yeah, I do think so. I think that as sociologists study societies and see what leads to flourishing, even apart from kind of a Christian framework, that they can derive interesting insights. I mean, I’m kind of an expert on wisdom literature, and so I often refer to the concept of emotional intelligence, which isn’t just sociology, but it’s very similar to—and the thesis is, emotional intelligence leads to flourishing and success in life on a kind of a practical level, and then gives the data for that. And so that kind of supports the Bible’s view of wisdom on one level, the practical level. That doesn’t exhaust the meaning of wisdom in the Old Testament. So that’s maybe a quick thought.
Richard Miles: Two more questions from anonymous viewers. I’ll sort of try to roll them into one. “Do you think science tries to overexplain miracles rather than just accepting it as a miracle?” And the related question is, “Do you think science such as medicine is a way modern-day miracles occur?” Ard, do you want to take that one on?
Ard Louis: Well, so it’s a good question. Sometimes people talk about miracles—so a very common sense is, you know, the birth of a child is a miracle, even though we might say that every step of that is medically understood. And I don’t tell people not to use that language because I think it is still telling us something about the goodness of God and the graciousness of God that we experience in those things, even in a normal, ordinary—well, as ordinary as birth ever—there’s no such thing as an ordinary birth. But a birth that works without medical intervention, for example. You know, on the other hand, God can obviously use the wisdom of doctors. I think God has given us that. That’s a gift from God to us as humanity is the wisdom and knowledge of doctors. And we should be thankful for that and remember where it came from. And I think that one of the problems with the word “miracle” is that I think it’s something that gets overused in Christian circles. And, as Tremper pointed out, there’s lots of ways that God works in the world, including ways that are providential. And we don’t necessarily think of them as these kind of fancy miracles. And the reason I say it’s overused is because we kind of— people kind of— what they mean is that’s when we see God, is the miracle. But actually, the Bible has us seeing God all over the place, not just in these kind of miraculous acts.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Ard. Next question is from Thomas Hioking. “If theology is a largely scriptural explanation or explication, as Professor Longman argues, then what is the relationship between philosophy and theology?” Tremper?
Tremper Longman: Well, philosophy helps, in one way, helps inform our interpretive method, commonly referred to as hermeneutics. There are a lot of philosophical questions related to meaning in a text, and my present project is on literary theory and the Old Testament. So yeah, I’m reading a lot of literary theory, which is also in conversation with philosophy. Yeah, but if the question is, “is theology or philosophy the queen of the sciences?”, I think they’re in dialogue more than anything. And there are different types of philosophy, right? And so I’ve learned a lot from my philosopher colleagues over the years.
Ard Louis: Do you mind if I add something? I think it’s important for us to remember that all truth is God’s truth. And so if the philosopher can bring us closer to truth, then that is also part of God’s truth. And surely the point is that although our theology stems from God’s revelation through Scripture, we still have to interpret that revelation, and everybody does so. There’s no such thing as “the Bible says it, I believe it” without some kind of interpretive framework going on there. So, you know, sociologists and psychologists and philosophers and scientists can all help us in that interpretive exercise, and that should be welcomed. All truth is God’s truth.
Tremper Longman: While we’re on the issue of interpretation, I’ll just throw in kind of tangentially that it’s really important to hold two thoughts in mind when you’re interpreting the Bible, at least. One is, if the Bible is totally true, which I believe, that doesn’t mean our interpretations are always true. So we need to be, in one sense, critical, in my opinion, not of Scripture itself, but of our interpretations of it. That’s the one thought. And then the other thought is there are certain things taught in the Bible that are so clear and so often taught that they’re without any question. And so the Westminster confession of Faith, for instance, talks about what theologians refer to as the first vacuity of Scripture by saying, “Not all things are alike, clear in and of themselves, but those things that are important for salvation are perspicuous,” which, when it comes, say, to the creation thing, what I think is perspicuous is that God created everything, including human beings. What I don’t even think it’s intending to answer the question is how he did it, you know. So at least minimally, I think people need to hold their understanding on that question kind of loosely.
Richard Miles: But the next question seems tailor-made for you, Ard. It’s from R. Byron Brown. “Is the concept of intelligent design a helpful way to explore the intersection of faith and science?”
Ard Louis: Well, this is not a short question because the word means many things. So all Christians are creationists. We all believe that God created the world. All Christians believe in intelligent design. We believe that God designed the word intelligently. That’s pretty simple. But if I use the word “creationist” now, people often mean a very particular version of creationism, which would be that God did certain things in certain order. And if I use the word “intelligent design” now, it often means a particular movement of people who say you can look at nature using the methods of science and find evidence for God’s special intelligent design in there. And that’s a much more controversial question, because what you’re really asking or saying is “I can use scientific methods to look at—or I can use other inference methods, perhaps [inaudible] methods like inference is the best explanation—to show that there was a miracle that occurred,” by which means that God sustained the world not in the ordinary ways that he sustains it, but in some kind of extraordinary way. There’s no scriptural basis for doing this kind of exercise. So we’re a little bit—and I think we should always be very cautious when we extrapolate away from what Scripture tells us.
So I think it’s a— I’ve stopped using that language because it’s gotten confused, I think, by particular ways of taking it. But yeah. Do Christians believe in intelligent design? Of course they do. We’ve got intelligent design in the world. It would be really strange if we didn’t believe that. And I think we can see that in a kind of generic sense in the [inaudible] fact that we’ve got a world that is very fruitful and very beautiful. And I like doing it that way. But the modern way the word is now used, like looking at some very specific thing and trying to find a way, some kind of special property of it, I find a little bit more slippery and different than helpful.
Richard Miles: So our next question is from Michael Everest and, Tremper, I believe this is probably in response to something you mentioned earlier. “In your view, why is there more hostility to faith in the humanities as compared to the natural sciences?”
Tremper Longman: That’s great. And Michael, by the way, is a former colleague of my college in the sciences. And so, yeah, maybe I’m just reflecting on experience, going back to when I first became a Christian, even before I entered the humanities and decided to start taking religious studies courses at my university and finding that my religion professors were basically trying to talk me out of my faith. And so I’m not really sure I can give a good sort of principled philosophical reason for that. Maybe because humanities are dealing with values and—or traditionally, classically in the past—and things that kind of rub up against Christian theology in a different sort of way than it does in the sciences.
Richard Miles: Actually, Ard, I think it’s probably you that said that you tended to encounter more or hear of more hostility in the humanities. Any thoughts on that?
Ard Louis: Yeah. So empirically in Oxford, that’s definitely the case. So we’ve worked for years here with graduate students and young faculty members. And it’s always the case that the humanities people feel a lot more embattled than the science students do. Part of that is because science you can do so—you can do science and have all kinds of crazy ideas about the world. Doesn’t matter. So there’s a sense in which, you know, if I have eccentric ideas about something outside of science, my scientist colleagues don’t really care. It might even be a badge of honor. Whereas in the humanities, you know, your worldview, how you think about the world, will affect your scholarship. And so people are more worried about what you might believe. But I think it goes a lot further than that. I think the modern humanities—this is a very long, complex discussion—but have gotten themselves, I think, away from perhaps what would be an ideal way of looking at these questions and have often become very doctrinaire, sometimes rather one-sided, in how they view things. And this creates kind of sociological pressures to conform to a certain set of ideas, and that’s often unhelpful for Christians. So Christian colleagues in the humanities have often said they’ve had pretty strong hostility from their colleagues in a way that in the sciences we just don’t really experience. And that’s a very long conversation, probably not good to get into why that might be.
Tremper Longman: It’s an interesting sort of historical point that the formation of the modern university, I think the University of Berlin around 1800, purposefully split theology from the humanities in a way that may have led to conflict. And then theologians want to be players in the broader university, so in biblical studies, you have the development of historical criticism which tries to study the Bible from sort of a neutral vantage point. So it discourages people of faith bringing their faith perspective into the discussion. And that’s one of the things that leads to conflict as well, I believe.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Tremper and Ard. All great answers, and we have lots more questions. I wish we could get to all of them, but unfortunately we are drawing to a close. And in a moment I’m going to give both of you the last word. But before that, I wanted to say that immediately after we conclude the session, we’ll be sending an online feedback form, and we’d be grateful for your thoughts on how we can continue to make these conversations even more valuable to you. And as a small token of our appreciation for your input, we’ll offer all those who participate in the survey a special gift for a free digital copy of the Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. We’ll also be sending tomorrow a video link to this conversation that you can pass along to friends, and we’d love for you to share it with others. We’ll also be including recommendations on related readings.
Furthermore, we’d love for you to get involved with us and become a member of the Trinity Forum Society. You will help support events like this with your membership. You can join today online at ttf.org or by simply texting the number on the screen and entering the code TTF. And as a special incentive, a free reading collection on doxology and discovery you’ll receive when you join. That includes the following Trinity Forum Readings: “Bright Evening Star” by Madeleine L’Engle, “Out of My Life and Thought” by Albert Schweitzer, “Devotions” by John Donne with a special introduction by Philip Yancey, and “A Spiritual Pilgrimage” by Malcolm Muggeridge.
On June 10th, we are excited to host scholars Matthew Lee Anderson from Baylor and Annika Prather from Howard in our next online conversation with the theme “Reading for Community,” and we will provide a registration link in the chat. So, as promised, to conclude this great discussion between Ard and Tremper, I’m going to give them the last word. Why don’t we start with you, Ard?
Ard Louis: Well, I wanted to, as my last word, just read from one of my favorite passages of Scripture, which is Colossians chapter one and from verse 15. So this is a section on the supremacy of Christ, and it says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him, all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities. All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
So I want you to take something away. I want you to walk out, if you can, and into nature today or tomorrow and look at the beauty that you see. And just remember that this is something that was both created by God and sustained by him. So God has made it and sustains it. And I hope that sense of the grandeur of God, who not only made but actually cares about every detail of our natural world, will bring you to worship of God.
Richard Miles: Thank you, Ard. That’s great. Tremper?
Tremper Longman: Yeah. I kind of wish I went first because I think that’s the better note to end on. That’s a powerful passage in Colossians one. I’ll end simply by reiterating what I think is an important idea in this science-faith interaction. And earlier I talked about the two book idea. Well, John Paul II had a wonderful statement that always kind of resonates in the back of my mind on these issues when he said, “Science can purify our religion. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” How that works out is a matter of discussion, but I think it’s a really nice way of thinking about the relationship between science and faith.
Richard Miles: Ard and Tremper, thank you very much. And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.