Finding the Eden between Science and Faith

By Toby Pitchers.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Garden of Eden, c. 1615.

For too long the story of Creation has been caricatured on the public stage as a combatant to the rational power of Darwinism to prefigure human origins and nature. This provides a convenient pretext to dismiss the teachings of the story and exemplifies a larger perception that reason and faith must necessarily stand estranged.

Yet this estrangement is increasingly a relic of by-gone academic debate. It first emerged from Henry Dodwell and through the 19th century as a defence against a Positivist definition of truth which required empirical proofs. This therefore allowed advancing scientific discoveries to undercut the comparative truth-claims of the Bible and lead believers to the safety of subjectivism.

 From the latter period of the 20th century though, through philosophers such as Platinga and Pannenburg, Christian truth-claims have found renewed defences through reason – at the same time as Philosophy of Religion has sprouted as an academic subject. And today, in what has been called a Renaissance in Christian thinking, academics like William Lane Craig are continuing to reaffirm St Anselm’s famous assertion that ours is a faith that seeks understanding. This shows we need not necessarily abandon reason to have faith – well defined by Craig as ‘trusting what we have good reason to believe’.

On top of this, it is becoming clear that faith may in itself be a justifiable basis of truth as well as reason. This is because Positivism, which necessitated scientific verification, clearly could not account for all truth positions; indeed, this doctrine’s truth itself cannot be proved but is a faith-based judgement. This is because necessary areas of human experience, like our moral convictions, or our values about the world, can only gain their evident meaning through faith, being incapable of empirical authentication. This means it can be recognised that truths need not always rely on science and so that faith is not somehow opposed to reason, where in fact it is necessary to human understanding.

As Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy, confirms, “Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience.” Experiential, faith-based truths are in this sense prior rationalizations to scientific fact. Or, as St Augustine put it: ‘you are not required to understand in order to believe, but to believe in order to understand’; this Christian philosophy proves demonstrably accurate to our phenomenological knowledge of the world then. Its implication for theology is that scientific truths can justifiably only achieve a ‘ministerial’ role – as Martin Luther rightly defined – and not a ‘magisterial’ role over interpretations the Bible, as they can only reveal partial truths from within a wider system of faith.

In answering to the truth of Creation then, believers need not necessarily run to a scientific defence, because truth can, and often must, stand apart from science. And, crucially, if the Bible did hold only to scientific accuracy, as we have seen, God would in fact be limiting himself to the truths he could reveal. Indeed, the very moral and spiritual truths which cannot rest on empirical attestation are the only ones Christians believe enable you to reach closer to Him: the entire purpose of the Bible.

The story of Adam and Eve can be viably true then to how we experience the world, not as evolved primates but divinely unique conscious beings. Their existence is attested to in all of us, as the ‘written law’ of God in our ‘hearts’ (Romans 2:15). This may well be more meaningful than scientific laws, because it is through the lens of this, not empirical facts, that we feel God as the Holy Spirit within. This is also why St Augustine realised the ability to take a figurative interpretation of the story long before any scientific disproof pressured him to:  he understood the Bible’s purpose to advance belief, validated from our experiences, and not scientific knowledge, of God. 

It is important to state here that this view of Creation’s meaning is not exclusive to scientific fact but is able to include the great variety of truths that are recorded in the Bible. It does not absolutely cancel attempts for a scientific synchronisation of Genesis, but merely allows us to appreciate its sacred meaning without first scrambling for ‘evidence’, or even obtruding it; for believers already have their proof within them. It also serves to give greater freedom to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, since it can be recognized that the truths of the ‘word of God’ are able to, and often must, exist away from scientific verification. At the same time, spiritual and scientific truths may and often do join together, as in Biblical miracles and, most crucially, Christ’s resurrection.

When we recognise the validity and necessity of experiential, not solely scientific, truth, then, believers can keep their heads high, towards God, when sceptics use arguments of evolution to disprove Adam and Eve. There is no real disproof here to the self-authenticating laws the story explains – or to the Bible as a whole – according to a proper understanding of ‘truth’. Because of this, we should abandon a lazy dichotomy of reason and faith and recognise the Eden growing between them, through the rationalization of faith-based truths. For, as John Donne wrote so beautifully:

“Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.”

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