Believing: a respectable approach

12 February 2016

Andrew Davison argues that science and faith are not such strange bedfellows

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Change and decay: the last hurrah of an ageing star

Change and decay: the last hurrah of an ageing star

THESE supplements to the Church Times are a survey of the Christian faith, a fact that might encourage us to take a step back, and wonder about the nature of “faith” itself.

To do that, it might be useful to approach faith from an unlikely angle, namely its place in science — so often unhelpfully presented as the nemesis of faith. I can tackle the nature of faith that way, perhaps, having once been a scientist myself.

I am a university dweller: I have been at university almost continuously since I was 18. I spent three years as a curate in south-east London, and had a terrific time; but I didn’t quite achieve escape velocity, and soon enough found myself back at university, now teaching theology.

That I am an “academic sort of person” only half explains why I enjoy this environment; I also value the community that universities offer. Universities are communities of scholars, and both science and theology are community activities.

This social side of science was part of why I had such a cheerful time as a research student in biochemistry. Scientists work in research groups, rarely alone. In this, they are different from many scholars in the arts.

I was funded by the Medical Research Council, but the British Heart Foundation people had the best parties; so by a careful campaign, I eventually won myself a desk in their lab.

Parties aside, scientists belong to a community far larger than their research group. The scientific community is one of the world’s most profoundly global associations.

Science needs that community because no scientist working independently could verify even the tiniest part of the ideas that they depend on. Scientists have to trust the work that others have undertaken.

 

THIS brings us to faith. Science relies on trust, and whatever else faith may comprise, trust is central. Both theology and science proceed on the basis of trust, and in neither case is that a matter of blind trust. Scientists publish their findings, so that other scientists can verify them. Someone comes up with a promising thesis; it is scrutinised by peer review.

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Christian faith follows a parallel form of communal knowing: it involves trust, and it is not blind. The ideas that make up the Christian faith are the communal work of hundreds of thousands of thinkers, put to the test by billions of Christian people. The community extends across time as well as place: the faith has been weighed and tested down the ages.

 

FROM a slightly different angle, we can also describe faith as our instinctive sense of how the world works. The point here is that in order to understand anything, we have to take other things for granted. Take cause and effect as an example: we rarely stop to think whether effects need causes; we simply use that idea to make sense of experience. There are many other examples.

As with any other discipline or walk of life, science needs assumptions. These are axiomatic and, most of the time, taken for granted. Every now and again, though, they no longer seem to work: atomic decay, for instance, is a strange sort of effect, without the kind of full cause that we had come to expect.

At times like this, there is a crisis, and paradigms have to shift. Thomas Kuhn is the person to read on this, in his magnificent The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962.

Religious faith is also a set of really basic convictions, of the sort that we use to make sense of the world. It includes conviction — for instance, about whether or not there is a God, as well as basic tenets about meaning, origin, purpose, and so on.

Faith, in this sense, is a position that you argue from rather than a position that you argue to. Understood in this way, everyone has faith. We all have basic convictions about the nature of things; in this sense, not believing in God involves “faith” as much as believing in God does.

As in science, sometimes religious faith comes up short: things happen that we cannot understand, and they require us to redraw our basic map of the world. Perhaps you did not believe in God, but were challenged to re-think that when you fell in love, or had a baby: the world became a marvellous gift. Perhaps you believed in God, but then something awful happened to you. Your faith would be shaken; it would no longer do the business, and your understanding of providence would need a radical overhaul.

The Christian faith has faced its challenges. As an example, it started out as Jewish monotheism, but found itself wanting to call Jesus God. We had to revisit our belief in God as One; not to deny it, but to recast it in terms of the Trinity.

Indeed, Christian theology has thrived on challenges. Many of its greatest thinkers have worked precisely by seeking out tensions and objections. I am thinking of writers such as Maximus the Confessor or Thomas Aquinas. Faith involves presuppositions, and the criticism of such presuppositions.

 

AS A THIRD and final angle, consider that human beings do not know everything, but neither do we know nothing. On every single matter, knowledge is always somewhere in the middle: we know something; we do not know everything.

I am often asked which part of my scientific training serves me best in theology: the answer is a willingness to think about things that we cannot fully understand.

It is fairly obvious that theology concerns topics beyond our full comprehension. This is illustrated in science by the way our basic picture has to change for time to time: Newton eclipsed Aristotle; quantum mechanics eclipsed Newton. Such shifts are no disaster, unless your only standard for intellectual success is completeness: having things cut and dried, sorted out. Scientific revolutions show us that the world is always beyond our grasp.

Knowledge is always partial because, frankly, the world is rather strange. Human knowledge goes only so far; behind it there is mystery. The development of science over the centuries confirms that mystery rather than denying it. The fact that science is forced to shift, again and again, demonstrates that human knowledge is constitutively incomplete.

I would give the name “faith” to this mixture of knowledge and mystery; we understand in part, as St Paul memorably put it.

Science grasps something of the truth about the world, but it is partial, and it develops. Religion and theology grasp something of the truth about the world and about God — although I would rather say that they touch God than that they grasp him. That is also partial knowledge, and it develops. As Aristotle said, one can take great joy in even a little knowledge of the highest things.

 

SCIENCE is communal knowledge, and so is theology. Communal knowledge is part of what we mean by faith. Science has to rest on assumptions, as does all human knowledge. The convictions that are so basic that we usually take them for granted might be called faith.

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Finally, science knows only in part, just as theology knows only in part. We never fully know what we are talking about; but we can talk about it. Saying that you know in part is not a weakness; it is reason at its strongest and most mature. There is to everything a mysterious depth that eludes us.

Against the shriller voices in either camp, this is, in fact, the united message of both theology and science, each of which provides a witness to the various, interlocking meanings of faith.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

 

Read the rest of this week's Theology Now supplement, featuring David Bentley Hart, Malcolm Guite, John Inge, Ben Myers, Andrew Towey, Stephen Fowl, and Sarah Lenton

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