Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Not the Christianity I Knew, Part III

Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview, had this to say about science and religion: "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works." (h/t to Bruce)

While there is some truth to this, at least in the context that Hawking was probably thinking about it, in a larger context I disagree. Partly that's because when I hear “religion” I think of some of the strange little hunting rituals of the Mbuti pygmies; or the idiosyncratic, individual interpretations of Wicca; as well as the strongly hierarchical religions such as Christianity. So it depends a lot on how you’re defining “religion”.

But, basically, I think it’s possible for religion and science to be complementary, rather than contradictory, views of the world. In this case, science tells us how and why things work, and religion tells us (or, and this is important, lets us tell others) what’s important to us as people. That requires a fairly radical reinvisioning of what religion is and what it does; it also requires a firmer understanding than most people have of what science is and what it does.

Except... that view of religion doesn't seem that radical to me. Episcopalians, as a rule, don't have the same issues with science that more fundamentalist denominations do. The Earth was created in seven days? Well, okay, but what exactly does "day" mean if the sun wasn't created until a couple of "days" in?

I don't remember whether I was ever explicitly told about the "four legged stool", in which scripture, tradition, reason and experience each make up one leg of the stool. It seems to be a fairly common concept among Episcopalians (though most of the references I can find involve people objecting to the metaphor). In any case, whether or not it was ever an explicit teaching, it's a good reflection of the way that I was taught to think about faith.

Fred Clark, over at Slacktivist, has done a series of posts about the dangers of mistaking the map for the terrain. He talks about the difficulties involved in trying to use the Bible as a rulebook. He also tells the touching (I'd say heartwrenching) story of a classmate of his, a Young Earth Creationist, who found himself looking at a building that had existed for two thousand years long than the Earth itself, at least as he'd been taught.

I mention this because that reflects the way I was taught about Christianity. The Bible doesn't have to be a rulebook. Even if you believe that it's the Word of God, that doesn't make it a rulebook. The former does not require the latter. It can be a history, a love poem, a story of struggle and encouragement... and it probably is all of those things. But some people will make a rulebook out of anything.

I tend to think of it as the other way around. I don't see the Bible as a message from God to humanity, but rather as a chronicle - one among many - of humanity's attempt to understand God. But then, I am not a Christian.

There's more of this to come. I warned you it would be long and meandering...


  1. Michael,

    I think if we could remove Fundamentalism from religion then a lot of conflict goes away.

    That said.......religion seems to naturally bend towards Fundamentalism.

    My counselor is a liberal, at times agnostic, Episcopalian. His Christianity is very different from my experience. Two different worlds some days. (or course this is the exact reason I went to him)


  2. "That said.......religion seems to naturally bend towards Fundamentalism."

    I'd have said that people seem to naturally bend towards fundamentalism. We do like simple answers, and we do love certainty.

    Living with doubts, ambiguity, and uncertainty is, I think, very much an acquired skill.


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!