« Wake Me When The Revolution is Over »

When I think about issues of science and religion, which frames this month's respectful conversation, my thoughts go in two directions. One direction goes to dinner with Francis Collins. The other direction invoves Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

One of the highpoints in my career came in the Spring of 2008 when Francis Collins came to the school where I was. He gave a public talk on Friday night, spent all day Saturday in an undergraduate biology seminar, and then joined a small group of us for dinner conversation that night. I'd  had the joy of sitting across from him at dinner both nights. It wasn't a long conversation but it was enough to gather a sense of how a man of faith wrestled with his scientific expertise without crisis. He was done with his stint as director of the Human Genome Process and it was before President Obama named him director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins was warm, engaging, sincere, intelligent, funny, and musical (look up the YouTube videos). He was launching BioLogos at the time to explore fruitful conversations between science and religion (he had to give up leadership with the NIH gig came along). I was actually looking forward to another dinner after church on Sunday (he came to our church) but that didn't happen. He may not remember me, but I think of him as a friend who taught me much about science and about religion.

I never met Thomas Kuhn, but his analysis has been a part of my thinking since graduate school (sociologists like paradigms). A philosopher of science, he outlined the ways in which scientific developments occur. My grad school theory text summarizes his argument in this figure:

The key focus of the process is from "Normal Science" to "Revolution". Once an establishment understanding has developed, certain patterns are discovered that don't fit the established theoretical framework. These anomalies are the source of puzzlement and are often thought to be a matter of methodological or theoretical challenge. But soon, there are too many anomalies to explain away. Faith in the prior paradigm begins to weaken and alternative theories better suited to include the so-called anomalies are developed. As the new paradigm begins to be institutionalized, younger generations and selected pioneers begin to articulate the comparative advance the new paradigm brings. Over time, it actually becomes the new Establishment Paradigm which wrestles with anomalies, new models, and so forth.

So when I read the great posts this month by Amos Yong, Kyle Roberts, and Peter Enns, I see them with eyes of Collins and Kuhn.

Peter observes that there are natural conflicts between evolution and evangelicalism. He says there is a high price of "not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work" of reconciling faith and science in adequate ways. That's what has motivated Peter in his own work as a biblical scholar, even when (maybe especially when) that work means unpacking the anomalies that don't fit the establishment paradigm. He ends his piece with a call for trust in God in the midst of uncertainty.

Kyle's piece on seminary education picks up similar themes. He rightly suggests that one of the drivers of the whole "millennials are leaving the church" phenomenon is partially related to an inability to resolve the faith and science issue. His call for an intenal apologetic can be thougth of as the latter part of Kuhn's crisis stage as a new paradigm begins to emerge.

As I think about this, I recognize that it might have been good to have brought up Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions in the July conversation about Scripture. Because there is not only a revoluton that happens in science but one in religion as well. As we approach and/or embrace postmodernity, we find ourselves having to engage new questions in new ways. The anomalies are many. But many folks still want to hold tightly to the Establishment phase and denounce the anomalies as errors instead of opportunity for new Paradigms. It is a remarkable fact that segments of the evangelical church are using essentially modernist argument to support scriptural postions at exactly the time when many in science (if you ignore the neo-athiests) are asking serious questions about the assumptions of scientism.

Which is the point I think Amos is trying to make. Both the rigid modernist biblical hermeneutic and the supposedly pristine scientific strategy are incomplete. There is a need to find space of supernaturalism within the context of inquiry. It's an unfinished process and involves seeing through a glass darkly. But as Amos suggests, "those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in thei way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors."

Which brings me back to dinner with Francis Collins. What we need in the midst of these paradigmatic shifts are people of faithful character who neither duck the hard questions, settling for pat answers, nor abandon their faith because the answer is uncertain. Rather, they press on toward the mark in pursuit of the new Paradigm that brings some measure of reconciliation, at least until the next anomalies come along.







PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (2)

Good post John and a reasonable suggestion. However, a good part of me wants to say that science is better prepared (sort of by its nature) to entertain the possibility of a paradigm shift. We resist mightily, some to the bitter end, but a change, sooner or later, in what has become fundamental (establishment) thinking is basically expected by all. In biology/geology, for example, we have had a number of these in the last 150 years, so there is the added benefit of experience, if not direct, then by exposure to our former teachers and grand teachers who did live through such a shift (e.g. Darwin's initial work; the mechanistic model to help explain evolution suggested by Mendel's data; Wegener's bold arguments for continental drift; the new synthesis of Dobzhansky, Mayr and others; Margulis' championing of the the intimate associations of bacteria and eukaryotes as the origin of some cellular organelles (endosymbiosis); and, currently under way, both the emerging understanding of the importance of gene regulation (i.e. the role of higher level events in helping determine how an organism's genes are used, or not used), and the fast emerging data and revised understanding of the greatly underestimated role of inter-organismal associations for both the evolution and the survival of life.

It's important to note that none of these shifts in biology caused an overthrow of truly foundational thinking but rather they caused very significant shifts in the interpretation of all data in order to incorporate a wealth of new data. What makes it more palatable, even for the die-hard establishment types with huge vested interests in the current paradigm, is that the new data, however paradigm shaking, come from within science itself.

Evangelicals do not share these expectations, nor do they have this recent experience, but they do have well established vested interests. Worse still, much of the new data (physical, biological, archeological, anthropological, linguistical, historical etc.) come, or are seen to come from without. One of the most basic defences involves the resistance to any change in how we look at Scripture, or what questions we ask of Scripture, in response to evidence obtained from research that has nothing to do with Scripture. All this, as Karl Giberson points out earlier, regardless of the lessons that might be learned from the Galileo affair.

October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBev Mitchell

Thanks, Ben.

One of the challenges of posting on these topics as a sociologist is that I am always dabbling in areas where I'm not well grounded. I appreciate your review of the biology. Admittedly, science is more open to developing new means of understanding, precisely because the new explanation is a better expression of the foundational thinking.

Your inside-outside distinction is helpful as well. But reading recent posts (not on this site) by Pete Enns and others on how evangelical biblical scholars are forced "out" of Christian institutions by doing their establishment scholarship, the distinction breaks down a bit. It is as if the prior paradigm in endowed with so much power that even asking questions becomes problematic.

Somehow this reminds me of a book we read for a book group when I lived in Portland. My wife's geologic interests prompted the study. The book was Cataclysm on the Columbia and gave the history of how Harlen Bretz argued that there had been a major flood throughout the northwest due to the breach of an ice dam in Montana. He was ridiculed in the day because he wasn't establishment and didn't reflect the uniformitarianism that dominated geology at the time. It was some 20 years later when other geologists using aerial photography saw "ripple marks" in what they thought were geologic formations. Over the long haul, Bretz is vindicated but suffers ostracism throughout. It's a great study in the sociology of science.

That's the kind of thing that's in the back of my head when I connect the paradigm shifts to evangelical thought. Somewhere down the road, we'll find a coherent explanation that supports a new paradigm without abandoning foundational principles.


October 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hawthorne

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>