Redeeming Expertise: Scientific trust and the future of the church
(Satchel talking with Bucky, recovering after falling from a window): “Don’t believe in the laws of gravity, eh?”
“I’m fine with the laws. It’s the harsh minimum sentencing guidelines I’m having an issue with.” Get Fuzzy (11/27/23)
T.H. Huxley’s talk, “On the Advisableness of Advancing Natural Knowledge” (1866), began its conclusion with a moving peroration on how his contemporaries and a Homeric Greek herdsman spontaneously experience the beauties of the landscape and by implication, the natural order. But from that brief gladness there follows a certain sorrow,—the little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and unknowable; seems so insufficient to do more than illuminate the imperfections that cannot be remedied, the aspirations that cannot be realized, of man’s own nature. But in this sadness, this consciousness of the limitation of man, this sense of an open secret which he cannot penetrate, lies the essence of all religion; and the attempt to embody it in the forms furnished by the intellect is the origin of the higher theologies.
Josh Reeves’ (PhD, Boston College, Director of the Samford University Center for Science and Religion) deeply gratifying book carefully argues and defends such humility before the complexity, power, mysteries and yes the sublime satisfactions, of the natural world. A poet once wrote, “The poetry doesn’t happen on the page; the poetry happens when we look up from the page.” Reeves too hopes we turn the last page, and look up—after having thoughtfully looked up several times earlier—in reflection on “the higher theologies” of serving God Incarnate in Christ. After all, Reeves reminds us, all this astonishing diversity, complexity and power, came about in and through that very Cosmic Christ. No higher Christian theology can be imagined.
The average person might ask, “When did we start doubting the authority of scientists?” Our world of smart phones and refrigerators, of Mars-based helicopters, of Dolly the cloned sheep and stem cell treatment of cancer, who would doubt the authority of that science? But among evangelicals and increasing numbers of Americans, it turns out, quite a few. Reeves lays this out early on; he offers some historical context for contemporary American evangelicalism in its democratic matrix. Americans are populists. They have adopted, cultivated, and handed on a late-Protestant version of theology and biblical understanding resting on personal experience. Like-minded pastors and charismatic leaders have assured them of their common-sense, their basic knowledge of right and wrong, against the snobby authoritarian, moral relativist elites from Hollywood to Washington DC, or in Reeves’ story, from the secular universities.
This important book, which should be read by every pastor and Christian academic—every one of them—is not only about the at-risk authority of science in the evangelical church, but just as much about the crisis of authority in contemporary American life. I am deeply concerned about the church’s clinging to its outdated (and I would say heretical if not blasphemous) claims to political, cultural, and moral authority in American life. It’s not merely that once upon a time, natural philosophers—scientists to us—were Christians, or that their theological convictions encouraged their work. Natural philosophers considered their research to be essential to restoring the reputation and credibility of the Christian faith so tarnished by the post-Reformation confessional conflicts and religious wars. Sir Francis Bacon recommended natural science as a providential means to help restore humanity to the Garden, and inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven. By 1700 a new version of natural theology, called physico-theology, seemed to promise the most robust apologetics yet for trust in an all wise, all powerful, and benevolent providence of God. We’ve traveled, alas, far from those days.
Reeves proceeds carefully, beginning with the evidence behind the phenomenon of Christian mistrust of science. Followed by a brief history of Christian expressions of suspicion of experts, Reeves considers how in fact it is reasonable for Christians to trust naturalistic explanations, especially those generated by modern “secular” scientific protocols and inside secular institutions. Christians reasonably ask, “What of the role of the Holy Spirit in discerning truth?” This is the subject of ch. 4. From here, in the book’s second half, Reeves turns to the various dimensions of institutions and the modern academy, taking on American intellectual individualism (ch.5), admonishing Christians to adopt modest and informed skeptical habits (ch.6), depicting how modern science is similar and different from other kinds of expertise (ch.7), and discussing how science typically makes modest claims about limited, carefully sifted evidence (ch.8). In other words, some of the most important parts of our lives, in which we seek and ascribe meaning and purpose, remain outside the boundaries of scientific research and argument. This is Reeves try to reassure the evangelical fearful of scientific mission creep.
Reeves directs his charges, carefully and even gently, primarily to evangelical pastors and laity who appear to speak for much of the science skepticism he confronts. A few times, and in his notes, he takes on Christian academics who have participated in this. From a different angle I’ve written on the pervasive anti-Enlightenment orthodoxy that seems to define evangelical and American Christian scholarship generally. Much of it serves as a placeholder for resisting secularization or aggressive atheism. But anti-Enlightenment sentiment appears in the eighteenth-century itself, full-blown during the French Revolution and marshalled against the apparent atheism, materialist metaphysics, moral relativism, and resulting corrosive effects on tradition and social order associated with events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 Stone Lectures pinpointed the modern, secular anti-Christian “worldview” in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
In my own reading, evangelicals turned to Christian worldviewism largely inspired by the Baptist theologian and doyen of Christian higher education Carl F.H. Henry, a pseudo-philosophical/theological resistance to secularism in American culture. I can’t help wondering if part of the explanation for science skepticism Reeves so carefully analyses and challenges, is rooted bone-deep in this Christian educational operating system. The survival if not thriving of C.S. Lewis among evangelicals generally and scholars in particular, seems a symptom of this. Lewis can inspire a certain Christian view of science/rationality, but a science before the neo-Darwinian revolution, before the quantum revolution, before the neuroscience revolution. Lewis’ Christian romanticist outlook suggests a late Victorian humanist suspicion of modernity, science, especially technique. Industrialized “satanic mills” across our green lands, two catastrophic world wars, fascism, genocide, the atomic bomb, only ratified their fears. The enduring evangelical reliance on Lewis, as a guide to the complexities of what C.P. Snow long ago reduced to “the two cultures” of science and the humanities suggests, to me, that Reeves is right about Christian tendencies to choose their own experts. Reeves’ appeal to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (59) lead me to wonder if a clear distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” would help clarify Reeve’s concerns about scientism as an ideology (on this I would recommend my colleague Don Wacome’s The Material Image: Reconciling Modern Science and the Christian Faith, 2020). Reading pp. 69-70, I wonder if should we read Paul and his likely debt to ancient natural philosophy, similarly to how we now read Genesis 1&2, indebted to ancient near eastern creation stories and metaphysics. Do evangelical systematic theologians, recently appealing to ancient philosophy as the metaphysical foundation for proper theology, indirectly support Christian science skepticism?
At times I wondered if Reeves is too kind to his opponents. For example (80-1), what comes across as low church Protestant evangelical theology may be just as likely a disguised version of American political and cultural ideology. Perhaps it’s a mugg’s game to try separating out theology from ideology. Perhaps this isn’t an important distinction. What’s more important, as Reeves suggests, in not so much the claim to reliance on the Holy Spirit, as remaining unreflective about one’s own bias and context.
The entire book deserves close attention. If you force me, for want of time, to recommend the brief version, chs 9 and 10 represent the kind of honesty and penetration sorely lacking, to me, in many American Christian academics. By the book’s conclusion Reeves addresses members of our own Christian guild, firmly but with hope and generosity. The Christian college is in a state of crisis, no less because of enrollment and hot button issues, than it is in the abdication of our liberal arts mission to represent to our fellow Christians and churches what honest, joyful, risk-taking and even loving scholarship looks like. We love when we should chastise; we pontificate when we should listen; we wave our virtue flags when we should embrace.
As I suggested, Reeves’ book is relevant to every reader I can imagine, partly because with a little imagination you can move from science to our public debates generally. In our current situation, learning to test all claims by “organized skepticism” (165, 168-9, 170) reminds me of how hard it is, how necessary and fruitful, to attempt reconciling the goals of the humanities, Reeves’ skepticism, to love described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. How do I push my opponent, permit her to push me, as hard as the discipline demands, in the loving way that recalls the risky business of the Kingdom of God? Learning requires an optimal level of confusion—too little, it’s a waste of time; too much, and frustration diminishes the returns. Modern science is the most powerful system of truth telling humans have created. Yet for that very reason, Reeves warns, we must resist the desire to pit its hammer against every interesting topic. Not unlike Huxley’s suggestion, though with a very different audience in mind, Reeves pleads with us to embrace in humility and gratitude our capacity for incomprehension, for failure and overreach, to maintain a space for the higher theologies clothed in mystery.