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by Frederick W. Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of
 A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Black and white photo of Dr. Walter Edmonson taking a blood test patient holding a syringe with onlookers watching outside with trees in the background.
Unidentified subject, onlookers and Dr. Walter Edmondson taking a blood test patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Atlanta, GA

In an article here, dated June 3, 2019, Sarah Olson outlined her reasons for believing that science and faith live in conflict and, more specifically, that faith has good reason to fear science.  In a subsequent article I outlined why I believe that conflict is unnecessary and, I might have said, even imaginary, based upon the history of their interaction.  Now, in a further article Ms. Olson has outlined her response.

It is always difficult to know when to call a halt to such exchanges and I certainly don’t want to play a game of “I want the last word.”  On the other hand, the shortcoming of many academic discussions is that there is little or no sustained discussion. In the name of having that conversation, I have decided to tender a further response — not with an eye to having the last word — but in an effort to explore at greater depth the differences between my position and Ms. Olson’s.  For that reason, I also want to register at the outset my respect for her willingness to respond. The strength of the academy’s work depends upon such energy and commitment. What I would like to do here is outline what I believe are the assumptions that unpin Ms. Olson’s article and where we differ. For those who are interested in the conversation and the issues, the links to her articles and mine will provide a fuller context.  With that in mind, here are the places where I believe we differ:

One, at the outset, Olson argues that I believe new atheists and fundamentalists are engaged in a conspiracy and that as a theologian, I need or might prefer to believe that religion and science can cooperate for the sake of professional or institutional self-preservation.

Olson’s first assumption requires both a clarification on my part and a bit of further explanation.  First, I do not believe that atheists and fundamentalists are engaged in a conspiracy. I have been made allergic to conspiracy theories by both reading history, as well as by the sheer ubiquity and fanciful character of such theories.  What I do believe is that both groups have been engaged in debates with one another that has made the claim that there is a religion-science war attractive to each of them for slightly different reasons.  

I also believe that the debate between fundamentalists and atheists have led them make the wrong kind of truth claims for both fundamentalism and science.  Some of the most telling evidence of this distortion is that the debate between atheists and fundamentalists has led both groups to project the religion-science war on a history that pre-dates both science and fundamentalism.  Science did not exist as such before the nineteenth century, though its methods were rapidly developing, and fundamentalism is an American product of the early twentieth century.

Science and religion were not at war before the early twentieth century because science was in its infancy and fundamentalist Christianity was still largely in control.  They were not at war because Christianity was not fundamentalist, Christians were often (and still are) at the forefront of science, and science had not yet been co-opted by atheists as a metaphysic, rather than as a method.  It should also be noted that religion and science are still not at war among the vast majority of scientists and Christians.  

That is because, contrary to the second assumption that Olson seems to make, Christianity is not fundamentalism looking for a way to keep the truths of science at bay.

Perhaps this is easier to see when one is not reacting to fundamentalism.  I cannot be sure, never having been a fundamentalist. But it strikes me as perfectly reasonable that it would be difficult to imagine.  The architecture of faith in fundamentalism rests solidly on literalist readings of Scripture, on the doctrine of inerrancy, and the assumption that all truth is factual truth.  Years ago, when I taught biblical studies in an institution that was becoming increasingly captive to fundamentalist influences, I discovered this first hand.  

Fundamentalism does not teach its adherents to believe in God. Instead, it teaches its adherents to believe that the Bible should be read literally, that it is without error, and that all truth – including the truth in the Bible – is factual in nature.  Belief in those assertions justifies faith in God, and – if those assertions are compromised – faith in God becomes impossible.  

The vast – and by vast, I mean overwhelming number of Christians in the world — do not think this way.  Faith arises not out of assent to fundamentalism’s propositions, but out of an encounter with the Resurrected Christ.  Scripture is not the only authority for the Christian faith. It occupies a unique, but not a solitary position. It is God-breathed in that it inspires the church and illuminates our understanding of God’s work in the world, but that work is evident in other places as well, including the created order. 

Third: The vast majority of Christians do not believe that for Scripture to be true it needs to be factual, but contra the assumption that Olson makes, not all truth is factual in the first place.

To be sure, the Christian faith rests upon certain claims that might be described as facts.  The most important of those is the Resurrection. But much of what Christians claim to be true and much of what all human beings believe to be true are not facts, as such.  Here, I am afraid Olson is captive to materialism and the far too simple assumption that everything that is “true” is a “fact” – as if (so the word suggests) there is what really happened and then there are interpretations of what happened.  So, she argues, Christians would be minimally better off if they read their Bibles for inspiration, rather than claim that they contain truth.

This ignores the fact (!) that most data and events are meaningless without interpretation, and it also fails to recognize that not all truths are facts.  Fundamentalists may not realize this or acknowledge it, but that is not a failure that can be laid at the doorstep of Christianity. Christians have long recognized that understanding the significance of events requires interpretation; that those outside the church have not always agreed with the church’s interpretation; and, that not all truths need to be facts in order to be true.  

This last point is particularly important with regard to creation narratives.  Fundamentalists may need to believe in a seven-day creation and an historical Adam and Eve, but from the very beginning, most Christians did not interpret Genesis in that fashion, and those who did not rank among the leading voices of the early church.

Fourth and finally, I should return to the purposes of religion and science.  Olson’s original claim, which she modifies slightly, sees Christianity and religion in conflict with one another because – she assumes – they occupy the same place: i.e., they both offer detailed accounts of the origins of the universe.

I doubt that I will convince her otherwise, but I will say it again, they do not.  Christianity asserts that God is the creator of the universe. But it does not offer an account of how that creation took place.  That should not be surprising. The biblical text was written in a prescientific world, and in any event, the writer of Genesis was not interested in the question of creation as an abstract consideration.  As I have said elsewhere, the first chapter of Genesis is a statement of faith in one God over against many. Fundamentalism has projected an alien concern onto the text and lifted it to the level of dogmatic necessity.  That is a grave error, but it is hardly grounds for rewriting the history of Christianity, biblical interpretation, or the relationship between science and Christianity.

That said, science is incapable of explaining why there is anything at all and – as I noted in the my first article on the subject – it was not the interest of science as originally conceived.  It is a descriptive, not an explanatory tool, and it is devoted to describing the physical order, not anything that predates it. Contrary to what Olson implies in her article, it is also not an antidote to immoral activity.  Fundamentalist Christians may have done great harm in the name of their faith, but scientists have had their failings as well, be it the experiments conducted in concentration camps or, in this country, in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  

I realize that Olson explicitly owns scientism as her faith.  But while science provides a useful account of the material universe, it cannot explain why the material universe exists at all.  If I shared her convictions about Christianity and religion in general, then I would advocate for science, not scientism, and I would declare myself an agnostic on the questions of God and the ultimate origins of the material universe.  That is, I believe, a far more defensible position, but perhaps Augustine was right and we all need to worship something.