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The Un-scientific method

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

The object of study determines the method of study. You don’t study molecules with telescopes or galaxies with microscopes. Likewise, you shouldn’t study astronomy with a bible or God with the scientific method. Different realities demand different approaches.

This basic fact is what finally took me out of the faith and science debate that was in full bloom during my years at Princeton Seminary in the early 90s. It gradually dawned on me that all the hullabaloo about the conflict between faith and science was unnecessary because the conflict didn’t actually exist. Sure, there were scientists intent on making theological statements and theologians defaulting to scientific conclusions, but short of this malpractice on both sides, the debate simply wasn’t there. We were talking about different things.

Science is particularly good at answering the questions What? and How? Theology is much better at answering Who? and Why? The trouble was when the questions were asked in the wrong venues and by the wrong people; when interlocutors on either side crossed the aisle, so to speak. I didn’t want a scientist telling me just how much I could know about God, if I could know anything at all (since he probably didn’t exist) any more than I wanted a theologian telling me precisely how old the earth was or why I shouldn’t trust wacky environmentalists. Both sides were working above their pay-grade.

As it turns out, scientists make terrible theologians, and vice-versa. The joke around the seminary was that when a scientist tries to become a theologian, he actually becomes a theologican (see the difference?) But God’s logic and scientific logic are not the same. God’s logic is precisely that: theo-logic. As my mentor at Princeton Seminary, Jim Loder, used to always say, “The Spirit has a logic all its own.” Scientists either don’t seem to get that or don’t want to accept it. Either way, it’s bad faith on their part. Theologians generally don’t begrudge scientists their particular method, even if that method leads to wildly opposing “facts” from year to year (how many more times am I going to have to switch my views on whether or not caffeine, or red wine, or carbs are good or bad for my health?).

I don’t go to science to tell me what love means. If I did, I would be sorely disappointed. But neither do I turn to Scripture to tell me how to handle global warming. I try to keep things properly discriminated, and then I trust the experts in those fields to give me reliable information. I don’t want my doctor working under the hood of my car, just like I don’t want my mechanic performing surgery on my heart. Why on earth, then, would I want to hear about God from a committed naturalist scientist, or about climate change from a televangelist? There are different kinds of truths that demand different kinds of methods.

Stick to your day jobs, people, and leave it to the experts to guide us in their respective fields of inquiry. I’m fine with that. Totally fine.

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