Science, Faith and the Quest for Truth
At his trial, when Jesus was interrogated by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he replied, “For this reason I was born and for this purpose I came into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). Pilate famously retorted, “What is truth?”
This astonishing claim, which led to Christ’s death by crucifixion, put truth at centre stage. Jesus had previously promised his followers, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Then shortly before his trial, he made the colossal claim, “I am the truth” (John 14:6).
It follows from this that authentic Christians must have a primary commitment to whatever is true. Truth is at the centre. We may be misled by lies and deceptions, but we are never going to be ‘caught out’ by the truth. It is always on our side. We can relax in it and we are called to follow it wherever it leads.
At the deepest level of our personalities, we are called to be transparently honest. Not only are we committed to consistently speak the truth and be known as people whose word is their bond (Matthew 5:37), but we need to question our motivations and desires to make sure, as best we can, that we are being honest with ourselves, honest to others and honest before God. When we identify our failings, we must bring them humbly before Christ and put matters right. Christian discipleship has a great deal to do with personal integrity, and truth is to be practised in all our relationships and in the deepest corners of our being.
Unlike the animals, human beings are deeply inquisitive in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding (Psalm 32:9). We wrestle with ideas and concepts, which stretch our minds to the limit. We frequently misunderstand things. At best, as Paul put it, “we see through a mirror dimly” but we hold on to the promise of God that what one day we shall fully understand, as God fully understands us (1Corinthians 13:12).
The pursuit of truth requires that we openly face up to our doubts. There is nothing to be gained by fooling ourselves. Neither must we acquiesce in our doubts. They should spur us on to deeper enquiry and an honest appreciation of the limits of our understanding. When evidence surprises us and challenges our assumptions, we must neither suppress it nor run away from it. Rather, we must follow where the evidence leads, testing it all the time as we seek to understand the deeper truths that lies behind the evidence.
Science is part of the great endeavour of humanity to understand the world we live in. It is not the only field of knowledge and is itself dependent on history. The discoveries of yesterday, the achievements of the past, are the shoulders we stand on to extend our reach. Science is descriptive. It tells us what the world is like and in understanding the world, we shall see our place in it and our potential to be of benefit to others. Science is a very sophisticated way of loving our neighbours.
Outside of mathematics and strictly logical deductions (such as: if A=B and B=C, then A=C), all truth is provisional. We cannot finally prove matters in science – or in theology. We can weigh and consider the evidence and work out where the probabilities lie. We move forward in faith, albeit tentatively yet growing in confidence, as we trust in our evaluation of the weight of the evidence. In science we have to trust in the accuracy and integrity of previous scientific writers and researchers. In Christian faith, we have to trust the apostolic writers for the testimony they have left us about Christ. Neither of these trusts should be undertaken casually and without careful evaluation. We put our trust in God having first trusted them.
In all areas of truth, we need to be persuaded. What we initially approach with a proper scepticism may become increasingly compelling. Eventually we reach a tipping point, where the evidence supporting a given proposition weighs more heavily than the evidence against it, and thereby ultimately wins our trust.
Limits of Science
Science helps us describe the way the world is, but it cannot answer the deeper questions about its meaning. Why does the universe exist? What brought it into being out of nothing? How come that the ‘laws’ of physics were set at the very first moments of time, yet were so finely tuned for human existence to develop some 13 billion years later? We can only gasp in amazement.
The world has managed for a very long time without us and we won’t be here for long. We are not stopping. So where do we fit in? What are we here for and how should we spend our days? Such understanding and the values by which we should live, take us into other fields of knowledge – metaphysics and philosophy, religion and theology, morality and ethics, and into the very particular details of history, which ushered in the kingly rule of God.
So we in turn find it is our calling to follow the truth and serve our generation in every area of our lives by bearing witness to it.
Dr Peter May