This week, as we continue in our series, Answers to Tough Questions, we took on a debate that has been going on for a long time. It may not burn today as brightly as it once did, but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Instead, it has become the background assumption of many of the people around us. This debate is the clash between faith and science. Read on to find out how we can engage in this debate as followers of Jesus.
Your World Is Too Small
How do you know that you know something? Have you ever thought about that? Unless you’ve taken a philosophy class, you probably haven’t. But, the answer to that question is a lot more important than you might think. For example, I have a stool up here on stage with me. I bought this at Walmart. How many people in here have sat on this stool before? I know there are a few, but most of you have not. Given that, how many of you who have not sat on it before would be willing to sit on it if I asked you to do so? If you said yes to that, beyond simply fulfilling my request, why would you sit on it? Probably because you believe you will be able to sit on it. But why? Why do you believe that? Or, to put that another way, how do you know you’ll be able to sit on it? How do you know it will not collapse underneath you? Pushing this one step further, how do you know you know that? This same kind of line of questioning could be used relating to anything else you do. How do you know the food you eat won’t poison you? How do you know your car will make it to work? How do you know the store clerk will give you your change? How do you know your family members love you? How do you know that you know the things you know? This may all seem silly, but the answer to this question really does matter. I’ll tell you why in just a bit.
This morning we are in the third part of our new teaching series, Answers to Tough Questions. All this past month and leading up to the grand celebration of Easter here in a couple of weeks, we are wading into the midst of big cultural debates and taking a look at them through the lens of the Christian worldview. We’ve covered a couple of big ones so far and have developed a couple of critical principles that should serve as guides when the topics are set before us. The first principle was this: The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it. The second was this: God loves immigrants, and so should we.
This morning I want to quickly take a look at another big cultural debate, but this one is a bit different from the first two. This one doesn’t usually rage as hot as the first two we talked about do. It used to burn a little more brightly, but today it tends to simmer in the background. Far from being something encouraging, though, the reason for the background simmer is that most folks have already made up their minds on the matter and this is not necessarily in a good direction. The debate is usually framed as pitting science versus religion, but what it is really about is whether and how we can know the things we know.
Here’s how it typically goes today: Religion was once the only way people believed they could know anything. Then, some courageous scientists rose up to challenge the church’s stranglehold on everything and presented the world with a new way of knowing. This new way of knowing didn’t depend on mere authority or the words of an ancient document that may or may not be trustworthy. Instead, it depended on real evidence and verifiable facts. Today, we understand (that is, we know) that real knowledge is based on facts established by science. Religion still has a place in our world, but only as long as we recognize it is all nothing more than a matter of opinions and personal values. After all, you can’t prove the existence of God in a lab.
In response to this, many Christians will pull out an argument that begins, “Well the Bible says…” But such an approach immediately falls flat on the ears of our ideological opponents because in their minds, the Bible is little more than a book of beliefs, not facts, and therefore we can’t really know it’s true.
So, what do we do with this? We start by coming back to my stool. Remember my stool? The one you were going to sit on? Why were you going to sit on it? A few reasons perhaps. First—and, dare I say, foremost?—I just look like a trustworthy guy who wouldn’t dream of pranking you with a collapsible stool. That was totally first on your list, right? Maybe. But what was probably pretty high on your list was that you’ve sat on stools before. Perhaps you’ve sat on stools identical to this one before. You’ve seen other people sit on stools. You have a general belief from your own experience as well as the experiences of others that stools like this are trustworthy for sitting.
Here’s where things get tricky, though. The primary ideological opponent to the Christian worldview in the infamous science and faith debate is a view called scientism. It is more formally called methodological naturalism, but we won’t worry about that this morning. The major claim of scientism is that the only way a person can know anything is by way of the scientific method. That word “only” is important. Proponents of this idea—including notable figures like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse-Tyson—often look down on the disciplines of philosophy and theology as being unable to give us any real knowledge. Science—as they define it—is the only way we can really know that we know something.
Come back to my stool again. If I had asked a few minutes ago, how many of you would have been willing to say that you knew you could come up here and sit on this stool? Well, according to the tenets of scientism, you did not in fact actually know that, you merely believed it. Your ability to sit on it was not an established fact, but rather merely a testable hypothesis—something you believed, but without sufficient justification to call it knowledge. Indeed, anything that can’t be tested via the mechanisms of science resides always and only in the realm of mere belief or opinion. And, of course, opinions aren’t facts. They are personal preferences that cannot be objectively right in any meaningful sense. Because opinions are definitionally not supported by facts, for example, we cannot, as followers of Jesus, accurately claim that our beliefs are more correct than those of anyone else.
If this kind of talk is making you uncomfortable at all, understand well that this is what we are up against in our culture. This kind of thinking is assumed by most people who do not profess to follow Jesus and even some people who do. And it sounds good, doesn’t it? We should build our lives around facts—things we can know to be true—and not mere beliefs and opinions. If we want to hold to one set of beliefs or another because they work for us that’s fine, but let’s not go pretending those beliefs are rooted in anything solid enough to call knowledge.
Here’s the problem, and then I’m going to take us to the Scriptures, and we’re going to get out of here. The problem is this: How does someone know that what they know about the claims of scientism are true? That is, how do we know we can only know things scientifically? Can we test this knowledge in a lab? We can’t, can we? The people who hold to this view do so because of a prior philosophical commitment; a prior philosophical commitment that itself may not be true, but we can’t know that because we can’t test it by the methods of science. In other words, the foundational claim of this worldview is self-defeating rendering the entire thing false. Are you with me? Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear from modern beliefs about the nature of science and knowledge because we understand that the whole thing is a house of cards. It’s no wonder that a culture that sunk so much capital into this view for so long is bordering on a crisis of despair in which we fear we can’t know anything at all. This is also why this debate isn’t what it once was even though it certainly still exists in the hearts and minds of many folks.
So…what do we do about all of this? We come back to my stool one more time. Why were you so confident that if you sat on this particular stool it would hold you? Even if we allow for the sake of argument that this was merely a testable hypothesis and not actual knowledge, why were you so confident in it? Why did you feel like you knew it? Because you’ve sat on other stools before. Because you trust me. Because you know there are things called chairs which are designed to hold people and this fits in the category of a chair. All of this and you never tested this particular stool. You were confident because you had experience, intuition, and authority all working in your favor. Here’s the thing: There are more ways to know than what merely the mechanisms of science can give us. Or perhaps to put that more memorably: If science is all you know, your world is too small.
What we know as followers of Jesus is that the world is entirely larger than mere science—as important a God-given tool for understanding His world as it is—can adequately describe. We know this because we trust—that’s knowledge rooted in authority—the God who revealed it to us in His word. Let me introduce you to a bit of that word that reveals to us the grandeur of the God who created it.
Look with me for a minute at Psalm 19. Here, King David reflects for a bit on the knowledge of God and how we can have it. Listen to this: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate—”what?—“knowledge.” That’s not laboratory knowledge, but it’s knowledge all the same. He keeps going: “There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard.” In other words, you can’t necessarily test this knowledge with your senses. Creation doesn’t speak audibly. All the same, “their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” That is, everybody can know it. The whole of creation reveals God in such a way that all the world can engage with Him. No one need miss it. Or, as Paul would later write in Romans 1:19: “…since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made.”
Then, David gives an example of how creation reveals God to us—that is, how we can know God through creation. Keep reading with me in v. 4: “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming from his home; it rejoices like an athlete running a course. It rises from one end of the heavens and circles to the other end; nothing is hidden from its heat.” Now, we can look at this with the chronological snobbery of which we are so often guilty and patronizingly note how utterly simple and non-scientific David’s description of the sun is. Today we can talk about gravitational forces and the rotation of the earth and the curvature of space and time. We know how this all works. But, just because we know it, doesn’t mean we understand it. We know what all of these astronomical constants have to be for the universe to work like it does such that we can live in it, but we don’t know how they came to be. When we understand it properly as David lays out for us in terms he could understand, we come to know that there is a God who is amazing behind it all. When we know that, we have a better sense of just how big the world really is. Indeed, if science is all you know, your world is too small.
This isn’t just knowledge to be held, though. That’s where David goes next. When we come to know this amazing God through creation, we should naturally desire to know Him more. Fortunately, His revelation of Himself to us doesn’t stop with creation. Look at what comes next in v. 7 now: “The instruction of the Lord is perfect, renewing one’s life; the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. The precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad; the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are reliable and altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb. In addition, your servant is warned by them, and in keeping them there is an abundant reward.” You see? Knowing God isn’t just about facts, it’s about a transformed life that is better than life without Him is. If science is all you know, your world is too small.
So, what do we do with this? How does this help us in the debate between faith and science? It helps in two ways. One is for you. One is for the people around you. For you, you can have confidence that you really can know God. You can know with confidence that He exists. You can know with confidence that the Scriptures are right and true in what they affirm. You can know with confidence that the life of Christ is worth pursuing. You don’t have to be afraid of the challenges of people who have bought into scientism when they smugly imply you’re stupid for believing in God. Instead, you can love them, and gently help them see that the world is bigger than the one they’ve limited themselves to inhabiting if science is all they can really know. If science if all you know, your world is too small.
For the people around you, on the other hand, where they have bought into the nonsensical claims of modern science establishment, there is a good chance they have or will experience a crisis of confidence in their lives. This isn’t necessarily obvious from the outside looking in, but where you see people jumping quickly on board with every new religious or spiritual fad, you are seeing people who are scrounging around for something to believe in. We were created to believe in something. We were created to believe in something, and we have an inherent sense (that is, we know) the world is bigger than a laboratory can reveal to us. We need something that will give substance to our lives and enable us to experience the big-ness of the world as we were designed to do. There’s a reason that many who have bought into scientism speak about science in almost religious language. You can help these folks see—perhaps with the help of Psalm 19—that the world is bigger than they think; that if science is all they know, their world is too small. Then, you can invite them into the expansive world of the kingdom of God. Invite them in because that’s ultimately what God designed the world to do: To invite us to know Him more and to be transformed by that knowledge. When faith and science work together as they were designed to do, we will be. No debate necessary.