Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is Ours a "Galileo" Moment?: Re-posturing the Faith/Science Dialogue

In September's Christianity Today magazine I published a short article entitled, "What Galileo's Telescope Can't See" (now available online) which also gets at some of the core themes that concern us at The Colossian Forum on Faith, Science, and Culture.

The article pushes back on a tendency to immediately equate contemporary discussions at the intersection of Christian faith and science as "Galilean" moments--demanding that our reading of Scripture be revised in light of new scientific evidence.  While responsible theological interpretation certainly requires that we attend to "the book of nature," in the article I suggest that this analogy with Galileo is often hasty and unhelpful.

Here's an opening snippet:

Analogies have persuasive power, a suggestive force that operates on an almost unconscious level. To say that A is "like" B is to suggest that everything we associate with A should also be associated with B—whether good, bad, or ugly. 
So, for example, if I describe American soldiers as "crusaders," I have just painted them with an analogical brush that colors them as religiously motivated warriors guilty of the worst bigotries of the West. The analogy is loaded with a moral depiction that exceeds what's actually said. So all the disdain we have towards our (usually caricatured) understanding of the Crusades is now overlaid on our perception of military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. 
Conversely, if I describe the proponents of my cause as "prophets" or "martyrs," I have loaded the perceptual deck with images of heroism and purity. Just by the analogy, we get to don our white hats and claim the moral high ground. Or if we describe our regime as "Camelot," we associate ourselves with romance and royal privilege. Never underestimate the power of an analogy. And never simply accept it. 
There is a particular analogy often invoked in current discussions about the relationship between Christian faith and science. Ours, we are told, is a "Galilean" moment: a critical time in history when new findings in the natural sciences threaten to topple fundamental Christian beliefs, just as Galileo's proposed heliocentrism rocked the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. This parallel is usually invoked in the context of genetic, evolutionary, and archaeological evidence about human origins that challenges traditional Christian understandings. 
Historical analogies like this are often particularly loaded because our age is characterized by chronological snobbery and a self-congratulatory sense of our maturity and progress. Since we now tend to look at the church's response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this "Galilean" framing of contemporary discussions does two things—before any "evidence" is ever put on the table.

Read the rest of "What Galileo's Telescope Can't See."