Religion v. Science (reprise)

–Daniel S. Ferguson

It annoys me that this conflict still exists. One would think that after millennia of strife, religion and science would simply be tired of the fighting. But, alas, the battle is not yet over.

I had hope for a ceasefire when Christians embraced Intelligent Design. I know the science community hated it, but it was a huge concession from the church. It created a roomy middle ground in which science and religion could coexist on an issue they had been fighting over for centuries, even millennia.

Sure, there was the odd nutjob Congressman who wanted to put Intelligent Design in schools in the same breath that he wanted to take condoms out of them. But even most Christians dismissed that as the noise it was and simply moved on. And for the first time in American history, the scientific method was taught in every public school across the country, completely devoid of the supernatural.

That was an enormous victory for science and, well, everybody.

For me, the most important victory that happened wasn’t in the classroom, though. It was in the church. Finally–finally–we had to have honest conversations about what was actually in the Bible and what it meant. We had to tear apart the connection between two words: Fact and Truth.

Big lesson for Christianity: Fact and Truth are not synonyms.

Yes, Fact informs Truth, and yes, Truth informs Fact. The two are certainly related, but they are not the same. The struggle the church had with science for eons was really a struggle over those two words. The church thought that science was attacking Truth, when really science was ascertaining Fact.

And for the first time, the church was forced to ask itself what was Truth in the Bible and what was Fact in the Bible. That was a crucial journey for us.

But really, we knew that all along. It’s absurd to take the Bible as literally factual in every instance. The text simply doesn’t allow for it. (God is not actually a literal rock, for example.) Yes, a lot of sections are histories, and we should treat those as facts. But by and large, the Bible is not a Fact document. The Bible is a Truth document.

You can believe that the Bible is absolute Truth. But you cannot believe it is absolute Fact. The Bible doesn’t allow for that.

That doesn’t mean that the events in the Bible didn’t happen. It just means that many of the authors were often more interested in telling the Truth about something than the Fact about something.

An example.

Take the story where Jesus curses a fig tree and causes it to wither. You’ll find it in both Matthew 21 and Mark 11. In Matthew’s version, Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers immediately, right in front of them. In Mark’s version, Jesus curses the fig tree, everyone leaves, and they discover it withered the next morning.

That may seem small, but it’s an important distinction. These two stories cannot both be factual. At least one of them has to be factually incorrect. Even the ardent Christian who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture has to admit this. “Immediately” and “the next morning” are distinct differences. They can’t both have happened that way. They can’t both be Fact.

But they can both be True. Here’s how.

Matthew’s version of the story emphasizes the power of faith through Jesus’ demonstration with the fig tree. That story is all about the fig tree and faith. The Truth in this passage is that faith is paramount. (#punintended #sorrynotsorry)

But Mark’s version splits the story in half and puts another story in the middle: Jesus clearing the temple. Mark does this a lot, actually (the nerdy term for it is “Markan Literary Chiasm“). Every time Mark does this (it’s at least seven times in Mark’s short Gospel), he’s connecting two stories thematically that are otherwise separate. In this case, Mark is connecting the fig tree’s failure to bear fruit with the current religious system’s failure to connect people to God. They are both “without fruit.” The Truth in this passage is that God creates religion in order to connect people to Him, and He can and will wither away institutions that hinder that, even ones He creates.

Those are distinctly different Truths that are illuminated by distinctly different Facts. At least one of these two Gospel authors (Mark, in my opinion) is sacrificing Fact for the sake of Truth. The Fact sacrifice in this case is rather small, but the Truth gain was rather large.

Don’t just ask what the Bible says. Ask what the Bible is TRYING to say.

If that’s the case in one part of the Bible, it’s the case for the rest of it, too. You have to ask yourself if the authors are attempting to tell Truths or Facts or both. It’s ludicrous to believe that Moses was trying to enter into a Fact argument when he wrote the creation account in Genesis. Rather, Moses was entering into a Truth argument.

The point of the story isn’t about the literal six-day process of creating world. It’s about the size, scope, grandeur, and power of God. When Genesis 1 says that God created the sun on the fourth day, it’s not because it happened that way in reality. It’s not trying to make a Fact statement. The sun is on the fourth day because Moses was traveling with people who had lived in a sun-worshipping culture for generations (in the form of Ra and later Amun-ra). The sun is on the fourth day intentionally to demote it below the grandeur and holiness of the true God. Genesis is trying to make a Truth statement.

Where the church has gotten it so wrong for so long is not understanding this distinction. When science told us things about the universe that conflict with the accounts in our holy text, we thought that was an affront to Truth, and we attacked it like a competitor.

We lost a lot of people because of this senseless competition. We asked them to willfully ignore Fact because we thought it competed with Truth. It doesn’t. We don’t have to be in competition at all, actually.

Religion sells Truth. Science sells Fact.

The only reason Coca-Cola and Pepsi are competitors is that they sell the same product: soda. But Coca-Cola doesn’t compete with Mazda because Mazda sells cars.

The same thing can be the case with Religion and Science. Christians shouldn’t try to sell Fact anymore than scientists should try to sell Truth. It’s not that the two are irrelevant to each other; it’s that they aren’t the same product.

Christians have been notorious about stepping on science’s space for a long time, but it goes both ways. There are times when science tries to sell Truth instead of Fact. Case in point, take a look at these shirts:

Neil deGrasse Tyson T-Shirt - The Good Thing About Science T-ShirtThe Universe is Under No Obligation To Make Sense To You Tee

What’s so amazing about these shirts is that those are almost the exact same things Christians have been saying about God for as long as I remember. We’ve said things like “The Bible is true whether you believe in it or not,” and “God works in mysterious ways.” And science chided us for it.

But here we have arguably the most well-known American scientist of the decade making almost identical statements about science, as if it’s a religion. He’s making Truth statements under the premise of Fact, in much the same way that churches made Fact statements under the premise of Truth.

They’re not the same thing.

I would love a world where science and religion peacefully coexist and even collaborate. But we won’t get that until we accept that we’re selling different products and aren’t actually competitors.


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