Monday, June 25, 2012

Are Science and Scripture Compatible?

I'm blogging from the campus of Notre Dame, where I am taking a course in Christian Doctrine from Dr. John Cavadini. Each post in this series will examine a particular area of Catholic theology in hopes of understanding it more fully. Today's topic is a hot button within Evangelical circles, but Catholics have managed to avoid much of the controversy that plagues Evangelicals. While a great many Evangelical churches teach a literal, 6-day creation of the universe, Catholics do not and never have. Their faith in the bible as Scripture has been able to co-exist more-or-less peacefully with the advance of scientific theories about the origins of the universe. How have they managed this? 

Catholics carefully distinguish between what the Bible is and is not trying to say. This allows for a robust theology of creation but leaves room for science to do what science is supposed to do—describe what can be empirically tested. I’ll start by attempting to explain what Catholics do see in the Bible about Creation, and then move on to what they don’t see.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) insists that God created the universe (§279), and that the existence of this God “can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason” (§286). However, though we can discern the existence of a creator, we cannot discern the answers to questions about the meaning of creation, or about the origin, vocation, and destiny of humanity without revelation (§287–288). Scripture tutors and converts human reason by telling us that we belong to our Creator and inviting us into a relationship with him (§288). The first three chapters of Genesis are first in the Bible not (necessarily) because they were written first or even because the events they describe are chronologically prior to everything else, but because they lay the foundation for understanding God’s purposes for creation (§289). Creation is more than just the beginning of life, it affects everything else.

We might think of creation as a little like a wedding. A wedding is not just the first thing that happens in a marriage, it inaugurates and defines that marriage—a binding commitment entered into freely by a man and woman who love each other and will from that moment on forsake all other loves. The wedding is performed by someone with the authority to bind these two together in the sight of God. It takes place in the presence of family and friends, and even those relationships are changed. Parental roles are diminished, handed over to the new spouse. Husband and wife are no longer their own, they belong to each other. The theological richness of a marriage ceremony is like creation because it is an event that not only indicates the start of life but defines what kind of life it is and the roles that each one plays in it.

Reading the creation story in light of Christ, Catholics affirm that the creation of the world does not only concern material origins (how stuff came to be), but signals the beginning of God’s plan to redeem the world (§280). By creating the world, God was taking the first steps toward saving it. Creation answers the big, basic questions about our origin and destiny, the meaning of life, and our vocation in it (§282, 289). It teaches us these truths:

-“The totality of what exists . . . depends on the One who gives it being” (§290).
-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit worked in “creative cooperation” to create all things (§291–292).
-Everything was made for God’s glory (§293). He is glorified when he fills our whole vision and we find our life in him (§294).
-God made the world out of his own free will, not because he needed us (§295). This contrasts with all other ancient Near Eastern creation stories where the gods needed people to feed them and do their work for them.
-Just as God created all things out of nothing, so he gives us a transformed life through no effort of our own (§296–298).
-Creation flows from the goodness of God, and is therefore good and ordered (§299).
-God is both transcendent over creation and present within it (§300).
-God has not abandoned creation. He continues to sustain it and work out his purposes in it. “Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” for humans (§301).

I love the way the CCC describes creation. It is so theologically rich, pointing towards worship of the God who made us in order to invite us into his Trinitarian communion. Beautiful.

But what, then, of science? What happens when scientists say that the world is not young but very, very old? What happens when they propose evolution as a model for human origins -- a system requiring millions of years and billions of mutations?

The CCC does not condone any one scientific theory, but it does map out the relationship between science and Scripture in way that allows for the possibility that scientists may be right, at least on some things. Sandwiched right in the middle of rich theological reflection, the CCC digresses into a discussion of science under the unspoken premise that “all truth is God’s truth.”

“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.” (§283)

However, Catholics recognize that the question of the meaning of life is “beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences” (§284). Science can (perhaps) tell us when and how the world came into being, but not what its purpose is (§284). As Dr. Cavadini explained, “We tend to think of the first chapter of the book of Genesis as if it were a primitive, scientific account” that needs updating with the discoveries of modern science. But what if Genesis 1–3 is not making any scientific claims? Science has to do with phenomena that can be observed, tested, and verified. The concerns of Genesis 1 and 2, for example, “goodness” and the “image of God,” are outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. If they are not scientific statements, then science cannot replace them with anything else. The account of creation in Genesis evokes mystery (How can there be light before the sun is made? How can birds and fish eat before plants are made? Does God really speak out loud before anyone is there to listen?). It evokes worship and gratitude for God’s goodness. In Dr. Cavadini’s words, “The doctrine of creation cannot be proven, because it’s a revealed truth, but we can bear witness to it by living out our gratitude in a virtuous life.”

The CCC celebrates the accomplishments of modern science, without embracing any one theory of origins, even while it charitably rejects many philosophical models of the world that are not compatible with Scripture (Pantheism, Dualism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, Deism, Materialism; §285). Certain “scientific” theories are, of course, also excluded, in particular those that go beyond what science can properly describe by excluding the involvement of God in the process. Returning to the marriage illustration, we might think of it this way: biologists can explain the mechanics of the sexual act, the interplay of hormones and even the behaviors that typically precede and follow such an act, but they simply cannot capture or measure (in scientific terms) the meaning or significance that a particular act of intercourse has in a relationship or comment on its moral rightness or wrongness. In the same way, scientists can talk about animals or people and their development over time, but cannot comment on the meaning or purpose of life.

So Catholics joyfully accept the witness of Scripture and allow it to inform the way they think about everything, but they do not press Genesis for a scientific account of material origins. In this way they can nurture morally-responsible scientific inquiry without fearing its outcome and at the same time worship the God who made everything and continues to uphold it by his word.


  1. What do you think of the theory that Genesis 1 is the account of the account of Creation? That is, the days are days of storytelling. This would, for example, explain why God would rest on the 7th day -- not for Himself but for His audience.

  2. Kevin,
    Sorry it took me so long to reply!
    I think part of our problem is that we read the word "rest" and think of it as something to do when we're tired. "Rest" had very different connotations in the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Bible was written. "Rest" was not the absence of work, but the state achieved by a king who had brought order to his kingdom. Once God had ordered creation so that each part had a clearly defined role, he could "rest" (i.e. rule over) his kingdom because everything did what it was supposed to do.

    His "rest" anticipates ours. When we order our lives according to his divine will we live in an ongoing state of "rest", even though we await a fuller and more permanent rest in the next life. God gave Adam and Eve the responsibility to fill the earth and subdue it, or bring it into order. To the degree that we fullfill that mandate, we experience God's rest. The Sabbath is a taste and a constant reminder of God's rule.

    So, in short, while Genesis 1 may be the account of the account of Creation, I do not think 'rest' relates to storytelling, nor is it only giving the audience a chance to 'catch their breaths.' Rest indicates that God really is the Creator and Lord of all the earth, and he has done everything well.