Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning

Science is indeed one of the most successful and exciting ways of making sense of our universe. As Richard Dawkins rightly observes in his recent Magic of Reality, there’s something wonderful about the universe. The inspiring beauty of the night sky, solemn arctic landscapes, or a magnificent sunset fill us with wonder. Yet they also make us ask deep questions. Where did everything come from? What’s it all about? What’s the point of life? These are questions that intrigue both science and religious faith, especially those who find delight and satisfaction in both.

But science is ultimately about a method – a way of making sense of things. Its outcomes change down the ages. Its interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional. A century ago, most scientists thought that the universe had always been here. Now, we believe it had a beginning.Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.

Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence. We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realize that this is limited to logic and mathematics.

Some things – though fewer than many realise – can indeed be proved. But we mostly judge theories by how much sense they make of observations. Power to explain is widely regarded as an indicator of truth. Observations don’t prove theories; rather, theories explain observations, and are judged on the quality of those explanations. G.K. Chesterton pointed out how we can accept “a very good working belief” long before “we can get absolute proof.” The “big bang” is accepted today mainly because it is more consistent with our observations of the universe than its “steady state” rival. It can’t be proved (after all, it’s a singular event). But it does make a lot of sense of things.

Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith). For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part. The French social activist Simone Weil made this point in trying to explain why she found Christianity so attractive and persuasive. You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.

If Christ is indeed the “light of the world” – an image developed with some skill in John’s gospel – then his power to illuminate the dark matter of our soul and our world must find some place in our thinking. So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? The Christian tradition speaks of God as someone who makes sense of the puzzles and enigmas of life, illuminating our paths as we travel. This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.

As Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, once pointed out, science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean. If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning. Science helps us to appreciate the wonder of individual aspects of the universe; religion to see, however dimly, the “big picture” of which they are part.

God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations. Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all. The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.

At Christmas, we recall that God is one who tells us he’s there, shows us what he’s like, and accompanies us as we journey – even through the darkest and loneliest valleys of life.

Source: Allister McGrath (2011) Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning The Drum


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