Christians and methodological naturalism (2)

However much Christians may agree or disagree with the writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, he had one thing absolutely right. And that is that we are called, as Christians, to submit every area of of lives to Christ, to further the end that all creation will eventually acknowledge his rule. Together with the more immediate end of being salt and light in the world. I picked up that revolutionary idea as a student, as a result of which I tried from the start to do my chosen career of medicine “Christianly”. That did not mean “fanatically”, but it meant taking the trouble to question how much of what I was taught was consistent with living as a disciple, and how much needed to be re-examined. I’m surprised, looking back, how much of a rebel against the system it made me right up until my retirement.

It wasn’t medicine only, of course, that came under scrutiny. Obvious things like marriage, parenthood and paying one’s income tax needed periodic examination, too. But it also included a lot of work (with others) in thinking about how one could write and play secular music according to Christ’s rule, or how one should do medical journalism. It even involved church leadership, because it’s quite possible, as many know to their cost, for people to lead churches with scant reference to the ways of God.

I wouldn’t want to paint a picture of a plaster saint. Good attitudes needn’t, and often didn’t, lead to good praxis. But they’re a whole lot better than bad attitudes. So I’d like to assume that any believer involved in science is trying, in a similar way, to submit that calling to the rule of Christ. That’s why, from the outside, I’m surprised at how enthusiastic many in the theistic evolution movement appear to be towards methodological naturalism. In the light of its origin in materialism, and arguments against it like those I mentioned in my last post in the work of Alvin Plantinga, I think I would have been likely to rebel against it had science been my career. So I’d like just to toss around a few possible reasons why people take a different stance.

The most obvious reason, I guess, is that Christians in their own thinking, in their Christian student or professional organisations, or even in their churches, have done the groundwork, studied the arguments and concluded that methodological naturalism is the best way of honouring Christ in the workplace. However, I have to say I’m not totally convinced that’s always the case, because of the arguments they use to defend MN, which seem unconvincing as distinctly Christian arguments. Let me discuss a few.

For example, one reason often cited is the success over the last several hundred years of naturalistic science. It was once people stopped invoking God as a cause, they say, that science as we know it really took off. The problem is, that account of history is complete fiction. Many of the great discoveries throughout scientific history were made not only by Christians, but by Christians actively seeking to discover God’s ways. Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton are frequently (and tellingly) cited. But it’s often forgotten that Mendel was a religious (and Neodarwinism owes more to him than to Darwin). It was, indeed, only after Darwin made plausible a naturalistic explanation for science’s hardest problem – life – that methodological naturalism began to gain ground. And viewed dispassionately it’s hard to demonstrate that the pace of progress changed rapidly at that point, rather than in tandem with the rise of science as a profession with massively increased funding. So where did the idea that secular science works better come from?

A second, related, justification for methodological naturalism is that invoking God as an explanation is a science stopper. There are at least two brief answers to this. The first is that faith in God did nothing to stop the discoveries of those great Christian scientists. The second is that even if all the Christians gave up on science through invoking miracles, the way would still be clear for secular workers to prove them wrong and win all the Nobel prizes: science would stop only for believers. A third reason, given by Plantinga, is that if science actually did stop because God’s intervention in a process was somehow proven, then its withdrawal from the field would only be appropriate. Can Christians really believe it would be better to demand tissue samples from the risen Christ than to fall and worship him? Again, where has the idea of faith as a science stopper come from? Christ?

Thirdly, I have heard Christians ask whether allowing faith into science would not eventually lead to a fundamentalist theocracy. Does that sound like a Christian argument? Do we believe that because we long ago let religion into churches we will arrive next Sunday to find ourselves enslaved to a fanatical priesthood? Where do such ideas originate? What kind of people is it who see a Methodist chapel and imagine the Inquisition? Really, I’m asking – what kind of people?

Fourthly, I’ve heard the argument that science has now shown that it can explain nature without considering God’s active involvement. I’ll come to the question of whether that is a valid Christian argument. But it’s not a valid argument from a Christian because science has shown no such thing. It has simply assumed it. And as I’ve said in previous posts, the root of it is no more than that Charles Darwin proposed a plausible mechanism that, if evidence for it were ever found, might provide a naturalistic mechanism for transitions between species. That’s why it was so attractive to secularists. But why should it attract Christians in the absence of conclusive evidence?

Are there theological arguments, then, for methodological naturalism? From orthodox theology, most definitely no. Christians throughout history, the Jews before them and the Muslims after them, have said not only that God maintains all things in existence by the power of his word, and not only that he made all things, but that his creation was directed to a specific end. So Christian natural philosophers have always asked “What is God doing, and to what end?” rather than, “What happened, and by what cause?” So naturalistic science is asking different questions from the  questions Christian scientists would naturally ask.

On the other hand, some unorthodox theologies, notably as I have pointed out before the Open Theism and Process Theology camps such as those of Howard van Till and his successors, have made a virtue of God’s non-involvement in nature. Indeed, many have anathematised any idea of his involvement as maligning his desire to confer freedom, or else his creative skills, given the world’s “imperfections”. It is notable how such theologies have actually arisen from an acceptance of naturalistic evolution, rather than the reverse. It’s tempting to suggest that instead of submitting even science to Christ, they have gone the other way and submitted Christ to science.

Let me draw this to a conclusion. It seems to me that all these arguments for methodological naturalism are put forward by Christians not because their thinking has been transformed by the gospel, but because it has been conformed to the naturalistic worldview dominating our society. The arguments above are secularist arguments, and we absorb them in our childhood, in our education and certainly in our professional lives. Worldview claims are seldom challenged, because they appear self-evident. We only really see that they are challengable when we moved outside our culture – which is why living abroad can be so uncomfortable.

At its best, Christianity is a counter-culture that calls our whole native worldview into question. It’s almost true to say that any area of our life that hasn’t been challenged probably hasn’t been submitted to Christ yet. So I simply ask Christians involved in science to ask seriously where their presuppositions arise – particularly in the case of methodological naturalism.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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