Andrews Autumn Conference: Faith and reason united in the search for knowledge
by Gary Burdick on assignment for Covalence
The Seventh Annual Andrews Autumn Conference on Religion and Science was held on the campus of Andrews University on October 20, 2012. This year’s theme was, Faith & Reason: The Foundations of Religion and Science, and inspired by the statement of Sir John Polkinghorne, “The scientist and the theologian both work by faith, a realist trust in the rational reliability of our understanding of experience.”
Four plenary presentations, two by scientists and two by theologians, examined the relationship of faith and reason in their disciplines of science and religion. The plenary presentations were given in the morning to introduce the topic, which was further expanded upon in the afternoon by panel discussions and break-out groups.
The program started with a devotional by John Reeve, Associate Professor of Church History at Andrews University. Using texts from the book of Job, Reeve stressed the importance of recognizing that sometimes the most accurate statement we can make is to humbly say, “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, when one person says “I don’t know,” there is always someone who is ready to fill the void with an even less satisfactory answer. Therefore, we need to be vigilant to protect the right to leave questions open.
The first plenary presentation was given by Gary Burdick, Professor of Physics and Associate Dean for Research at Andrews University. Burdick’s presentation was on the faith that lies at the heart of science. While it is often considered that religion is based upon faith and science upon reason, the reality is not so simplistic, with reason and faith being necessary components for both disciplines.
Burdick considered four foundational axioms of science: (1) the universe exists, (2) the universe’s existence matters, (3) the universe is orderly and follows mathematical laws, and (4) humans are capable of understanding the universe. These principles, without which modern science could not exist, are based on a faith about reality that originated out of a Theistic worldview. Therefore, because the theologian and the scientist use the same foundational axioms about reality, the theologian can vouch for the reliability of science in arriving at valid truth about the world.
The second plenary presentation was given by Earl Kumfer, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at St. Francis University. Kumfer examined two metaphors: the image of faith and reason as two wings on which the human spirit rises toward truth; and wearing two contact lenses, one for distance and one for near work. Not only are faith and reason different paths to discovering the one and the same truth, they also serve to mutually support and enrich each other. In fact, rigorous use of one to the exclusion of the other leads to dire epistemological and social consequences. Faith and reason have nothing to fear and much to gain from each other, and we ignore either one at our own peril. Faith needs understanding to satisfy the need for grasping the truth more fully. Reason needs mystery beyond its imagination to anchor its direction.
Carl Helrich, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Goshen College, presented faith and reason as fundamental to both science and religion. We need faith that the universe functions as it does and is logical because of the presence of God in the universe, which is the basis of the pursuit of scientific truth. And scientific reason must be based on the realization that there are no tricks in the universe as we observe it. God is not deceiving us. We can investigate the universe as a sacred calling.
As the human becomes more the center of major portions of scientific study, the dialogue between religion and science becomes more important. In this dialogue, Helrich said, we cannot afford to have one side lose and the other win, in spite of what the extremes in both areas claim. We must learn to talk across what have, unfortunately, appeared as great differences in approach. Although our disciplines deal with a limited scope, we must work hard to lay the foundations for a future in which we are all accepted by one another as seekers of the truth.
The final presentation was by Martin Hanna, Associate Professor of Theology at Andrews University. Hanna spoke on the term used by the Apostle Paul of “having the mind of Christ.” It is often assumed that faith is more important to theology than reason. And this assumption may seem to be supported by the frequency of the word faith in English translations of the Bible and the relative infrequency of the word reason. However, what we mean by “reason” is frequently mentioned in the Bible in other words, such as the word “mind.” Thus, an examination of Apostle Paul’s use of the term “mind of Christ” can help to describe Christian rationality. This clarifies the relations of faith and reason in the Christian mind.
Although the four speakers came from different backgrounds and perspectives, they were in agreement that scientists and theologians need to spend more time talking to (and more importantly, listening to) each other. Whether the metaphor is that of two wings which are both needed in order to soar, or two windows through which we look at different aspects of the same reality, or binocular vision that allows one to see the world with greater clarity, it is clear that both the scientific and the theological perspectives are needed in order to gain the deepest perspective on reality.
The Andrews Autumn Conference on Religion and Science is an annual function of the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS), an organization dedicated to the dialogue between religion and Science. The MRSS is a cooperative endeavor of seven area colleges and universities: Andrews University, Bethel College, Bluffton University, Goshen College, Manchester College, Ohio Northern University, and the University of St. Francis. Other activities of the MRSS include the Goshen Conference on Religion and Science, held on the campus of Goshen College each spring. See http://mrss-online.org/ for more information.
Gary Burdick is professor of physics and associate dean for research at Andrews University. In his research area of optical spectroscopy, dealing with electronic (optical) transitions of lanthanide elements in solid-state media, he has established international collaborations, with more than fifty refereed scientific publications. Covalence November 2012