|The Process of Discovery|
|by T. M. Moore|
|July 03, 2012|
“What does your scientific methodology teach about people rising from the dead?”
And these impetuses which He impressed in the celestial bodies were not decreased nor corrupted afterwards, because there was no inclination of the celestial bodies for other movements. Nor was there resistance which would be corruptive or repressive of that impetus. But this I do not say assertively, but [rather tentatively] so that I might seek from the theological masters what they might teach me in these matters as to how these things take place…
- Jean Buridan, Questions on the Eight Books of The Physics of Aristotle
It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.
- Proverbs 25:2
Jean Buridan was one of the great minds of the 14th century. He served twice as rector of the University of Paris, the greatest intellectual center of the age. He was an astute thinker and questioner, and he reflects the modern scientific penchant for questioning everything and employing the energies of reason to the task of establishing knowledge, even if what we may claim to know is only tentative.
Buridan was not trained as a theologian, but it’s clear from his writing that his thoughts were never very far from God and His role in the cosmos – which Buridan understood as formative and active. His work on “impetus” overturned Aristotelian thinking about motion and matter and laid the foundation for subsequent views and discoveries.
His comment about waiting for the theologians to weigh in on his opinions is fraught with truth and irony. Because he was not a theologian he was prohibited, by the protocols of the day, from making any theological conclusions or assertions. He was willing for the theologians to have their say concerning his views, although he probably doubted they would improve on his conclusions.
But it is Buridan’s sense, even if grudging, of the importance of observation and reason engaging not only the world around us but the revelation of God in Scripture – as understood through the theological tradition of the Church – before anything approaching “truth” could be asserted.
The early scientists – natural philosophers, as they were known – saw the cosmos as consisting of seen and unseen dimensions. Each was regarded as an aspect of divine revelation, and each could be accessed only by keeping both in mind and resorting to the disciplines of knowing appropriate to each sphere. Observation and reason were as much a part of the work of theology as of natural philosophy. Each of these areas of study had its own unique contribution to make to true knowing.
In our day Christians working in the sciences can appear at times to give more weight to the disciplines of science than those of revelation. Not long ago I was discussing with a Christian who advocates an evolutionary view of the origins of the cosmos and life how he had arrived at his conclusions. He said that the observations drawn from his work in the sciences led him to believe as he did.
Then I asked him if he believed there are disciplines specific to understanding the Bible that are not unlike those required in careful scientific research – disciplines of language and theological study, semantics and literary and cultural understanding, and so forth, which needed to be brought to bear in understanding any text of Scripture. He agreed that was undoubtedly the case.
I then asked if he was trained in those disciplines, to which he responded, “No, not at all.” So, I continued, you don’t really understand everything that is involved in, let’s say, making an exegetical assertion from a text of the Hebrew Bible. “No, I don’t.”
Then I asked how, in the light of this admission, he could be so certain that Genesis 1-3 was best understood in the light of an evolutionary framework on Scripture. “Well,” he answered, “I’m a scientist, and this is where the science leads me. It’s how my scientific understanding of the world leads me to understand the Scriptures.”
Buridan, I’m sure, would be shaking his head. This is what I mean by saying that we tend to give more weight to the observations of science than to the observations of Scriptural exegesis in asserting our understanding of the cosmos and its composition and course.
By the way, I then asked my conversation partner, “What does your scientific methodology teach about people rising from the dead?” To which he had no answer, but merely smiled.
We need to rethink the interface between faith and science, between the revelation of God in creation and the revelation of God in Scripture. And we need to make sure we honor the protocols of each discipline in making assertions about the truth.
God intends for us to discover as much as we can about the cosmos. But not simply for the sake of the cosmos or our own interests. He intends for us to know Him, and the process of discovery by which we come to the knowledge of God must not be bounded or dictated by the protocols of material science alone.