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Science and Scripture - a warning from history  

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Iain Palin
(@iain-palin)
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09/07/2018 7:51 pm  

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Science and Scripture – a warning from history
 
The Bahá’í principle of the harmony of science and religion was enunciated by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and delivered in strong and definitive terms:
 

Quote:There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance. How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science.” 
(Talk given in Paris, 12 November 1911)

 
However, like other Bahá'í teachings, it did not appear as a brand new concept but represented a building on, and development of, beliefs held in previous dispensations. St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most influential shaper of Christian thought after St. Paul, set out the “Two Books – One Truth” position (we learn of God through the two books of Nature and Revelation). It may be that he did so quite firmly as a counter to the Manichean view that the natural world was a place created by evil forces, a view well known at his time and which he had previously held before his conversion. For many subsequent scientists (or “natural philosophers” as they would be known until the term “scientist” was coined in 1833 and gained acceptance) their motivation was to understand the created world as a way to understand and approach the Almighty. 
 
But Augustine went further, warning the early Christians against the dangers of a superficial literal interpretation of Scripture, and of the danger of making themselves – and their Faith – look silly by claiming that certain known facts about the natural world could not be true because their Scripture (or at least their reading of it) said otherwise:
 

Quote: "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” 
(De Genesi ad Lieteram [“The Literal Meaning of Genesis”] vol.1
 

This danger is with us today and Bahá'ís, for all their commitment to the principle (and perhaps a tendency to overlook the fact that it does not mean science has to conform to religion) are not immune.  The evolutionary origin of our human frames by means of natural selection, and the idea that our universe began in a “Big Bang” are supported by vast arrays of scientific evidence; sadly , this  doesn’t stop some saying things like “How can a Bahá'í believe in evolution? Haven’t you read ‘Some Answered Questions’?” or enthusiastically sharing on social media every new and hyped “quantum equation “that supposedly “proves” the Big Bang didn’t  happen. And why do they do this? Because that fits better with their understanding of Scripture. 
 
Of course a wider study and consideration of the Writings shows that there is no such contradiction, and no need to somehow challenge the science in the very way Augustine warned against. I suggest we need to be on our guard lest we use Scripture as the proverbial drunk man uses a lamp post (for support rather than illumination) and deprive ourselves of a wider understanding of the richness of creation. And make not just ourselves but our Faith look silly to others.


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