Seeking the Best of Both Worlds
A Review of
Navigating Faith and Science
by Joseph Vukov
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2022
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Koning
The religious and secular realms frequently clash. More often than not, people are pressured to pick sides on issues with factual claims about the world. Why are science and faith so often in conflict? How can we resolve the disagreements while both learning about the state of the world through the Bible and through observations about creation? Religious explanations can differ from scientific ones. Yet we don’t live in a world where a loyalty to science or faith means a rejection of the other. While conflict between the two can be real, Christians learn from and contribute to science. There is a relationship beyond bland cordiality and definitive hostility.
For anyone who is looking for a framework to navigate a tricky issue relating to science and Christianity, Navigating Faith and Science suggests three models to explain the relationship. Joseph Vukov describes it as an opinionated guidebook. It offers an introduction to ways of thinking and the required skills. Yet it isn’t trying for impartiality. It introduces difficult issues and evaluates potential responses.
Vukov dedicates the first chapter to the issue of intellectual humility. He describes humility by saying, “The humble person is a Goldilocks of accurate self-assessment–neither overestimating their ability nor underestimating it. Instead, their self-assessment is just right” (13). Intellectual humility requires setting one’s ego aside in order to care more about seeking the truth than winning an argument. Both science and religion are fundamentally about truth. Intellectual humility forms a backbone for the book, and everything else is built on it. Thoughtful discussions require accurately assessing our limited understanding that falls short of God’s complete knowledge without denying the intellect we have been given.
Following the discussion of intellectual humility, Vukov introduces the conflict model. The core assumption of the conflict model is that “science and religion compete to answer the same set of questions, that they exert sovereignty over entirely different domains, and that the gain of one always comes at the loss of the other” (34). Vukov spends the chapter unpacking the implications of taking that view, which is the tendency of fundamentalism and scientism, which claim that either religion or hard science are the only true sources of truth. In contrast, Vukov’s argument is that the conflict should be superficial because they are both searching for truth. Each can exert authority on some issues, but not all questions.
One limitation in this discussion is its sole focus on science and faith when both are at their best. Much of the conflict comes in because of the shortcomings of science and religion. As much as the pure versions of each are about searching for truth, they are never pure in practice. Scientific research is often about reputation and funding, and many church leaders are loath to admit when they have been wrong. We should strive for both to be in their pure form, but this is rarely achieved.
Vukov’s claim that fundamentalism and scientism are not the worldviews we should hold is not to dismiss the perception of conflict, however. The way people experience conflict is a direct result of our human intellect, and we must remember these limitations to have intellectual humility. Vukov is clear about our human limitations, saying, “our knowledge will never be angelic” (18). This is essential to being human. He discusses the concern of “epistemic trespassing,” or someone who has expertise in one field attempting to pass judgment as if they were an expert in another.
The second model is the independence model. Complete with examples of times when there is not even perceived conflict between science and religion, the chapter discusses the most trivial way to resolve concerns about science and religion: assigning them non-overlapping domains of expertise. This can be done by an “is-ought” distinction, claiming science is associated with claims about what is and religion focuses on how we ought to behave. However, people will quickly experience that “is” and “ought” are intertwined. Science is guided by values, and our behaviors are guided by our understanding of reality.
The final model is the dialogue model, which allows science and faith to engage with each other. One way that faith impacts science is through suggesting questions we may ask. Our understanding of science, on the other hand, can influence our perspective of our place within the universe. The push and pull in the conversation should lead to benefits in both areas. Dialogue requires intellectual humility in order to function. The dialogue model is the most nuanced of the three models, allowing multiple perspectives to exist without clashing.
Navigating Faith and Science will be useful for anyone who either has not thought about what science means for their faith or who is struggling with compatibility between their faith and modern science. Without getting too deeply into the scientific or philosophical weeds, Vukov introduces a wide variety of scientific examples. It is broad in the types of science-faith disagreements it discusses, and so it should be useful for people asking questions not mentioned in the book as well as the many that are used as examples. Vukov mentions both classic cases of evolution and heliocentrism, but he doesn’t limit his examples to cases that will be familiar to most people. His examples include our definition of death and the potential existence of aliens. Navigating Faith and Science offers a thoughtful introduction to the ways scientists, church leaders, and others can handle questions bridging the realms of faith and science.
Elizabeth Koning is a Computer Science PhD student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a graduate of Calvin University. Her research focuses on parallel computing for biology, and her other interests include studying the intersection of faith and technology.
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