Intertwining Science and Religion

There is a constructed narrative which has developed since the 19th century which leads many people today to believe there is a fundamental disconnect between science and religion. For example, Sam Harris writes that, “The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.”[1] In reality, Christian theology has historically helped guide and direct science in its progress – rather than being disconnected, they are integrally linked. This relationship can be keenly seen in the life and work of Johannes Kepler.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), unknown artist,

While mostly remembered for his scientific work, Kepler also was engaged as a theologian. His original intent with his university studies was to become a minister, but Kepler was recognized for his talent with mathematics and interest in astronomy. So, he was recommended for a teaching position in these subjects, and that altered the trajectory of his career. Kepler was taught both the Ptolemaic (geocentric) and Copernican (heliocentric) systems, but became a Copernican during his university years.

In his university disputation as well as his published works, Kepler argued for the Copernican system on both scientific and theological grounds. Kepler held two basic theological views which strongly promoted modern scientific thinking: 1) God is a God of laws who established order in the universe, and 2) God created man in his own image such that the universe was understandable to the human mind. In other words, there are laws to be discovered, and man is able to discover them.

Theory Virtues

Rising out of his conviction about man’s God-given ability to understand the world around us (astronomy in particular), Kepler established several virtues of theories which helped provide direction in scientific endeavor. When you have competing theories (e.g. geocentric vs. heliocentric), how does one decide which one to pursue?  Kepler believed the God-given faculty of reason is also governed by rules which help us differentiate between good and poor reasoning. The virtues Kepler outlined laid the groundwork which helps scientists decide which is the better explanation for what we observe in the world, and where we direct ongoing research.

One of these virtues was that of durability which involved the ability of a theory to make accurate predictions over a long period of time. Another virtue was that of causal adequacy – deferring to explanations which better conform to real data and observation as opposed to geometric models. The real test of this virtue involves the ability of the theory to permit further discovery and insight.

An additional virtue is that of beauty and simplicity which Kepler linked to the character of God – one who creates things for delight. To a mathematician, beauty can be found in the ability of something under investigation to fit patterns and mathematical equations. What Kepler described mathematically in his three laws of planetary motion is considered beautiful.

Scripture Interpretation

Kepler’s theological arguments for the Copernican system were intertwined with his approach to interpretation of scripture. To many in his day, the biblical descriptions of the heavens aligned best with a geocentric conception of the universe, but Kepler argued that was not the only possible explanation. Kepler insisted that the biblical descriptions were based on what is observable to the common person. This same conviction for biblical interpretation was held even by those who subscribed to the geocentric model such as the theologian, John Calvin.

For example, astronomers knew based on observations and calculations that Saturn was much larger (and therefore brighter) than the moon, but it was reasonable for Moses to identify the moon as the second brightest object in the sky. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on Genesis, “There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskillfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven; he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes.” [2]

Kepler followed in this line of interpretation in his commentary on Psalm 104 where he indicates, “So that whatever [the psalmist] said of the world is in relation to living creatures. He speaks of nothing but what is granted on all hands, for it was his intent to extol things known, and not to dive into hidden matters…”[3]  The Copernican model need not contradict Scripture because the configuration of heavenly bodies it proposed would still result in what the scripture writers would have observed.

Kepler’s Enduring Influence

Astronomy textbooks used in the American university system from the mid-17th century to the late 18th century shifted toward teaching the Copernican system, and showed the influence of Kepler in their writing. Keas noted in his survey of textbooks which were in use during this time period at Harvard that “They promote neither the Copernican demotion myth nor any of the other myths about warfare between science and Christianity…They convey a harmonious relationship between science and theistic religion.”[4] These texts sought not only to explain the Copernican model, but also argued for its compatibility with scripture, and recognized that the mechanisms of the universe were something which could not have risen on their own accord.

So, Sam Harris and other moderns are misguided in their assessment. Kepler’s science was in no way hindered by his religious views – it allowed it to flourish. Similarly, his religious views were not impaired by his science – it only inspired them. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion (Christianity in particular). The conflict which some people do sense can largely be attributed to differences in human interpretation – either in scientific data or theological data. In these cases, either one or both interpretations are wrong, but such conflicts do not necessarily exist. From a theistic perspective, God is a God of truth which is consistent in every way he reveals himself – either in his word or in his creation. Rather than expecting them to conflict, we should expect science and religion to be in alignment.

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY: Knopf, 2006), p. 63.

[2] John Calvin as quoted in The Book of the Cosmos, ed. Dennis Richard Danielson (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 124.

[3] Johannes Kepler as quoted in The Book of the Cosmos, ed. Dennis Richard Danielson (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 127.

[4] Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2019), 175.

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