Have you ever worshipped in a language you don’t understand?
When I was in seminary at Princeton, I heard about a philosopher of science who would supposedly attend Catholic mass in Latin, even though he didn’t speak the language. His reasoning? If the service was conducted in English, his mind would be more focused on analyzing the words from the pulpit—rather than letting himself experience wonder, in pursuit of the transcendent.
That is to say, he worshipped better in a language he didn’t understand. He needed other avenues to come to know God.
I worry this is the case for many would-be Christians, maybe even for some of us in the church. There are many ways to come to know things, and while the analytic, scientific perspective may be the preferred method for many in our Western, educated culture, it is certainly not the only way.
Some Other Ways
The legacy of the philosophical movement called logical positivism has hurt the church in several ways. First, it favored one method of knowing—a particularly logical, analytic, and scientific approach—at the expense of all others. Second, it presumed—or at least many of its advocates presumed—that the only real things were those in the natural world that could be studied by that specific method of knowing. It led to concepts like scientism and reductionism and materialism—three of the most reviled -isms in science and faith discourse.
Now, no one will confuse me for a philosopher—my thinking will never be careful enough—but science and its methods for describing the natural world are surely not the only game in town. Anyone who has learned through art, or been formed by music, or mastered a physical skill, or experienced various forms of intimacy, knows that there are other ways of knowing. Science and analytic approaches are really good at one particular way of knowing, but that is not how I learned that my grandmother loved me (it was the taste of those meals) or how to play basketball (my muscles still know how to shoot a left-handed layup).
The same is true for worship and our understanding of God. What we do here each week—looking at the ways science can inform theology and strengthen ministry—is not the only way to come to know God and to be the church.
In the past, there have been periods where I have gone to church not because of my belief or knowledge of God. Rather, I went to church so that I might believe and feel God’s presence.
And in more faithful moments, I didn’t worship because my mind deduced it was the right thing to do. No, I worshipped because my awe for God, my pursuit of the kind of love made known in baby Jesus, and the fellowship of my church made it impossible to do otherwise.
I feel this push and pull in the work we do as we slowly transition from Science in Congregations to our new brand, Science for the Church. I have moments of doubt—can engaging science really strengthen the church?—but then I receive a note from one of you, or a donation to support our work, or an endorsement from someone I deeply respect. You—the very movement we are building—help me to know again and again the value of this work. And you compel me to move ahead.
- Here is an interview with that philosopher of science, Bas van Fraassen.
- Van Fraassen on the limits of science and several aspects of religion and science.
- A Christian philosopher of science considers van Fraassen’s work for faith and science.
- How Alvin Plantinga responded to logical positivism.
- Our Advent series has been a hit. Mark McMinn’s piece was picked up by Christianity Today.
- And both Justin Barrett and Ruth Bancewicz’s contributions appear now at ORBITER.
- The entire Advent series is up on our new website.
To Know A Holy Mystery
We take pride in helping ministries be places where folks don’t have to check their brains at the door. And I would guess that you, like me, tend to privilege rational thought in both faith and science. In other words, we have something in common with that philosopher seeking to worship in Latin.
We have spent the last several weeks feeding our rational brains as we try to gain new insights into the holy mystery of the Incarnation, the very miracle we celebrate on Christmas Eve. Our four guest authors, using the tools of science, certainly gave us new insights and new ways of understanding what it means to say that Jesus was fully human. Your feedback shows that it led some of you to wonder and to worship.
But on Christmas Eve—my favorite night of the entire Christian calendar—I pray that you don’t let your brain and rationality get in the way of the moment, and that language and logic do not paralyze you.
Rather, I hope you can truly experience one of the most poignant moments in history in other ways. Through the touch of a parent or a child, through the lighting of a candle, through the food being prepared (and consumed), through a hymn or singing of carols, through a fresh retelling of the story of that first Christmas—somehow I pray you come to know in a new way the God that so loved the world that he became fully human and dwelt among us.
Through that babe in a manger, the one in whom we are fully known, may it be so.