“Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” – Book Review

If You Respect Both Science and Faith, Read This!

Ok…. Both Christians and others: humanists, atheists, scientists of various types, are “all over the map” on reconciling faith and science. Or call it the “science vs. religion” conflict. Some say it’s real and serious. I’d agree, though I believe the perspective of Two Great Truths illustrates that the conflict, as perceived, need not exist. (It’s far from the only book to do so, but one of the most fascinating and important.)

So, broadly speaking, science and religion work as complements to one another. It seems to me there was an implicit agreement centuries ago, as scientific methods began to gel and an explosion of both research and new technologies took hold. Indeed there were major points of friction, with some unfortunate casualties in terms of noted people…. Think Bruno or Galileo. The former’s situation is less known and the latter’s also poorly understood by most, though definitely sad for both sides.

The tacit agreement carved up the territory: Christian institutions would mainly keep hands off as to the scientific endeavor. (It couldn’t be controlled much, anyway.) Science would keep to the natural world. (It came to consider religion something like a pesky mesquito.) Of course, not everyone bought into this arrangement (or was even aware), so there has indeed been a lot of outward conflict, mainly in the form of debates, for the last couple centuries particularly.

The advance of neither science nor Christianity has been much affected, but the author of Two Great Truths, David Ray Griffin, points out that truths which are actually important to both ventures have been distorted. All of us but the most insightful and flexible are the losers.

The book is seriously historical, but in broad strokes, so you needn’t bog down. There are ample references for those who want to pursue them and get more detail. Starting with earliest Christian faith, Griffin shares his own list of what he considers the primary (or core) teachings of Christian faith (“the good news”… while he points out that subsequent doctrines, set up to flesh out or support primary truths, often have not been good news). From my extensive study of theology, I’d say Griffin’s list is composed of things that are agreed upon by most Christians, denominationally and from conservative to liberal.

Spoiler Alert

I’m going to give away why and how Griffin says the “two great truths” are in need of a “new synthesis”! …

They each got distorted early in their development. First of the two, in Western historical development, is the great truth of a new, more universal and compassionate understanding of God and God’s relationship with us introduced by Jesus of Nazareth: After some distortions coming early as efforts to support new perspectives, the most consequential distortion, to Griffin, came rapidly around the end of the second century. It was the adoption of the idea of “creation out of nothing”. Note: this is absolute nothing, not relative nothingness (or chaos), as spoken of in the Hebrew creation account of Genesis, chapter one.

This is a short book of just 114 pages, but the discussion of “creatio ex nihilo” here, like a few sections elsewhere, may seem a bit wonky to some (if so for you, I encourage you to skim and move ahead).

The other great truth distorted is scientific naturalism (actually presented in the opening chapter). Griffin identifies several ways noted theologians, as thought leaders for Christian faith through the centuries, sought to honor the “science” (not yet called that) growing out of early Greek thought and research. So there were stages of synthesis. The two chapters devoted to the two great truths are a fascinating mini course in the “history of ideas”. Here we find a description of the action-reaction of intellectual “billiard balls” that Newton himself would appreciate.

After steps described well by Griffin, we come to the major distortion of a sophisticated or conditoned form of naturalism. It is “scientific” materialism. Materialism beyond mere methods of science, into assumptions about reality. It, of course, rules out God/god in any form, as well as a human soul in the sense of anything conscious in us surviving physical death. Obviously a conflict with not only Christianity but nearly all forms of religion.

The Potential Power of Science and Faith in Collaboration

In the final two chapters, Griffin gets to the “new synthesis” which he says “… involves a worldview equally adequate for the primary doctrines of the Christian faith and the kind of naturalism required by science” (p. 62). He points out that it emerged mainly in the 20th century, building on the late 19th century to early 20th century work of thinkers like Henri Bergson and William James. Clearly, the understanding of reality and its processes arrived at mainly by Alfred North Whitehead and expanded by Hartshorne and others, was aided by the appearance of relativity theory and quantum mechanics (Einstein and several others originally). This synthesis is represented mainly by what has come to be called Process philosophy and Process theology. Griffin himself is a key developer of Process thought.

The mere 34 pages in this chapter I feel are sufficient for a basic explanation of a unified and guiding system that stretches (to some degree, “corrects”) both science and traditional Christianity. The system sets a healthier course forward, if enough will follow it. The chapter might be considered a primer for understanding the fundamental insights and forms of explanation originating in Whitehead, although that is not the actual objective. But from the broadest lens of intellectual, spiritual and cultural development, it is perhaps the role of Process thought in providing solid yet flexible structure for the healthy operation of both science and Christian faith that is most valuable.

2 thoughts on ““Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” – Book Review”

    • Thanks, Norlyn. I love the idea of people from differing parts of either the theological or the political spectrum (or both) having extended discussions (not merely “debates”) about how they see things and what they seek to do for improvements.

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