In the New York Times, Sunday Review on July 26th, Prof. T.M.Luhrmann from Stanford University wrote a very provocative op ed piece entitled “Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins.”
First to confess my bias. During my ordination committee interview many years ago, I was taken to task and challenged as to my fitness for ordination because my undergraduate degree is in science (geology to be precise). So how could I be a good pastor if I believed in science? The pastor making this accusation was raised in the old Soviet Union where “science” was used as a weapon to discredit any kind of “faith”.
That said, starting with the title of the piece, Prof. Luhrmann makes a number of points which can at least imply a separation of science and faith and would be read by many to support the supremacy of science in that comparison.
The title itself implies that faith is unreasonable which in our culture equates with unscientific which equates with not of the highest value. It implies that faith and reason don’t overlap and are never complementary or synergistic.
“FAITH asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses is wrong.”
This is simply incorrect. However, it is a common assertion in the part of the scientific community which wants to discount faith as a legitimate part of how many of us make sense of the world and assign causation to what happens around us. Our senses observe what they observe. What faith does is allow for additional sets of explanations for what those observations mean than are allowed by science. The conclusions of faith do not necessarily contradict science or even discount science despite what some of our fundamentalist believers would propose.
“God is invisible.”
Many people will see this statement as implying that since we cannot “see” G-d, G-d cannot be real in any sense. The assertion ignores findings of whole branches of science such as particle physics which fully accepts the reality of a whole host of subatomic particles which are equally invisible and “unseeable.”
“Faith is conjecture.”
The implication is that science is certainty. This is a commonly held but incorrect understanding of the basic workings of the scientific enterprise which is completely based on probability. No good scientist would claim anything to be “true.” If we operate within the classical bounds of the scientific method, there is still (admittedly very small) probability that the earth is flat.
However, all of these issues would be only a matter of interesting debate between Prof. Luhrmann and many others including me if it wasn’t for the negative consequences they have in the real world- especially the world of medical care that I inhabit. It is exactly these kinds of assertions borne of a culture firmly rooted in a flawed understanding of both the scientific enterprise and the workings of faith that have given us a medical system which elevates the “evidence” of scientific inquiry and totally discounts any “evidence” emerging from the processes of faith. It is exactly these kinds of assertions which have motivated many in the medical system to discount the role and potential contributions of the health care chaplain because they are “unscientific” and therefore irrelevant and even a distraction to the health care process.
If one wants to cross the “boggle line” in a hurry in any medical institution, just try asserting that we should consider a faith-based explanation for an occurrence even alongside one emerging from scientific evidence. Years ago, I had the audacity to nicely suggest to a physician colleague that the sudden and totally unexplained remission of symptoms in one of his patients could equally be explained as a miracle or as a very late effect of a drug given months before since there was absolutely no evidence that either explanation was correct. Needless to say, that contribution was not positively received. However, the real critical point in this story is that the family of the patient clearly believed this was a miracle but they dared not say that to anyone on the medical team but their chaplain (me) because they were sure their belief would be devalued and considered ridiculous. They feared being considered ungrateful for the great care they had received.
At a time in health care when patients, family, and many staff want to integrate their faith and spirituality into health care and where the evidence for the benefits of that integration are becoming stronger, pieces like Prof. Luhrman’s reinforce the separations between faith and reason. The reality is that most people in the US want to integrate their spirituality and faith into their care and into their medical decision making. And it is becoming clearer that health outcomes for both the patients and the health care system will improve if that integration occurs. For this process of integration to continue, we must have a health care system where faith and reason co-exist and the value of each in the healing process is valued and fully accepted.