07/15/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Science and Religion: Two Books

In my previous blog, I talked about how religious believers often feel as though they are faced with a lose-lose decision -- science or religion. The Bible, for example, seems to speak of a fairly quick and recent creation by very specific divine interventions -- the creation of light on one day, for example, and the creation of all of the animals just a few days later. Science, on the other hand, speaks of a very slow creation with light, for example, not appearing until 500 million or so years after the Big Bang and animals appearing slowly and through very natural processes billions of years later. Given a forced choice between physics and faith, then, some people choose physics and some people choose faith. I think this lose-lose feeling is rooted in a culturally influential but historically false conception of the relationship between science and religion as one of perpetual warfare. But even if the warfare narrative is false, many religious believers today feel like they are forced to choose between science and religion.

In my new book, Religion and the Sciences of Origins, I offer a Two Book model in place of the warfare metaphor. Here's the basic idea: God speaks to us in the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, and these two books cannot conflict.

Consider the case of an apparent and historically influential conflict -- geocentrism versus heliocentrism (an earth-centered vs. a sun-centered cosmos). Common sense experience and the Bible seem clearly on the side of geocentrism. We don't feel the earth rotate and we see the sun and stars revolve around the earth. What about the Bible? In Joshua 10: 12-13 we read:

On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel:

"O sun, stand still over Gibeon,
O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon."
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

Joshua's prayer was for more time in the day. The way to increase the length of the day? Stop the sun in its orbit around the earth: "O sun, stand still." According to the text, the sun stopped, giving Joshua an extra day to avenge his enemies. If God caused the sun to stand still, the sun must be moving. Prior to the scientific revolution, the vast majority of biblical interpreters accepted a literal interpretation of this passage and others like it. Common sense and the Bible converged on geocentrism.

Geocentrism was first challenged in the 15th century by Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) with very little controversy. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) would carry on the debate within both the Church and the scientific community. Questions naturally arose regarding Galileo's commitment to Scripture and how he could reconcile this new science with the Bible.

These worries prompted Galileo to write his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. Galileo argued that God has written two books -- the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture -- and that these two books do not, because they cannot, contradict. That means that if one has a well-established scientific explanation of the physical world that seems to contradict a passage of Scripture, one has good reason to reconsider one's interpretation of Scripture. The surface meaning of the Bible may not be its true meaning.

If the Bible is infallible, how can it contain untruths, such as geocentrism, concerning nature? Galileo argued that God permitted such language because he had deeper, more important truths to communicate. He argued that the Bible puts its message into the language of the common people "lest the shallow minds of the common people should become confused, obstinate, and contumacious [stubbornly disobedient] in yielding assent to the principal articles that are absolutely matters of faith."

The Bible, he argued, was written in a prescientific, preliterate culture and so we should not expect its writers to be cognizant of modern science. If God wished to communicate to human beings, he would need to accommodate himself to their ways of understanding. He would have to use their language, their concepts, and their understanding as vehicles for communicating divine information. According to this view, the scientific worldview of the Hebrews is incidental to the Bible's message of love, justice and forgiveness.

Accommodative language is not a problem if God has provided us with different sources of information about himself, our relationship to him, and nature. Galileo believed that God has, indeed, written two books -- scripture and nature -- that communicate complementary truths. If "all truth is God's truth," these two books, when properly understood, cannot contradict each other.

The Doctrine of the Two Books maintains that the Scriptures have primacy in matters of faith, but in areas on which the Scriptures do not speak or speak only as a concession to human limitations, it is best to read and understand God's other book, the Book of Nature.

Galileo argues that by carefully and humbly reading both books, and following the methods specific to each book, one may come to a fuller and richer understanding of the truth. One can use the knowledge gained in science to understand the message of Scripture. In other words, the Book of Nature can justifiably inform the Book of Scripture. Galileo writes, "[H]aving arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible." We can fully grasp the truth only when we humbly learn what both books have to teach us.

Christians now believe that the earth is not at the center of the cosmos and have, using Galilean principles of accommodation and the Two Books, used that knowledge to understand that the Bible's geocentrism is not essential to the Bible's overall message. We would do well to heed Galileo's advice today: if we arrive at any certainties in physics, biology, genetics, geology, paleontology, anthropology and psychology, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible.