Faith & the scientific senses: Reductionism

January 17th, 2023

This article is the third in a series of resources that seek to bring new angles on faith and science. You can read the others here. While such conversations have often focused on trying to bridge the space between faith and the ‘hard sciences,’ these resources are aimed at another purpose.

This series offers an experience for how scientific method and practice can become a renewing agent for our life together in Christ. In deploying the virtues of key scientific “senses,” we can discover a fresh resource for discipleship.                              

Here’s how to use these tools with an Action—Reflection—Action model:

First, Action: read through this article, together or ahead of time as a group. 

Second, Reflect: reflect as a group on how this particular “sense” is revealed here, and how you can collectively engage that “sense” in the week ahead.

Third, Reaction: more on this step at the end of this piece.

Reductionism means taking a large subject and boiling it down to a manageable size but losing important aspects of the subject in the process. By inappropriately narrowing a field of inquiry, reductionism creates a situation in which important data is no longer considered.

Luke 4:21-30 provides an example of reductionism. Jesus is in his home synagogue in Nazareth. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, The spirit of the Lord is upon me…he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, sight to the blind, to set people free….

Then Jesus addresses their desire that he do in his own hometown the same mighty works he’s done in other places nearby. He reminds them of the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, both of whom performed miraculous works to save the lives of persons outside the people of Israel. Jesus is pointing to the worldwide mission on which he has been sent. The good news is not just for the hometown crowd but for all people of all nations and races all over the world.

The listeners perceive this announcement of the wideness of God’s mercy as a threat to the privileged status they believe they have with God. They are enraged and chase Jesus out of town. They want to reduce the worldwide scope of Jesus’ mission so that it fits their preconceived notions of who God is and what God is doing.

As long as Jesus agrees with their ideas of how God they give him their approval. But when Jesus casts a broader vision of God’s work in the world, they will have none of it. They run him out of town so that they can reduce God and God’s work to fit their own thought patterns, rather than expanding their outlook. That is reductionism: taking something big and reducing it to fit our comfort level. 

In terms of our exploration of the relationship between faith and science, reductionism means feeling that we have to choose between faith and science. To do so reduces both faith and science into something far less than they really are. Such reductionism robs us of the resources available to us in faith and science. That is why I have continually emphasized that we are people of faith and science. For Christians it is important to engage in good science and good theology–and God is the source of each.

We do not affirm our faith by reducing or discounting the importance of science. Taking science seriously does not mean we have to reduce or discount our faith. This is the point expressed beautifully by Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the team that decoded the human genome, when he says: "For me the experience of sequencing the human genome…was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship." (Collins, The Language of God, p. 3) We do not feel the need to be reductionists toward either faith or science. 

Dr. John Polkinghorne, one of the world’s top quantum physicists, is a major figure in the discussion of the relationship between science and faith. His twenty-six books on the subject are read worldwide. Polkinghorne’s research contributed to the discovery of the quark, a basic element of all matter. He is also an ordained priest in the Church of England. His favorite Bible verse is 2 Corinthians 4:6: For God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, hath shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. To John Polkinghorne that verse unites the light of scientific knowledge with the light of Christ shining on us. He says, "To truly understand the world in which we live in all its richness and variety and promise and suffering, you do need the Christian insight of God sharing in all that in the light of Jesus Christ." (Christian Century, 20 Jan 2008, p. 33)  

The 2019 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church points to the danger of reductionism. After recognizing science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world, The Discipline then cautions, 
"In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe." (p. 100) With this statement the United Methodist Church avoids reductionism by both affirming the validity of scientific inquiry and noting that by itself science is insufficient to answer the most profound questions of human existence. Those questions require the resources that can only be provided by a theological perspective such as that of the Christian faith. Reductionism with respect to the Christian faith does not solve anything and only robs us of the help that could have been ours had we taken the faith seriously.  

Since I believe a sanctuary can also be a laboratory, I try to equip my church members to live confidently as people of faith and science while avoiding reductionism. The following letter is an example of one of those attempts. A young adult told me a question had arisen in his Sunday School class as to whether schools should teach the theory of evolution only or should include a consideration of intelligent design. Class members expressed varying viewpoints on this topic. This young adult then asked me for my thoughts on the subject so that he could share them with the class the following week. Here is my response:


Thanks for your email about the Sunday School class discussion of evolution and intelligent design. It was interesting to learn that you and I majored in biology. In fact, that is the place I want to begin in thinking with you about this question. 

First, as far back as I can remember I have liked experimenting with and investigating things. In school, I found myself drawn to the sciences. That’s how I became a biology major. In addition to classroom studies, I had the opportunity to work for three years in the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology.

In all of my studies and over all those years I never found faith and science to be mutually exclusive. Rather, I often experienced a sense of the Holy when I would peer through a microscope and sit in awe and wonder at the universe within a single cell. I also learned that many early scientists were also Bible scholars, such as Isaac Newton (physics) and Gregor Mendel (genetics). I discovered that Christianity offered a worldview that provided the foundation for the development of science in the Western world. The understanding that the world is a good creation and that it is an orderly world are the prerequisites for science as we know it. Those two understandings grow out of the Biblical doctrine of creation.

Scientific inquiry gives me a sense of awe and wonder at the magnitude and mystery of the universe. It helps me explore “How” questions about the universe and life itself. But once I move beyond the “How” questions and start asking the “Why” questions I find that I need more than science alone can provide. And that is where the Christian faith comes to my aid. The appetite revealed by science is actually satisfied by the resources of the Christian faith. 

So much of what I read and hear about evolutionists and creationists leaves me unsatisfied by either group. I have never felt the need to see faith and science in opposition to each other. Since science was made possible by the worldview of the Christian faith, I rejoice in both. 

Back to your original question: Should intelligent design and evolution both be taught in school? The fact that we even have to raise the question shows, to my mind, a problem we moderns have with education in general. In a truly “classical” education, one studied all fields of knowledge (literature, art, science, philosophy, theology), not only as separate, isolated subjects–but also in relation to each other. More recently, the movement has been toward specialization: a teacher is trained to teach one specific subject and nothing else. But that chops life into pieces. It may make a subject easier to teach in one sense, but it leaves us unable to think of the whole. A truly classical education would be open to integrate various fields of inquiry, such as the scientific and the theological So my answer is “yes”, I think it would be a good idea to teach both, but only if the teacher has had serious training in good science and good theology. 

That’s how it was for Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel. I have already referred to John Polkinghorne, who, in our own day, represents this healthy integration through his work as a mathematical physicist and an Anglican priest. I recommend this approach as worthy of consideration by your class. 

Langdon Gilkey is an example of a teacher who is fluent in both faith and science. He wrote the book, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge. He notes that our confidence in the goodness of creation and of finite being is so much a part of our lives that we are apt to think it is the natural point of view of humanity. This causes us to overlook the ideas and convictions which, supplied by the Christian faith, form the basis of this confidence. Gilkey writes:

However, this confidence is not so much the result of science as it is the long-term basis of science. Only because men were already convinced that they were surrounded by a world of real and orderly relations would they ever have embarked on the arduous enterprise of understanding that world. And only because they believed that a relative meaning and value could be found in natural and historical life would they have sought to control nature for human purposes, and to refashion community for the sake of human fulfillment. The optimism and buoyancy of Western culture is more an effect of the idea of the good creation than its cause. (pp. 65–66)

Awareness of the error of reductionism with respect to faith and science, can help us avoid this error in other aspects of our faith. For example, consider what happens when the Christian faith is limited to a matter of the head (thinking rightly), a matter of heart (devotion and passion), or a matter of the hands (acting rightly in the world). Christianity is all of these; it cannot be reduced to any one of them alone and still be Christian faith. 

Neither can Christianity be reduced to either a “personal” gospel or a “social” gospel. It is both deeply personal and intensely social. It engages the believer’s mind and heart, but it also expresses itself in concrete action in the action in the world. To choose between the personal and the social is to reduce the Gospel to something that it is not. Reducing the Christian faith to fit our own biases results in a faith that is not worth having. The following prayer expresses the desire to move beyond reductionism.

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all the truth,
Good Lord, deliver me. Amen. (The United Methodist Hymnal 597)

Rather reducing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our size, let us ask God to enlarge us so that both in our faith and in our science we can be all that God intends us to be. 


And now, the third step, Reaction

In this step, we will put this “sense” into action, critically observing at how reductionism operates in our lives individually and in our purpose together in church.

If you have the time/capacity as a group, go somewhere in your community where you can sit together and get an expansive view of your neighborhood. Maybe it is a corner cafe with outdoor seating, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the cityscape, or hilltop just above town where you can see the whole town easily.

As you reflect together, end by asking: 

  • How have you experienced the effects of reductionism in your life? Where has someone reduced your story to something less than the full picture? Where have you reduced someone’s story and experiences yourself?

  • Where is reductionism helpful in your spiritual life? Where is it harmful, to you and to your understanding of others?

  • How is our group (and our congregation) doing on taking a holistic view of holiness? Do we focus more on personal piety, or are we driven more by social holiness?

  • What habits and practices of reading scripture help us better see the whole of God’s story? What practices or habits are limiting our view?

  • What is one action we take as a group so that we can better see the whole–the whole of our congregational life and the whole of our communal life?

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