Certainty and uncertainty in science and religion

As well as being Science Missioner, I am also on the teaching staff at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college near Oxford. The course that I run there, the Cuddesdon School of Theology & Ministry, has just completed its term studying the gospels. At the last lecture of the term, our New Testament lecturer commented on the influence that the scientific thinking of the Enlightenment period had on biblical scholarship.


The early years of modern science created a sense of certainty about things. Scientists were discovering ‘laws’ that governed the ways in which the universe behaved, and these laws could be represented very precisely and accurately in mathematical formulae. This led to a way of thinking that equated the search for truth with the search for certainty. This, in turn, had an impact on biblical studies, as people began to look for things that they could claim with certainty were facts within the scriptures, including the gospels.


The life of one person - in this case, Jesus - can’t, however, be reduced to mathematical formulae, and the Gospels were not, and were never meant to be, journals recording scientific observations. They were written several decades after the events that they relate, and are consequently dependent on the memories of those who witnessed the events reported. Unfortunately, human memory isn’t as certain as we like to think it is. And the men who wrote the gospels each shaped their narratives in the way that, presumably, they felt best presented the message that they wanted to share. The result is that the gospels vary in the events that they record and in the way they report events, so that even when they do record the same event, each gospel may tell the story slightly differently, and different gospels can report the same events but happening in a different order. But being able to be certain about the historical accuracy of each and every event in the gospels isn’t really the main issue. The main issue is the truth about who Jesus was and is that the gospel writers sought to convey through their narratives.


I’m not convinced that we need to worry too much about trying to convince people of the certainty of many of the facts contained within the gospels. Just as science introduced the search for certainty into our cultural world-view at the Enlightenment, new scientific discoveries have introduced the idea of uncertainty. Uncertainty is at the heart of the universe, at least at the quantum level. And just as the mindset of the scientific approach influenced cultural attitudes in the Enlightenment period and thereafter, so too today. Uncertainty is no longer a cause for disbelief. A little uncertainty around the historical facts relating to our faith is nothing to worry about. Perhaps the task now is to learn to live with the uncertainties that are an inevitable part of life.

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