The Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne, a distinguished Cambridge University particle physicist turned Anglican priest, has said that:
Scripture is not an unchallengeable set of propositions demanding unquestioning assent, but it is evidence, the record of foundational spiritual experience, the laboratory notebooks of gifted observers of God's ways with men and women.J.C. Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding, Yale Nota Bene edition 2001, ch. 2, p. 37 (emphasis original).
What a marvelous metaphor! It's not perfect by any means, but it suggests some fascinating possibilities. It might help us find a way past some of the serious evidentiary difficulties of the various documents comprising the Bible (see, e.g., this posting and this one).
At the same time, just as scientists give primacy of place to real-world data, we can continue to give spiritual primacy to Scripture, in accordance with the classical Anglican view of authority -- while still recognizing that the map is not the territory and that new data may sometimes require a revisiting of old explanations.
If you're like a lot of people, your knowledge of lab notebooks may consist of a few hazy and perhaps unpleasant memories of high-school science class. Not to worry -- a lab notebook is simply a diary of a scientist's research work. A scientist will typically use his (or her) lab notebook as:
- a logbook in which to record data and notes about what the scientist does and what s/he observes -- mistakes and all;
- a scrapbook in which to paste computer printouts, photographs, clippings, and other relevant external documents;
- a personal journal of the scientist's current ideas and speculations about his or her work.
Scientists take lab notebooks extremely seriously, because they represent observations of reality -- what Christians might characterize as a form of revelation from God, the gift of real-world evidence.
But scientists don't rely exclusively on their lab notebooks. They recognize that they are human and fallible. Therefore, their lab instruments, their observations, and their data records are likewise fallible. Scientists also recognize that sometimes "wild" data points crop up that aren't significant.
In analyzing their data, scientists work through what church people might call a process of discernment:
- They carefully study their lab notebooks and other recorded data, proactively looking for possible errors in measurement or recordation;
- They compare their data with other data records of the past and present;
- They look for explanations that account for all the available data. If new data clearly contradict an old explanation, the explanation must give way to the data. Conversely, if a proposed new explanation cannot account for valid prior data, the data takes precedence. Christians might phrase this general approach as something like: Man's always-limited conceptions of the universe must yield to the actuality of God's creation;
- Scientists discuss their work with their colleagues -- in community, so to speak -- and, as another safeguard against error, usually must submit their work for critical peer review before it can be published;
- Perhaps above all, scientists attempt to cultivate, in the words of the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a personal and communal attitude of "openness to the truth, whatever truth turns out to be." Being human, sometimes they're more successful at this than they are at other times. But that's still the universally-agreed goal of the scientific method.
Darned if all that doesn't sound a lot like the Anglican three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason.