The Nature of Dialogue

This excerpt is from a book by Paul Stock, Duel or Dialogue: The relationship between science and faith. Copies of this book can be obtained directly from the author at Genuine enquiry In recent years we have seen the demise of communism, the rise of Islam (primarily by birth rate) and the rapid expansion of Christian […]

This excerpt is from a book by Paul Stock, Duel or Dialogue: The relationship between science and faith. Copies of this book can be obtained directly from the author at

Genuine enquiry

In recent years we have seen the demise of communism, the rise of Islam (primarily by birth rate) and the rapid expansion of Christian faith in South America, Africa and Asia. In the West we have seen a growing disillusionment with institutionalised religion and modernity. This has created a climate of openness to spirituality that generally does not include the church. Witnessing this global shift has caused the chief editors of the Economist to conclude that ‘God is back’ after previously predicting the ‘death of God.’ The global pervasiveness of something does not mean it is true, but it should warrant our careful attention.

Also globally pervasive is the acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection as the best current explanation of how the biological world works. While there are many unanswered questions regarding the emergence of life on our planet, there is a strong body of evidence that supports the evolution of life over a geological time scale. Such evidence demands our thoughtful consideration and should not be dismissed as ‘atheist propaganda’ or  ‘just a theory.’

My challenge to both sides is this. If we are going to claim to be open-minded, – even fair-minded – regarding the respective merits of faith in God and evolutionary theory, then we should do the best we can to investigate the evidence for each. If we are not prepared to do so we are not engaged in genuine enquiry.

Sympathy for Dawkins

After the fall out from The God Delusion I wonder if some of Dawkins’ colleagues at Oxford had a few quiet words to him. Maybe it went something like this, “Richard, you are in danger of alienating those that accept evolution by ridiculing their faith position; such a stance is not helping the cause of science. Why don’t you focus on the science and help people understand the evidence for evolution.” I understand how certain people may have driven Dawkins to write The God Delusion. Some Christians have accused him of being deluded about evolution, calling it a lie – of the devil.

In 2008 Dawkins interviewed Wendy Wright, President of ‘Concerned Women for America.’ Part of the interview involved discussion of the fossil record of our human ancestry. I reproduce part of the interview verbatim to help you appreciate why Dawkins gets frustrated with those who refuse to take the evidence for evolution seriously.

Wendy: What I go back to is the evolutionists are still lacking the science to back it up. But instead what happens is science that doesn’t bolster the case for evolution gets censored out.  Such as there is no evidence of evolution from going from one species to another species. If that, if evolution had occurred then surely whether it’s going from birds to mammals or, or, even beyond that surely they’d be at least one evidence.

Richard: There’s a massive amount of evidence. I’m sorry but you people keep repeating that like a kind of mantra because you, you, just listen to each other. I mean, if only you would just open your eyes and look at the evidence.

Wendy: Show it to me, show me the, show me the bones, show me the carcass, show me the evidence of the in-between stages from one species to another.

Richard: Every time a fossil is found which is in between one species and another you guys say, ‘Ah, now we’ve got two gaps where there, where previously there was only one.’ I mean almost every fossil you find is intermediate between something and something else.

Wendy (laughs): if that were the case, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum would be filled with these examples but it isn’t.

Richard: it is, it is…in the case of humans, since Darwin’s time there’s now an enormous amount of evidence about intermediates in human fossils and you’ve got various species of Australopithecus for example, and … then you’ve got Homo habilis – these are intermediates between Australopithecus which was an older species and Homo sapiens which is a younger species. I mean, why don’t you see those as intermediates?

Wendy:…if evolution has had the actual evidence then it would be displayed in museums not just in the illustrations.

Richard: I just told you about Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens  – archaic Homo sapiens and then modern Homo sapiens – that’s a beautiful series of intermediates.

Wendy: You’re still lacking the material evidence so…

Richard: The material evidence is there. Go to the museum and look at it …

I completely sympathise with Richard Dawkins at this point. He has sought to present evidence to someone sceptical of evolution and this person appears to be uninterested or unwilling to engage in genuine enquiry. Dawkins’ appeal to consider the evidence is powerful and poignant. He makes an appeal to the historical evidence that supports evolution, and such evidence is crucial. But there are two sides to this coin.

I have met a number of atheists who are equally uninterested or unwilling to seriously consider the evidence for my faith position as a Christian. They make similar comments like Wendy Wright; namely there is no evidence for God, there is no evidence regarding the historical identity of Jesus Christ, there is no evidence for his death and resurrection. If we are going to be even-handed in the dialogue between science and faith regarding the evidence that supports both positions we need to seriously consider whether we are open to genuine enquiry. An appeal to evidence cuts both ways.

So, what is the nature of the historical evidence supporting the Christian faith position? It would take pages, even chapters in volumes to present a full summary of the evidence available. The purpose of this book precludes that but I will provide some key evidence for consideration – and yes, you can even go to some museums to see it.

William Lane Craig in Rediscovering the Historical Jesus outlines five lines of evidence that support the historical reliability of the gospel accounts:

  1. There was insufficient time for legendary influences to blot out the historical facts;
  2. The gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary “urban legends;”
  3. The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable;
  4. There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses including his closest followers;
  5. The Gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.

Please go online and read the full article to assess the detail that supports each line of evidence.

If you want to go further, can I suggest you read the interview between former atheist Antony Flew and British theologian Tom Wright. It appears as Appendix B in Flew’s book There is a God. It is titled The self-revelation of God in human history: A dialogue on Jesus with N.T. Wright. If you want to look even deeper can I suggest American Craig Blomberg’s work The historical reliability of the Gospels. Like Dawkins, I want to say emphatically “look at the evidence.”

I want to return to one of Dawkins opening analogies in chapter 1. In it he compared Michael Ruse to Neville Chamberlain. Is there any historical evidence that Chamberlain, Churchill and Hitler actually existed? There are still a handful of people who were eyewitnesses to the existence and activities of each of these men. Soon all these eyewitnesses will be dead and we will rely on the written and audiovisual evidence that remains of their lives. While the earliest followers of Jesus Christ did not possess movie cameras, they did write down what they saw and heard.  Through them and subsequent others we have by far the most extensive manuscript record of the life and claims of any figure from antiquity. To say that this is not the case is to defy the evidence just as much as any close-minded creationist may do regarding evolution.

So, we need to get under the surface of such superficial dismissals and get to the heart of the matter on both sides. There is a tremendous amount at stake regarding the identity of Jesus Christ because of the radical, even stupendous nature of his life and claims.

There is a tremendous amount at stake regarding the identity of Jesus Christ because of the radical, even stupendous nature of his life and claims.

If we are serious about the pursuit of truth in faith then Jesus Christ made some truth claims that demand our careful attention. I, like Steven Weinberg, consider that there is truth out there, both in the world of science and also in the world of faith. What I appeal to is a careful consideration of the evidence. Let’s be Socratic about this and go where the evidence leads us.

One of the most influential analytical philosophers in the last 50 years was Antony Flew. In 2005 Flew famously announced his shift from atheism to deism. Flew was one of the poster boys for modern atheism and his positional change was met with great surprise. Prominent atheists dismissed Flew’s change of position and implied that he was senile. Let us consider the evidence that brought Flew to the point of changing his mind.

Enter Socrates

I found Flew’s book to be a very personable account of his journey into life as a professional philosopher, his marriage, various academic appointments and the high points of his achievements as an atheistic analytical philosopher. With equal candour he described the progressive intellectual challenges to his long held position. His writing style is both accessible and deeply thought provoking – the senile do not write like this.

Many of the points he raises I have covered from other sources in chapter 5. The rationale Flew gave for his change of mind was based on the Socratic principle of ‘going where the evidence leads us.’ Flew’s decision was neither hasty nor ill informed. For several years he had interacted with a growing number of analytical philosophers – particularly theists – whose arguments he found increasingly convincing.

After covering a broad range of evidence from science and contemporary philosophy Flew wrote:

Science qua science cannot furnish an argument for God’s existence. But the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume – the laws of nature, life with its teleological organisation, and the existence of the universe – can only be explained in the light of an Intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world. Such a discovery of the Divine does not come through experiments and equations, but through an understanding of the structures they unveil and map.

And he continued:

Now, all this might sound abstract and impersonal. How, it might be asked, do I as a person respond to the discovery of an ultimate Reality that is an omnipresent and omniscient Spirit? I must say again that the journey to my discovery of the Divine has thus far been a pilgrimage of reason. I have followed the argument where it has lead me. And it has led me to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscience Being.

Flew poignantly concluded his book with these words:

The discovery of phenomena like the laws of nature…has lead scientists, philosophers, and others to accept the existence of an infinitely intelligent Mind. Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not – yet. But who knows what could happen next? Someday I might hear a voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?’

And here we get to an important part of the question of faith, which I will illustrate from my life. Three decades ago in my second year at university, I began a consideration of the evidence for God. Logical argument was only able to take me so far. There came a point where it got personal and relational. I took a step of faith into the wonderful mystery that is knowing God. It is not blind faith, but it does involve trust. Knowing God has changed my life for the better. It has also meant suffering and challenge in a variety of ways. But I want to say with all sincerity that in an increasing degree I have found the One who loves me with an everlasting love both now, and I believe, into eternity. This is at the heart of the “good news” that Jesus talked about. This is my faith journey, I will leave you the reader to make of it what you will.


If you are an agnostic you have probably waited a long time to get a mention in this short book. Thank you for continuing to read and being so patient. The term agnostic was first coined by Thomas Huxley, contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin. The basic tenet of the agnostic position is that we can never know if there is a God. I would completely agree with this position if God did not provide any possibility for ‘knowability’. However, I consider there is strong evidence to indicate that this is not the case. From my faith position the possibility of knowing God is central to it. The best way I can articulate this is to mention the opening lines from the gospel of John. This passage, as you may well discern, is a transposition of the opening lines of Genesis. It deals with the nature of the Word, a Greek term used to denote the source of divine wisdom that holds the universe together. It reveals a God who is knowable, a God who has gone to great lengths to self-reveal – to the point of becoming human and entering our history, the one whom Swiss theologian Karl Barth described as “very God and very man.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has being made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘he who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”

From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

It is not the purpose of this book to speak for other faith positions regarding the question of the knowability of God. It’s up to you to investigate and enter into dialogue with people of other positions. What I’ve sought to do is to outline my position and why I hold it. When giving consideration to any faith position, and that includes atheism and agnosticism, we must ask questions of internal coherence and cogency. How does it stack up? How does it answer to the biggest questions of life? How does it relate to the findings of science? If there is coherency to the idea of truth in the universe, how does each position fair? I would like to suggest that grappling with these questions could be the greatest and most important pursuit of life.

Embracing mystery 


A sense of wonder is inherent in science and faith. Dawkins is eloquent in his descriptions of the natural world. At times his ability to capture that sense of the wonder of it all takes your breath away. However the same can be said by people of faith regarding their experience of God, including how it can actually enhance their appreciation of science and the natural world. This synergy is seen in such works as The language of God by Francis Collins. Collins led one of the two International research teams that elucidated the nature of the human genome. He is also a devout believer in God. He draws wonder from his faith and his science.

Alister McGrath suggests three ways in which we experience a sense of awe when we look at nature:

  1. An immediate sense of wonder as we observe the beauty of nature;
  2. A derived sense of wonder through mathematical and theoretical representations of nature that arise from initial observations;
  3. A further derived sense of wonder in terms of what the natural world points to.

For many people of faith, to experience the beauty of the natural world is a sign or pointer to the glory of God and is deeply valued for this reason.

I was trying to write something like a psalm

So go the words of the French-Canadian mystic and folk singer Bruce Cockburn. This modern psalm encapsulates for me this sense of awe about the natural world and how it connects with God.

Lord of the starfields

Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker
Here’s a song in your praise
Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end
You make my heart leap
Like a banner in the wind
O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning
Lord of the starfields
Sower of life
Heaven and earth are
Full of your light
Voice of the nova
Smile of the dew
All of our yearning
Only comes home to you
O love that fires the sun
Keep me burning

God, mystery and quantum theory

The advances in theoretical physics in recent years have made us appreciate afresh that there is so much we don’t yet understand about the universe. Just over a century ago physicists believed they had most phenomena explained. Then along came Einstein. His theory of relativity tipped over the existing physics applecart and we are still grappling with the implications of his discoveries. The world of quantum physics is certainly a mysterious one. Mystery can drive us to want to understand reality – it’s part of being human.

McGrath suggests that quantum theory and Christian theology are not too far apart in this respect.

For an orthodox Christian theologian, the doctrine of the Trinity is the inevitable outcome of intellectual engagement with the Christian experience of God; for the physicist, equally abstract and bewildering concepts emerge from wrestling with the world of quantum phenomena. But both are committed to sustained intellectual engagement with those phenomena, in order to derive and develop theories or doctrines which can be said to do justice to them, preserving rather then reducing them.

The acknowledgement of mystery in life does not mean detached acceptance but rather can lead to an energised curiosity to understand; this is characteristic of good science and good theology.

McGrath puts it this way:

A perfectly good definition of Christian theology is taking rational trouble over a mystery – recognising that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary. It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so we must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal.

Come to think of it, that’s what the natural sciences aim to do as well. Perhaps it’s no wonder that there is such a growing interest in the dialogue between science and religion.

While I concur with McGrath regarding theology as a reasoned position, I think it important to take into account the original meaning of theology: communion with God in prayer.

I believe with all my heart and mind there is a God that wants to be known by us

Theology is not just an academic pursuit, although in modern times that is often a perception of it. Theology has a relational component as well. Like McGrath, I believe with all my heart and mind there is a God that wants to be known by us; a God that loves each one of us and desires relationship – communion if you will. This is the essence of what it means when we say “God is love.”

In conclusion I want to outline a few practical steps that can help us as we engage in the process of dialogue.

A partnership

There is a clichéd story about how a scientist climbs the mountain of knowledge and understanding only to find a bunch of theologians waiting for her at the top (see Jastrow). The problem with this story is the theologian is framed as the one on the high ground. However, we should acknowledge that recent years have seen some scientists assert themselves in the same manner. It is far better to view us climbing the mountain together, ‘mount improbable’ if you will.  We all know that climbing is a purposeful activity, requiring preparation; including a survey of the terrain, adequate supplies and a certain level of ‘fitness’ for the journey.

I have redacted the story above by using ‘her’ because in my biology classes female students outnumber males three to one.  Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse alluded to the significance on this in a lecture I attended on The great ideas of Biology. The frontier of what he considered the fifth big idea is biological organization. He suggested that female scientists may hold the key to novel and creative thinking regarding how we think about biological organization because they are not as locked into linear thinking as much as men. He may have a very good point.

Science and faith have something in common. Both are concerned, or should be concerned, with the pursuit of truth: truth about the natural world and truth about God.

So I am advocating a partnership, between men and women, scientists and theologians (and if you subscribe to my IROM approach; even philosophers, painters, musicians and dancers!). The active ingredient of which is dialogue.

The components of dialogue

Suspend judgement

We are all prone to quickly judge others in our thoughts and words, particularly those who hold beliefs there are different to ours. When entering into dialogue, we need to resist the temptation to write people off before we even give them an opportunity to explain their position.

Listen well

Dialogue can only proceed when we are prepared to give each other airtime. To listen is to love, in the sense that we show mutual respect and willingness to give others a fair go. The art of listening well is both a skill and a discipline, one well worth cultivating in the world of interpersonal relationships.

Respond with questions

If you really want to understand what another person believes and why, we need to ask questions. Asking questions enables us – all of us – to get to the underlying assumptions for any position held. For example, I often ask people why they hold a particular position and the how long they’ve held that position.

Play the ball, not the man (or woman)

The above is a famous maxim in soccer and rugby. I’ve just watched the second test between Ireland and the All Blacks; one of our players spent 10 minutes in the ‘sin bin’ for taking out his opposite without the ball. And an Irish back should have got the same treatment for impeding runners without the ball in the first test. Cheap shots earn the ire of all in sport, so too in dialogue.

Apologise when necessary

There are times when conversations catch me completely off guard. It may be the nature of the conversation in terms of its intensity or the mode of questioning, or for some reason I’m tired and grumpy. Sometimes I say things I regret. Sometimes I take an approach that is insensitive or overly confrontational which damages dialogue. In such instances I have needed to apologise. If we build a climate in dialogue where we can say “sorry” when we get it wrong that will build trust and help us to continue in dialogue.

Maintain the attitude of a learner

There is so much we can learn from one another. I have learned a lot in the process of writing this book and I’m sure I’ll learn so much more from the interactions I have with people who read it and engage in dialogue with me afterwards. Throughout my life I had needed to re-evaluate my views and opinions on various issues given the evidence presented to me by a variety of people. We need to make time to read and reflect as we engage in dialogue. It is helpful to be prepared to read anything that someone with an opposing view to ours presents; that is the nature of open-mindedness.

We need to remember that open-mindedness must be reciprocal. Recently the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door at home and offered me some literature. I responded by offering to read their booklet if they would read a small book about Jesus Christ. They refused. I asked them if they considered it fair and reasonable that I read their book when they were not prepared to read mine. There was a protracted and awkward silence in response to my question.

Respect free will

Allow others the space to choose to differ from you,

Allow others the space to choose to differ from you

while evaluating your reasons for the position you hold. At the end of the day each of us is responsible for the beliefs we hold. Even at the end of dialogue we may respectfully choose to differ in our conclusions. Each of us must ‘own’ our position.

In summary, it is good to set some ground rules for dialogue like those suggested above. Discuss your expectations before you begin, agree on a mutual set of principles for interaction. You may find it helpful to return to those ground rules if things get a little heated!

Final words

In chapter 2 I discussed the nature of science and faith and the father of the empirical method, Francis Bacon. I think it fitting that I leave you to mull over this passage from his 1605 work Advancement in Learning. I find it fascinating that Charles Darwin quoted the final paragraph below from Bacon in the frontispiece of Origin of Species.

For certain it is that God worketh nothing in Nature but by second causes; and if they would have it otherwise believed, it is mere imposture, as it were in favour towards God, and nothing else but to offer to the Author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie.  But further, it is an assured truth, and a conclusion of experience, that a little or superficial knowledge of philosophy may incline the mind of men to atheism, but a further proceeding therein doth bring the mind back again to religion.

For in the entrance of philosophy, when the second causes, which are next unto the senses, do offer themselves to the mind of man, if it dwell and stay there it may induce some oblivion of the highest cause; but when a man passeth on further and seeth the dependence of causes and the works of Providence; then, according to the allegory of the poets, he will easily believe that the highest link of Nature’s chain must needs he tied to the foot of Jupiter’s chair.

To conclude, therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.

Questions for consideration

  • What do you find exciting about the idea of dialogue? What do you find scary?
  • Whom might you like to enter into dialogue with and why?
  • How has your view of the relationship between science and faith altered after reading this book?
  • What questions remain unanswered for you?

The Nature of Dialogue, an excerpt from the book Duel or Dialogue: The relationship between science and faith by Paul Stock. Manawatu Tertiary Chaplaincy.

Paul Stock has worked at universities for 25 years. He enjoys helping students explore how faith can work in university life. He is also a Senior Tutor in Plant Biology at Massey University in New Zealand.

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