As a kid I was enthralled with science, any branch of science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, anatomy, it didn’t matter. Until the fifth grade I lived in a house that backed up to a huge woods that included a spring fed pond where my best friend Bobby Kramer and I used to catch salamanders, crayfish, and lots of really cool bugs. Of course we would also put fire crackers in the model warships we built but that is another story. One of my favorite parts of that woods was a dried stream bed with a several foot high wall from an old waterfall. We would regularly dig into that rock wall and pull out some of the most amazing fossils that we would eventually match to their period in history. Dissecting frogs and snakes was a normal Saturday afternoon, as was mixing compounds from the chemistry set, making slides for a microscope, or charts of the various constellations according to the season. A highlight of a junior high biology class was when, along with two other students, I was given the opportunity to dissect a fetal pig when the rest of the class got frogs. I grew up with the birth and expansion of the space program and once could name every astronaut, their capsule name and mission highlights. My bucket list still includes a walk on the moon. I still love science as evidenced by the fact that one of the books currently on my night stand is a biography of Albert Einstein. It is as much about physics as it is about his life.
As a Christian I find myself puzzled and saddened by the ongoing conflict between so many people of faith and people of science. There seems to be this commonly held idea that you cannot be a Christian and a good scientist. The two are seen as being polar opposites that can never be reconciled. Yet anyone with a bit of historical perspective and willingness to get beyond sound-bite thinking will find that in fact the opposite is true. Christianity and science are both historically and philosophically allies in the search for truth. In fact, the modern scientific method owes part of its existence to the philosophical world-view of Christianity.
All Truth is God’s Truth
Both science and Christianity are on a quest for truth. As a follower of Christ I have no fear of science. If science determines something to be “true” then I know that God is well aware of that truth and in fact is the reason such truth even exists. Some of the greatest scientists in history were also people of deep Christian faith. Their faith in a God of laws and order gave them a theological foundation from which to explore the cosmos. There was a conviction that the God of truth, who ordered the world, did so with a set of laws that made it possible to study and learn using the scientific method. Isaac Newton, who is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest scientist in history, functioned as a scientist because of his faith.
“Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause; he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.” (Charles E. Hummel, Christian History, Christianity Today Online April 1 1991)
The case has been made that the rise of science in Western Civilization is in large part due to the influence of Christianity. Because the world was seen as being created by God with order and laws, it was not only possible to study and learn, it was actually a duty to study and learn about the cosmos. Although other religions and their cultures may have been more advanced in some areas of technology, they were not cultures and religions that promoted science as such. Buddhism, and Hinduism are great examples. Historically they have viewed time and the cosmos in a circular fashion. What is now will come to an end and the cycle of time repeats. Scientific progress is not highly valued because it will all come around again. In addition, the material world is seen as something to escape. It is the world of suffering and pain, not the world of wonder created by God. The gods of such theologies are also capricious and unpredictable so any conclusion reached in the study of the cosmos are unreliable. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the cosmos was pronounced by God to be “very good”. Time is more linear and we are heading towards a desirable future that is a new creation of heaven and earth. Far from wanting to escape this reality, the Christian is one who is called by God to improve it. That includes being good stewards of creation. Being a good stewards requires understanding how the cosmos functions in order to care for it in a way that glorifies God.
When Scientific and Theological “Truth” Conflict
There are times when the understanding of science and our understanding of the Bible are in clear contradiction. Most often cited is the case of Galileo and the Church disagreeing over the Earth revolving or being fixed and stationary. This is often cited as an example the narrow-mindedness of the Church and Christians. Science is hailed as being objective, rational, concerned with truth. But here is the problem, prior to Galileo and Copernicus, the common notion among scientists was that the Earth was fixed. The Church at the time looked at some verses in the Bible and decided that indeed the earth was fixed. After all, it said things like, “God has fixed the earth on its foundation” or spoke of the sun rising and setting. So for centuries, science that the Church agreed, the Earth is fixed and the sun moves. No one bothers to point out that for centuries science was also wrong. They only point out that the Church was wrong. The fact is, science was simply quicker to correct its error. Eventually the Church came to realize that the Bible was not wrong, because it never taught that the Earth was fixed. It was our understanding of the Bible that was wrong and needed to be changed. All of that is to simply say that when science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, we need to be patient and reexamine our preconceived ideas. It is possible that the explanation science gives for the information is wrong. It is possible that our understanding of the Bible is wrong and needs to be adjusted. It is possible, as with Galileo, that both science and our understanding of the Bible are wrong.
Eventually much of Newtonian physics was superseded by the theories of Einstein. Quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. The speed of light being constant and the fastest possible speed became foundational truths. For the last hundred years they have ruled the scientific world. Yet recently some scientists in Europe have indicated that they may have found something that travels faster than the speed of light. As a result the Physics world is a buzz with debate. Could science be going through another mega-shift in its understanding of truth? It remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, whatever they discover about the truth, it will still be God’s truth.
Scientific Method vs. Naturalism
The scientific method is simply that. It is a method of exploring and discovering truth. It is neutral. A person of faith can and should use good scientific method to explore and discover the wonders of God’s created cosmos. Naturalism is a philosophy. It is a mind-set that excludes the possibility of any spiritual component in the cosmos. In naturalism the material world is all that exists or at least all that can be studied and understood. Many scientists are also committed to naturalism. God has no place in their world. Naturalists will often accuse people of faith of being narrow-minded and unwilling to see the truth. I find that rather odd since the Naturalist is the one who is thinking more narrowly. They exclude the possibility that God has anything to do with all this. The scientist who operates out of faith seems to have the more open mind, believing that there may be more explanations for things than simple material cause and effect.
The bottom line is that if you are a person of faith, you must not see science as the enemy. You need not fear whatever currently appears as a contradiction between the Bible and science. Taking the long view of history and realizing that eventually God’s truth prevails should give confidence to your faith and motivation to your exploration of the cosmos as a scientist.