Mere Science, Mere Christianity (RJS)

Mere Science, Mere Christianity (RJS) March 6, 2018

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of a new book due for release in a week: Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona. Greg has BA from Berkely (overlapping with my years on campus as a Ph.D. student), an MDiv from Princeton, a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, and decades of experience working with emerging adults (defined as 18 to 30 year-old) at a number of different churches.  Currently Greg leads STEAM, (i.e. Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) and teaches in Religious Studies at California State Chico, courses such as Introduction to Religion and Science and Religion.

Greg went to Berkeley from a non-Christian background and found God. Not the usual scenario. I went to Berkeley as a Christian and emerged as a Christian, but with a lot of soul searching and wrestling in the process. The tools for dealing effectively with the questions raised at the interface of science and Christian faith did not exist (at least I didn’t find them). The local church (First Presbyterian, Berkeley) was good, but not much help on this front. Bracketing the questions away for a time was the only way forward. Today there are many resources available. Mere Science and Christian Faith is a nice addition to the mix and comes from a fresh perspective.

Greg is convinced from his experience working with emerging adults that questions surrounding science and Christian faith are often in play, either overtly – leading to explicit conflict and questions, or under the surface. His book is aimed at pastors and ministry leaders as well as 18-30 year-old emerging adults. It is designed to help people think through the issues involved and to develop the tools for interaction and engagement as new challenges arise. He calls it both a manifesto (“it’s designed to convince you that the church must embrace mainstream science for its future“) and a field guide (“[it] presents a  picture of what it looks like to pursue this kind of work“).

Greg’s approach to science and Christian faith is well summarized by the following:

Whatever human knowledge discovers in nature, we are bound to listen, to learn, and to engage with it. Why? Because God has spoken and continues to speak through Scripture and through the natural world – through both words and works – albeit in different modes. Faith and science are not in a wrestling match where one will be the victor. In fact, Christians throughout the ages have celebrated that the same God who is visible in science is revealed in the pages of the Bible. (p. 8)

He suggests that the church must work at integrating science and faith for several reasons. One reason is evangelism, spreading the good news. Science is such a significant force in our culture that the Christian message must engage science. But this isn’t the only reason. We should also continue to build on the “legacy of Christian’s contributions to natural science.” (p. 10) Creation is from God and as Christians we are compelled to study it. Science has had a long and fruitful relationship with Christianity. While conflict gets most of the press, conflict has not been the rule. For many Christians, past and present, scientific study is a form of worship. There is a practical reason for engagement as well – it is only through Christian engagement with science that we can be an effective moral and ethical voice in the world. Ignorance and dismissal of science leads to contempt and disregard in society. Francis Collins (current head of the National Institutes of Health) has emphasized this often … the ethical issues raised by scientific discoveries need Christian voices in the mix.

Engaging with science doesn’t mean wholesale acceptance of every scientific claim – but thinking critically, taking Scripture seriously, and engaging with the data honestly. In a section laying the groundwork Greg defines terms and concepts – faith, Christianity, theology, science. He concludes with a very helpful summary:

All this adds up to the conviction that, before we seek to integrate science and faith, we have to grasp their inherent differences. Theology at its core focuses on God who is supernatural – that is, above or beyond nature (super means “above” in Latin, as in “not defined or limited by”). Science, on the other hand is limited in scope to the natural world and its interactions and laws. This is the meaning of methodological naturalism (an often misunderstood term, especially in the Christian world): the methods of science are designed to find what the natural causes are. (pp. 16-17)

From a Christian perspective, God is not limited in scope by the natural world. Rather he stands above or over it. But he also provides meaning and purpose, a basis for value judgments like good and evil, and for concepts like beauty. At the end of chapter 2, Greg looks at addressing New Atheism (i.e. science as a worldview often termed scientism). Science as a worldview sees the natural cause and effect as the whole story. The universe is a physical system and there is no meaning or purpose in the physical laws of cause and effect, electromagnetic fields, gravity, entropy, energy. These are simply brute facts governing the workings of the machine. Science explores the natural world revealing the mechanisms of cause and effect. Methodological naturalism doesn’t remove God from the picture – confined to some non-overlapping realm, but it does limit science to the study of nature.

We will dig into more of Mere Science and Christian Faith in future posts.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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