This is Why We Need Christians Engaged in Science! (RJS)

This is Why We Need Christians Engaged in Science! (RJS) May 28, 2015

mediterranean-seaEd Stetzer had an interesting post on his blog last week –  3 reasons for Christians to Engage in Science. This post is a reprint of an essay he wrote for a small booklet recently released by the National Association of Evangelicals: When God and Science Meet and available for free download.  The booklet includes essays by John Ortberg, Mark Noll, Christopher Wright and more.

Stetzer’s three reasons (read his essay on his blog or in the booklet for his elaboration of these points, bold added):

First, creation speaks to a creator. Because we know there is a creator, we should be the ones most concerned about his creation. …

In Romans 1, Paul points out that attributes of God are made clear in creation. We can know his eternal power and divine nature, because they have been clearly seen since the creation of the world.

If Scripture says creation, and therefore the sciences that explore it, point to God, why would we run away from that? We, above all others, should love, study, explore, examine and care for the creation that provides evidence of God and his character.

Second, dismissing science undermines our witness. But many evangelicals are backing away from science. In a society driven by scientific achievement, it is unwise and counterproductive to our mission for Christians to embrace an anti-science label.

Third, science can better society. … The fact is, as we find better ways to farm, powerful new medicines to heal and more effective ways to power our society, the poor benefit, societies are transformed for the better and the world looks and is more of what God intended it to be.

Christians are to champion the good of their city and society as a whole. Leveraging scientific study and achievement for the betterment of people is an entirely Christian thing to do.

All three of these are great reasons for Christians to engage in science. The pursuit of science brings a sense of wonder, beauty, and awe to many scientists, religious or not. For a Christian in the sciences there is an added wonder and beauty. When we, as scientists, study the “natural” phenomena of the universe, whether in physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, biology or some other science, we are studying the nature of God’s creation. This can make the pursuit of scientific understanding a form of worship as Dorothy Chappell, Dean of Natural and Social Sciences at Wheaton College, says in her essay:

Scientists can discover, study and contemplate the complexities of the created order while apprehending God’s glory, which remains resplendent throughout the creation; in other words, they can worship and interact with God as they do their own professional work. This represents a profound discipline: doing good science and practicing vibrant faith. A natural outcome that results when scientists explore the mysteries of creation from a biblical worldview is a greater capacity for wonder, awe and humility. These, after all, are the traits of effective scientists and devout Christians. (p. 36, When God and Science Meet)

Stetzer’s third reason is also highlighted in a number of the essays in When God and Science Meet. The pursuit of science is transforming the world for the better. This isn’t to embrace the myth of human moral progress where human effort will produce a perfect society or bring the Kingdom of God. It is simply to state a fact – vaccinations, sanitation, clean water, efficient transportation, medicines, instrumentation for imaging and diagnosis, all of these and many more developments, have made life for many longer, healthier, and safer. “Leveraging scientific study and achievement for the betterment of people is an entirely Christian thing to do.”

Finally his second reason, which is undervalued or misinterpreted by many:  Dismissing science, or worse yet distorting and misrepresenting science, undermines our witness as Christians in profound ways.  The church needs Christians engaged in science to hold fellow Christians to a high standard and to provide the needed expertise and review. John Ortberg notes in his essay:

I have seen too many young people in too many churches exposed to bad science in the misguided idea that someone was defending the Bible; then they go off to college and find out they were misinformed and they think they have to choose between the Bible and truth. (p. 28)

Bad science does no one any good.  Not Christians adults or youth, and certainly not non-Christians who find bad science a reason to dismiss any need to dig deeper and understand Christian faith. We need to pursue the truth.

Christian faith and the study of science are not mutually exclusive pursuits. Taking the Bible seriously does not mean holding to positions clearly contradicted by modern science. The Bible is not a science book.  Taking the Bible seriously does call us to stand against the metaphysical conclusions that some draw from science, just as it calls us to stand against the “wisdom of the world” driven by the pursuit of money, sex, and power.

The pursuit of scientific understanding has unearthed a wealth of new information. Information that our predecessors had no knowledge of and did not need to wrestle with … the vastness of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution. The church today does need to wrestle with this data.  In order to do this we need people who are conversant in science, who will take the time to explain the data and explore the relationship between the new insights from science and Christian theology. One of the reasons we need Christians to engage in science is to lead the church faithfully into the future.

Lucas Cranach Man and WomanAnd this leads to Adam. If that seems like a sharp left turn, changing the subject, it shouldn’t. Every discussion of science and Christian faith these days seems to return to  the question of Adam, human evolution, and common descent. This is an overstatement, but not by much. Many of my posts over the last several years have turned around the discussion of Adam. In general I’ve focused on the biblical and theological issues because, quite frankly, I am convinced by the evidence of common descent. As a result I am deeply interested in the ramifications this has on our understanding of life from a Christian perspective.

Many readers, however, remain unconvinced that a unique couple is disproved by the scientific data. We need Christian scientists with the expertise and patience to explain the scientific data and consensus on a level accessible to non-scientists and to point out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the data and interpretation. I haven’t the patience (or the ready expertise in genetics) to offer a coherent and accessible explanation on common descent and human genetics. Fortunately Dennis Venema, professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, has the patience, expertise and ability. Dennis is in the middle of a long series of excellent posts at Biologos exploring Adam, Eve, and human population genetics.

 The last few installments of Adam, Eve, and human population genetics have looked at the arguments Dr. Vern Poythress advanced in his recent short book Did Adam Exist?. Dr. Poythress’s scientific argument leaves much to be desired. He misinterprets the scientific papers he uses to defend his position that common descent is unsupported by the genetic data and that science cannot rule out a bottleneck consisting of one unique human couple as progenitor of the entire human race.  Dennis does an nice job of pointing out the problems with Dr. Poythress’s scientific argument.  Bad scientific arguments are far too common and do devastating damage to the faith of far too many. (See John Ortberg’s quote again.)

We need Christians like Dennis, engaged in science and with a heart for the church.

Why should Christians engage in science?

Do Stetzer’s reasons ring true? What might you add to the list?

How should Christians respond to the challenges raised?

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

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Maine_Skeptic

    I do wish more Christians would “engage with science,” as long as they accept the rules of science and don’t use their resources to insert false data into the discussion. We would be better off as a culture, because frankly, our general ignorance of science is doing a lot of harm here at home and in the rest of the world.

    The “teach the controversy” movement to teach creationism (or intelligent design – synonymous) as if it were science, is an example of a fundamental misunderstanding about what science is and how it is supposed to work. The reason Creationism should not be taught in school science classrooms is that it doesn’t meet the qualifications to become a scientific hypothesis. A valid scientific hypothesis provides enough specific detail that it can be disproven if it is untrue.

    Evolution *could* be disproven if it were not true. All it would take is, as one scientist put it, fossil evidence for a rabbit in the Cambrian Era. In fact, the reason evolution is considered factual is that it would be so easy to disprove it were it not true. Instead, it has made thousands of predictions about unfound discoveries that were later found.

    Creationism (or Intelligent Design) can’t be disproven, not because it’s true, but because supernatural intervention doesn’t require evidence. We also can’t disprove the existence of unicorns at some point in the past. All we can say is there’s no evidence they ever existed. The same can be said for Creationism.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Unfortunately I feel like this ceased being any sort of earnest debate long ago. Creationism is more about cultural/political tribalism than any honest dealing with the facts on the table. But I do applaud attempts of scientists who are Christians attempting to bridge the gap. Just chipping at the edges is more than worth it.

  • Zeke

    Because we know there is a creator, we should be the ones most concerned about his creation…

    The problem is apparent right off the bat. When investigating the origins of the universe and mankind, starting with the premise that there is a creator betrays an ignorance of the scientific method. Accepting a hypothesis as true is the antithesis of scientific inquiry.

  • Phil Miller

    I get what you’re saying, but acknowledging that the universe (or multi-verse, or whatever terminology cosmologists choose to use this week) has a beginning in some sense of the word is really not that big of a leap. Honest scientists admit that there is still mystery when answering the question of “where it all came from”. It is indeed the one question that science may never fully be able to answer simply because it’s beyond its ability to do so. It is really a philosophical question more than a scientific one. Part of the issue is that Christian has become synonymous with “Young Earth Creationist” to many people. That’s unfortunate, as there are plenty of Christians who have no problem letting the evidence regarding evolutionary theory and cosmologist speak. Whatever they can reveal about Creation is not a threat to the Christian faith.

  • JK

    The irony here is that Ortberg’s lament, and Maine_Skeptic’s, apply fully to Stetzer’s own survey work–generally shoddy, sometimes unethical (use of push-polling) and typically done in service to civil religion.

  • RJS4DQ

    Zeke,

    That point – “Because we know there is a creator …” isn’t a scientific or philosophical statement, it is a reason for why Christians can and should approach honest scientific investigation as an act of worship. I don’t expect it to hold weight with non-Christians, it was directed by Stetzer and by me at our fellow Christians.

    But on your second point – there are a number of hypotheses or postulates that we as scientists affirm. When I teach P-chem I don’t start by saying we can derive all of chemistry from nothing, I say that we can derive all of chemistry on the basis of a handful of postulates. We accept them as true because of their explanatory power.

    With respect to “because we know there is a creator,” contrast this with “because we know there is nothing beyond the natural.” Both of these can be wrestled with … some of us start with the (unprovable) first, others start with the (equally unprovable) second. If we all do science honestly it doesn’t make any difference to the scientific enterprise. It can make a difference to how we approach life.

  • RJS4DQ

    JK,

    I know this is your area of expertise, and that this is as annoying as the misuse of papers in human genetics or thermodynamics. I’ll let the comment stand – but I don’t want this to degenerate too far into side issues, if it does I’ll moderate. (This is a warning to those who might be tempted to respond more than to you.)

  • Christians truly engaging science (not just pretending to do science with preset conclusions) is going to require some deconstruction of a culture war mentality. It’s going to require confronting people who wave away whole bodies of evidence and research by saying, “true science agrees with Scripture” or “science changes and is therefore unreliable.” These are ideas that have been deeply ingrained in the parlance of evangelical culture, and they need to be confronted.

    I think the biggest hurdle is not necessarily Adam. It is death before “the Fall” that is the biggest issue, in my mind. And specifically human culpability for it. If original sin didn’t usher death into the world as originally conceived, then the whole issue has to be reconsidered. And there are plenty of resources on the topic. But in conversations on this topic I think people of faith would be quicker to accept a metaphoric Adam IF humans were still the ultimate cause of a fallen world. The fact that this has to be reconsidered in light of the fossil record is a burden on the minds of some. However, the alternative is to return to the closet of science denial and obscurantism.

  • AHH

    This is spot on from the perspective of this Christian scientist, both Stetzer’s reasons and RJS’s commentary. Interesting and encouraging to see this from Stetzer, who I gather is a prominent figure in the SBC. I hope he has influence on this, but I’m not holding my breath given the big influences in the SBC that are counterproductive along these lines (I’m thinking of Al Mohler who pits biology and geology against faith, and of SBC participation in the Cornwall Alliance that leads Christian opposition to climate science and creation care).

  • DavidC

    Absolutely agree with your first paragraph especially. Well said.

  • That last paragraph is important. Believers need to understand that in science the falsifiability of an idea, whether it can be tested empirically, is the whole game. We may derive unfalsifiable ideas (including faith claims) from some body of evidence, but those ideas are *not* a part of science. If they were, we’d end up building new scientific models on foundations lacking the grounding in theories that have withstood such tests of falsifiability.

    I think this boils down to a lack of humility: Some believers don’t want to let go of the idea that their faith is empirically provable. They don’t want to be humble about their faith, they would rather gloss over everything to arrive at their presuppositions. Science humbles us by showing all of us how ignorant we truly are and how difficult it is to really know something (especially ourselves).

    People of faith need to get used to living with uncertainty. It’s not just the first step to understanding science – it’s the first step to a more compassionate, generous, *humble* form of faith.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Everyone,
    This is why we need more creative theologians like Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. He was a man way ahead of his times that combined science and Christian faith together as well as a mystical heaven and earth theology. We need more spiritual genius like him.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Justin,

    This is indeed the big one. Somewhere along the way, a good number of theologians, philosophers, pastors and folks in the pew got the idea that faith claims are ultimately provable in the here and now, so, the search for proof continues.

    At the risk of sidetracking this discussion (RJS can get out the hook), what should we think about a statement like the following? Short of the Second Coming, Christian believers would be in an odd position if the existence of God was proven beyond doubt, philosophically or empirically.

  • AHH

    There are some fine people doing science-related theology in these times. John Polkinghorne, George Murphy, and Nancey Murphy (no relation, I think) come to mind. Those more comfortable with theological liberalism might choose Arthur Peacocke or Ted Peters or John Haught.

    The problem IMO is not as much lack of theologians as it is that theological wisdom related to science doesn’t make its way into the pews, or even for the most part into Evangelical seminaries. That may partly reflect a lack of “translation” into accessible form — which is a reason to appreciate and encourage those who try such as Scot and RJS and BioLogos.
    And much of what I just said about theology applies to Biblical interpretation as well.

  • wolfeevolution

    Stetzer’s second point is on the right track but doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s telling and sad to me that he fails to address how our anti-science positions drive away science-minded young believers (as Ortberg says). Stetzer only mentions non-Christians’ distaste for our anti-science stances, and he mentions how being anti-science drives some Christians away from science — as if it doesn’t push an even greater number away from faith.

    No, he could more accurately have said that dismissing science undermines our very faith, not just our witness, and it drives away not only non-Christians but also Christians. Going further: An anti-science community of faith will wither away in the 21st century to utter irrelevance, and thereby fail its commission to serve as a beacon of light to the nations.

    Depressing.

  • Lark62

    As a godless heathen I appreciate this post.

    It doesn’t bother me at all that christians approach science with an acceptance of a supernatural being.

    I just want to see an end to the us v. them culture wars spawned by those with an agenda. In Kitzmiller v. Dover, most (or maybe all) of the plaintiffs fighting against the teaching creationism were christians, including children of ministers and current Sunday school teachers. Yet the school board tried to paint them as anti christian.

    When a state legislature proposes a bill to sneak creationism back into the classroom, opposition is framed as anti christian. When a school in Minnesota tried to take 3rd graders to a creation museum last month, only atheists complained. And they took all the blame for hatefullly depriving little kids of a field trip and making them cry.

    Science is too important to our futures and our planet. We need to work together and not let the anti science voices continue to frame this as a battle between christians and the forces of darkness.