Theology & Culture (9): Why The Sciences Matter to God

During the 80s and 90s, while I was a cultural separatist and was unsure what to do with the arts, I certainly didn’t know what to do with the sciences. I knew that the sciences had made some major breakthroughs especially in the areas of medicine and technology, and for that reason they were valuable. But I also knew that many scientists seemed to view the sciences religiously; for them, the history of science seemed to provide a master narrative of the world, a narrative which they hold to in a deeply emotional and religious manner. Further, this master narrative was often portrayed as being in conflict with the biblical narrative; indeed, it is viewed as triumphant over the biblical narrative.

In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we read and discussed Stephen Barr’s 2007 article “Rethinking the Story of Science.”* Barr, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Delaware, points out that many scientists think there is a conflict between science and theology, when in fact the conflict is between materialism and theology. For him, there is no final conflict between science and theology. Barr argues that Christianity is rational, that it actually gave birth to modern science, and that its biblical narrative resonates with the best of science.

In the main body of his paper, Barr shows how scientific materialists claim that the history of science has rendered a theological conception of the world incredible; then he proceeds to overturn each of the materialists’ claims.

The first materialist claim is that Copernicus’ discoveries overturned religious cosmology. Barr responds that Copernicus did not overthrow anything in Christian theology. The geocentric notions of the earth came from Ptolemy and Aristotle, not from Christian Scripture. What actually has happened, Barr argues, is that scientists have come to affirm that the universe has a beginning, which is what theologians have argued for thousands of years.

A second materialist claim is that mechanism has triumphed over teleology; because of the discovery of “laws” of physics, there is no need to postulate a Designer. Barr rebuts that there is now an increasing unification of physics, such that physicists recognize that deep laws underlie physical effects, that these laws are profound and elegant, and that these laws imply some sort of cosmic Design. This is what theologians have affirmed for thousands of years.

A third materialist claim is that biology has dethroned humanity, showing that humans are merely animals who make up just a tiny part of a huge and hostile universe. Barr argues the opposite: as it turns out, the universe is amazingly (even gratuitously) hospitable to humans. Many features of our universe are fine-tuned in such a manner that a privation of, or a minute alteration of, those features would leave the universe uninhabitable for humans. Such “anthropic coincidences” seem to be built into nature. Theologians have affirmed this for thousands of years.

A fourth materialist claim is that man is a mere biochemical machine, and that this “fact” renders the God postulate unnecessary. However, Barr explains that some physicists are now arguing that quantum theory is incompatible with a materialist view of the mind. Theologians have argued against a materialist view of the mind for years. Barr concludes that the laws of the universe are grand and sublime in a way that implies design.

In light of these conflicting master narratives, how should Christians view the claims of science, especially when scientists’ claims conflict with theologians’ claims? Some Christians hold that there is an essential difference; they view science and theology as distinct and non-overlapping arenas, hermetically sealed off from one another. Because of this independence, there is no conflict between the two. Other Christians argue that there is a methodological difference; science and theology talk about the same realities, but do so in different and non-integrated ways. Some Christians speak of theologically-founded science, in which theology is prior to science, while others speak of scientifically-founded theology, in which science is prior to theology.

In our seminar, I sought to give a biblical-theological argument for the worth and value of the scientific enterprise. God is the author of both Scripture and nature, and therefore there can be no final conflict between the two. Theologians and scientists may conflict, but Scripture and nature do not.

When theologians and scientists find themselves in conflict, we should remember that either group is subject to error and therefore also subject to correction. For example, many scientists in the past believed that the universe was eternal, although many or most scientists now agree with theologians that the earth had a beginning (many scientists are proponents of a “Big Bang” theory). Or again, many theologians thought that the earth was flat, but now agree with scientists that the earth is round. Further, we should remember that the Bible is not a science textbook; the things that might seem like scientific errors in the Bible are actually interpretive errors on the part of theologians. Finally, we should remember that science is constantly changing. Scientific theories change continually, and we should beware of hurriedly ruling out a traditional interpretation of Scripture in order to fit some new theory.

Our seminar discussion on these matters was lively, and we agreed that: (1) conservative evangelicals often seem to have undervalued the discipline of science because of a Gnostic sort of dualism that devalues material things in favor of immaterial (“spiritual”) things; (2) evangelicals have more reason than anybody to consider science valuable and worthwhile, because the task of science is to study the good world God bequeathed us; (3) it is incumbent upon us to build world-class research universities that give scientists the freedom to do their work without laying aside their core convictions, the freedom to hypothesize Christianly as they attempt to make sense of the data; and (4) it is also incumbent upon us to encourage some of our children and students to study science in our Ivy League and major state universities. In so doing, these students will find themselves in places of influence, perhaps as research scientists and/or tenured professors of science at those same universities.

____________________

Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things (January 2007).

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  12Comments

  1. Drewe   •  

    Great post. Very well summarized.

    Science is very much about the art of observation and description. Observe a phenomena, then describe it, then test the description against further observation.

    So in that regard, science in the end has no choice but to prove first intelligent design, and then God. Of course I am speaking ahead of many science theories, but I believe that will be our final outcome.

    Drewe

  2. Jessica   •  

    Yes! So how long until we incorporate the history of science into our History of Ideas curriculum? Or expand our college to teach the sciences (and math!) to the glory of God in Christ? Or invite folks like Stephen Barr (and my man, James Nickel) through the CF&C? The scientific materialist worldview is certainly a major battlefront of our time! May God bless your studies and leadership day by day!

  3. Lee   •  

    Great presentation. The more that I learn about science and Judeo-Christian theology the more harmony that I see. I especially like your affirmation that “the Bible is not a science textbook.” This is in agreement with 2 Tim 3:16 which states that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for….” Nowhere in that verse, which is generally used to affirm Biblical inerrancy, does it say that the Bible is intended to explain science. But the Bible DOES reveal everything that we need to know regarding man’s relationship to God and man.

    We don’t need to know HOW God (e.g., created the universe) only to accept that He DID.

  4. Jay Bailey   •  

    Bravo Bruce! Indeed God made everything and made everything good which has been marred by the fall, Man and Creation, everything. Our understanding of God through creation, nature , or science is incomplete and will ever remain so until we are redeemed fully in Glory. As a Science major in college I studied many theories that have been proven to be wrong and inconclusive as well as others that have been proven true and breakthroughs in medical science and physics have allowed for some amazing technological advances. While we study the world around us and each other we should remain humble in the fact that our minds cannot fully grasp the wonders of God nor will we ever be able to understand every particle that has been so marvelously designed. Science in particular physics, chemistry and biology are always going to point us back to a Creator and never are in conflict with scripture. Scripture does not spell out in detail the act of creation so we study science to find out as much as we can. Our limitations are a result of the fall and the fact that we are the creation and not the Creator. I applaud your encouragement for Christians to go and study in the halls of some of the great institutions of higher learning and be a witness to the cohesion of science and scripture. Some of the great scientists were believers whose shoulders we stand today Newton, Galileo etc. and we should not assume that we cannot be both scientist and Christian. Indeed the heavens declare the Glory of our God.
    Jay

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jessica, you are spot on! I’ll start by saying that the CFC will be having a “theology and science” forum in the near future. As for the History of Ideas curriculum, you ought to write the HOI profs and suggest it… Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Lee, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the blogpost. I want to affirm anything that Scripture affirms, and affirm it in precisely the way that Scripture affirms it, but not ascribe to Scripture things that it does not actually affirm. More than a few critics criticize evangelicals for views of inerrancy that we don’t even affirm. And more than a few critics misinterpret Scripture and then accuse the biblical account of error.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dr. Bailey, thank you for bringing your (important) thoughts to bear on this discussion. You correct that, because of the Fall, and because of our finitude as human beings, we must be “humble knowers” whether we are scientists or theologians. Theologians can misread Scripture, or make fallacious inferences from Scripture, etc. Scientists can misread nature, or make fallacious inferences from nature, etc. In the end, it will be proven that God’s Word and God’s Creation to do not conflict, but rather cohere beautifully to the glory of God the Creator.

  8. John   •  

    I read Francis Collins’ _The Language of God_ last year, and I found this quote from St. Augustine: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side, that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” _The Literal Meaning of Genesis_, i.41.

    I hope we can learn from St. Augustine’s wisdom and try to reverse the anti-science antagonism that seems to pervade American Evangelicalism, including the SBC. Anyone with an interest in theology and science should read Collins’ book. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you’ll still consider the book time well spent.

    JA
    “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak. As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” – Dr. Robert Jastrow, _God and the Astronomers_

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    John, thank you. I agree that Collins’ book is well worth the time spent in reading it, even if I don’t agree with all of his presuppositions or conclusions. And I would broaden your point a bit by saying that it behooves evangelicals to spend some time reading thought-provoking scientific work even if, and especially if, they do not agree with the conclusions of that particular book. Without doing so, we are not able to enter into a long-standing scientific conversation (stretching over the course of thousands of years) which is of manifold and pervasive significance.

    Also, thanks for reminding us of the great quotes by Augustine and Jastrow.

  10. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr.Ashford:

    My experience of 40 years as a Christian, a lay Bible teacher, and an “armchair scientist” (actually a software engineer) suggests to me that the “conflict” between science and the Bible is both ill-informed and unnecessary. All your points are spot on.

    I don’t exactly know why most Christians have a default mindset that “science” is inherently “anti-Christian”. I guess they confuse science (where the methodology is to propose theories based upon obvervation and test them as new data is obtained) with “religion” (where guys make claims and then don’t examine them based upon experimental results). I’d say that “Darwinism” is one such religion.

    As Christians, we can get away with being “religious” since I don’t think — even in principle — there is an experiment we can do to prove God exists or that their is such a thing as eternal life as a result of trusting in Christ. However, a scientist can’t get by with such stuff, because to be “scientific” stuff has to be subject to being independently verified emperically.

    If Darwinism can be shown to be true when a reproducable lab experiment verifies it then I’ll believe it. Then I’d no longer have to accept the idea of devine creation — which although it is a more credible position — it is one I have to take right now on faith. I can’t do a reproducable experiment to prove that God created the earth. Neither can someone else (say some “scientist”) do a reproducable experiment to show that God didn’t create the universe. So the only thing left for us as we ponder this question is some type of “religion” — either Christianity (or some type of theism) or materialism.

    This is a great post!

    Roger Simpson Oklahoma City

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Roger,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and make extensive comments. I particularly like your point about lack of empirical verification. I would add that when one applies probability theory to Darwinian evolution, one finds a mathematical absurdity.

  12. Brian Forbes   •  

    I’d just like to finish the Augustine doctrine quoted by John.

    “…a man is not in any difficulty in making a reply according to his faith … to those who try to defame our Holy Scripture. … when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture … either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. …let us choose [the doctrine] which appears as certainly the meaning intended by the author. … For it is one thing to fail to recognize the primary meaning of the writer, and another to depart from the norms of religious belief.”
    http://college.holycross.edu/faculty/alaffey/other_files/Augustine-Genesis1.pdf (Same book.)

    The conflict isn’t with science, but with scripture. (E.g. death before sin, Jesus on marriage and the 2nd coming, God’s finger about the Sabbath, etc.)

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