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

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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.

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

Theology & Culture (8): Why The Arts Matter to God

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As a young believer and a cultural separatist in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty sure that “the arts” were very bad in some foreboding but non-specific manner. I wasn’t sure why they were so bad, but it seemed self-evident that I was supposed to be “agin’ it, not fer it.” During my childhood years, I had a rather limited television intake (The Andy Griffith Show was an exception, although the presence of Otis made even this show “iffy”), an almost non-existent movie intake (except for Billy Graham movies), and a zero-calorie music diet (classical music and hymns only; rock music was Satan’s music, and I knew this because Bill Gothard told me so).

Now, don’t get me wrong-I’m happy about the alternatives my parents presented. I read books (lots of them, including biography, history, theology, fiction, etc.), I played sports, and I spent time with my family. But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t sure “what to do with” the arts, including popular art forms like cinema, television, and Top-40 music. I knew that I disagreed with a lot of the messages that were being put forth through those media, but I also knew that some of it was beautiful and that all of it was powerfully influential.

Because of this recognition that I didn’t know what to do with the arts, in my college and early seminary years, I fluctuated between cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony, sometimes within the space of one week. It wasn’t until I discovered L. Russ Bush and Francis Schaeffer that I began to learn “what to do with” the arts. L. Russ Bush was the Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at SEBTS. In his introductory philosophy course, he covered the history of philosophy and while doing so illustrated by pointing to movies, music, and television shows which espoused particular philosophical viewpoints. In his Ph.D. Seminar on Christian Faith & the Modern Mind, he surveyed late 20th century art, architecture, cinema, and music, showing the philosophical and religious underpinnings of various artists and works of art.

During Dr. Bush’s courses, he introduced us to Christian art critics such as Hans Rookmaaker (professional art historian and critic) and Francis Schaeffer (Christian theologian and apologist). Schaeffer’s work (which depended in part upon Rookmaaker’s) has been enduringly influential among evangelicals and is crafted for non-specialists, so his work shaped my view of art early on.

In fact, in my recent seminar on Theology & Culture (cross-listed for undergrad and grad students), we read Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible.* This slim little volume provides a handy starting point for a discussion of theology and the arts, so I will mediate a bit of Schaeffer’s thought, in the hopes that this brief blogpost will stimulate further interest in theology and the arts.

At the beginning of the book, Schaeffer makes a biblical-theological argument for the goodness of the arts. He began by arguing for the Lordship of Christ over every realm of culture and specifically over the arts. He continued by giving multiple specific examples of Scripture promoting the arts. He honed in on the art in the tabernacle and Temple, on “secular” art in the Bible, on Jesus’ use of art, on poetry in music in the Bible, on drama and dance in the Bible, and finally on the pervasively “artful” portrayal of heaven’s beauty.

After having built his theological case for the arts, he begins to theologize about the arts. One of the more noteworthy sections is his provision of four standards by which one can judge a work of art. The first standard is technical excellence: a painting, for example, should be judged on its use of color, form, balance, the unity of the canvas, its handling of lines, etc. The second standard is validity: is the artist honest to himself and his worldview (or does he, for example, sell out for money)? The third standard is content: is the artist’s worldview resonant with a Christian worldview? An artist’s body of work reveals his worldview, even though he may not be aware of this. The fourth standard is integration of content and vehicle: does this work of art correlate its content with its style?

Another noteworthy section is Schaeffer’s articulation of four types of artists. The first is the Christian artist who works from within a Christian worldview. The second is the non-Christian who works within a non-Christian worldview. The third is the non-Christian who works with the remnants and residue of a Christian worldview. The fourth is the Christian who does not fully grasp the Christian worldview and therefore works with elements of a non-Christian worldview. The first type of artist is the one Schaeffer considers exemplary.

Schaeffer was not a professional art critic and his work has some flaws. However, he is profoundly right about several things: (1) Christians ought to produce good art, art which arises from within a comprehensive Christian worldview; (2) this art does not have to be explicitly religious (e.g. having manger scene as its subject matter) and in fact is often more powerful when it is not; and (3) Christians ought to be aware of the art arising from their culture because such art makes us aware of the worldviews underlying it, worldviews which are deficient and can be remedied by the gospel and a Christian worldview.

My conviction is that one of the various reasons Christians have an increasingly ineffective witness in the United States is because we have abdicated our responsibility to glorify God within the arts. To the extent that we have involved ourselves in the arts, we have done so by creating music labels and music production companies that produce art that is explicitly about religious characters and often is preachy and not very compelling. In the most influential sectors of American society (Hollywood, New York, etc.) we have fled the premises.

May God grant us young men and women who will view their lives missiologically, and immerse themselves in arts communities in Hollywood, New York, and Nashville, proclaiming and embodying the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical for those particular communities.

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*Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

Theology & Culture (7): Why Vocation Matters to God

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The notion of vocation (calling) is significant to any discussion of theology and culture because all of a Christian’s vocations are at the intersection of theology and culture. In our recent Theology & Culture seminar, which was the impetus for this blog series, our discussion centered on Gene Veith’s God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Crossway, 2002). Veith’s book is a contemporary exposition of Martin Luther’s teaching on vocation, as conveyed primarily through his sermons.

As Veith argues, following Luther, God works through people and does so through their callings. Every Christian has at least four callings-family, church, workplace, and community. The purpose of one’s callings is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:30-31). In our vocations, we demonstrate our love for God by doing all that we do to his glory. We demonstrate our love for our neighbor by fulfilling our callings faithfully and with excellence. We depend upon others, and they depend upon us.

Evangelical Christians may be very aware of their callings to family and church, but perhaps less likely to view their workplaces or communities as places of calling. For this reason, I’ll spend a bit more time on workplace and community.

Family & Church

In the family we find “the most basic of all vocations, the one in which God’s creative power and his providential care are most dramatically conveyed through human beings.”* The marriage relationship is a calling, as it is a manifestation of the relationship between Christ and the church. It is significant because our family life is a lever for unseating our unselfishness. It is further important because family is the place in which a child learns to honor their father and mother on the way toward learning to honor their Heavenly Father. Further, in the church we learn to love God and one another, serve God and one another, have our masks and pretenses unveiled, and live grace- and gospel-centered lives. The church is a window through which a watching world sees Christ because the church is indeed the body of Christ.

Workplace

Is it fair to say that most evangelicals do not recognize their workplaces as a significant way to love God and neighbor? I think so. In my experience, we tend to view our jobs as ways to “put bread on the table,” “build a good life for ourselves,” and maybe even share the gospel. But rarely if ever do we view the job itself as a calling from God.

In fact, most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at our workplaces. We make many relationships, interact in several spheres of culture, and use many of our God-given abilities while we are simply doing our jobs. It would be a shame to waste our workplaces. There are at least three ways in which we can make the most of our jobs:

First, we can speak and embody the gospel in appropriate ways at our jobs. For many people, the workplace brings them into contact with many unbelievers who may have never heard the gospel or seen a Christian living in a gospel-centered manner in front of their very eyes.

Second, we can realize that God ordained work before the Fall. God is the one who created us in his image and likeness, gifted us with the moral, rational, creative, and relational capacities we use to accomplish our work, and commanded us to do all things (including our work) for his glory and renown. Work is part of what it means to be human. Our obligation, therefore, is to offer our work to God as worship, seeking to do it with faithfulness and excellence.

Third, we can realize that God often works through our jobs to love his image-bearers. In other words, God uses the products of our work to provide for our fellow citizens. When God wants to feed a hungry child, he does not usually do so in miraculous manner; he usually does so through farmers, truck drivers, grocery store owners (and clerks and stock boys), contractors and electricians and plumbers (and everybody else who helps to build the grocery stores), and a myriad of other types of workers.

In a sentence, don’t waste your workplace.

Community

Another calling which we often neglect is our calling to be a citizen of multiple communities-town, state, national, and global communities. Even in a democratic republic, we sometimes limit our calling to voting about political candidates, and then whining about them or insulting them. In fact, God has placed each of us within multiple communities, and provides us with many ways to serve these communities within our own unique life situations.

First, we can love our communities by faithfully fulfilling our calling to our families, churches, and workplaces. In so doing, we serve our communities in a deep and profound manner. Second, we can love our communities by being active in the mediating structures of our communities-structures such as schools, non-profit organizations, newspapers, blogs, etc. Third, we can love our community by being actively involved in the political process, and doing so in a manner that embodies grace and gospel as well as wisdom and realism.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our callings are our primary means to bring God glory, loving Him and our neighbor. If we are seeking to fulfill these callings faithfully and with excellence, canmultiply our faithfulness in every dimension of society and culture, and across the fabric of our shared human existence.

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*Gene Veith, God at Work (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 78.