How does Christian faith promote scientific endeavor?

Last Saturday (April 22, 2017) I participated in the March for Science. You can see in the picture above what my sign said.

Lots of people took photos of it. Several engaged me in conversation. One person looked at the sign in near disbelief and asked, “Is that all true?” “Yes,” I replied, “I support science, and I have a Ph.D. in theology.” “Well,” she responded, “it sounds like you and I could have a great philosophical discussion some day. But in the meantime, thanks for being here.” I told her I’d felt it was important for me to be there.

Our local NPR station had a reporter covering the event. When she spotted my sign, she took my picture (that’s her photo above) and interviewed me along the route. I shared the coverage on Facebook and one person commented, “You should post an article on your blog about how exactly your theology leads you to support modern science.” I thought that was a great idea. So here goes!

As George Harrison said in the movie Help!, “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion,” but faiths such as Buddhism teach that the material world is an illusion. We need to look past it and escape from it in order to find enlightenment and truth. The Judeo-Christian world view, by contrast, is that the material creation is a genuine reality with positive spiritual import. It was created intentionally by a good God (not by mistake by a bad demigod, as the Gnostics taught) and declared to be “very good.”

In fact, the Bible holds that creation itself can speak to us about God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” Psalm 19 says. Paul writes in Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” So Christian faith gives us confidence that when we observe the world around us, in effect, we can trust our eyes—what we’re seeing is not a spiritual illusion.

Beyond this, the Judeo-Christian world view is that the created world is orderly and harmonious. It’s not hopelessly swirling about in confusion and chaos. Of course the Bible, since it comes from a pre-scientific era, doesn’t say specifically that the universe is governed by rules and laws such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics. (When it comes to this view of the universe, which is no longer the state of the art but which has made indispensable contributions to our understanding, we may quote Alexander Pope’s intended epitaph for Isaac Newton: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”) But the Bible does portray the creation as intentionally well-organized and regular, allowing observations of phenomena to be made today that will still be valid tomorrow, and permitting conclusions drawn in one area to be applied in other areas. If all were chaos instead, we couldn’t make sense of out anything.

And ultimately I would argue that Christian faith actually encourages us to go out and explore the created world. As I told the reporter along the march, I believe that science answers questions of what, when, and how, while religion answers questions of who and why. The two are not in competition because they’re answering different questions. Science intentionally limits itself to what can be observed and measured, so it does not properly get into metaphysics. (Saying that there is nothing beyond what can be observed and measured, for example, is not a scientific statement!) Similarly, the Bible was not written to give us comprehensive information about the natural world. Instead, I believe it pushes us out into that world to find the information out for ourselves.

Let me advocate for this, in conclusion, by quoting some relevant thoughts from the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with my brother-in-law Stephen Godfrey, who is curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum. (We have now put this book online as a series of blog posts, followed by a question-and-answer forum.)

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” King Solomon, who wrote these words, was noted for his natural-scientific investigations: “He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish.” In these days when many of us enjoy the kind of leisure for cultural, artistic and scientific pursuits that only kings formerly enjoyed, we may paraphrase Solomon’s words in this way: “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.” When we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes. So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm. There is no script that you need to follow, no predetermined conclusion that your results need to square with. If there were, God would not really have “hidden” these treasures for us to find. They’re out there – go get them!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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