In an increasingly global and secular scientific culture, the cutting edge of Christian engagement is the conversation with science. In fact, the progress or decline of Christian faith in the 21st century depends largely on its dialogue with science.
For Christians, the current cultural skirmishes might seem to be about the best expressions of human sexuality, freedom of speech, or the rights of Christian schools to hire and fire.
But there is an underlying issue that those depend on and which is far more important: can Christianity even be taken seriously in a scientific age?
In every generation, cultural and intellectual debate redefines the “plausibility structure” that determines the limits of what is believable, of what is even possibly true. And the task of Christian apologetics – the defence of the faith – is to enter that cultural fray and argue the case that the Christian faith is credible.
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An example: no amount of Christian comment on marriage is relevant if people think Christianity is just hocus-pocus without any claim to truth.
G.K. Chesterton famously said that Christianity “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
And if science is the standard of truth, then the credibility of the faith depends on the way people view its relationship with science. If people are convinced that science and Christianity are in conflict, there are no prizes for guessing which side most will vote for. So, while Christians are confident that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against God’s church, that is no guarantee of a continuing place at the cultural table. Nor is it a theological excuse for retreat from the marketplace of ideas.
Yes, the faith will endure. But “love God with all your mind” and being prepared to “give an account for the hope that is in you” are the Bible’s call to Christians to engage vigorously with the powerful voices that would sideline Christianity without taking it seriously.
G.K. Chesterton famously said that Christianity “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Today, the demands of the gospel mean it is found difficult, and the pressures of political correctness mean that faith is left untried. And for those who find faith difficult and who would rather leave it untried, the most common excuse given is that science and faith can’t mix. So, in sociological and intellectual terms (and leaving out the sovereign work of God), the science–faith conversation is the cutting edge of Christianity surviving in the Western world; it’s the front of advance or retreat of credible Christianity.
Science and Christianity: both gifts of God’s grace
The gifts of science are numerous, breathtaking and worthy of deep gratitude. As a means of discovering truth about the natural world, science is outstanding, offering extraordinary insight into the mechanisms of the universe and of life itself. Scientific knowledge offers a power that has led to rapidly increasing health and wealth for all, including the poorest of the global population.
But no amount of science can provide answers to questions of meaning or morality. Science cannot tell us when its products are well spent and when not: it cannot tell us if the means of ending life painlessly should be used; it cannot tell us whether the next generation of weapons is for good or ill; it cannot tell us whether we ought to spend billions on space exploration or sustainable agriculture. It cannot tell us if life has a purpose. It cannot tell us if there is (or is not) a God. These are all questions outside the reach of science.
And the gifts of Christianity, too, at a purely secular level, are clear. Human rights entrenched worldwide, convictions about charity, compassion, justice, the social welfare net, equality – all have roots and motivations deep within the Christian faith.
Culture and credibility
But the Christian worldview, which is foundational to a Western culture of equality and corresponding rights, is being dismantled piece by piece. While vestiges remain, such as the equal dignity of all human beings or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” they are now adrift from their roots, which lie in the conviction that humans are made in the image of God.
With globalisation and the spread of techno-scientific thinking and practices, a secular scientific worldview is advancing to all corners of the earth. This view, most aggressively championed by the so-called New Atheists, challenges all non-scientific thinking in its advance. So, the right to be heard depends partly on getting along with mainstream science.
In the face of this changing balance of cultural forces and views about what is credible and what should be relegated to incredibility, there are two options open to Christians.
In every generation, it needs to be proclaimed again in pulpits and peer-reviewed articles: there is no conflict between science and faithful Christian belief!
The first option is to beat the retreat to the Christian ghetto. This path asserts that science and religion are worlds apart and that – borrowing from Os Guinness – Christianity might be privately engaging but it is publicly (and scientifically) irrelevant. This is a backward step; it involves denying that Christian faith is true in any serious sense. It involves accepting the New Atheist line that faith in Jesus Christ is akin to believing in the tooth fairy or Father Christmas.
But there is another option: a way that has been the orthodox manner of engagement since the beginning of the Christian era. Following the example of Jesus, Paul the apostle debated with the public world of his time on the Areopagus in Athens – also known as Mars’ Hill. And for 2000 years since, thoughtful Christians have proclaimed that the God of the Bible is revealed both within that book and also through other human learning.
This second option is to follow the path trodden by the great Christian scientists and thinkers of history and to thoroughly affirm the “two books of God” – the book of his word and the book of his world. In every generation, it needs to be proclaimed again in pulpits and peer-reviewed articles: there is no conflict between science and faithful Christian belief!
The conflict thesis is bunkum
The past crowd of witnesses who saw no conflict includes hundreds of the great names of Western history. To name only a few who are prominent in the history of science: William of Ockham (remember Ockham’s Razor?), Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal (and his famous triangle), Boyle (of gas law fame), Bernoulli (his law keeps planes in the air), Lavoisier (we owe chemistry to him), Faraday (invented the electric motor), Maxwell (electromagnetic fields), William Bragg, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg (creator of quantum mechanics) – the last three also won Nobel Prizes.
And, in case you are prone to the prejudice that devalues past thinkers as if they were ignorant in the light of present knowledge, there is no question that numerous outstanding living scientists are also Christians: John Houghton, lead editor of an early report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Francis Collins, who led the human genome project and is now head of the US Government National Institutes of Health. And in Australia, we have examples of eminent scientists who are also Christians (see box below).
Into the fray
The time for simplistic belief and unbelief is over. Fundamentalists, religious and atheist, must give up their ground to views that hold science in its rightful place as servant of a broader worldview – Christianity in its fullness – which offers the soil out of which grew both modern science and a global framework of equality and human rights. It is time for Christian thinkers, and especially those who are involved in science and technology, to take up the challenge laid down by secularists and to speak up and to speak loudly about their own experience of integrating their faith with the best that science has to offer.
It is time for Christian scientists to come out of the shadows; their science is important, but the future of a culture deeply rooted in human dignity and meaningful existence depends also on knowing there is more to truth than what science can offer.
It is time for pastors to convince their flocks, so that no Christian lives with the secret suspicion that faith is actually opposed to science and serious thinking.
It is time for theological educators to ensure their students comprehend that the study of God’s word and the study of his works in creation are not incompatible; the basics of apologetics and some understanding of science should be normal training for Christian ministry in a scientific age.
In short, it is time to proclaim in every pulpit and public space, in the universities and the Twittersphere, in every Christian classroom and lecture theatre, that the conflict with science is a beat-up, and that the proclamation of the gospel is hindered if God’s people don’t get along with science.
Chris Mulherin is an Anglican minister and Executive Director of ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology. He also teaches philosophy and climate change at two Melbourne universities.