This Common Commitment: What Science and Christian Theology Have in Common by Ross Hastings

My interest in the integration of science and theology comes out of having inhabited both vocations. Within each, disbelief that this is possible has often been expressed from professed Christians, and many who are not.

‘How do you put those two things together?’ is the skeptical question I am often asked when I say in the occasional golf game that I have worked in both chemistry and the Church.

My interest in both theology and science arises also out of a curiosity to know the truth that “takes care of itself,” as Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton has written, in every realm of reality, and that sets us free. I am motivated by two faith commitments: first, that all truth is God’s truth, and second that all truth concerning the creation of the universe and its reconciliation is centered in the God-Man Jesus who said, ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6).

He is as the eternal Word, both the agent of creation and the revelation of God to us. In Him, God has both created and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to Himself. In Him ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col.2:3).

A Vigorous Integration
Therefore, fledgling Christian scientists may pursue truth fearlessly in careers in science, assured that no discovery will ever surprise or outsmart Christ.

In light of this, it is only appropriate for Christians to develop a curiosity for knowledge about creation and science that will evoke a sense of wonder and worship.

Any attempt to integrate science and theology must be vigorous, though always tentative and guided by the essentials of Christian faith, or historic Christian orthodoxy as this has been revealed in Scripture properly interpreted, and expressed in the Creeds. Christian theology and science in fact share a common commitment to the fearless pursuit of truth no matter its source, in a hands-on or empirical fashion. Both acknowledge that knowledge is gained by more than mere abstract reasoning.

This not only validates science, but also theology.

Theological discoveries are made in a fashion similar to how scientific discoveries are made. Scientists tend to privilege fact to what is scientifically verifiable, to the neglect of historical fact. In fact, both have merit. The development of the most important doctrine of the Christian faith, that is, the full deity and humanity of Christ and then, the Trinity, was in response to the historical and tangible experience of the apostles and the early church.
John’s particular description of this as sensual experience is intriguing: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1). Lesslie Newbigin writes in an essay entitled “The Trinity as Public Truth,” that the doctrine of the Trinity was the result of “a new fact .”

That new fact was the Resurrection.

Of course, science does require reproducibility of findings. However, given that historical facts do not allow such a possibility, forming theological knowledge on history is not absurd, but reasonable. We will have to wait to the end of the age to argue the reproducibility of the Christian experience of resurrection, but we can see some evidence of it in the regeneration of human believers and in the continuity of the church.

How Science has helped
Personally I have found that scientific training has served me well in exegesis — the critical explanation and interpretation of a Bible text — and theological thinking. Both entail forming hypotheses based on the available data, both are empirical in that sense, both share the rigorous application of intellect, and both ought also to appreciate the limits of intellect.

Science and Christianity are not as far apart as my golfing buddys’ incredulities suggest.

Science is also art
Michael Polanyi, a chemist and a philosopher, believed that “Science can’t be done without imagination and passion.” Another way to say this is that science is also an art.
Polanyi observed that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are shot-through with strong personal feelings and commitments. His most famous work was titled Personal Knowledge. Arguing against the then dominant position that science was somehow value-free, Polanyi sought to bring reasoned and critical interrogation into creative tension with other more tacit forms of knowing.

Christians may engage boldly with science in light of the realization that science is in fact Christian in its historical origins, and that a specifically Trinitarian, incarnational worldview has been more compatible with the pursuit of science than other worldviews.
The reason that this sounds counter-intuitive has a lot to do with Enlightenment prejudices. Doing science within a Christian framework was in fact the way in which science prospered best in the history of human civilization, as Michael Foster, an Oxford philosopher of the 1930s has shown. Foster sought to overcome the warfare language with respect to science and faith propagated by others. He demonstrated that the medieval Christian view of matter as created, and thus important, but not divine, made the study of science even possible.

Many nations of a pantheistic bent were too fearful of nature to study it by means of sensuous experience. Other nations, like the Greeks, viewed matter as unimportant, and could never advance science beyond abstract reasoning. Empirical science through sensuous experience took root, as my fellow Regent College professor, Loren Wilkinson writes, “through the Christian experience of the Creator-God of love who invented physical reality, and who in Jesus, became a part of it, [and] changed forever how we value that knowledge.” (“The New Story of Creation: A Trinitarian Perspective ‘What God does,’ Crux XXX, 4 (December 1994): 26–36.) Wilkinson continues, ‘like who God is, is inexhaustible, surprising and gracious. Knowledge comes through engaged experience, not detached contemplation.”

What Post-modernity has done
Interestingly, in this, the post-modern era, the compatibility of science and Christian theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ has edged closer together. Post- modernity has, by its honesty about the relative uncertainty of knowledge, done the Christian church a great favour, enabling us to engage in the public square with confidence that the assertions of everybody else in that square are also fiduciary — that is, based on faith in something (even atheism lives by an indemonstrable faith) – in nature. Post-modernity has exposed the gods of modernity as unreliable.

Christians should, of all people, engage in science fearlessly. It is a significant vocation in the fulfilling of the creation or cultural mandate given initially to the first Adam to steward creation. Scientists can, in Christ, recover the wonder of being priests of creation, humans who ‘give creation a voice’, and in so doing, play a crucial role in the caring of this amazing creation which God has entrusted to us.

If God has in Christ reconciled the creation to himself, it must have a future. We as the new humanity need to rise up, scientists included, to participate with God in that renewal. Christians need have no fear of engaging in the world of science, for we should have no fear of truth. We are simply worshippers of the Story-teller behind the cosmic story.

(This article also appeared in Faith Today)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 Articles

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