SCIENCE AND FAITH: INTRODUCTION
Robert J. Schneider
Several years ago, I described to a Berea College student a course I was about to teach in our Senior Seminar. "Science and Faith" would look at the modern scientific world picture and responses to it in contemporary Christian theology and spirituality. I said I wanted to help our Christian students understand that there is no conflict between science rightly understood and faith in the God revealed in the Bible. "I'm glad to hear that," she said. "I'm going to major in biology, and when I told a friend that, she became upset, and said, 'You can't be a scientist and be a Christian!' and I said, 'That's not true!'" Another student, a chemistry major who is an Old Regular Baptist, once spoke of his attempts to explain to other believers how he could accept the scientific theory of evolution and still believe that God has created the universe. He was often greeted with disbelief: how could anyone believe in both evolution and the Bible?
I know that many Berea College students hold these points of view, and I believe this fact reflects a widespread suspicion, developed over the years from sermons, Sunday school lessons, and radio/TV preachers, that certain ideas and theories of modern science are contrary to one's faith, and even threatens one's salvation. Readers at other colleges and universities may recognize these sentiments, for they permeate American society. The fears these messages evoke are real, and one can hear their undertones at any school board meeting whenever parents and their children raise objections to teaching evolution and demand that creationism in some form be included with or replace evolution in science courses. My colleagues who teach the Natural Science core course at Berea College encounter them regularly. I once heard such anxiety voiced and saw it written on the faces of several students when I critiqued a presentation on creation and evolution at Berea by Dr. Gary Parker of Answers in Genesis, the young-earth creationist organization located in Florence, Kentucky. I knew well why. Parker had reinforced their creationist beliefs about how God created the universe; and his critique of evolution, expressed with such an air of confidence and authority, was reassuring to them. I threatened this reassurance when I pointed out the errors and flaws in his presentation, and offered an alternative Christian model for understanding creation and evolution that brought the two together. The fact that I was one of the Berea faculty members who publicly and regularly expressed his Christian commitment may only have added to what appeared to be for these students a discomforting experience of cognitive dissonance.
The students who participated in this discussion and most of those enrolled in my course are representative of the great majority of Berea College students who are committed to one of the evangelical or fundamental traditions of Christianity represented in American culture. About 45% belong to one of the many Baptist denominations, another 19% are Pentecostal-Holiness, and in addition many others belong to the more conservative branches of the historic reformation churches. So, it was no surprise that most of those who enrolled in my course "Science and Faith" would display in their essays, journals and discussions the religious perspectives found in these traditions. What I was not prepared for was the difficulty I would face in helping some of them to move out of their "comfort zones." I learned that because my own Christian tradition and ways of understanding the Bible differed from those of the majority of my students, I needed to gain a much better grasp of their perspectives in order to present both science and theology in ways that would speak more effectively to their understandings of Christian faith. By the time I retired from active teaching in May 2001, I had just begun to do so.
The collection of essays that I am introducing here will permit me to continue this effort. The topics we explored in my course are revisited in this collection. Creation in the Bible, historical Christian theologies of creation, and reflections on the Bible and science will form the first set. The next several essays explore scientific and theological perspectives on cosmology and the evolution of the universe, biological and human evolution, contemporary theologies of an evolving creation, and contemporary challenges to the evolutionary world-view. The collection will be completed with essays on modern neuroscience and concepts of the soul, chaos and complexity theories, perspectives on the environment and caring for creation, and creation-centered spirituality.
These written explorations will specifically highlight the contributions and perspectives of evangelical Christians who are scientists or science teachers, and biblical scholars and theologians, including some who wear both hats.
Other Christians who represent so-called "mainline" Protestant, Anglican (Episcopalian), and Roman Catholic perspectives will be cited also, and I hope it will become clear that all of these Christians, evangelical or not, share a widespread consensus about modern scientific theories and biblical faith.
Since I am presenting the views of evangelical thinkers in science and religion, I wish to state more specifically what group of Christians I am referring to. That is not a simple task. "Evangelical" and "evangelicalism" are terms difficult to reduce to a simple formula or description. Recent books on the subject (Hunter, 1983; Marsden, 1984; Noll, 2001) reveal just how varied and complex American evangelical Christianity is. I hope the following descriptions will be illuminating. Firstly, sociologist James Hunter has grouped into four categories denominations or traditions that describe themselves as evangelical: "(1) the Baptist tradition, (2) the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition, (3) the Anabaptist tradition, and (4) the Reformational-Confessional tradition" (Hunter 7). This rather wide net would draw in (1) Old Regular and Southern Baptists; (2) Nazarenes, and members of the Churches of Christ and the Christian and Missionary Alliance; (3) Mennonites and Brethren; and (4) Lutherans and members of smaller reformed or free churches such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. You the Christian reader may belong to one of these or many others within these four categories, but even if you don't you may consciously wear this label, as do large numbers of my fellow Episcopalians and Methodists.
Secondly, evangelicals may be identified by certain faith convictions. Historian and evangelical Mark Noll, a highly respected scholar of American Christianity, uses the set articulated by British historian David Bebbington (Noll 13, 30). They include four basic convictions and practices: "conversionism (an emphasis on the 'new birth' as a life-changing experience of God), biblicism (a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority), activism (a concern for sharing the faith), and crucicentrism (a focus on Christ's redeeming work on the cross, usually pictured as the only way to salvation)." Another list of faith convictions by British evangelical theologian Alister McGrath expands on Bebbington's. McGrath notes six "Evangelical Distinctives":
- The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.
- The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the Savior of sinful humanity.
- The lordship of the Holy Spirit.
- The need for personal conversion.
- The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole.
- The importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth. (McGrath, quoted in Harvey)
While the majority of American evangelicals are white and Protestant, these convictions or "distinctives" are also firmly held by members of African-American Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal denominations and independent churches and by a significant minority of Roman Catholics (Noll 29-43).
The evangelicals I shall cite in these essays are persons whose denominational loyalties and faith convictions fall within these descriptions. Many of them are active in the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a sixty-year old organization of mostly evangelical Christians in science and science education, of which I am an Associate Member. They include persons who teach or have taught at colleges, universities, and seminaries, or are or were active in science-related professions. Among their number are biblical scholars, theologians, field geologists, physicists and astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, cosmologists, computer specialists in the natural sciences, and chemical and petroleum engineers. They include experts on the Book of Genesis and Scripture generally, the history of science, petroleum exploration, marine fossils, radioactive dating, genomics, various aspects of evolutionary biology including systematics, hominid anthropology, and so forth; or they are knowledgeable enough in these and related fields to speak with authority. I shall be citing and presenting their views as well as those of other evangelicals from books and articles, and also from postings on the ASA discussion list. All of them are committed to the cause of Christ as they understand and live it out in their vocations and religious practices. Their commitment includes the ministry of helping Christian people of their own and other denominations realize that it is possible and even spiritually rewarding to understand how modern science can and does contribute to their appreciation of God's creation and their understanding of God's creativity.
My essays will be written from a perspective on the relationship between religion and science that is shared by most of my evangelical colleagues: while they are separate fields of inquiry that draw upon distinctive sources of knowledge, religion and science complement one another in the quest for truth and understanding.
One would hardly know that this Complementary view exists, given the unfortunate fact that the popular media and some spokespersons in the sciences and in certain religious circles commonly depict religion and science as combatants. This Conflict model undergirds the thinking of the student who told her friend that she could not be a scientist and believe in God. It appears in more sophisticated forms in the writings of scientists like Richard Dawkins, who said that Darwin made it possible for him to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist, and in the arguments of intelligent design advocate Phillip Johnson, who equates the naturalistic methodology of science with "methodological atheism." As established as this Conflict perspective seems to be in the popular mind, it is challenged, however, by two others. One, a Contrast or Independence model, sees science and religion as no foes, because each occupies separate spheres of knowledge. The problem begins when either crosses the other's boundaries, as when some conflate science with the belief system of scientism and claim it to be the sole source of truth; or when the advocates of "creation science" meld the two together but make their interpretation of Scripture trump scientific knowledge and interpretation. Keep them apart, the Contrasters say, and they can peacefully co-exist (Haught 12-16; Gould 49-95).
The approach I adopt here goes beyond this peaceful coexistence: variously named the Contact, Partnership, or the Complementary model, this approach respects the distinctive spheres of inquiry that science and religion occupy but maintains that through a respectful, open-ended conversation, each has something to say to the other. Science can illuminate for religious faith and its theological inquiries the nature of the universe that faith calls creation. And religion in turn can deepen our understanding of the universe and also remind those who would turn science into metaphysics of its proper limits; it also offers society a moral vision that may guide the application of science and technology. In the words of theologian John F. Haught,
"Without in any way interfering with scientists' own proper methods, religious faith can flourish alongside of science in such a way as to co-produce with it a joint meaning that is more illuminating than either can provide on its own." (Haught 18).
For physicist and theologian Howard J. Van Till, science and theology should be seen as "partners in theorizing-each engaged in a constructive effort to make its own unique contribution toward a better understanding of the nature of humanity and of the universe that we inhabit" (Van Till, in Carlson 198).
In my essays, I shall seek to honor the distinctiveness of each while showing how science helps believers to understand the universe better, and how religion confirms and supports the scientists' search for truth. When I write about scientific topics, I shall try to present, as accurately as I can, the reigning consensus about the history and development of this immense cosmos and of the history and development of the earth and its intricate web of life. The voices of science will be heard, whether those who speak are believers or not. When I write about the various theological and spiritual responses of believers to this scientific world-picture, I shall seek to bring to varying points of view this same commitment to accuracy. The evangelicals you will meet in these essays are among the forty percent of practicing scientists who believe in a personal god who answers prayer. They share with an even greater number of scientists who are animated by deep spiritual convictions but do not subscribe to a traditional set of religious beliefs a commitment to the search for truth about the nature of the universe that is at the heart driven by a faith that might be characterized as religious. I hope in the course of these essays to make that commitment clear.
I have tried to avoid writing articles that duplicate dozens of others anyone could find on the web (and I shall offer links to some of these).
These annotated essays will attempt to speak to the kinds of concerns students of faith often bring to their study of the topics.
I hope that they and others will read them as conversations they can enter into with evangelical thinkers, and perhaps in this way find a more reassuring context in which to consider, or reconsider, issues that are so important to their faith. Each essay will include references to both print and electronic sources and relevant links, and conclude with a bibliography. I hope they will prove particularly useful to students and faculty in natural and social science courses and humanities courses at Berea College and elsewhere.
These essays have benefited from the many helpful suggestions of my colleagues
at Berea College: Dawn Anderson, Larry Blair, Megan Hoffman, Smith T. Powell,
Ron Rosen, Roy Scudder-Davis, and Duane Smith have read some or all of these
essays, and I am grateful for their suggestions and corrections. Zack Murrell
and Paul Seely have also kindly assisted with certain drafts. Larry Blair and
Alan Mills have also provided some of the illustrations that grace the home
page and essays; photos of the Holy Land appearing in Essay I are by the author.
I am also grateful for all that I have learned from my colleagues on the ASA
discussion list, in particular John Burgeson, David Campbell, Joel Cannon,
Jonathan Clarke, Ted Davis, Terry Gray, Keith Miller, Allan Harvey, Glenn Morton,
George Murphy, Michael Roberts, Paul Seely, Dave Siemens, and Howard Van Till.
They and other participants represent some of the many faces of evangelicalism,
and they share a common love (and considerable knowledge) of the natural sciences,
the Bible, and theology, and a common commitment to toil in this corner of
the Lord's vineyard.
Jack Haas, Web Editor of the ASA Discussion List, extended his permission to use posted materials. Lengthy quotations from articles published in the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, are used by permission of the editors. Most Bible quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Barbara Power and her assistants at the Berea College Hutchins Library have been most helpful. My wife, Dr. Maria Lichtmann, has put her editorial skills to work on these essays, and I am very grateful for her careful reading. I take full responsibility for any errors or inaccuracies, and I invite readers to send in corrections or comments. The Comment link in the header will allow readers to send comments on each essay.
I also wish to thank Ben Wakeman for designing and developing the "Science and Faith" site.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Larry D. Shinn, President of Berea College, who invited me to create this series of essays for the Berea College web site and made it possible for me to do so. His support reflects his own staunch commitment to liberal arts education and his desire to help students understand this important dimension of Christian faith.
Carlson, Richard, ed., Science and Christianity, Four Views. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000.
Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages. Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Harvey, Allan H., "Am I an Evangelical?" Electronic essay posted on his site, http://members.aol.com/steamdoc/writings/evangel.html.
Haught, John F., Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.
Hunter, James, D., American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1983.
Marsden, George, ed., Evangelicalism and Modern America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.
McGrath, Alister, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downer's Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Noll, Mark D., American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.