Should Christians be afraid of science? Should scientists be afraid of Christianity? We Canadians can tend to be more science-focused than Bible-focused, including those of us who call ourselves Christians. When we fall ill, do we follow James 5:14 and call the elders of the church, or do we call the doctor? As a pastor, I would be pleased to come and pray with you, but I will likely also encourage you to call the doctor if you have not already done so!
There can be a sense of conflict for a Christian. Do we learn from the Bible or science? Do we lean on the Bible or science? Do we lean into the Bible or science? Are we to choose between Christianity and science?
With this apparent conflict, what are we to think?
First, we should be aware that Christianity has provided a good foundation for science to flourish. Belief in a God Who has ordered the universe, creating laws that govern how things work, inspires the investigation of how it all works. Christians were, and still very much are, involved in science.
Second, we appreciate science for what it is, and what it is not. Science is the expectation that things operate according to patterns and laws which are predictable and discoverable. There is no argument with Christianity there. Science is therefore done without explicit reference to God, even by Christian scientists. Let us consider a simple example of how science works. In this past week my youngest son baked a rather large batch of very good peanut-butter cookies. I could run an experiment where I eat twenty cookies a day until they are all eaten, then step on the scales to observe the effect of eating the cookies. If the rest of my eating patterns remained unchanged, we could predict a weight gain. What we will not do is ask how God will intervene in my life based on my cookie consumption. To do so would be to hold a “God of the gaps” kind of theology. The experiment is not about finding God, but finding out how things work.
Science is the belief things operate according to laws, however, it is not the belief that there is no God. As Christians we would say that science is the discovery of how God made things to work. A Christian doing science does the same thing as an atheist doing science. Both are discovering how things operate, but one thinks of the laws of nature, however they came about, the other of God’s Creation operating according to His design. Science is a methodology which does not seek God in the workings. However, to say there is no God is not science, but scientism.
Third, we appreciate what the Bible for what it is, and what it is not. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself within history with each part written to different people at different times using different genres. The Bible is not a science textbook written to science-minded westerners. Of the many genres used in the Bible, one genre you will not find is a lab report.
It is helpful to remember that the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. In Bible studies I often ask “what do you find striking in this passage?”. We really should ask how the passage would have struck the first readers and hearers. What were the original readers meant to learn, or what were they likely to learn? To give an example, the prevalent worldview when the Book of Genesis was taking shape held that there were multiple gods who had complicated relationships with each other, the world, and humanity. The original hearers/keepers of the passages in Genesis would have been struck by the fact there is only one God worthy of consideration, that He is a God of order, He is the Creator of everything, and He wants a relationship with all people, which will be worked out in some way through one particular group of people, the people descendant from Israel. No one would have questioned whether the universe really did come into existence fully formed in six literal 24 hour periods. That is a question we ask today when we fail to appreciate the theological poetry of Genesis 1.
Fourth, we learn to navigate the relationship between science and Christianity as we follow the evidence. If our science and theology do not fit together, then our understanding of theology is correct and our understanding of science is wrong, or, our understanding of science is correct and our understanding of theology is wrong, or a wee bit of both. Scientists are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the data can be off. We believe the Bible to be infallible, meaning it is exactly what God wanted it to be. However, our interpretations of the Bible are not infallible. With humility in our understanding of both science and theology we follow the evidence.
Consider John chapter 9. A blind man healed by Jesus is willing to follow the evidence. He was blind but is healed, therefore the evidence leads him to the conclusion that Jesus is someone special. The Pharisees are also trying to follow the evidence in figuring out how the blind man was healed. However, they have prior assumptions which affect their conclusions:
The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
20 His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” 22 (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. 23 That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
24 They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.” John 9:18-24 (The Message, emphasis added)
The blind man does not begin with assumptions:
He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.” John 9:25 (The Message)
Operating with different assumptions, the healed man comes to a very different conclusion about the identity of Jesus!
Science-minded people may come to an investigation of Jesus and the Bible with assumptions, and so miss the truth. They may have already decided that miracles cannot happen and therefore they have already concluded, before their investigation, like the Pharisees did, who they think Jesus is. In doing so they can miss an amazing opportunity for relationship with God.
The shoe can be on the other foot, however. Notice that in John 9, it is the religious leaders who are the ones with the assumptions. The Christian may also hold assumptions about science and/or the Bible and miss truth. In doing so we can miss opportunities for growth, and importantly, opportunities for witness. The man born-blind follows the evidence and it leads him to worship Jesus:
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
38 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him. John 9:35-38 (The Message)
One of our goals as Christians is to help others come to know Jesus. If we hold to the view that science and the Bible are at odds, then we may be creating a stumbling block for others. Are we willing to follow the evidence? Do we give the freedom to others to do the same? I believe that if we send our youth off to university with the belief that they need to choose between science and Christianity, we have failed them. Do we give them the tools to follow the evidence?
Do we need to pick between Christianity and science? Far from being in conflict, there is a good relationship between science and Christianity. One can follow the scientific evidence and still be a Christian. In fact many people come to Christianity because of the evidence provided by science. Many religions have fallen by the wayside, some would say thanks to science. However, the fact that science and Christianity can enjoy a good relationship is another reason Christianity is compelling!