Is the Christian View of Science Beautiful?

(This is the introduction to the first part, and the first chapter, from an ebook I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available on KindleApple Books, and Kobo. A print edition will be available this summer.)

IS CHRISTIANITY BEAUTIFUL?

If you have watched the tv show “A Handmaid’s Tale” you will have seen a society built, supposedly, on Biblical rules. That society, called Gilead, is UGLY. Unfortunately, you don’t need to have seen the show to know that Christianity can get ugly. Too many people know that first-hand.

For a faith perspective to be compelling, it must be beautiful. There will be a consistency between what it claims and where it leads. It would be strange if the evidence pointed to the existence of a good, just, and loving God, yet devotion to that God led to systems and traditions that promoted injustice and suffering. If Christianity is true, and reflects a good and loving God, we will expect it to bring beauty, not ugliness. Does it? We will consider this in the chapters to follow. 

A Beautiful View of Science?

The relationship between faith and science has often turned ugly, sometimes devolving into a fight.

Should Christians be afraid of science? Should scientists be afraid of Christianity? We Canadians can typically be more science-focused than Bible-focused, even those of us who call ourselves Christians. When we Christians 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!

Do we learn from the Bible or science? Should we lean on, and into, the Bible, or science? Are we to choose between the two?

With this apparent conflict, and the potential for things to get ugly, 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 and created laws that govern how things work inspires the investigation of how it all works. Christians have always been very much 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 when done by Christian scientists. 

Let us consider a simple example of how science works. My youngest son once 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 weigh scales to observe the effect of eating the cookies. If the rest of my eating patterns remained unchanged, we might predict a weight gain. Observation will confirm our theory. What we will not do is ask what God will do to my weight based on my cookie consumption. To do so would be to hold a “God of the gaps” kind of thinking, that is, that my weight gain is due to God, and not how my digestive system works. The experiment is not about finding God, but about finding how things work. 

Science is the belief things operate according to laws. However, science is not the belief that there is no God. We Christians would say that science is the discovery of how God made things work. A Christian doing science does the same thing as an atheist doing science. Both are discovering how things operate. One speaks about the laws of nature, however they came about, the other of Creation operating according to God’s design. Science is a methodology which does not seek God in the workings. To say that science proves there is no God is not science, but a faith perspective we can call 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 science 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 have often asked “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, when the Book of Genesis was taking shape people held that there were multiple gods who had complicated relationships with each other, the world, and humanity. The original hearers of what was written in the Book of Genesis would have been struck by the fact there is only one God worthy of consideration, that this God is a God of order, the Creator of everything, and that this God wants a relationship with all peoples, which will be worked out in some way through one particular group of people, the people descendant from a person named 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 found in Genesis.

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 either 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, it is a wee bit of both. Scientists are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the data can be off. Bible teachers are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the Bible can be off. With humility in our understanding of both science and theology we follow the evidence the best we can.

Turning to the Bible, let us consider John chapter 9. A blind man healed by Jesus was willing to follow the evidence. He was blind but then was healed. The evidence led him to the conclusion that Jesus is someone special. The Pharisees were also trying to follow the evidence in figuring out how the blind man was healed. However, they had prior assumptions which affected 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. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”

His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. 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.” (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. That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)

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, with emphasis added to point out the assumptions)

The healed man did 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 could come to a very different conclusion about the identity of Jesus!

Science-minded people may come to an investigation of Jesus and the Bible with incorrect assumptions, and so miss the truth. They may have already decided that miracles cannot happen and therefore they have already concluded who they think Jesus is before they even begin their investigation. In doing so they can miss an amazing opportunity!

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 so miss truth. In doing so the Christian can miss opportunities too. 

Let us note where following the evidence led the man born-blind:

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

“Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.

John 9:35-38 (The Message)

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 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, Christianity is different. The fact that science can be in sync with Christian thinking reminds us that we need neither leave our brains at the door of the church, nor leave our faith in the parking lot of the university. When both are understood properly, there is a beautiful relationship between science and Christianity. 

If Christianity caused us to abandon science we would be forced to turn our backs on so much that has helped humanity. That would be ugly. But there can be a good relationship between the two and that is part of what makes Christianity beautiful.

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