This piece appeared in a modified form on the blog I write, “Ten-minute Theology,” which can be found at ten-minutetheology.blogspot.com.
The intersection of science and Christianity has been the site of more than a few crashes, and a larger number of near-collisions—yet traffic generally flows smoothly through this intersection, provided everyone stays in his proper lane. There is absolutely no reason for Christians and scientists to be the enemies that many assume them to be; there are many scientists who are Christians, and many Christians who are scientists (and there are also Christian Scientists, who are another headache entirely). Indeed, the perpetual fight over the teaching of creationism or evolution in public schools stands out as particularly unnecessary because so many believers have little trouble reconciling the two by appealing to an allegorical reading of the creation stories rather than a literal one. To plenty of Christians, how exactly God created the world isn’t nearly as important as the fact that he did.
Even the Catholic Church, infamous for its denunciations of scientific pioneers like Copernicus and Galileo, nonetheless eventually got with the program. An 1893 encyclical by Pope Leo XII included this remarkable passage:
…no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. . . . If nevertheless there is a disagreement . . . it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation’; and that, for this reason, rather than trying to provide a scientific exposition of nature, they sometimes describe and treat these matters either in a somewhat figurative language or as the common manner of speech those times required, and indeed still requires nowadays in everyday life, even amongst most learned people. (Providentissimus Deus p. 18)
In other words, the Bible is less interested in conveying scientific truths than spiritual ones, in whatever manner they can best be understood by most people. Treating the Bible like a scientific textbook—that is, reading it in a manner that is not in keeping with our God-given critical faculties—leads to the sort of young earth creationism that understandably sends non-believers screaming in horror from the gospel of love.
Yet what I find difficult to understand is the strange insistence from some quarters that our advances in scientific knowledge have somehow disproved or made irrelevant God’s existence. While it’s true that Darwin’s theories have changed our understanding of how God operates, they hardly explain the existence of the primordial goop from which we are said to have emerged! Though we accept the Big Bang as a plausible theory for the origin of the known universe, it only begs the questions of where the raw materials came from and why they were there at all!
It is here that the Christian understanding of the universe as Creation comes in. The universe exists, and is ontologically the way it is, because it was made so for a specific purpose by a specific kind of intelligence which is unbound by the limits of space and time, and which we call God. This is not an intellectual copout, but instead a reasonable working assumption based on the evidence at hand: a cosmos that is eminently intelligible and ordered, operating according to fixed mathematical laws. Stephen Hawking, certainly no Christian apologist, stated honestly that “it would be completely consistent with all we know to say that there was a being who is responsible for the laws of physics.”
As a matter of fact, nearly all of the esteemed Renaissance geniuses—those champions of reason and the scientific method—believed in God, even if some found the Christian idea of revelation unacceptable. Indeed, it was their very belief in God that undergirded their work. In his book “Mind of God” Paul Davies writes, “In Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature.”
It is telling that the scientific flourishing of the Renaissance occurred in what was then the locus of Christendom. Why was it the Christian world that produced the rigorous, empirical method of experimentation and discovery? Oxford professor Alister McGrath argues that modern science was and remains buoyed by centuries of theological tradition. He writes, “The idea that nature is governed by ‘laws’ does not appear to be a significant feature of Greek, Roman, or Asian conceptions of science; it is firmly entrenched within the Judeo-Christian tradition.” (The Science of God p. 131.)
Christianity and the discoveries of science seem occasionally to make awkward bedfellows, but it is only the fundamentalists on both sides of the divide who have the misguided temerity to suggest that they are irreconcilable. Though we certainly have to be on our guard to ensure that scientific developments do not override our morals or our ethics, we’re going to need both science and faith if we are to continue to move forward with our struggle to improve the lives of all people on God’s little blue planet.