Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Christian Theology, History, and Science

An area of significant debate in our culture right now is the relationship between the Christian faith and the scientific endeavor.  It is largely assumed in most non-Christian circles, and more and more within them, that the Christian faith is largely hostile to science.  It is said that science is a matter of knowledge and Christianity is a matter of faith, placing science on the higher pedestal.  And then, often, stories are trotted out to make the case that the Christian faith has historically been anti-science in one fashion or another.  But does this point of view do justice to both Christian history and theology?  I will deal with some of the basics - many of which will surprise readers - and leave the gory details to those who write book-length treatments of such things.

Christian Theology Has Been a Science Starter

One bumper sticker used in this debate is that Christianity is a "science stopper," basically meaning that the act of putting faith in God excludes someone from the act of engaging in science.  This view simply does not account for key components of Christian theology or the progress of science within the Christian church.  Christian theology was the fertile soil in which the scientific revolution took place.  Of course there are plenty of historical figures in science who were not Christian, but the foundation was built by Christian theology.  As the sociologist, Rodney Stark, puts it, "In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done."[i]

The celebrated philosopher Sir Alfred North Whitehead argued that Christianity was the mother of science because of the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.[ii]  The fundamental idea was that God the Creator is rational, so his creation is able to be studied with reliability and order can be discovered.  Others, like the scholar M.B. Foster, attribute this idea to the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of creation.  Unlike mythologies that have the universe beginning in chaos or struggle between gods, the Christian doctrine is one of simple creation by a law-giving God.

History Followed Theology

As a result, the history of science, especially early on, is littered with people driven into scientific discovery exactly because they believed they were able to and God wanted them to.  Instead of believing they were getting rid of the "God hypothesis," they believed they were honoring God with their intellects and abilities and would see him more clearly the more they learned.

Over 70% of the Royal Society of London, a society established in 1660 to promote the cause of science, was Puritans when it began.  Puritans were far less than 70% of the population of England at the time.  It was they who were the pioneers of the methodology of observation and inquiry.  Francis Bacon, seen by some as the "major prophet of the Scientific Revolution," once wrote, "There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error: first, the volume of the Scriptures, and then the volume of the Creatures."[iii]

Copernicus wrote that the universe was "wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator."[iv]  Galileo, whose story as it is popularly understood is largely oversimplified, was a devoted Christian even while he was put under pressure by forces within the church.  He was convinced that God was "a Divine Craftsman or Architect Who created the world as an intricate mechanism"[v] and could be studied to the glory of God.

Johannes Kepler was not shy about his investigations into astronomy and his God.  He wrote, "My wish is that I may perceive that God whom I find everywhere in the external world in like manner within me."[vi]

Isaac Newton is worth quoting at length from his General Scholium:

But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain'd the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form'd by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.

These examples only scratch the surface of the pioneers of science who discovered science-forming and science-creating realities and simultaneously sought God with an open heart and open mind.  But these examples may suffice to make the simple point: there is no inherent conflict between believing in the God of the Christian faith and pursuing science in all its viable forms.

[i] Stark, Victory of Reason, (Random House, New York 2006), 14, emphasis his.

[ii] Alfred North Whitehead [1925]. Science and the Modern World. (Free Press, New York, 1967), 13.

[iii] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

[iv] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science,(Crossway, Wheaton, Ill, 1994) 25

[v] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, 71

[vi] Kepler, quoted in Will Durant, The Age of Reason Begins (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 600