Theology & Culture (9): Why The Sciences Matter to God

During the 80s and 90s, while I was a cultural separatist and was unsure what to do with the arts, I certainly didn’t know what to do with the sciences. I knew that the sciences had made some major breakthroughs especially in the areas of medicine and technology, and for that reason they were valuable. But I also knew that many scientists seemed to view the sciences religiously; for them, the history of science seemed to provide a master narrative of the world, a narrative which they hold to in a deeply emotional and religious manner. Further, this master narrative was often portrayed as being in conflict with the biblical narrative; indeed, it is viewed as triumphant over the biblical narrative.

In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we read and discussed Stephen Barr’s 2007 article “Rethinking the Story of Science.”* Barr, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Delaware, points out that many scientists think there is a conflict between science and theology, when in fact the conflict is between materialism and theology. For him, there is no final conflict between science and theology. Barr argues that Christianity is rational, that it actually gave birth to modern science, and that its biblical narrative resonates with the best of science.

In the main body of his paper, Barr shows how scientific materialists claim that the history of science has rendered a theological conception of the world incredible; then he proceeds to overturn each of the materialists’ claims.

The first materialist claim is that Copernicus’ discoveries overturned religious cosmology. Barr responds that Copernicus did not overthrow anything in Christian theology. The geocentric notions of the earth came from Ptolemy and Aristotle, not from Christian Scripture. What actually has happened, Barr argues, is that scientists have come to affirm that the universe has a beginning, which is what theologians have argued for thousands of years.

A second materialist claim is that mechanism has triumphed over teleology; because of the discovery of “laws” of physics, there is no need to postulate a Designer. Barr rebuts that there is now an increasing unification of physics, such that physicists recognize that deep laws underlie physical effects, that these laws are profound and elegant, and that these laws imply some sort of cosmic Design. This is what theologians have affirmed for thousands of years.

A third materialist claim is that biology has dethroned humanity, showing that humans are merely animals who make up just a tiny part of a huge and hostile universe. Barr argues the opposite: as it turns out, the universe is amazingly (even gratuitously) hospitable to humans. Many features of our universe are fine-tuned in such a manner that a privation of, or a minute alteration of, those features would leave the universe uninhabitable for humans. Such “anthropic coincidences” seem to be built into nature. Theologians have affirmed this for thousands of years.

A fourth materialist claim is that man is a mere biochemical machine, and that this “fact” renders the God postulate unnecessary. However, Barr explains that some physicists are now arguing that quantum theory is incompatible with a materialist view of the mind. Theologians have argued against a materialist view of the mind for years. Barr concludes that the laws of the universe are grand and sublime in a way that implies design.

In light of these conflicting master narratives, how should Christians view the claims of science, especially when scientists’ claims conflict with theologians’ claims? Some Christians hold that there is an essential difference; they view science and theology as distinct and non-overlapping arenas, hermetically sealed off from one another. Because of this independence, there is no conflict between the two. Other Christians argue that there is a methodological difference; science and theology talk about the same realities, but do so in different and non-integrated ways. Some Christians speak of theologically-founded science, in which theology is prior to science, while others speak of scientifically-founded theology, in which science is prior to theology.

In our seminar, I sought to give a biblical-theological argument for the worth and value of the scientific enterprise. God is the author of both Scripture and nature, and therefore there can be no final conflict between the two. Theologians and scientists may conflict, but Scripture and nature do not.

When theologians and scientists find themselves in conflict, we should remember that either group is subject to error and therefore also subject to correction. For example, many scientists in the past believed that the universe was eternal, although many or most scientists now agree with theologians that the earth had a beginning (many scientists are proponents of a “Big Bang” theory). Or again, many theologians thought that the earth was flat, but now agree with scientists that the earth is round. Further, we should remember that the Bible is not a science textbook; the things that might seem like scientific errors in the Bible are actually interpretive errors on the part of theologians. Finally, we should remember that science is constantly changing. Scientific theories change continually, and we should beware of hurriedly ruling out a traditional interpretation of Scripture in order to fit some new theory.

Our seminar discussion on these matters was lively, and we agreed that: (1) conservative evangelicals often seem to have undervalued the discipline of science because of a Gnostic sort of dualism that devalues material things in favor of immaterial (“spiritual”) things; (2) evangelicals have more reason than anybody to consider science valuable and worthwhile, because the task of science is to study the good world God bequeathed us; (3) it is incumbent upon us to build world-class research universities that give scientists the freedom to do their work without laying aside their core convictions, the freedom to hypothesize Christianly as they attempt to make sense of the data; and (4) it is also incumbent upon us to encourage some of our children and students to study science in our Ivy League and major state universities. In so doing, these students will find themselves in places of influence, perhaps as research scientists and/or tenured professors of science at those same universities.

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Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things (January 2007).