Why dialogue Between Science and Faith is Crucial for Christian Theology

This coming weekend I will be presenting a paper at the CETA conference in Rochester, New York. The overarching theme of the conference is New Creation, and I will be presenting a topic that explores the theological significance of scientific views about origins from the perspective of New Creation (eschatology).

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is critically important for Christian theology (and theologians) to be engaging the sciences. Here are some reflections on that question:

Why do I consider ongoing dialogue between science and faith to be so important? Emphatically, it is not in order to make Christian faith ‘relevant’ to the scientific community. Sometimes the assumption is made of advocates of old earth creation or theistic evolution that they are feeling pressured to offer an interpretation of the Christian faith that is amenable to scientists. There is the lurking suspicion that they are following in the wake of Schleiermacher, offering a ‘relevant’ Christianity by reinterpreting it in light of the assumptions of its scientific ‘cultured despisers.’ Let me be clear that I am both suspicious and critical of the term ‘relevant,’ suspicious because it always carries with it implicit and often unacknowledged assumptions (relevant to whom and according to what criteria?) and critical because it is not a theologically thick descriptor. Moreover, the question of relevance posed in this way misunderstands the basic character and tasks of both science and theology, each of which is oriented to and derives its methodological procedures from the nature and fundamental attributes of the realities they study.

So instead of ‘relevance,’ I propose that the present topic is important for at least four reasons. First, it is important for the sake of the pursuit of truth, which is an inherent good. When we ask truth questions with reference to physical reality, we are (like it or not) entering into the proper domain of the sciences. Science is not the only means of discovering and knowing truth; it is not even the most important one (faith, hope, love, and justice, and the realm of spirit are of much deeper and ultimate importance, but are neither discovered nor fully understood on the basis of science). But when it comes to asking questions about physical reality (e.g., the age of the earth), science is in its proper element and does offer reliable (if provisional and progressively advancing) knowledge. One should not feel pressured by ‘the claims of science,’ but one should be committed to the pursuit of truth. Such a commitment is not rebellious or detrimental to faith, but is a form of pursuing and worshiping God, in whom all truth is based and to whom all truth ultimately points.

Second, the science-faith dialogue is important because Christians have a duty to make the Christian faith intelligible (which is different from ‘relevant’) within the context of their contemporary, and hence scientific, culture. Given the legitimate truth claims that science makes, how do certain aspects of the Christian faith make sense? Thus, there is an apologetic motivation that contributes to the exploration of the present topic.

Third, it is incumbent upon Christian theologians to uphold the rational credibility of the Christian faith, so that its theological and moral teachings will be taken seriously (Augustine made this point centuries ago). We cannot allow the astonishing progress of scientific discovery and application to take place in a moral vacuum. Too much is at stake for Christianity not to have a voice in the scientific community that can stimulate theological and moral reflection on the implications of scientific and technological advances (e.g., stem cell research, global warming, military applications). But our ability to influence such conversations will be greatly impeded if we lack credibility in the scientific community.

Finally, the present science-faith dialogue is crucial because it is important for evangelical theologians and churches to take the claims of their own scientists seriously and to respect the value and integrity of their fields of study. We need to hear the voices of Christians deeply immersed in the sciences, otherwise we deprive the church of the giftedness and contributions of important members of the body of Christ and silence and ostracize those who worship and glorify God with their study of, and wonder in, God’s creation.

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3 Responses to Why dialogue Between Science and Faith is Crucial for Christian Theology

  1. Pingback: On Reading Genesis ‘Literally’ | Patrick S. Franklin

  2. Mike Gantt says:

    What are we as laymen to do when we behold believing scientists divided into two camps: evolutionists and creationists? Furthermore, what are we to do when we see each side questioning the motives or competence, or both, of each other – especially when we, as laymen, are not qualitfied to judge the “science” that each presents?

    • A few quick suggestions:

      1. Wait it out. This is a major paradigm shift for many Christians; such shifts take time. It is wise to be open, but not eager to jump on fads and bandwagons. Time will tell whether or not this is that kind of thing or a true shift.

      2. Be sure that you are reading real scientists. Far too many in the creationist camps just dabble, . . . or are really professional apologists making use of ‘science’ they find helpful but often not understanding the science very well. With respect to Christians, a study done amongst members of the American Scientific Affiliation (an evangelical group affirming the authority of Scripture) found that two-thirds of its members who responded believe in evolution. The more one is closer to the relevant scientific disciplines (e.g., biology), the more likely one is to support evolution. If you haven’t read Dennis Venema’s series (Evolution Basics) on the Biologos website, I’d highly recommend it. Whether or not you end up agreeing is not the issue; I recommend this to people so that they can first get an adequate understanding of evolution before making big decisions about it.

      3. Be sure to read widely and globally. If you are looking at this issue from within an American environment, your own investigation has been preempted by a long history of complex religious and political posturing. Many outside of the US (e.g., in the UK and Canada) cannot understand the intensity Americans bring to this issue . . . but it makes sense in light of the history of liberalism vs. fundamentalism in the 20th century US. The evangelical theologian Alister McGrath is a great example. Though he believes in evolution, he has debated people like Richard Dawkins concerning its implications. His theology text is the most widely used in the world, is rooted in mainstream Christian thought, and is deeply historical in its approach. (McGrath has PhDs in both science and theology . . . he came to faith while attempting to disprove Christianity as an atheist . . . the evidence convinced him otherwise!).

      4. Talk genuinely to real scientists who are serious Christians and believe in evolution. Ask yourself: why are they convinced? Why do they think it’s important? How did they come to their understanding? How do they integrate their science with their reading of Scripture? Too many creationists assume that such Christians are not serious about Jesus or are ‘worldly’ or ‘liberal’ or are part of a conspiracy amongst scientists to lead people astray. I have found the exact opposite. Many love Christ deeply and are passionate about sharing their faith, working with integrity, promoting Christian ethics, etc.

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