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Musings on the Christian's Approach to Science
by Stephen Douglas
Podcast Episode 19 was a delightful surprise for me. I put off listening to it for a while because on the surface it did not interest me. Besides, it's public radio! Public radio is the new Nazareth.Podcast Episode 19 was a delightful surprise for me. I put off listening to it for a while because on the surface it did not interest me. Besides, it's public radio! Public radio is the new Nazareth.I was delightfully surprised at John Polkinghorne's perspicacity on this issue. He is not one of those scientists you hear about every now and then who sees order in the universe and becomes a deist. Rather, he's a scientist who was in on the ground floor of chaos theory, and found that liberation from an understanding of the universe as unforgivably strict and ordered also liberated him to be a devout Christian! I appreciate how what he says dovetails very nicely with what a few of us have been saying about creation. I hadn't really gotten into my views on science in general, but Jared via Polkinghorne seems to have opened this up for discussion.
I would like to build off the conclusions that I argued for in my Bibliology and Hermeneutics columns. I contended that God did not purge the Scripture-writers of their inaccurate views on matters of history and science. If the Bible is not divinely endowed with scientific revelation, the question becomes, who do we ask when we want to know about science? My answer is, "The scientists, of course!" They are, after all, the ones spending their lives exploring God's creation, which, no less than the Bible, is God's testimony of Himself and His ways to mankind. Like the Bible, it requires interpretation of the observations, and scientists have a part to play in that. Some might counter, "But the Bible must be interpreted by Christians, because the things of the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned and foolishness to the world, so why should we trust anything unbelievers say about their interpretation of God's testimony in the physical universe? Even if they are trying to be accurate, they are not capable." The fallacy of this lies in the latent identification of the “spiritual things” with “the facts”. The facts in any given situation are available to all. It takes no theologian to discover that the Psalms are poetry. It is readily apprehensible by all that can read or hear that “whosoever believeth on him shall have everlasting life”. None of the facts are hidden from unbelievers: what’s hidden is the meaning behind the facts, the spiritual reality that these facts represent, the “so-what”, and hence the actual substance. The facts are always subservient to the truths to which they testify. The notion that unbelievers and believers alike should be able to discern things about God’s testimony to the way He ordained the physical world is also readily obvious from experience (who would deny that non-Christians have been responsible for hundreds and hundreds of medical advances).
Christians' tendency to discount what non-Christians say about science is based on their belief that unbelieving scientists are out to try to prove a universe without God, and hence skew their data and wrap their observations around an atheistic worldview. However, they much too readily disregard the incredibly large number of scientists who are devout Christians and who are still convinced that the scientific method is on the right track in areas such as the age of the universe, evolution, etc.
Note however, that science is an ever-evolving discipline, and what we believe about things today in no way means we are satisfied with those beliefs. That's why scientists go on, critiquing one another's theories, reworking them and discarding others (for instance, even the long-held "law of gravity" from Newtonian physics is seriously challenged nowadays). Christians shouldn't be content, as many are wont, to fold their arms and say, "Well, if science admits that its propositions are not absolute truth, then I expect in the end that the scientific evidence will prove the science in the Bible correct." This is decidedly wrongheaded: since the Bible was not scientifically reviewed by God before publication, what they are calling "science in the Bible" is an anachronistic ascription of our modern desire for and methods of discovering scientific facts upon ancient cultures in which they were absent. What is the sense in secretly longing for the pre-scientific views on cosmology of the Ancient Near Eastern peoples to be vindicated as science?
My fear is that too many Christians hold on to bad science, or insert their own needlessly a posteriori presumptions into science in order to give God some “edge”; it would be so much easier to validate God’s role as creator of the universe to an unbelieving world if we could “catch Him in the act”, pointing out things for which there were no other explanation. Easier, yes. But it would be easier still for God to have just left some sort of monogram or signed His name as Xavier Roberts did the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, so why didn’t He? Let’s not forget that God has His own ways of doing things. A necessary part of humanity's mandate to subdue the earth is the effort to understand: it is the scientist's privilege to seek out the facts, and the theologian's to uncloak their meaning.