‘Can you give us a few words on how a Christian worldview assists science?’, was the question put to me a few weeks ago by the organisers of an event in Leeds run by Faith in Scholarship under a new resource called The Church Scientific. I wasn’t able to attend in person at the launch, sadly, but was able to put a few thoughts together for a video message they showed.
‘Wait!’ I hear you say. What a ridiculous question – for centuries Christianity has exerted a drag force, surely, on the forward momentum of science? Think about Galileo, evolution … how can a worldview that elevates dogma in spite of evidence possibly assist a scientific outlook of evidence-based fact?
So runs the tired, and (paradoxically) ill-informed, dogmatic and not-at-all evidence-based view sadly trotted out in public and the media today. And more than sadly, taught to children in a way that plants an ignorance of history, of philosophy, of a true notion of science and indeed of a true idea of Christianity that can last a lifetime.
That there is a very different story to be told, much more in line with how science really works and how Christian faith operates, and has operated in the development of mind, worldview ethics and imagination, is the reason I wrote Faith and Wisdom in Science and the reason that Dave Hutchings and I just finished Let There Be Science (out with LionHudson in January), which takes the idea of Science as God’s Gift to a wider readership, and develops exactly this idea. Through the ages, the balance of evidence indicates that a Christian worldview has propelled science forward both on the individual and communal level.
For the full version – see the books! But for a few brief pointers for thought …
- To do science needs huge courage, against the expectation that we might be able to comprehend the nature of the universe with our minds. The hope that we might be able to do this comes from Biblical Wisdom such as encapsulated in The Book of Job (chapter 28 in particular) and in the idea of being created in the image of God.
- The core creative activity in science is to pose the imaginative question – and imaginative questions about nature, the nature of God and the human, are the intellectual Biblical backbone. Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades? is just one of the 165 searching questions put to Job by God (chapter 38). The Bible’s Jewish milieu is deeply educational in the tradition of the pedagogy of questions.
- Science is hard! It’s full of disappointment and struggle as well as joy (on occasion). The painful story of any engagement with nature is the Biblical account through and through, from the ‘great commission’ in Genesis to the metaphor of creation groaning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
- Science requires us time and again to change what we believe in the light of evidence. Sometimes this is a total about-face. It’s a hard thing to do, to change a deeply-held view. Yet the experience of turning a worldview upside down is exactly what is required to become a Christian. It’s good training to drop cherished ideas n the light of new observations when the idea that following oneself has already been laid aside in favour of the new direction of following Jesus.
- Science is done in community. It is in the end a work of love, of the world, and of the others with whom we share the work. We can only do that in an atmosphere of respect and trust, of mutual encouragement. It isn’t always like this in reality, but science works best when these resolutely Christian values are deployed.
- Science keeps you humble. The more we learn, the bigger the ‘coastline of science’ – the boundary perceived between the known and the unknown, also grows, as Marcelo Gleiser has pointed out in his recent book The Island of Knowledge.
More is true – we have not touched here on the historical conception of the experimental science we know today through the theological motivation of the early Christina thinkers, through philosophers such as Bede, Adelard, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and through the Renaissance to Francis Bacon and the scientists of the 17th century.
This is not the replacement of theological thinking by a new secular tradition, but the outworking of a theologically motivated understanding that a work of healing is given to us by our Creator, alongside the tools to do it. If medicine is God’s gift to us for the work of healing broken people, the science is God’s gift to us for the work of healing a broken relationship with nature.