Why science matters to faith, and where to start

Article published in The Church Times, 24 May 2013

THE popular image of science as providing reliable, useful, and objective knowledge, while theology offers only speculative and subjective opinion is remarkably persistent. Such caricatures have a profound effect on the way many people view the Christian faith and its credibility. This remains so, despite a large and growing body of academic literature which presents a different view.

One of the most important apologetic tasks today is to find ways of making this deeper understanding more widely known, in both the Church and the wider world. If we do not engage actively in this, then the field is left wide open for either the Creationists or the New Atheists (both of whom take communication seriously), with the result that many are put off any serious consideration of Christian faith.

In our churches, there are several excellent study courses on science and religion, but this is still a minority interest, usually led when a minister gets enthusiastic about such questions. All too often, we hear little or nothing in sermons, Sunday schools, or youth groups about the interface between science and religion. This is partly because, for those without much background in science, the issues can appear complex and technical. It is vital, however, for all thinking Christians, and especially those who preach and teach, to seek to engage much more seriously with these issues, because of the importance of science to our thinking.

Fortunately, there has been an explosion in the amount of academic study of science and religion in the past 30-40 years, and the quality of this is high. There are a number of centres around the world that have advanced the scholarly understanding of the issues. There have been some good attempts at communicating this material more widely, but they are still fairly limited. We now need a much bigger push on the communication of this material — into schools, colleges, churches, the media, and elsewhere.

There is much that we can do to build a bridge of communication, and especially for those who do not feel confident in dealing with science.

First, use the existing organisations. There are distinguished study centres, including the Ian Ramsey Centre in Oxford and the Faraday Institute in Cambridge, and also networks such as Christians in Science, the Science and Religion Forum, and the Society of Ordained Scientists. All of these have on their websites links to a mass of helpful, easily digestible material.

The Faraday Institute site (www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday), for example, has short briefing papers on topics such as “Has Science killed God?” and “Is the Universe designed?” These are written by experts in the field, and are accessible to the non-scientist, and so provide easy background material for sermons. There are also some excellent introductory videos on the Test of Faith site (www.testoffaith.com), which provides a book and course material. Professor John Polkinghorne has a Q&A website (www.starcourse.org/jcp/qanda.html) on common questions, such as incarnation and evolution.

Good quality science education and religious education is another vital part of communicating a well-balanced understanding of the science-religion relationship. This needs to include study about the nature of scientific enquiry. The Faraday Schools section (www.faradayschools.com) includes, for example, video clips addressing topics such as “Why are there natural disasters if God created the world?”, and “Your quick guide to Creationism, Atheism and Theistic Evolution”, in which leading academics offer their reflections in a way accessible to young people. There are also several computer games and apps.

But teachers and others need to be aware of all this, and ready to use it creatively and enthusiastically, which depends in part on how curricula are framed — that is why that debate matters.

We also need confidence among clergy and other leaders to deal with these areas. This year, an imaginative series of conferences is being run at St John’s College, Durham, with the explicit aim of equipping religious leaders in an age of science. There is also some good material — for example, in the Science for Ministry initiative at Princeton — but which is hardly mainstream. We need to find ways of getting this into systematic theology and seminary courses.

I have been impressed with the idea of the Scientists in Congregations initiative (www.scientistsincongregations.org). It involves identifying a church leader, plus one working scientist, in a congregation, and giving them some training and ideas for activities in their church, which would make the whole congregation better informed.

We need to get more scientific imagery and ideas into our liturgy. This means encouraging liturgists, intercessors, musicians, and hymn-writers to do just that — and to have a liturgical season, possibly linked to harvest, which would look more closely at questions of creation and providence. For example, the Eco-Congregation website has a section on “greening worship”, which links liturgy and environmental concerns, as well as one on celebrating creation. The Biologos site (www.biologos.org), set up by Professor Francis Collins, has sections on worship, as well as sermons.

Ultimately, all this matters because both science and theology make important truth-claims about the way things are, and what we believe about this shapes the way we live.

The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, has used the Golden Gate Bridge as an image for the need to build the conversation between science and theology. The past 30 or so years of academic study in this field has built a pretty good bridge. What is missing, however, is the communication of that literature in a much more popular manner. In this exercise, we have only just begun to build the foundations.