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BEING A CHRISTIAN IN SCIENCE

BEING A CHRISTIAN IN SCIENCE. By Walter R. Hearn. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1997, 178 pp., Paper.  Revised version taken from the Ashland Theological Journal 34 (2002), pp. 177-80.

 

                We live now in what might be called the ‘Era of the Glimpse of God,’ in a new epoch ushered in by the serendipitous discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation in July, 1963, for which the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded in 1978 (on the discovery, cf. Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Discoveries of the Century Reveal God [2nd ed.; Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995], passim).  Since at least 1965 it has been reasonably understood that this discovery signaled humankind’s first glimpse at the beginning of the cosmos, implying even to many agnostics that if the universe began, the existence of a Beginner was more than just an attractive speculation.  When in 1992 the “greatest discovery in the history of mankind” was achieved (so Stephen Hawking) clarifying details of this radiation, a discovery which one physicist described as “looking at the face of God” (so George Smoot), the personal concepts implicit in the new era became even more understandable throughout the world.

                It is in this light then that the helpful thoughts of Hearn’s book should be examined.  Its goal is to assure a young person who may consider a career in science, or a theological student who might like to understand better how modern science works, that positive contributions can be made to both the Christian and the scientific communities and that this can be done with joy (21).  Hearn also writes in the light (or darkness) of another background.  Hearn is well aware of the tragic assault against science in the public arena mounted by the dangerous pseudoscience peddled by Christian sectarians of the “Young Earthism” movement which dogmatically touts a 4000 year old cosmos, the unobserved short-term macroevolution of species following a worldwide flood, and humankind walking with dinosaurs, along with the total rejection of modern science that such claims entail.  As John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 88, aptly observes, “The ghost of Archbishop Ussher has not been wholly exorcised from theology.”  Hearn alludes to the vocal devotees of this ghost on at least three occasions (16, 22, and 97).  Deeply unbiblical in some of its tenets, especially in its insertion of the death of plants and animals into Romans 5:12, this embarrassing anti-scientific sect poses a tremendous national threat (so Langdon Gilkey) to the budding interest in science and technology among our nation’s youth, both outside and inside of formal Christian education.  The political tactic employed by “Young Earthism” is deliberately divisive, pillorying the entirely appropriate naturalistic methods of experimental science as atheistic, disingenuously failing to distinguish in methodology between theory and fact, surreptitiously taking scientists’ comments out of context to exaggerate, while at the same time bombastically claiming the imprimatur of “True Science and Education” for its devotional pamphleteering!  All of this regrettably forces sincere Christian young people to choose between ungodly science and an “inerrant Bible.”  The discouragement and distortions Christian young people face due to this sectarian influence in many churches and in the thinking public at large (where, alarmingly, this pseudoscientifically based movement is often associated with the intellectual worth of Christianity itself), when considering a career in science or when reflecting upon the connection between their faith and science, need to be met by books like Hearn’s Being a Christian, as well as by objective critiques of the sect and its philosophical underpinnings (as in, for example, Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992]; Robert Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism [Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1999], passim; Steven Weinberg, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001], passim); and, from a liberal theological perspective, Langdon Gilkey, Blue Twilight: Nature, Creationism, and American Religion [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001]).

                Hearn is under no illusion about the fact that he is on the battlefield for the Christian mind and is concerned that its potential influence for much good in the scientific and technological world should not be lost to coming generations.  He wants to explain the methods of science, that they are restricted to physical cause and effect (17, 38), and that in deciding if science is the right career path you should keep in mind that “Christian behavior is rooted in biblical precepts and in loyalty to Jesus Christ” (40).  If a young person feels called into a career in science (or, I might add, wants to investigate its experimental results), Hearn offers assurance: “If scientific work is your calling as a Christian, you will be welcomed into a wonderful family” (57).  Hearn advocates looking to God in the face of temporal pessimism, letting the optimism generated from eternity help you serve here and now in the way you are called.   

                The opportunity to be a witness within the scientific community is greater in the new era than ever before and Hearn is right both to detect and to encourage this.  As an example, he cites the work of professed agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow, formerly director of NASA, whose book, God and the Astronomers, is so widely read.  Like many scientists, Jastrow rejects Einstein’s impersonal God of rational order but is not sure on how to proceed.  Hearn argues that Jastrow needs prayer, not condemnation (well aware that many famous scientists have unjustly been personally attacked by “Young Earthism” sectarians) for holding naturalistic presuppositions, “Who knows, perhaps in Robert Jastrow the Son of God will live – before the sun dies” (97).  If I may, I would like to insert a personal testimony.  I was once present in a conversation with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman at the University of California at Irvine, where Feynman had just delivered a memorial lecture.  A physics colleague of mine there cordially presented Feynman with a genuine Christian witness.  Feynman demurred, saying that he could detect nothing about the universe to suggest the existence of God.  However, I suspected then that Feynman was confused about how some Christians could be intellectually credible and seek to reject modern scientific methods, replacing them with fantastic philosophical speculation.  A stumbling block had been placed in his way about what Christianity was and he never recovered from it.  Feynman died shortly thereafter.  Now, in the new era, the opportunity to be a Christian witness in the scientific community is very much enhanced and ever increasing because the entire climate of skepticism is being influenced in a positive way by new experimental discoveries.  If Christian young people respond to God’s calling to enter science, in careers like astronomy, biochemistry, geology, paleontology, paleobiology (where the theory of the macroevolution of hominids to modern man is recently challenged/contradicted by experimental findings of DNA evidence successfully extracted from a Neanderthal fossil), and physics, for example, they will have the opportunity to make new discoveries that affect humankind for the better and have the further satisfaction of being a respectable Christian witness used of God.

                While the concept of spiritual life is foreign to science itself because it deals with only measurable physical properties, the Christian in science can develop spiritual life via fellowship with the Holy Spirit and through learning Scripture.  A Christian in science will not be in an isolated position.  There are good journals, like Science & Christian Belief, to help, as well as a number of theology and science groups (107-110, 126, and 137).  Hearn includes a little exhortation on “The Bible and Science” that is timely (117-19).  Hearn further urges that a Christian’s life in science can be one of adventure and fulfillment; he gives his own convincing testimony to that effect. 

                Hearn cites a few examples of Christians in science (and theology) who extend their witness to the general public, like astronomer/pastor Hugh Ross, whose “writing and speaking have helped to demonstrate to conservative Christians that big bang cosmology and an ancient earth are compatible with a faithful reading of the Bible” (137), and like Robert C. Newman, whose “Progressive Creationism” in J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (eds.), Three Views on Creation and Evolution [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999]), 105-33, is worthy of perusal, as are responses to it by Walter L. Bradley (134-36)  and Vern S. Poythress (148-52) in Three Views.

                Hearn offers a useful set of notes to each chapter and a good working list of references, which also might have included Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1990) and, with apologies for mentioning my own work, “Biblical Creation and Science: A Review Article,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/2 (1996), 289-91, now substantially advanced by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1004). 

                I highly commend Being a Christian in Science to theological students who may wish to explore the methodology of the physical (natural) sciences.  There is no need for Christians to fear the experimental findings of modern science; rather there is an emerging realization of harmony with a literary interpretation of the Bible.  There is a need, however, for all Christian students to understand what science is and what it is not.  Hearn is helpful here as is John Rennie, “Fifteen Answers to Creationist Nonsense,” Scientific American 287/1 (2002), 78-85 (81, 84), who fairly observes, from the physical cause and effect perspective  of science alone, that “The origin of life remains a mystery” and that “A critical tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism – it seeks to explain the universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms.”  Being a Christian in science, if you become a cell biologist or a paleobiologist, for example, does not mean that you have to agree with the arguments of a John Rennie, but you might want to present other plausible interpretations of the available evidence.  Being a scientist or desiring to understand the experimental findings of modern science from a sound theological perspective will not conflict with Christian convictions and biblical faith.  In fact there are influential venues in the new era for Christians in science to honestly and professionally present cogent arguments based on experimental findings and scientific methods (not on religious speculation as a replacement for the very successful scientific methodology that underpins our technology, our military, and our industrially based economy), arguments which suggest an active role for the biblical God.  In doing this, Christians in science will keep in mind that such potentially persuasive arguments will fall short of formal proof, given God’s desire to remain invisible and to let His power and divinity be inferred by those who will thoughtfully contemplate His creation (Romans 1:20). 

Christians in science today, like Hearn, are concerned for their Christian testimony and do not want to be lumped together with sectarian activities which are widely regarded as against the public trust, as recently illustrated by the Iowa Academy of Science’s Position Statement on Pseudoscience for the public good: “Pseudoscience is a catch-all term for any mistaken or unsupported beliefs that are cloaked in the disguise of scientific credibility.  Examples include assertions of ‘scientific creationism,’ the control of actions at a distance through meditation, and the belief in levitation, astrology, or UFO visitors.”  Every young person contemplating whether God would like him or her to study science and every theology student who would like to better understand how all of those programs on television (like Paleoworld and the Discovery Channel) can fit productively into practical ministry should take time to pray and study the Bible using sound hermeneutical methods.   Hearn’s book will be a very welcome complement to such valuable and worthwhile endeavors.

                                                                                                Paul Elbert

                                                                                                Church of God Theological Seminary

 

                 

                                              

 

 

 

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