Resuming the Science/Faith Conversation:
"In action" shot of ASA/CSCA 2014 mtg. Black Hills Photography
by Jamin Hübner
Eyebrows raised among my colleagues when I announced I would be attending a “science conference” in Canada. “Really, why?” was usually the response. (They also wondered why the “American Scientific Affiliation” was meeting in Ontario.) I had spent the last five to seven years in graduate school where gender studies and biblical exegesis seemed to occupy every second between showers, meals, and the occasional adventure outside. Among other things, my love for physical science and the science/faith dialog had to be put on “hold” until these obligations were met. The end result was nothing short of a “time-warp”—an experience any law, medical, or PhD student can relate to.
Yes, a few things happened when I was in the black hole—especially in the creation/evolution debate (or whatever it should be called now) that I was so embroiled in as a conservative Baptist theology undergraduate student. It was an era when “Dr. Dino” (Kent Hovind) still roamed the earth, when BioLogos was just getting off the ground, and when “ID” was usually unabbreviated. But now, since escaping the black hole, Dr. Dino was just about to get out of jail, the face and tone of BioLogos had dramatically changed, and discussions of ID revolved more around information theory and paleontology than “irreducible complexity.” Of course, entire new lines of inquiry were also taking stage that I had never even heard about.
No surprise, really. But it was somewhat surprising was how the joint ASA/CiS/CSCA conference affected me as a Christian theologian attempting to rejoin the conversation. When my wife asked “How is it?” while I was still in Hamilton, my response was, “Well, at the moment, I can’t say that it was a wonderful experience, but I can’t say that I hate it either…I don’t know. Ask me later.” Guilt even showed up (something rare for me) when conference members hoped that I was “drawn closer to God” from all the presentations. To be honest, I felt like God was a million miles away, perhaps hiding out beyond the last observable remnants of Big Bang radiation or somewhere between boson brains and subatomic quarks. Apparently my experience was different. Maybe I went to the conference with wrong expectations. Maybe I was tired of playing catch-up. Or maybe, it was just poor sleep and not enough beef in my diet (yes, I think that was it...problem solved!).
I gave it a month to collect my thoughts. After talking with several colleagues (some attendees, some not), a clearer picture began to emerge. Since veterans of the science/faith dialog have expressed interest in the experience of a “newbie” and “outsider,” I want to briefly summarize some of the things that “stood out” in this experience. (Do keep in mind that my observations are of the whole experience, and are not necessarily directed at any particular group, institution, or organization)
I suppose it is a given that there was a substantial geek/nerd overload. So, no need to dwell on that. Next.
I was struck by the sense of community present at the conference. It is not enough to summarize it simply as a group of people bound together by common beliefs and purpose. Surely that was the case, and surely that does matter. Those confessing Christ as Lord share a host of beliefs and experiences largely unique to the Christian life—redemption, grace, struggle with sin, struggle with truth, etc. And so do those who are interested in the sciences—methodology, biblical and natural revelation, interpretation of facts, etc. But, to borrow from the language of emergence, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Conference attendees compromised an organic entity that had its own unique properties not solely present with individuals. It was a family. Brothers and sisters giving each other a hard time, bearing each other’s burdens, the older watching out for the younger, the younger challenging the older, expressions of patience with one another’s ongoing journey, prayer to God for each other, conflict, resolution, and so on. This can hardly be common at other similar events. But, I have to ask myself, why shouldn’t it be? As much as intellectuals like to think of ourselves as objective researchers where original data is our primary contribution, it is inevitable enough that people are people, with at least some bit of wisdom to offer. As humbling as it is, such cooperate, communal wisdom and fellowship can change the tone and content of the discussion as effectively as publishing data in all the respected journals.
I was also struck by the variety at the event. Every age, seemingly endless geographical regions, and specialized fields of study I’ve never even heard of. It was almost like going to a zoo. Now, before you assume that I don’t get out enough and that I’ve spent way too much time out in the cornfield, consider that this very topic was a point of discussion during some sessions. Some contended that perhaps there was not enough variety in certain categories (e.g., gender, or disciplines, etc.) at the conference. Implicit, of course, is the suggestion that something should happen to compensate. Ignoring this latter point for the moment, I think the lack of “diversity” (I would explain the quotes, but that would be an essay in itself) may or may not have been the case. It all depends on what sort of standard is used. I, for example, think there were far too many mustaches present (don’t tell Denis Lamoureux about this). But, whatever the case, I think (and you can disagree) that there was enough variety to keep one busy, and enough to start conversations about connecting insights between the disciplines. This brings me to a more complicated observation: the apparent love/hate relationship of interdisciplinary studies.
This was a hard one not least because it is an ancient, touchy subject, but because I was a new, minority attendee and a great lover of an authentic liberal arts education. My very presence as a theologian was based on the presumption of the value of interdisciplinary studies. My wife, not me, has all the science degrees, so it was natural to question whether I should have even been there. But my interest in science and education in theology was largely adequate to merit contribution—as was the case with many other presenters. Such contributions almost always involve the inevitable “crossing over” of the disciplines and some degree of risk since one is not speaking inside her “territory.”
However, as a founding administrator of a “classical Christian college,” I couldn’t help but remember that part of the idea behind formal education itself—including both undergraduate liberal arts and doctoral studies—is that one has learned the basic skills of research, and, indeed, the basics skills of how to learn. These “essentials”—including, but not limited to critical thinking, numerical analysis, deductive reasoning, rhetoric, grammar/language, etc.—are inherently “cross-transferrable.” They can be used whether one goes into (to use traditional categories) divinity, law, or medicine. (A semester of informal logic can do wonders for the puzzled scientist who can’t seem to assemble meaningful and academically-sustainable macro-level conclusions from a set of specialized micro-level data.) Furthermore, such cross-transferrable skills is more or less the operating system upon which “interdisciplinary” studies can function. Without the ability to adapt and utilize essential skillsets in multiple areas, even the smartest person in the world can be “stuck in a rut” of their own discipline when it comes time to relate his own discoveries. He can only talk in his own “language.” (Leave it to somebody else to put it all together!) But, this only makes us ask: just who might that be? In fact, if we believe that the “most reliable knowledge” only comes by empirical research, why even bother trying to survey the landscape? This appears to be one of those areas that, although common in the faith/science dialog, remained unsolved. Some say “no one is qualified to ‘put it all together’; you just have to trust experts in other fields”; others say, “historians, since they see the broader picture of trends and ideas”; still others, “philosophers,” and so on. Apparently some problems didn’t change while I was in graduate school.
Anyway, we might also remember that this “liberal arts” approach was the philosophy of education for over a thousand years. But, today, it is largely forgotten since the swelling tide of modern education took hold in the 1800s (for an initial response, see the Yale Reports of 1828), culminating in the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 in America. This, in combination with the influence of German approaches and modern philosophy in general, inaugurated the brave new world of the “major” and “minor” and the collapse of the crucial distinction between “education” and “job training.” What remains from this revolution is the vestigial organ of “generals”—better known as “those worthless courses” by the average freshman who simply wants a high-paying job. What has resulted is nothing less than over-specialization and, consequently, multiple generations of interdisciplinary-incompetent (and even resistant) smart people.
I realize many will disagree with this last statement and judge it too harsh; everyone (including myself) is protective of our own training and methods. We are also drowning in a culture that tells us “newer is always better.” But, whether my intuitions are right wrong, perhaps this helps explain what happened after one of the conference presentations. Four different people came up to thank me for a question I asked during the Q&A. I felt validated at first; the scientists who concurred appeared excited to have a biblical scholar “on their side.” I also made some new friends. (Go team!) But I had to wonder why no one else in the large audience felt adequate to ask such a simple question. Maybe it was the fear of wondering off into “other territory” and sounding foolish? The comfort of having “an expert” answer the question himself? Or, maybe it was actually the century-old cultural-conditioning of an education system gone wrong? After all, Hermeneutics 101 or Introduction to the Bible was enough to put the brakes on the entire presentation—but then it hit me: most of the people in the room had never taken Hermeneutics 101 or Introduction to the Bible! (I’m sure they would have liked to, but modern education prefers other things). A century and a half ago, this would have been unheard of; virtually everyone who took higher education had taken at least two years of biblical languages and biblical studies, whether they went on to become a doctor or a pastor or…Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus, etc.
Now, maybe this is all off. Maybe the problems with the presentation were just so obvious that nobody even bothered to raise a hand. I don’t know. But I do think that “interdisciplinary studies” assumes both the possibility of meaningful cross-communication between the disciplines as well as the real possibility of valid cross-contribution. With a humble attitude and a bit of independent study, one “classically-trained” or even “liberal-arts minded” does not need a doctorate, a publication, or a career in a certain field in order to make relevant and meaningful contributions to a field different than their own. (I recently started noticing the subtitles of best-selling books: “a scientist looks at questions of faith;” “biologist looks at...”; “An economist examines…” etc.; this leaves us asking why such subtitles are significant). The lives of the greatest scientists and thinkers prior to the 20th century are excellent case studies.
I can’t deny that some of the most insightful contributions to my area (systematic theology and biblical studies) have come from math geeks, “cell” people, and small-town farmers who could barely read. What do I do with this? Do I reject this possibility, or do I accept this reality? I am continually reminded that humility takes different shapes. One can speak with a heart of pride or a heart of humility. One can refrain from speaking with a heart of pride or a heart of humility. I guess this is what I mean by a “love-hate relationship with interdisciplinary studies.” It’s love because I want to see what this expert has to offer in my area (humility); its hate because I really don’t (pride). It’s love because I want to realize how much I don’t know (humility); it’s hate because I really don’t (pride). It’s love because I want progress in human thought and Christian fellowship (humility), it’s hate because I don’t want to change my beliefs and get close to people (pride). Unsurprisingly, in a community of broken people—whether at a science conference or at my home church—this is the reality all around us.
At the end of the day, I didn’t realize just how much fun I had at my first “science conference.” Hopefully next time Jessica will be with me, and I’ll pick up where I left off with some new friendships.
As a theologian wanting to re-enter the science/faith dialog, I ultimately left the 2014 ASA/CSCA meeting with a sense of just how Big God really is. With every unanswered question and exploratory conversation, I heard Paul’s doxology, “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:33). With every answered question and informative conversation, I recalled the words of my favorite theologian (Herman Bavinck): “…in the joy of God’s grace there is intellectual liberation. Faith turns to wonder; knowledge terminates in adoration; and confession becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving.”
Jamin Hübner is an American theologian from South Dakota. He is a graduate of Dordt College (BA Theology), Reformed Theological Seminary (MA Religion), the University of South Africa (ThD Systematic Theology), and is currently a graduate student (MS) at Southern New Hampshire University. He serves as the Director of Institutional Effectiveness and founding Chair of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College in the Black Hills.