Authentic Science & Authentic Christian Faith
By Paul Arveson
This was the rallying cry of the ASA when Walter Hearn was the Newsletter editor of the ASA, and Richard Bube, Stanford Professor of Electrical Engineering, was Editor of the Journal of the ASA back in the 1970s, when I joined the ASA. Walt's style was delightful to read, and full of what we would now call "LOL's".
Walt deserves all the tributes he continues to receive, as well as my gratitude for his long and faithful calling of "Being a Christian in Science" (the title of his book--buy it!). But here I would like to take the opportunity that Emily Ruppel gave me to share some thoughts about my own experience as a scientist and Christian over four decades, as influenced by many friends in the ASA.
In seeking truth in science or theology we approach an edge of mystery; there is no guarantee that we even know the right questions to ask, much less what answers are right or even plausible. On this unstable ground I have found in the ASA a reliable place to stand: a community of people who exemplify both authentic Christian faith and authentic science.
By Christian faith I mean trust in Christ and the Gospel—the central message of Christianity, as written in the New Testament.
But what is meant by "authentic science"?
It was Michael Polanyi, the first "postmodern" philosopher, who recognized the essential role that belief and trust played even in science:
"We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which share our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework." (Personal Knowledge, 1962, p. 266)*
*(Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1964) received recognition as the book that ushered in a postmodern philosophy of science, but Polanyi anticipated Kuhn and offered, I believe, a much more nuanced and comprehensive analysis. Also, he was a Christian. But the world will love its own.)
The ASA has faithfully provided this "affiliation to a like-minded community" for me and many others. The world's general assumption—both then and now—is that scientists are atheists. So it was immensely encouraging for me as a young evangelical scientist to meet so many others. I found that it is important to attend the annual meetings whenever possible, and not merely read articles or books (although I read a lot of both). Conversations and dialogues with others offer a chance to get feedback and correctives that have shaped my thinking, as "iron sharpens iron."
In the early days of the ASA, there was no unanimity on what constitutes "authentic science." There were of course many who wished to make "creation science" the official position of the ASA. Founder Alton Everest's history book describes the controversy over this proposal and the decision of ASA's leaders not to adopt it [The American Scientific Affiliation: Its Growth and Early Development, ASA Press, 2010]. These early ASAers wished to keep ASA as a forum within which various views could be discussed and debated, but the statement of faith was kept brief and general enough to apply to any Christian. This policy has been of great service to the members and the church in general, I believe. It has provided a place where the most complex and challenging issues in science and theology can be addressed, so that younger members can learn—first of all—the questions that are bothering people, before being taught a particular answer.
The membership of ASA is composed mostly of practicing scientists and engineers. The experience of scientific work expands our ability to imagine the work of other scientists. From childhood, I began collecting things, making things, and doing experiments. I had a small microscope, a very simple spectroscope, and my prized possession was my geologist's hammer. Using these tools gave me familiarity with the work of scientists, and made it easier to trust their observations. Those who have not had such experience find it more difficult to connect with the discoveries of science. That's why we should be strong advocates of "hands-on science" in schools, and make these experiences fun and exciting. I'll never forget the fun I had at my first annual meeting when Frank Roberts took ASA members on a field trip to collect fossils in Pennsylvania. (The spinoff Affiliation of Christian Geologists now has 82 members in this discipline, and they offer field trips wherever the annual meeting is located).
ASA also contains a generous number of theologians from many denominations. They have contributed greatly to my understanding of the faith. Because some come from different traditions than mine, they have opened my awareness of the richness of our faith—truly, many "Streams of Living Water", as Richard Foster's book puts it. For instance, the Jesuit scholar Enrico Cantore (who was also quoted by Hearn) wrote an article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith called “The Christic Origination of Science” (Dec. 1985) which was an important encouragement to me. Dr. George Murphy introduced me to Luther’s “theology of the cross,” which isn’t taught in my denomination. Meeting such great thinkers was an unexpected blessing I received from attending the annual meetings and reading Perspectives.
“Solve My Problem”
Now, as a member of ASA for 42 years, I would like to offer my perspective on one of our perennial questions: how to build a bridge between authentic science and authentic Christian faith. For the last two years before my retirement in 2015, I worked at the AAAS program, Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER). While working there, I was provoked to think more deeply about this question.
Unification or "integration" of science and faith has been a lifelong quest for many, and this is a very tempting project. After all, Jesus prayed that we may all be one [John 17]. There have been frequent ecumenical movements to reunite the denominations. Many religions teach the ultimate "unity" of all things. The unification of all fields of science was an ambition of philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century. Even on a political level, we bemoan the polarization in our country and seek to find a bridge toward common understanding.
Early in my Christian life, I thought it would be a straightforward matter to look at the options for Genesis interpretation, pick the best one, and build a system to unify all knowledge within a biblical framework. Like many Christians in the 1970s, I was captivated by the thoughtful language of Francis Schaeffer. Then, in 1972 he published Genesis in Space and Time, which began “The subject of this book is the flow of biblical history.” His assumptions forced him to paint himself into a corner where only young-earth creationism could be true. Although he insisted that there was “no final conflict,” he was unable to help young Christians in science, like me, to resolve their conflict. It is one thing to claim that you have the truth; it is quite another thing to actually solve my problem and lead me safely step by step across the bridge.
Walt Hearn’s book, Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997), actually does make an effort to solve the problem. Instead of starting from the standpoint of a theologian, it is written from the standpoint of a college science student or a working scientist in the lab. That is the appropriate, empathic approach that is necessary just to begin to solve the problem. Unfortunately this approach to writing science/faith books is rare.
In wrestling with the issues of science and faith, I eventually realized that we in ASA are not alone—we are dealing with one subset of a much longer historical situation in which Western culture has been placed since the Enlightenment. As historian of science Alexander Koyré has noted, the Enlightenment split Western culture in two, and philosophers and theologians have been trying to patch it back together ever since. We are not just in a "crisis of faith" but a "crisis of everything." The long conversation of thinking people in Western culture is centered around the theme of the unity vs. diversity of knowledge. We are immersed in "an age of science" and it has deeply shaped our tacit assumptions about reality. We are “resident aliens,” and we weep, as Andrew Porter described in his book, By the Waters of Naturalism.
So by now I know that resolving the conflict is not easy. In fact, it has been a lifelong struggle. In my personal search for an “integrated world view” I have only learned what doesn’t work. The unification proposals I have seen in science and theology (e.g. domination of one side by the other, or language mash-ups, or mysticism) have not solved my problem. But growth goes on in both realms. Science continues to grow in knowledge and specialization. My spiritual growth has gone the other way—downward into greater humility and a need for God’s grace, which is I think what Peter meant in his last words to us, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3: 18).
But, you say, there cannot be two truths! I agree. So let's maintain a dialogue and strive for unity, recognizing that we may not yet know enough, or anything at all, that will allow us to "unify" science and faith while at the same time preserving the integrity of each realm in its own terms. Meanwhile, this dialogue is the most interesting conversation in the world.
This is where my reading and ASA meetings have led me thus far on this question. I feel abundantly blessed by God and my many mentors and friends in this vital organization. Let's keep the conversation going for another 75 years!
Paul Arveson is a Senior Program Associate working on programs involving DoSER’s dialogue between scientists and evangelical Christians, and he also supports DoSER’s web site.
Paul’s first career was as a physicist in the Navy, where he served as a researcher doing projects in acoustics and oceanography. In 1999, he changed careers, and worked as a website developer and technology architect for various government contractors. In 2003 he co-founded a consulting company, the Balanced Scorecard Institute, that provides training in strategic management to all types of organizations.
Paul currently serves on the Board of Managers of the Washington Academy of Sciences and is a Fellow in the American Scientific Affiliation, the oldest US organization of evangelical Christians in the sciences.