Reclaiming the Soul of Science
by Charles Colson
A sweet voice rose above the assembly on Sunday morning: "God's secrets are written in the first light," announced the refrain. The listeners were startled, for this was no church service; it was the 1993 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The singer was Nancy Abrams, wife of cosmologist Joel Primack, and her hymn celebrated the residual cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang. The performance highlighted a session on the relationship between science and religion, where participants discussed "The Religious Significance of Big Bang Cosmology" and "Scientific Resources for a Global Religious Myth."
Establishment science has long separated religion and science into antagonistic categories. But the human urge for a unified vision of the world is spilling over those artificial boundaries. The only question is what kind of religion will be taken as compatible with science. This is, after all, the age of do-it-yourself God kits, and many AAAS speakers argued that traditional faiths must give way to "a science-based myth," elevating cosmic evolution into a "compelling 'religious' narrative."
What these priestly pronouncements overlook is that Western science presupposes its own indigenous religious context: Christianity. In The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton note that many ancient culturesthe Egyptians, the Chinesedeveloped high levels of technology, but that scientific thinking, with its emphasis on experiment and mathematical formulation, arose in Western Europe. Why is that?
The answer is that Christian belief provided several key presuppositions for modern science:
As long as nature commanded religious worship, digging too closely into her secrets was deemed irreverent. In Christianity, nature was no longer an object of worship. Only then could it become an object of scientific study.
- Nature is a garden, not a god. In many pagan religions, the world seems alive with sun gods, river goddesses, astral deities. But the Bible teaches that nature is God's handiwork. In the words of historian R Hooykaas, Christianity "de-deified" nature.
Similarly, historian A. R. Hall says the concept of natural law, unknown in the ancient and the Asian world, originated with the biblical "belief in a deity who was at once Creator and Law-Giver."
- Nature is ordered. In most cultures, nature "seemed to common sense intractable, even mysterious and dangerous," writes historian Carl Becker. But Christians "argued that, since God is goodness and reason, his creation must somehow be . . . good and reasonable." The conviction that nature operates by "laws" was an article of Christian faith.
A striking example is Johannes Kepler, who struggled for years with a slight difference between observations and calculations of the orbit of Mars, until he hit upon the notion that orbits were not circular but elliptical. If Kepler had not been convinced that nature is mathematically precise, he would not have agonized over that minute difference and would not have broken through a belief that held sway for two thousand years.
- That order is mathematical. The ancient Greeks relegated mathematics to a realm of abstract ideals; matter itself they regarded as unpredictable and imprecise. But many of the early scientists argued that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo means God is completely sovereign over matter; it must follow precisely the rules he laid down for it. Hence, historian R. G. Collingwood writes, "The possibility of an applied mathematics is an expression . . . of the Christian belief that nature is the creation of an omnipotent God."
In Europe, by contrast, there was such a "guarantee": Christianity taught that the natural order was created by a divine mind, and was therefore intelligible to human minds. The early scientists were confident that (in the words of theologian Christopher Kaiser), "the same Logos" that orders nature "is also reflected in human reason."
- Human minds can discover that order. Joseph Needham, expert on Chinese culture, says the Chinese failed to develop science because they viewed the natural order as inscrutable. "It was not an order ordained by a rational personal being," Needham explains, "hence there was no guarantee that other rational personal beings would be able to spell out . . . the pre-existing divine code of laws."
For example, when Galileo wondered whether a ten-pound weight falls faster than a one-pound weight, he offered no analysis on "the nature of weight" (for which he was roundly criticized in his day). Instead, he dropped cannonballs off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This signaled a shift in understanding that science must proceed by experiment and observation.
- That order is known by experiment. Yet, since it is God's rationality that orders nature, not our own, science cannot proceed by armchair cogitations. Instead, we must observe and experiment.
As Christians, we often hear the charge that faith is hostile to science. But this "warfare" image is artificial. In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Becker shows that the first modern historians, such as Voltaire, were Enlightenment rationalists who sought to discredit Christianity by casting it as an enemy of science and progress. But today the historical facts are destroying that stereotype.
Christians ought to reclaim our heritage in science. God calls us to "take every thought captive to obedience to Christ." And if we don't, there is no telling what "compelling" new (false) myths scientists will concoct to feed our society's deep spiritual hunger.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY: AUGUST 14, 1995