Lesson 1 - Misguided Culture War

Science or Religion?

For many Americans today, it seems self evident that science and religion are in conflict—and always have been. However, historically speaking, this perceived opposition is actually quite recent. The roots of this culture war date to the end of the 19th century, and its most extreme expression emerged with the publication of Andrew D. White’s Warfare of Science with Theology in 1896. Some thirty years later, with the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925, many Americans decided that one could not take both Christian faith and scientific inquiry seriously; it would have to be one or the other.

Praveen helps us to see that this “warfare model” is an erroneous and unhelpful perception. As they say, though, sometimes the perception is the reality. As Praveen explains, this can make things especially difficult for Christians working in the natural sciences.

How have you experienced this kind of dualistic either/or thinking in your scientific education and work?

Exposing the Fallacy

Praveen identifies mistrust between scientists and people of faith (on both sides of the divide) as the prime cause of the breakdown. But it hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way now. Actually, Christians have a rich heritage of exploring the natural world. Praveen identifies Johannes Kepler as one example of a Christian who understood his scientific work as an act of worship, but there are many others.

There is a richer, though somewhat ignored, history of partnership between science and faith than what most appreciate today. The modern notion that deep faith in what cannot be seen is somehow in direct opposition to one’s ability to do rigorous study of what can be seen is a fallacy.

Praveen Sethupathy

Asking the Right Questions

From the earliest days of the faith, Christians have maintained that there is one ultimate Truth, but also that there are multiple ways of apprehending it. However, since the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, many folks have assumed that the only things that are “real” are physical things, and that there is only one way to arrive at “real” knowledge: scientific observation.

And yet Praveen notes that something may be real and unseen at the same time. In fact, according to the Apostle Paul, things unseen may be more real than the things we can see: “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Take a moment to think of some examples of things that are unseen and yet nevertheless real.

Part of the confusion results from a misunderstanding about what faith and religion are each trying to do in their own unique ways. The Scottish theologian David Fergusson puts it like this:

This controversy [between modern science and classical creationism] becomes more apparent than real if we can understand the creation narratives as testifying to the origin of the world as being an act of God. The scientific account of the how of creation can thus sit alongside the theological account of its why. Since theology and science function at different levels of explanation, these are not competing but complementary accounts of the world.

David Fergusson, “Creation”

Fergusson’s point is that science and theology can complement each other precisely because they are different modes of inquiry, using different methodologies and asking different questions.

Let’s pause to think together about what this might mean:

  • What kinds of questions is theology asking? Are there questions about the nature of creation that, for example, the Bible does not answer?
  • What kinds of questions is science asking? Are there questions about the nature of reality that science cannot answer?

What's at Stake?

How we handle this question may seem like an issue for scientific specialists, but there’s actually a lot at stake for all Christians. Praveen shares out of his own experience with young Christian students who are shaken by doubt and distress when first exposed to the hard sciences because they had never been given the freedom to wrestle with uncertainty. The result is a series of unnecessary and painful crises of faith.

But Christians should be characterized by a vibrant and daring intellectual life. After all, if we really do have the Truth–or, perhaps it would be better to say that the Truth has us–then we should feel the freedom to pursue our vocations without reserve and in any field. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).

Intellectual fear is a symptom of what the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann once called “pusillanimous faith” in his book The Crucified God. Pusillanimous faith is a timid faith, a faith closed in on itself, a faith feeling constantly under threat from foreign and menacing ideas. It is a fearful and rigid faith, and it’s not the faith befitting of those who have been given “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

How have you encountered fearfulness–whether from the Christian community or the scientific community–in your vocation?

What are some specific ways you can cultivate the “sound mind” of which Paul speaks–an intellectual life defined by fearlessness and daring?

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