I had the privilege last week of participating in a retreat of ministry leaders and scientists whose vision is to promote a better conversation between science and faith. The retreat was part of a grant through the John Templeton Foundation administered through Fuller Theological Seminary. The program is called STEAM, which stands for Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries. The name identifies one of the concerns motivating the project: many emerging adults are walking away from the church because of the perception that science and faith are at war and that the church is anti-science.
This is sad because it was not always so. Many early and present day scientists from Copernicus to Francis Collins combine deep faith and scientific rigor in their lives with no sense of conflict.
I could go into the history of why there has even been a conflict, but others have done this better, and often this degenerates to a “he said/she said” conflict dialogue.
What I’d suggest are a few ground rules for a better conversation, not unlike those often used to facilitate other conversations.
1. Perhaps above all, good conversations arise when we listen in order to learn and understand rather than mentally composing arguments and rebuttals while another speaks.
2. For Christians, I think we need to read our Bibles well, gleaning what the writers meant to say under divine inspiration for their first audience, in their own cultural context. This is often regrettably neglected, which reflects a low rather than high view of the Bible. Too often, we impose our own questions and the concerns of our own context on the Bible and try to make it answer questions its writers never intended to answer.
3. We should set aside all attempts to force a reconciliation of science and the Bible that result in either the rejection of scientific findings or concluding that certain portions of scripture in error. This may lead to unanswered questions, but I would prefer that to forced answers.
4. Efforts to prove or disprove God by science should be set aside. This is not a question science can decide one way or the other. I have believing friends who consider the order and beauty of the universe and believe in a God. I have atheist friends who see other aspects of the world like suffering and do not believe in a God. The best I’ve been able to figure in all this is what Pascal wrote: “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.” This is also problematic because science continues to advance and what may be a “proof” today is disproven or capable of an alternative explanation tomorrow. The most I will ever say as a believer is that I have not found what I’ve learned in science inconsistent with the idea of a God (and hence why I believe faith and science need not to be at war!).
5. We should recognize that potential participants on both sides of the discussions may come with certain fears. Fear aroused often leads to defensiveness and may be at the root of much of the “warfare.” A better conversation doesn’t attack people at the place of their fear. It creates a space where fear can be acknowledged without ridicule or attack and seeks to allay fear through building trust and mutual vulnerability.
6. We likewise should not foreclose the search for understanding of others. Scientists should not ridicule the search for knowledge in religious texts. Nor should Christians foreclose any line of research, other than the sinister experiments that passed for “research” against Jews in prison camps, which would violate the research protocols of any research university. It may be warranted at times to talk about how we apply the findings of research, because this may be done with great good or great harm.
7. We should be skeptical of all of those, believers and skeptics alike, who have made a career, and in some cases a pile of money, promoting the warfare between faith and science. They may be utterly sincere, but I wonder, when either theologians or scientists make this warfare a major preoccupation. At very least, it may not be healthy. Might it be better for them to return to their parish or lab bench?
8. Might we instead devote ourselves to the important questions that people of faith and people working in the sciences care about deeply? For example, might Christians who care deeply about the majority world lobby for funding of research on diseases that impact majority world peoples, or livestock, disproportionately, rather than adding more funds to fight diseases in Western contexts that already enjoy significant support? Might Christians committed to peacemaking press that a greater portion of research funding go toward projects that enable people to flourish rather than devising ever more efficient means of killing? Or what does love of neighbor have to do with our response to those displaced from livelihoods by technological advances? This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it seems that there are a myriad of conversations where practicing Christians and practicing scientists have converging interests, whether they share the same faith or not.
If we pursue the kinds of conversations I’ve talked about in the last point, it seems that we might move toward better conversations. We still might not always agree. But might we begin to learn from and collaborate where possible on this amazing and challenging project of seeking the flourishing of the world and people we love? Is that not perhaps in the spirit of what Jeremiah said to the exiles in Babylon when he encouraged them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they lived (Jeremiah 29:7)? And we just might see the return to the church of some emerging adults who have longed for a better conversation around science and faith.