Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, Elaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.
Summary: A sociologist who has researched the relationship between science and faith proposes that there are eight shared values that make it possible to move beyond a relationship of fear or conflict between religious and scientific communities.
Most of the books I have read about science and faith have come from either theological perspectives or those of physical science. What marks out this book as different is that it is written by a sociologist as a distillation of her research about attitudes of scientists toward faith, and those of believing people toward scientists. Her thesis is that there are shared values in both communities that make it possible to move from fear and conflict into constructive and appreciative dialogue with each other.
The first part of this book deals with preliminary considerations. She observes how fear often dominates the conversation within churches, that science is out to disprove God. Either we don’t talk about science, or we create binary choices–either faith in God or godless science. She observes that this doesn’t consider the reality of many Christians working in science and many scientists in the church, and that we might do well to listen to them. She also tackles the big elephant on the table in this discussion–evolution. She describes how in her research that she allows people to choose among six options in describing their beliefs about creation and evolution, rather than a binary choice. When this is the case, many Christians acknowledge the possibility of some form of evolution, along with the important conviction of God’s creative involvement, and the importance of the image of God, belying the science-faith binary.
She then explores eight shared virtues of people of faith and scientists. She divides these in two parts. The first are those of process, crucial in scientific research processes but also in vibrant Christian communities. These are curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity. The second concern how science and faith might come together in redemptive practices, including healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude.
Her chapter on doubt is an example of the surprising concurrence of these values. Scientific research is rooted in doubt–either questioning an existing theory about a phenomena as an inadequate explanation of the data, or some question that hasn’t been explored that the scientist does not understand. In the church, doubt is often discouraged, yet everyone wrestles with questions while believing. Perhaps Christians may even learn from scientists, who believe in their process, even while “doubting.” Acknowledging together that we have honest questions builds bridges of understanding and can allow for real growth. Scientists can show how faith doesn’t require certainty.
Another example was the chapter on awe, something bringing atheist scientists and Christians together as they explore the wonders of the world at every level from the smallest components of life to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course for the Christian, this awe points us to a more profound awe, that of God.
Ecklund concludes the book talking about the virtue of gratitude. She speaks of gratitude in the practice of science, gratitude for science and the scientists in our midst, and gratitude for our faith. She concludes by illustrating this with a personal statement–what she would now say to her grandfather who asked her why she pursued a graduate degree in sociology when it might not result in greater pay. She writes:
I am devoting my life to sociology, and to the sociological study of religion, because of gratitude. I am grateful for my Christian faith and the role it plays in my life. I am grateful for my church community. I am also grateful for the advances that science and social science have made in helping us better understand and navigate our world. I am grateful for the scientific tools and concepts that allow us to better get along and work together. Indeed my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavor to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship.
I’m grateful for this approach! I didn’t discuss humility, but my experience is that humility often seems in short supply in science-faith discussions. Yet both Christians and scientists have ample grounds for humility. We each are profoundly blessed in our lives beyond what we deserve–whether enjoying generous grants to build expensive apparatuses for our investigations, or exploring the infinite wonders of a generous God.
There is one other virtue Ecklund doesn’t mention that also seems a part of process. It is that of rigor or discipline. Scientists ruthlessly critique each other’s research in the pursuit of truth and often expend years on a research problem, running numerous experiments or simulations, crunching massive amounts of data. Sometimes this is also true in the church, whether in the care of framing our theology of the atonement, or the rigor shown in developing a program that serves one’s community. But we might also have much to learn from scientists in the rigor of our thinking and the testing of our ideas.
This is not so much criticism as evidence of how much fun it can be to consider what we share in common, and how we might learn from each other about living more virtuously. This provides a far better ground for good conversations that offer the hope of making us both better Christians and better scientists.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.