The Christian and Science (pt. 1)
What is the Christian’s role in the scientific enterprise? How do we as Christians live in a culture that has been shaped and influenced by the impact of scientific accomplishments?
Lest we slip into critical attitudes toward science, we must remember that science began with a mandate God gave in creation. God commanded Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth and to subdue it. There is a sense in which man was created to conquer the universe in which he lives. The scientific enterprise is a part of that task. At the same time, certain restrictions and constraints are placed upon man in creation. We are called not only to be productive, but to dress, till, and keep the earth, and to replenish it. In the initial mandate for the scientific enterprise, there were governing sanctions. The scientific enterprise is to be under the authority of God and restrained by the law of God. Implicit in the mandate is the prohibition against the exploitation of natural resources, the raping of the world over which we have been given dominion.
For centuries, there were broad areas of cooperation between the church and the scientific community. They worked hand in hand. The vocation of the scientist was seen as a calling from God Himself. There was a kind of unity between the spiritual quest of man and the natural quest of science.
Increasingly, it seems, a break is developing between man’s spiritual life and his natural or scientific life. Perhaps we still have not healed the wounds from the Galileo episode in the seventeenth century. In that drama, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for his scientific activity, and his scientific work was banned. Only recently has that ban been removed. This act served to heighten a growing sense that there are two different realms, the realm of faith or religion, and the realm of reason or science. The tension between the two accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and came to a head in the 1925 Scopes trial involving the issues of teaching evolution.
Galileo: What Really Happened?
The Galileo trial is generally regarded as a black eye for the church. The popular impression is that Galileo’s plight was the result of blind conflict between dogma and fact, between faith and science. A closer scrutiny of the historic debate reveals that the scientists within the church were as hostile to Galileo’s discoveries as were the bishops. Galileo challenged the “orthodoxy” of science as well as the church. It wasn’t merely the bishops who refused to look through his telescope. His fellow scientists were equally reluctant to take a peek.
Though the facts of history show otherwise, the impression that has been passed down to us is that the church and the church alone was guilty of suppressing Galileo’s discoveries. As a result, the church lost credibility and a growing rupture occurred between church and science, a rupture that is utterly foreign to biblical Christianity.
We often hear the assumption that if one is to be a Christian in our modern age, he must be something of an intellectual schizophrenic. He must somehow put his faith on one side of the room and his reason and scientific investigation on the other side, because the two are simply incompatible.
We have been considering throughout our study the dilemma that modern man faces with that wall which divides the metaphysical realm from the physical realm. This great watershed in Western civilization came with the criticism of Immanuel Kant. Kant maintained that our normal methods of knowing man never take us beyond the limits of this world and into the realm of God. The scientific method, therefore, is useful for the study of physics, but not for the study of metaphysics. It is useful for the study of nature, but not for the study of super-nature. The essence of Kant’s critique was that God cannot be known by theoretical thought.
That was a watershed moment in Western history. Since then, multitudes of thinkers have succumbed to skepticism and have said that if we are to have any knowledge of God or any religious truth, that knowledge must be achieved not by reason or by scientific observations. We must conjure up a new way to get over that wall. This is done either through an existential experience or through mystical intuition. The result is that normal avenues of knowing are closed to the things of God.
However, not every Christian has rolled over and played dead at the feet of Immanuel Kant. As soon as we embrace the idea that God is only known mystically and that the world is only known scientifically, we create a kind of personal schizophrenia that is intolerable for the intelligent person. Therefore, as missionaries to our culture, we must deal with this problem.
This is part eighteen of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.