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STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/21/2007


FEATURE | When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?

Story  Bryan Auday
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Not long ago my colleague Haddon Robinson, noted homiletics professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, commented on why he believes people leave the church. One major reason is that the church no longer addresses issues and concerns that are relevant to their lives.

I had just received a Lilly grant, which is administered through the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon. One purpose of this grant is to allow professors to explore ways public issues--in my case scientific issues--can be introduced to nonscientific audiences within the church. Last fall I used a portion of the grant to develop a 12-part adult Sunday school series titled "When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?" (The title is borrowed from a book by Ian Barbour, a stalwart in the cause for dialogue between scientific and Christian communities.) I wanted to stimulate conversations that would help Christians navigate the confusion--even among educated churchgoers--of topics such as human cloning, the harvesting of embryonic stem cells, evolution versus creationism, and the nature of homosexuality.

I taught this 12-part series at my own church, First Congregational Church in Hamilton, Massachusetts. My intention was to establish an open forum on Christian faith and science, one in which participants felt safe to explore varied positions on controversial topics. Often people view Sunday school as a vehicle for indoctrination, not as a place to explore new ideas. However, if evangelicals want to grow in their faith, they must understand not only their own position on a topic, but the positions of those with whom they disagree as well.

My series began by juxtaposing scientific naturalism with its emphasis on the scientific method, with a biblically based Christian worldview. To begin a dialogue between science and theology, we needed to understand the basic presuppositions of both camps. In the words of theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, "Every discipline has to rest on an unexplained foundation. For science this is provided by the fundamental laws of nature, just as theology rests on the given existence of the deity conceived."

We then looked at different models of how scientific and theological communities interact. I drew upon Barbour's fourfold typology: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. The heading "conflict" corresponds to those who believe that science and religion are enemies--for example, biblical literalists would argue that the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Genesis narrative; each position is seen as mutually exclusive. The "conflict" approach to dialogue--which is usually characterized by mudslinging--has been popularized by the media because it makes for spirited news stories.

The "independence" view is that science and religion are not in conflict because each has its own language, poses different questions, and concerns separate domains of reality. Religion asks "Why?" and science asks "How?" But in compartmentalizing science and theology, there is little opportunity for dialogue. Though I don't have hard data to back this claim, I believe the vast majority of Christians fall into either the conflict or independence categories.

The late Stephen Jay Gould was a good example of a scholar who adopted the independent typology. In his 2002 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Time, he pointed out the virtues of both science and religion but saw little value in bringing them together. In recent months Richard Dawkins' much-talked-about book The God Delusion (2006) has rekindled the fires of conflict since he is arguing, in part, that a choice must be made between evolutionary naturalism and theism.

The last two typologies, "dialogue" and "integration," refer to positions that respect the integrity of each other's domains, recognizing that each has meaningful things to say, particularly when they are weighing in on similar questions. The difference between the two is a matter of degree--integration is a more ambitious attempt to unify theology and science into a single discourse. Both these positions, however, see dialogue as essential and allow for the possibility that science and theology can influence each other. From my perspective, dialogue and integration are the best methods for gaining insight into the two most important books that Christians have been given--the Holy Scriptures and the book of nature.

During the remaining weeks of the course we delved into topics such as creationism, evolution, the intelligent design movement, and hybrid theistic-evolutionary perspectives. At no point did I advocate for a particular position; it was important to allow the participants to discuss different perspectives that are held by Christians who maintain a high view of Scripture. Each person was encouraged to come to his or her own conclusions.

We looked into scientific and theological perspectives on the mind/body/soul question, attempting to address "Who are we?" and "What constitutes our humanness?" As we looked to construct a biblically informed anthropology, we noted that the Scriptures make it clear God made us in his own image (imago Dei), and we tried to unpack what this means. We completed our study by looking at how science can help inform us about issues such as homosexuality, human cloning and developments in biotechnology.

Here are two lessons I learned through this experience. First, there is an immense need for the Christian academy to converse with the local church on significant contemporary issues. My course dealt with science, but there are many other possible topics. A second lesson I learned is that I'd been taking Gordon College for granted. One of the College's central missions is to bring the expertise of our academic disciplines alongside our faith as we strive to become truth seekers. In our community at Gordon, faculty, students, and staff have daily opportunities for contact with each other as we sort out the complexities of the Christian life. This privilege needs to be exercised, cherished and shared.

No matter where you are on your faith journey, keep us in mind as a resource. To contact faculty who could help you or your church with important issues, go to www.gordon.edu/faculty.


Bryan Auday, Ph.D., is chair of the Psychology Department at Gordon. He would like to thank Robert Tansill and Dorington Little, pastoral staff at the First Congregational Church in Hamilton, for the opportunity to teach his adult Sunday school program and for supporting his vision to use a multiple-perspectives pedagogy.

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