Science and Faith in Long-Term Relationship
Have science and faith always been in conflict? Looking back at the history of science and the church can help give us perspective.
Mike and Donna were married for nine years with two kids when they came to see me. They had a history of marital conflict to share, but more recently it seems to have escalated. Mike was temporarily sleeping on a friend’s couch. He would come home on the weekends to “work on their relationship.” But after a month of making no progress, they decided to ask for help.
One of the first questions I asked them was, “What do you think is causing the conflict in your relationship?” And for the first time in a long time, Mike and Donna agreed on something. “It’s always been like this.” I found that hard to believe. I mean, yes, it does happen. There are couples where they have literally fought since day one. But that’s just not typical. Every relationship has good times and bad, ups and downs. But I couldn’t believe it was always like this. I was becoming convinced that Mike and Donna needed something more than advice.
So, as part of their counseling plan, I introduced Mike and Donna to Gary and Helen. Gary and Helen had been married for 36 years. They had more than three decades of relationship experience on which to draw. They had more than three decades of relationship perspective. That’s what Mike and Donna needed, perspective.
When a married couple experiences a season of conflict, it sometimes feels like it has always been this way, and it will never end. Harmony feels like a far-off dream. Did it ever exist? Peace seems impossible. Can it even exist? Almost always, those feelings simply aren’t true. When asked, couples who have been married more than 30 years often share a similar story. Times of conflict come and go. There are even little conflicts experienced every day. But they typically do not define the relationship. Instead, harmony, companionship, and partnered cooperation set the tone for long-term relationships.
What would happen if we understood the history of the relationship between science and Christianity in a similar way? What if we put some of the times of conflict between science and Christianity into a larger perspective? At times in history, the scientific and church communities experienced conflict. But those brief moments of conflict don’t define the whole relationship. Science and faith are not married, but they are in a long-term relationship. When we step back and view the long history shared by science and Christian faith, a clearer picture emerges – one of harmony and cooperation.
Remember the Early Days?
The Christian church emerged against the backdrop of Greek philosophy and science. Early Christian apologists were schooled in Greco-Roman philosophy prior to their conversions. When men such as Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Augustine wrote down their thoughts, they naturally defended Christianity against the Greco-Roman philosophy of their time. But did the early Church fathers really believe Christianity was in conflict with the natural sciences?
The short answer is “no.” The world of the early church was built by Greek and Roman philosophy and science. If Greco-Roman “science” positively contributed to the Christian faith, then it could be embraced. Augustine provides a good example. He saw science as the “handmaiden” of theology, meaning the two should work side-by-side. Christians should take whatever truth could be found in Platonism and “convert it to our use.”
According to Augustine, Christians should not be ignorant of the natural sciences. A knowledge of the natural world can actually benefit Christians. He wrote,
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.”1
In short, a lack of scientific knowledge must not be a stumbling block to non-Christians coming to faith. Science is a means to worship, and a help with biblical interpretation. In this way, science could be indispensable. By promoting the positive relationship between science and Christianity, Augustine set the foundation for science to flourish and advance. And that’s exactly what happened.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the church became the soil in which the sciences grew. With the Church’s partnership and sponsorship, scientific knowledge did not stand still during the next thousand years. Christians made advancements in astronomy, medicine, geography, botany, engineering, genetics, mathematics, and education (specifically, creating universities) to name a few fields. There were moments of conflict along the way. But science kept growing thanks, in large part, to the Church’s faithful Christians.
Seeing the Positive Contributions
When a married couple is struggling with conflict, pastoral counselors often ask them to think of the better, more peaceful times in the relationship. It’s too easy for people to assume conflict is the “normal” state because we place too much emphasis on the present. A pastoral counselor can simply ask a couple to remember the harmony that once existed in their relationship. After that, most folks will admit that the relationship has had its good times. Some will even admit that their relationship has seen more good days than bad. The same holds true for the relationship of science and Christianity.
Christians should remind themselves that from a wider perspective, most of the relationship with their spouse has been harmonious. Together, let’s consider some of the “good times” in the relationship of science and Christian faith.
Education provides one of the high points. The church’s mission has always included education of the poor. Besides planting churches, missionaries often built schools. In the Middle Ages, the Church made a large contribution to education. It was the birth of the university. The church organized and standardized the study and application of knowledge. This was a new concept. Nothing like it had ever existed, not even in ancient Greece or Rome. By establishing universities, the church actively preserved and cultivated scientific knowledge.
Most of our scientific knowledge comes from Christians who were also scientists. Almost every branch of science was founded by a Christian. And those that weren’t founded by a Christian, have significant contributions from Christians or clergyman.
- William Turner (1508–1568) is known as the “father of English botany.”
- Francis Bacon (1561–1626) helped establish what we call today “the scientific method.”
- Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was an Augustinian monk who demonstrated the inheritability of genes. He is considered the “father of modern genetics.”
- William Kirby (1759–1850) was a clergyman who saw scientific study as an extension of his religious work. He was a chemist, physicist, and meteorologist. He was a founding figure in British entomology, but he is best known for introducing atomic theory into chemistry.
- Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), for whom the unit of measurement is named, formulated the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
- Georges Lemaitre was a Belgian priest (1894-1966), mathematician, astronomer, and professor of physics. He proposed the theory of the origin of the universe we call “The Big Bang.”
- Mary Celine Fasenmyer (1906–1996), was a Catholic nun (Sisters of Mercy) who made significant contributions to mathematics (especially WZ Theory).
- Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. She is a professor at Oxford University and in 2018 was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
This list could be much longer, but this brief list should make the point. Without the church’s contribution, our knowledge of the natural world would be diminished, not enriched.
In Mike and Donna’s final pastoral counseling meeting, we talked about their relationship. We talked about the times of conflict and the times of harmony. Mike and Donna agreed that their times of conflict were not as frequent as their times of harmony.I told them how happy I was for their change in perspective. I left them with one parting thought. Times of conflict would come again. There was no escaping it. But now, they could navigate those conflicts with a renewed perspective. They were to be there for each other, to help each other, and to benefit each other.
Have science and the Christian faith had their differences along the journey? Yes, of course, and they have been well documented. Will they have conflicts in the future? Most likely. But is it fair to characterize the entire relationship as contentious? Are we to believe that conflict lies inevitably in the future? Absolutely not. Like Mike and Donna, when we take a step back and look at the relationship as a whole, we can see that, historically, the relationship has been compatible. Science and faith have co-existed harmoniously. Not only are they not in conflict, they actually benefit from one another.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
Mario A. Russo
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