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Andrew Torrance
 on March 02, 2016

What can the Christian Theologian learn from the Scientist?

Andrew Torrance discusses the challenges of bringing together the very different worlds of the church and the academy.


INTRO BY JIM: The discussion of science and religion belongs not just in academic settings, but also in the church. The ideas we discuss have important implications for the practice of our faith. The Scientists in Congregations project recognizes this and has attempted to catalyze dialogue about science and theology in local congregations. The project leader of the Scottish wing of Scientists in Congregations is Andrew Torrance. He writes today about the challenges of bringing together the very different worlds of the church and the academy.

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. -Albert Einstein

Over the past two years, I have been running a program called Scientists in Congregations Scotland, which has been working to encourage a constructive conversation about science and faith within the life of the church. As I have done so, I have found myself inhabiting two very different worlds. But these two worlds are not the world of science and the world of faith––contrary to widespread assumptions, these worlds have little trouble coming together in the life of the Church. Rather, the two divergent worlds are those of the Church and the Academy.

For many, it is perhaps obvious that these are two very different worlds. The Church is a place for Christian worship; the Academy/university is normally seen to be a secular institution. In North America, this is particularly the case, where it is rare for leading research universities to have a place for theology. Instead, theological study finds its home in the seminary. In the United Kingdom, the situation is different. Theology does find a place in the top universities. However, in this setting, it continually finds itself under pressure to conform to the ideas of secularism.

As most Christian theologians in the UK know all too well, the academic world does not allow them to use the same teaching methods that they would use in a Church or in a seminary. It is generally accepted by British academics that open prayer, evangelism, personal testimony and witness have no place within the university lecture theatre.

This two worlds scenario is challenging for the Christian theologian. It is strange that the Christian theologian should be expected to see the Church and the Academy as two very different worlds. Surely, they are both devoted to the pursuit of truth.  

If this is the case, it would seem disingenuous for the Christian theologian to pretend that God does not exist and does not speak into this world. It would seem peculiar for them not to do all that they can to help students recognize that they are created, sustained, and surrounded by the love of God. This is because, for the theologian who is a Christian, the reality of God cannot be reduced to a “human idea” or a “human belief”. The Christian theologian exists as a witness to the reality of the living God.

Let us pause for a moment to ask what it means for someone to be a witness to a reality. Since the Enlightenment, society has put the scientist on a pedestal as “the one who studies the hard facts of reality”. Scientists examine the natural world and the universe, and these realities shape their knowledge and understanding. They teach them about the way things really are.

For this to happen, scientists will depend on particular practices, formulations and instruments that will help them to gain a better understanding of the reality that they are studying. Scientists will sometimes be required to perform experiments repeatedly. They may need to establish and maintain a certain set of conditions. Furthermore, they will often have to use instruments such as MRIs, oscilloscopes, and spectrographs to help them make better sense of the particular object of their study.

Of course, their specific practices will need to correspond to the particular nature of the reality that they are studying. An astronomer will not attempt to study the stars with a microscope. Why? Because such an approach would compromise any possibility of discovery––nothing could be discovered.

When a scientist makes a new discovery, they will hope to share the news of this discovery with others. Depending on their audience, this may take some time. If they are faced with teaching someone who is highly skeptical of their field of study, it may take years for them to prepare that student to understand the discovery that they have made.

But, if the committed scientist is convinced of the reality of their discovery, they do not respond to their student’s skepticism by questioning whether it is appropriate to talk about the reality of their discovery. Not for a moment do they compromise their teaching methods in order to conform to the willful mind of the skeptic. Instead, they are so confident that their discovery will help the world to understand the nature of reality, that they will persist in teaching in a way that will help others to become privy to the same recognition. This may require patience and varying teaching techniques, and it may be incredibly discouraging.

Over the last couple of years, I have spoken to a number of scientists who have found themselves unable to communicate their scientific understanding to a religious believer because of a perceived tension between a scientific discovery and a religious commitment. But, when faced with such skepticism, the committed scientist does not cave under pressure. They do not disregard their understanding, nor to they pretend that their discovery does indeed pertain to the reality of the world.

What are the implications here for the calling of the Christian theologian? When I was a graduate student, I remember being stopped in my tracks by a simple three-word sentence: “God is real.” This sentence, from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, is so simple, and should have been so obvious to me. And yet it hit me as a wake up call. Caught up in the history of ideas, I had slowly begun to forget that theology is a form of witness to the reality of the living God.

In British universities, Christian theologians can find themselves under immense pressure to disregard the objective reality of God as the One who is the proper object of their study. They are expected to compromise their teaching methods accordingly. Their teaching cannot present the reality of grace as good news, as transformative of our perception of the world. They cannot pray with their students. They are expected to disregard the possibility that Scripture might be inspired by God. And they are constantly under pressure to reduce God to a mere human belief and their relationship with God to just another human “worldview”.

When Christian theologians become caught up in this context, when they end up playing the games that their academic setting may expect of them, they are likely to find themselves being drawn into a dynamic of compromise that subliminally erodes their faith, prompting them to forget that they are a witness to the living reality of God.

The hostility of the secular world urges the Christian to form bad habits.

What emerges is that the Christian theologian must learn from the scientist. They must learn to respect the nature of their particular task, as it corresponds to the living God who is the object of their study.

This does not mean that the Christian theologian should be unwise. They must learn how to be sensitive to the rules of the mission field within which they operate––lest they find themselves losing their opportunity for mission, e.g., by losing their job or facing disciplinary action. They may, for example, need to pray for their students outside of the classroom––rather than praying with them inside the classroom. But they must recognize strategic compromise to be just that. And they must continually reflect on ways in which they might be able to teach theology with the same integrity with which the scientist teaches students about the natural world.

The Christian theologian does this by continually looking to Jesus Christ, and to Scripture, to understand what it means to be human––rather than turning to some “more enlightened” worldly understanding. They do this by praying that the Holy Spirit might come to transform their students by the renewing of their minds––rather than restricting themselves to their own capacities for teaching. And they do this with a humility that recognizes that we have been created by a loving Father who gives us a purpose that is much truer than any purpose we might try to establish for ourselves.

Just as the science professor seeks to open the eyes of their students to the wonders of the natural world, so too must the Christian theologian seek to open the eyes of their students to the reality of the triune God.

They must do so not simply because they are a Christian, but also because they are an academic who has devoted themselves to the pursuit of truth––to scientific study of the living God.

About the author


Andrew Torrance

Andrew Torrance is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews and co-founder of the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology. He has published numerous essays on the relationship of theology to the sciences and, among his four books, he is co-editor (with Thomas McCall) of Knowing Creation: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science and Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science.  He is currently a member of an interdisciplinary team of scholars, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, for which he is writing a book on Accountability to God. Together with Eric Priest and Judith Wolfe, he also runs the prestigious James Gregory Lectures on Science, Religion, and Human Flourishing.