Note: This essay is Part 1 of a series from Gerald Cleaver’s chapter in the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church, edited by Deborah Haarsma & Scott Hoezee and published by the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Another version of the essay appeared at the Ministry Theorem, as part of their “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About. . .” series. While future installments of Cleaver’s essay describe the changing state of our understanding of the cosmos and suggest ways that Christians can make theological sense of a theoretical Multiverse, this week’s post describes Cleaver’s own path to science through the Church.
Called to Christ and to Science
By the time I was ten years old, I was already determined to follow a career in physics and cosmology, both because of the wonder I felt for the natural world and as a means to better resolve serious questions that were developing within me regarding the relationship between biblical interpretation and scientific discovery. The prior year I had read and studied scripture in its entirety for the first time, rather than just the piece-meal sections covered in my Sunday school classes. Whenever I look back at that year in my life, I am always glad I chose to study the New Testament before the Old Testament, rather than vice versa. From the New Testament study, I found salvation and accepted Christ into my life. But my examination of the Old Testament that followed raised serious questions for me, particularly regarding Genesis. Even as a ten-year-old, I could see the apparent conflict between Genesis and what I had already learned about the history of the universe, of earth, and of life on earth as reported by science. From science I felt amazement and wonder toward God as Creator and strongly desired to learn more about the physical laws set up by God that sustained the universe. In contrast, both of the Genesis stories of creation seemed simplistic and hollow.
As I continued to study, I came to believe that divine inspiration of scripture does not exempt scripture from portraying human authors’ limited (in particular, finite) understandings of the physical world.
Since Genesis 1 and 2 were written in a pre-scientific age, we should expect a non-scientific description of the creation process. Divine inspiration allowed the language of the time to express eternal truths regarding some aspects of God’s nature as Creator. Using stock images from the culture, the opening chapters of Genesis describe God as the ultimate Creator of all things and in charge of all things. These chapters should not be misinterpreted as scientific treatises describing the actual physics processes by which God creates all things.
From further study I came to understand that for almost two thousand years, many others far more knowledgeable than I had wrestled with the same issues. I was thrilled to learn that the early church fathers had developed a procedure for dealing with disagreement between scripture and scientific understanding. In 1657, the famous scientist, mathematician, and devoted Christian, Blaise Pascal, summarized the procedure of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in his Provincial Letters:
When we meet with a passage even in the Scripture, the literal meaning of which, at first sight, appears contrary to what the senses or reason are certainly persuaded of, we must not attempt to reject their testimony in this case, and yield them up to the authority of that apparent sense of the Scripture, but we must interpret the Scripture, and seek out therein another sense agreeable to that sensible truth.... And as Scripture may be interpreted in different ways, whereas the testimony of the senses is uniform, we must in these matters adopt as the true interpretation of Scripture that view which corresponds with the faithful report of the senses.
An opposite mode of treatment, so far from procuring respect to the Scripture, would only expose it to the contempt of infidels; because, as St. Augustine says, “when they found that we believed, on the authority of Scripture, in things which they assuredly knew to be false, they would laugh at our credulity with regard to its more recondite truths, such as the resurrection of the dead and eternal life.” “And by this means,” adds St. Thomas, “we would render our religion contemptible in their eyes, and shut up its entrance into their minds.
During my teenage years, my conviction that science could be used to inform scripture and clarify our understanding and interpretation of it continued to solidify. I agreed with Galileo that, “the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Further, since God is the creator of all things, the physical and the spiritual, I came to understand that science as the study of the physical and theology as the study of the spiritual must be mutually consistent when both are properly understood. Inconsistency could only be the result of human misunderstanding of one or both arenas of knowledge.
(Some might correctly point out that science is not always as clear-cut as reason plus the report of the senses. That is, at times science also involves debates between competing interpretations, especially on the cutting edge of research. Nevertheless, ongoing scientific investigations gradually winnow away many or most proposed scientific descriptions of a given physical process, leaving only one or a few as the viable candidates. Scientific theories are formed by the general consensus of the scientific community based on overwhelming supporting physical evidence.)
In high school, I faced a serious medical problem, eventually identified as a brain tumor. Surgery was successful, in part due to a positive change in the tumor. In thankful response to God, I decided to pursue a career in church ministry. I determined a primary goal of my ministry would be to help the members of my future congregations develop mutually consistent and mutually supportive understandings of scripture and of science. I chose to attend Valparaiso University in Indiana, where I could, in addition to being a pre-seminary student, also double major in physics and mathematics to increase my scientific knowledge. Over the course of my four years at Valparaiso, I realized that my calling wasn’t for a church ministry, but one aspect of it would be to minister to Christians as a professional scientist, demonstrating by example that faith and science need not be at odds.
Thus, by way of a curved path, I did indeed follow the vocation I had initially chosen twelve years earlier. I decided once again to pursue the path that made my heart sing: studying the underlying laws and forces of the physical universe. As I was deciding which Ph.D. programs in elementary particle physics and cosmology to apply to, I became aware of a new, quickly developing subfield of particle physics called string theory that offered the possibility of unifying all of the known forces and matter in the universe into a single theory. I am now a successful scientist in this area, publishing discoveries that add to our understanding of particle physics and the universe.
In the next installment, Gerald Cleaver offers his advice to fellow Christians on how to seek after a consistent Christian worldview in which scientific and theological understandings of the universe are viewed as mutually supportive and complementary.