The prompt: A high school student from my church where I am a pastor writes me a letter thanking me for the few years she has been in my church through catechism classes and high school Sunday school classes and such and her letter is expressing her concern that she might be compromising her Christian faith if she pursues a degree in biology, geology, or astronomy. I am to write her a letter back.
The following is my reply to this prompt.
The Lord be with you.
Your participation and partnership in the catechism classes and throughout all of the many church events and services over the past few years have been a blessing for me. Before becoming a pastor, I was a teacher, and one of the aspects that I found disappointing as a teacher was that after having students for a single year as a senior, I’d rarely see them or have any meaningful on-going relationship after high school graduation with them. Being able to interact with dedicated students like you who are concerned with growing in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior and how that relates to daily living in holiness and godliness beyond high school into further stages of life was one of the huge draws for me in becoming a pastor. So, I am so grateful that you are coming to me with this question and I look forward to being your pastor throughout your college years and maybe even beyond if you stay a member at Grace Lutheran Church, but even if you don’t, I’ll always be here for you to tend to such thoughtful questions that deserve the full attention of the Church’s care and counsel.
What you have presented is a typical concern, or area of contention, that is generally perceived to exist between the interaction between religion and science. Often times, there is an unspoken assumption in our culture that if people are religious, they must be anti-scientific, and that if people are scientific, they must be anti-religious. For Christianity in particular, this is a false dichotomy – this is not an either/or predicament – there is in fact a harmony that can be reached between being a Christian and being in full support and engagement of the scientific enterprise. This harmony is properly held or destroyed depending on how a person defines science, or better put, how a person uses science, or if a person properly recognizes the limitations of science or not.
I noticed in your letter that you said you are drawn to pursuing a degree in science because you have been drawn to learning about the world through science. When science is taken as a particular systematic method of understanding and getting around the world, it is a great means, or resource, for the Christian to serve his or her neighbor. It is through such systematic exploration of God’s creation that many great advancements in technology, communication, travel, medicine, hygiene, ecology, food services, and so many other fields have been achieved that have made it easier for us to care for our neighbors as well as the rest of God’s creatures entrusted to us. Many Christians have played major roles in such advancements and good applications of science, and many of them have vocally contributed their discoveries and work to the glory of God, giving thanks to him for their reasoning abilities and their specific opportunities afforded them in their particular fields of science. I can gladly provide such names of scientists and their achievements to you if you need help finding them.
The compromise of your Christian faith would come if you choose to approach science not as a particular systematic method of understanding and getting around the world, but as the definitive systematic method of doing such, which would mean that science is taken up as being the ultimate means to account for all things. Such an approach to science has recently been coined as scientism. It grants science the means to do which science does not have the means to do. Let me explain.
Science as a particular systematic method of understanding and getting around the world, such as with the scientific method (observation, question, hypothesis, repeatable and observable experimentation, data analysis, and shared results), is limited to gaining knowledge through tests that can be observed and repeated. Of course there is not a possible or conceivable, much less observable or repeatable experiment that can be conducted to test the existence of God. In this way, God has been bracketed out of science. Yet, at the same time adherents of scientism have allowed science to answer questions that too cannot have an observable and repeatable test for falsifiability and verification, such as the origins of the universe and life. Such metaphysical inquiries are simply outside the bounds of the scientific method, as is the existence of God, but practitioners of scientism fail to see the error in their inconsistent application of science when they use science to account for the universe while denying the knowledge of the existence of God.
The error continues in that most of life’s most important realities can’t be classified as falsifiable through the scientific method, such as love and moral ethics, nor observed, such as the gravitational pull that keeps us safely planted on this earth’s surface. Other methods of discerning scientia (the Latin word for knowledge) must be utilized to know such things.
The Christian knows that God has created all things visible and invisible. The Christian has a story that accounts for everything, and within this story, humanity was created as God’s image-bearers (representatives of God) in God’s creation. In this bestowed position of dominion and stewardship over God’s creation, we have been endowed with capabilities of reason, morality, and relational capabilities that the rest of God’s creatures simply do not and cannot possess. God has tasked us to use our God-given reason to his glory in service to our neighbors. As such, we should expect Christians to be excited about exploring and understanding God’s created world, and the Bible in fact exhorts us to such endeavors with the abilities and resources that have been given to us for the purpose of loving and serving our neighbor.
The Christian who is a scientist knows that reason and science are limited to a particular realm of knowledge, namely our physical sphere of life in God’s creation. We understand that our reason and scientific explorations have their limitations, just as our faith in Christ has its limitations. In our faith, our knowledge of the Lord and his will is limited to what he has directly revealed to us in the Bible. We understand that our faith is a gift from the Lord that pertains to our subjective relationship to God in our right standing before him, whereas our reason is a gift from the Lord that pertains to our relationship with the world around us, and of course our reason serves us in understanding God’s revelation to us (his revelation that comes to us both through what he has created and through his direct revelation of himself in Christ and his Word).
It’s also reassuring to know that the modern scientific enterprise emerged within the matrix of Christian civilization in Europe in the high middle ages, and that the founding fathers of modern science were Christians. The Christian account of everything offered the necessary presuppositions for the scientific method to emerge in that particular time and place – such as viewing the world as a distinct, objective reality that is intelligible and held together by the uniform laws held in place by its immutable Creator! Such a view of everything flew in the face of the belief systems that dominated other great civilizations that were incapable of birthing the scientific method due to their presuppositions of the world that actively resist a scientific engagement of the physical world, such as pantheism (who is going to experiment on creation – that’d be cutting up and manipulating God – that’s bad karma), reincarnation (time is cyclical – which offers no grounds for exploring cause and effect relationships that exist in a purely linear view of time), unpredictable gods whose emotions and whims impacted the world in drastic ways (this destroys consistent laws of nature that justify the consistent results of repeatable testing), astronomy (when the stars determine all things – who is motivated to understand the world?), and an overall rejection of nature ( as found in Platonic dualism, Gnosticism, and Hinduism’s illusionary view of the world). And don’t let anyone tell you that an atheistic worldview offers the necessary presuppositions about the world for the scientific method to work – a chaotic, random world of chance that is only matter and void of meaning does not spur one on to conduct the scientific method. Atheists must borrow – no steal! – from the Christian worldview to assume a world of order, regularity, purpose, and a proper view of mankind’s faculties to justify the scientific method as being a worthy endeavor (thus they are being inconsistent in their confessed view of reality and their scientific endeavors).
In short, Eve, you can be a Christian and a scientist without compromising your Christian faith. The challenge will be maintaining the proper harmony between reason and faith, as well keeping a right recognition of the tension between the two and their limitations.
I hope this answer is helpful to you.
Peace in Christ,
 I’m drawing this distinction and these definitions straight out of Dr. Joel Okamoto’s article, “God, the Gospel, and Modern Science: Reflections on the Church’s Witness and Message in a Scientific Age,” published in Lutheran Mission Matters, Volume XXIV, No. 3 (Issue 49) November 2016.
Contradict Movement (Stickers, Tract, and Books): www.contradictmovement.org
Andy Wrasman’s Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/razwrasman
Reconnect Podcast: https://andywrasman.com/category/reconnect-podcast/