Someone – let’s call them Bob – asked me for some apologetics the other day, in the same way that someone might ask for the directions to the bus stop or a short history of the SNP. Bob was fed up, he told me, with atheist scientists demanding countless defences of his Christian faith, while they could dismiss their detractors with a quick science fact, or graph. Why, he pleaded, did Christians need to heap their evidence up in a pile and go to great lengths to defend themselves, while the scientists seem to stride with confident ease in and out of tricky questions with a single, winning statement?
Christians have always had to defend themselves and prove their faith before generations of detractors. Indeed, it’s part of the call to be a Christian to spread the good news, actively and in places where the message is hard to hear. And it’s the nature of the beast to be difficult to explain: it is about faith, after all, which is a gift and a way of life based more in story than in a hard currency, such as evidence derived from repeatable experiments.
But Bob was echoing concerns heard in other quarters; indeed, it seems that in the academy too, the world of science and religion is facing a crisis in confidence. At the recent annual conference of the Science and Religion Forum we heard a note of ambivalence about what the future might hold. This is a forum that includes some of the greatest names in the field – Arthur Peacocke is a former President – yet numbers were down and the field felt ‘flat’. The same questions are being asked and the same bits of science explored. We aren’t reaching into the academy at large, nor are we reaching the general public, despite the continuing popularity of the so-called militant atheists.
Are we not explaining ourselves? Are people bored? Is science and religion academically dubious? Is it all so intractable everyone is fed up? Is it not important?
Science and religion as an academic field began 50 years ago, around the time of the publication of Ian Barbour’s influential book detailing a structure for understanding how science and religion might relate: in conflict, independence, dialogue or integration. People picked their method and argued for it, and for years we have favoured such schemes, backed up with arguments and defined positions. We have picked up with the latest theories of science and stuck God in, or argued how God still exists despite it.
But at this conference, rather quietly and from several different independent speakers, a new theme emerged: the importance of the human bubbled to the surface. We talked about stories and identity, existential philosophy and pastoral theology, and the new technology surrounding human development. We opened up, and let go of our schemes and theological defences, and found that with new ideas and avenues of thought comes a new hope and an invitation for participation.
As an academic discipline, science and religion has attempted to bridge two areas of knowledge. First, the work of science, which presents the very best that we know about the world at this moment. This includes evidence, theories and models. The other sphere of knowledge includes many sources: the Bible, human experience, worship, history, theology. Science and religion attempts to build bridges between these two sources because, many believe, how they link fundamentally matters to human identity.
This is much easier to see from the ‘religion’ side. What we know about religion, however that knowing is defined, is part of how we construct our identity. But how we move from the sources of the knowledge – Bible, experience, worship, etc – requires interpretation and, to make it more complicated/interesting, how we interpret the knowledge of religion varies between each of us. All of us have a different story about our faith. For example, I have read the story of the resurrection in the Bible and understand it with respect to my own experiences, the worship of the Church and theology, and have used it to understand a little of who I am, in the eyes of God. But it probably doesn’t completely match your interpretation and understanding.
What if we use the same power and confidence in the practice of interpretation for self-identity seen in the sphere of religious knowledge, and instead apply it in the sphere of scientific knowledge? How could interpreting science affect our identity? For example, might looking at the uncertainty in the mathematical theories of quantum mechanics shed light and insight into our transient and serendipitous lives. Or, might playing with a computer simulation about evolution draw us into a deeper understanding of our Creator God and our part in the created and evolving order?
To get to the heart of this, we must make a differentiation between explanation and understanding. We can read explanations of the natural world and break it down to see how it works, but the understanding and the changes to our identity come when we ask what the scientific knowledge means to me, individually, loved and created by the same God that made the world. When we can understand on a deep level the world around us use it in the same way as we use religious knowledge, then perhaps each of us, and our stories, become the place where science and religion meets.
Christians need to be unafraid of science and unafraid to let it inform our faith. Try a little wonder, be unashamed to be awestruck by the cosmos or genetic engineering. Then ask what it means for you and your status as wonderfully made in the image of God. From this place, we can confidently defend the faith for which one man died and rose again. It’s a story, after all, that changed the world.