Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 10: Do you need a split personality
to be a Christian and a scientist?

April 23, 1999

Loren and Deborah Haarsma


Strategy for thinking about future science/religion issues:

Remember: All truth is God's truth. Whether learned from science, scripture, or elsewhere, if it is true, it is a gift from God. Remember: God is sovereign over "natural law" and "chance." (See notes from week 3.)
Avoid "nothing but-tery." (This is the fallacy that the scientific level of description is the only valid level of description. See notes from week 2.)
Look for a broad, solid theological framework. (e.g. the environment--stewardship; bioethics--protecting the weak; neuroscience--healing the sick and repentance from sin; origins--God's sovereignty.)
Look for additional scientific information. (e.g. the environment--which problems are most urgent; bioethics--how early development happens; neuroscience--how biology influences behavior choice.)
Examine dogmatic claims on every side of the debate. Is the scientific claim premature? Does the science prove the worldview claim? Does the worldview demand a certain scientific observation? (See week 2.)
Be humble. Pride can make us too quickly discard an old belief, or too dogmatically stick to one.
Think ahead. The church needs people to work on these issues before they become larger problems.
Remember: God gives us our significance. God the creator also meets us personally in profound and loving ways. We have reason for confidence and joy rather than fear when facing these issues.

Why science is an important human endeavor:

--Science gives a consistent and coherent explanation of what we observe in the natural world.
--Science supports the idea of objective reality. Truth is not merely relative or subjective.
--The knowledge science generates has intrinsic value.
--Science is practical and helpful. Technology and medicine helps us serve others more effectively.
--Science gives us information to help us make more informed moral choices and public policy decisions.

Personal motives for becoming a scientist -- All worldviews:

--It is suitable employment. (Scientists are good at their job; they enjoy it; society values it.)
--Scientific knowledge has aesthetic value.
--The results of science can benefit society. (e.g. technology, medicine, good environmental practices)

Personal motives for becoming a scientist -- Additional motives in the Christian worldview:

--To glorify the Creator better, with greater understanding, and share this knowledge with the church.
--Stewardship of nature -- we must understand creation better to be good stewards.
--To support the proper and ethical use of the fruits of scientific research.
--To share God's good news with our colleagues.

Science as a Christian calling:

Are you called to pursue a particular vocation? Consider whether God has given you the (1) desire, (2) ability, and (3) opportunity to do it.
As with any calling, you should re-evaluate this periodically (but not continually)
Your vocational calling is part of a larger calling to be obedient to God in all things.

The scientific culture is a meritocracy:

Meritocracy def. A system in which power is held by, and given to, those with merit (prior achievements).
Good aspects: A meritocracy is an efficient way to allocate resources. It also helps prevent racism, sexism, etc., and it overcomes borders of culture and nationality.
Bad aspects: A meritocracy doesn't always achieve its goals -- - criteria besides merit (like race, gender, or nationality) are occasionally still used. Workaholism is rewarded. The rich get richer: it is much easier to stay in favor that get in favor. An impossible level of performance tends to become the expected level.

Bringing Christian values to a meritocracy:

Servanthood: working and sacrificing for the betterment of others, not just yourself.
Grace: valuing others independent of their accomplishments.
Special care for the poor and disadvantaged
Can we live by these values in a meritocracy without lowering our scientific standards? Yes.
--Choose research areas that directly help the economically disadvantaged.
--Encourage the efforts of professional societies to promote science in developing countries.
--Spend extra effort on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, when selecting students for research opportunities, consider their potential -- not just their previous experience and current test scores. (The idea is to level the playing field, to give everyone an equal chance to see if they can measure up in the meritocracy.)
--Publicize the good work done by scientists outside of the most prestigious institutions.
--Counter workaholism by, for example, increasing the number and visibility of part-time jobs which allow people to reduce the quantity of their work while maintaining its quality.

People of many worldviews feel these activities and values are important; Christians should have a special commitment to them.

Bringing Christian values to other aspects of the scientific culture:

Scientific integrity: i.e. properly acknowledging the work of others, not stealing ideas, not maligning competitors in peer review, etc. Maintain integrity in our personal research, and encourage integrity in the scientific community.
Ethical uses of new discoveries and technology: i.e. bioethics, nuclear weapons. Consider the potential consequences of a research topic before pursuing it. Help society determine how new technologies should be used.
Pray for individuals in your work place, the larger institution, and the scientific community. This will make you more aware of how God's values are relevant in the situations where you work and live.
One-on-one evangelism: Share the truth and good news we have found in Christianity with others. In the Western academic culture, this can be long, slow process, requiring professional respect and personal friendship to be built before people want to listen. Many people have mis-conceptions about Christianity, or "big questions" (i.e. "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?"), which they need to discuss before they will consider the relevance of Christianity for their own lives. (We recommend talking about these "big questions" with other Christians first). One advantage in the natural sciences is that scientists believe that there is such a thing as truth that can be determined from evidence, not just a universal Relativism.

Ministering to our fellow Christians:

--Share your expertise. Offer to tutor young people studying and struggling in your area of expertise.
--Help people overcome the misconceptions and mistrust they might have towards science and scholarship.
--Share your insights into the beauty of creation; increase appreciation of creation and the Creator.
--Let church leaders (and para-church groups) know who you are. Offer to teach classes; let them decide when and where this is appropriate.
--Simply identifying yourself as a Christian to your non-Christian colleagues is a ministry to the church.

Living a unified life:

--There are many ways you can minister to other people. You can't do all of them all at once. Be ready to do any of them as need arises. Focus on a few ministries you particularly feel led to do. God provides opportunities.
--Even if you see your vocation as a calling from God and a service to other people, there is still the danger of workaholism. If you spend all your time and energy in your vocation, the rest of your life, including your spiritual life, could suffer. Your vocation must fit into your life, not the other way around. There are other important things which God has called you to do. God doesn't call you to do more than you can do in 24 hours a day. We must occasionally re-evaluate the demands we place on ourselves, and make sure our priorities have not become skewed.
--Organizations of Christians in your profession can help, offering a sense of community and practical help. (e.g. the American Scientific Affiliation)

Science & Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible? The answer is YES!

We've discussed many areas in which science and spirituality (in particular, the Christian worldview) seem to conflict on an intellectual level. As we have seen, many of these apparent conflicts can be reconciled. The model of "harmony" is better than the model of "conflict" when describing science-faith interaction.

We've also touched on how science and Christianity are related on an emotional level in our personal lives of faith.
Week 1: The sense of wonder and awe we all feel when we encounter the beauty of nature is real. This points us to worship of the Creator who made it. Scientists feel a similar sense of wonder when they make new discoveries.
Week 3: God is present not only in miraculous events, but also in all aspects of his Creation, whether or not they can be explained scientifically.
Weeks 4 & 7: Although some scientific data (in cosmology and evolutionary biology) seems to question human significance, we know that we are still significant because God considers us significant.
All weeks: We found that consideration of the academic issues drove us to consider more carefully the theological principles of God's sovereignty, providential care, and amazing creativity. These principles are important on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level.

There are still other ways we can relate to our professional work on a spiritual level:
--Praise and worship God in the "moments of discovery" in our own research, and in the (more frequent) moments of learning about the work done by others.
--See our work as God's calling.
--See our work as service to the scientific community (i.e. countering the bad aspects of the meritocracy) and as service to the church (i.e. building the church's appreciation of God's creativity and beauty).
--Dedicate your times of study to God. We recommend the following prayer:

"Prayer Before Study"

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
lofty origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your brilliance
penetrate into the darkness of my understanding,
and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born,
an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding,
a retentive memory,
and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations,
and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning,
direct the progress,
and help in the completion;
through Christ our Lord, Amen.
--- St. Thomas Aquinas


Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma

See supplemental handouts for this week:
"Doing Science and Loving the Needy"
"Parables for Modern Academia"(humor)


Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?"
dhaarsma@haverford.edu, Last updated April 23, 1999