Earlier in my career, my wife and I moved from the Midwest to San Diego, where I had accepted a research position at the University of California. As we settled into our new surroundings, we found a church that seemed solid, was strong on missions, and had a class with a number of young married couples. Within a few weeks, I found myself having a conversation with our Sunday school teacher, Bill.
Bill was a Physical Education instructor and he kept in shape by surfing every day. As it happened, our conversation soon turned to what I did for work. I described how my PhD research had focused on meteorites, their ages, and the implications for the formation of the solar system and planets. After listening for a few minutes, Bill stopped me: “Well, you know you are wrong!” he said. He had been to a several-hour seminar at church and now he knew better than to believe the scientific results that I was describing.1 Never mind the five years that I had spent on my PhD; this surfer dude knew better! Over the next several months, I met a number of other people with similar responses.
These anti-science views among Christians surprised me because I had grown up being exposed to a more classical view of the relationship between science and Scripture. I had read about Isaac Newton, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo, and others—all of whom were Christians—and who saw their work as revealing more about the nature of God through His creation. In fact, the stage had been set for these great discoverers by the teaching of the church. The idea that God reveals himself both in nature and in Scriptures is rooted in Scripture itself, in passages like Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God…”) and Romans 1. The early church fathers, such as Augustine, picked up on this, and their writings talk about God’s revelation in nature. At the time of the enlightenment, the concept of two books of God’s revelation—nature and Scripture—was strongly established in the minds of the people. Major historians of science, such as Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), argue that the reason the scientific revolution occurred in Europe and not in the Middle East (under the influence of Islam), India (Hinduism) or Eastern Asia (Buddhism) is due to the Christian view that nature, as God’s revelation, is imminently comprehensible.
There is no doubt that the Reformation had a lot to do with the scientific revolution. With the split of the church in Europe, new personal freedom of thought was unleashed. The Dutch reformers grabbed hold of the idea that God revealed himself through nature. The Belgic Confession (1561) states:
We know him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God…
So, it is with great disappointment that I see the Protestant church in America wavering from these ideals.
One of the reasons that Christians feel threatened by science is because it seems to diminish the realm of the supernatural, and we associate God very strongly with the supernatural. The more that science explains, the less that is left for the supernatural, and God—right? Details that were once considered mysterious and unknowable, like the relationship between humans and chimpanzees, is now quantifiable in terms of the similarities and differences in our DNA. So, one wonders: is science revealing more about God, or—like the pulling of the curtain in The Wizard of Oz—is it revealing something else, dashing our hopes?
Your view on the matter depends on your view of God. I am afraid that many Christians have a view of reality in which God is intimately associated with the supernatural, but only with the supernatural. If we have a way to explain phenomena or events, then we don’t associate them with God anymore. In this view, the perception of God is indeed increasingly threatened by our explanatory powers: i.e., by science.
A higher view of God’s sovereignty over nature holds that God is at the root of all activity (“in Him all things hold together”, Col. 1:17)—that he controls the quantum fluctuations of every sub-atomic particle in the universe, from the big bang (or before it, if that makes any sense) to the end of time. In this view, all of the events around us are under His control, whether they seem ordinary or not. In fact, nothing about our lives is ordinary, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. This view places less importance on the supernatural, and more importance on God working out His plan by all of the means He has available. God is not threatened by the advances of science; in fact, He has ordained them to happen.
So, as a Christian with a high view of God’s sovereignty, I am excited about the advances of science. Along with the giants of the scientific revolution, I believe God has given us minds to understand Him better through his creation. And so I am passionate about my leading role in exploring Mars, operating our laser instrument on the Curiosity rover, searching for life on the red planet.
I thank God for scholarly Christian institutions like Dordt College, where many are preparing to make major discoveries throughout 21st century. Come on—we have much to explore!
Want to learn more from Dr. Roger Wiens? Plan to attend his First Mondays’ presentations on Monday, April 3. His first presentation, “Exploring Mars with Curiosity” will occur in the BJ Haan Auditorium at 11 am. His evening presentation, “Thoughts on Faith and Science,” will be at 7:30 pm in the Science and Technology Building. Or, watch it via live stream here.