Science and Religion are Companions in the Search For Truth; Not Enemies
Kansas and many other states some Christians are fighting to restrict what teachers
can teach about evolution, describing it as "merely a theory," and attempting
to substitute an ersatz "creation science" in its place. On a practical
level these efforts may backfire. As in the case of trying to prevent students
from seeing some movies, television shows, or websites, there is nothing more
likely to inspire interest in the theory of evolution among the students of Kansas
or any other state than suggesting it is a dangerous, tempting and forbidden topic
on a par, for example, with sex. But more important, Christians should
be encouraging the study of science in general, and evolutionary biology in particular.
Far from presenting a threat to faith, science can reinforce and strengthen it.
It has worked that way for me. Here's why.
As a Christian
I find that the most objectionable aspect of trying to suppress knowledge about
the origins of life on this planet, not to mention the creation of the universe
itself, is what such efforts say about God.
Over the past
several hundred years, scientists have opened the frontiers of the human imagination
by revealing how vast this universe truly is. Rather than seeing our cosmos as
a rather limited system with the earth at its center, heaven above and hell below,
we now understand that this planet is only one among a multitude, that our sun,
rather then being the principal light that "rules the day," is actually
only one among billions of such stars. Our appreciation for the vastness of space
has expanded beyond the wildest imagination of our ancestors living only a few
short decades ago. Likewise, our appreciation for the magnitude and mystery of
time has grown exponentially. Rather than seeing time itself bound by what some
students of the Bible asserted was an absolute limit of some several thousand
years since creation, we now see that the history of the cosmos is measured in
the millions of years, and likewise the future stretches forward beyond what any
prophet is capable of seeing. This was perhaps the most important single contribution
that Charles Darwin made to our understanding of life on this planet. Forget the
ruckus about the apes, Darwin's great achievement was to place the history of
all living things into a context of profound change taking place over a vast expanse
of time. Before Darwin people generally saw life on this planet as rather static;
things did not change very much from the moment of creation several thousand years
ago. After Darwin, we have come to see our past, like our future, stretching out
before us farther than we can imagine, and all of time, past, present and future
is full of change and surprise. Life is not confined to a narrow slice of several
thousand years in which most things remain the same; rather life is active and
dynamic, constantly changing and evolving. And once one sees what a vast and boundless
cosmos this is, it is literally impossible to revert to a more simplistic view.
Along with these ever expanding horizons of space and time
that science has opened up for all of us, we have recovered a richer and I must
say deeper understanding of the nature of God.
then seeing God as a monarch sitting on a throne in heaven and manipulating events
here on earth like some supernatural puppet master, we now have a far deeper appreciation
for the greatness of the God who could have conceived such a vast and dynamic
cosmos in the first place. With every increase in our understanding of the complexity
of the universe, we have a correspondingly deeper appreciation for the majesty,
the grandeur and the glory of God. In this, we are not coming up with something
radically new. Rather we are only rediscovering something very old, that more
original, awareness that the wonder of this world and everything in it is a reflection
of the still greater majesty of God. As the psalmist put it long ago: "The
heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims Gods handiwork."
course with our growing awareness of the complexity of life and the corresponding
mystery of God, there is also, for many people, a growing sense of anxiety, and
perhaps even fear. There is a hunger for a world that is simpler, safer, saner
than the one we now inhabit. It is out of such fear and such anxiety that fundamentalist
movements grow, not only within Christianity, but within Islam, within Judaism,
within every culture and religion. And it is out of such fear that strategies
of repression and censorship are born. Including the recent efforts in Kansas
and several other states to suppress, restrict, or censor what science teachers
The deep irony in all this is that the good folks
who promote "creation science" think they are honoring God when, in
fact, they are encouraging ignorance of God's Creation. The problem is, of course,
that once the genie of science gets out of the bottle, it is simply impossible
to stuff her back in. Despite all the effort to reduce human knowledge to what
is comforting and familiar, the facts simply will not cooperate. And once you
see that God is big enough to encompass all that we see and all that we know,
a smaller deity is simply no longer credible. Or as Dorothy said to her faithful
dog, "Toto, I have a feeling were not in Kansas anymore."
those interested in reading more, there is a chapter in my book, God
and Science, dealing with Charles Darwin, evolution, and its positive contribution
to Christian understanding.
Design vs Evolution: A False Dichotomy Apparently the long standing
controversy over "creation science" has been upstaged by the newer confrontation
between advocates of "intelligent design" and evolution. President Bush brought
the authority of his office to bear upon the topic with his comment that
"intelligent design" should be taught "alongside" evolution
in public schools. "Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people
can understand what the debate is about," said the President. Those who frame
the conversation between science and religion as a debate or confrontation, have
it wrong. And the mistake can be costly to both science and religion. Here's why.
Ever wonder how it happens that a man condemned by the Catholic
Inquisition ends up having a monument raised in his honor in one of Italy's most
important cathedrals? In the story of Galileo's heresy trial, there are important
lessons for today concerning the relationship between science and faith.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.