An Honest Response: Science and the Christian Student

I’m happy to introduce the first-ever guest article on Marc5Solas. As there had been a great deal of interaction on the science front, I wanted to reach out to scientists who are christians and ask what they would say if they had a room full of students.

It’s my honor this week to introduce Sarna Becker;  Stanford educated Scientist, Professor, Educator (and Division 1 athlete! Some people got all the good genes. The rest of us aren’t bitter. Really. 😉  ) The recent “Top 10” article hit close to home as Sarna is a Christian, a Scientist, and a parent. With that.. here’s Sarna!

 

For the past fourteen years, I have had the privilege of being an eclectic science teacher. I began as a lowly grad-assistant at a private university, moved to a Catholic prep school, taught night classes at a public community college, and now find myself at an international Christian high school in Ecuador. The courses have ranged from Bioethics to Physical Science, Biology to Biotechnology, Anatomy and Physiology to AP Chemistry. I love the diversity of students I have encountered. They are insightful, curious, and especially interested in the relationship between science and faith.

Christian students should find God’s beauty revealed throughout the natural world. Science majors should encounter the God of the universe so powerfully through their studies that they cannot deny the existence of something outside themselves. Unfortunately, many students of science find themselves in a quagmire: either they join the respected intellectual community and abandon their faith, or they compartmentalize faith as something separate from their academic lives. These are not the only options.

As a Christian and a scientist, I aim to fully engage the intellectual and spiritual faculties of my students as they develop a cohesive understanding of scientific and religious truth. In doing so, I address three commonly held (and mistaken) presuppositions about science and faith.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 1.09.32 PM

1. Faith is blind, and therefore unable to be challenged.

I tell my students that there is another word for blind faith: stupidity. This may seem like a harsh characterization, but there is an important point to be made. When the Bible says that faith is the “conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NASB), it speaking of God’s faithfulness to carry out His  future promises. It is not a statement of our power to imagine unseen things into existence, or believe things that are untrue because it makes us feel better. Christians believe Jesus Christ was physically resurrected from the dead, and is the first of those who will be raised from physical death to live with God for all eternity. This belief is not just personal; if it is not grounded in the historical and scientific reality of his Resurrection, we are still in our sins and most to be pitied. What does it mean for evidence supporting the Resurrection to not just be a matter of personal belief, but something in which a scientist, or a writer, or a Christian can place their confidence?  Evidence of this sort requires a willingness to consider supernatural events as real, just as the natural events we consider real. This is challenging for many, because they have been trained to believe that…

 

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 1.14.54 PM

2. Nature is all there is.

The statement on the Nature of Science according to the National Science Teachers Association reads, “Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge.” I love science, and so philosophically I have no problem with this statement. However, if one is a truth-seeker, one must realize that the discoveries of science are limited by this definition. Most people don’t realize that naturalistic philosophy often takes a subtle but significant shift. If supernatural mechanisms cannot produce scientific knowledge, they become relegated to the realm of “not real” or “subjective.”

In college I had a conversation with a wonderful atheist biology professor about the theory of abiogenesis, which describes the chemical evolution from non-living molecules to the first primitive living cells. Most of the key steps in this theory have never been supported by science. In fact, current experimentation (Francesco Redi and Louis Pasteur for you scientists out there!) has provided evidence in contrast to this theory. I asked my professor, “How can this be considered a scientific theory if the scientific evidence doesn’t support it?” And his reply was, “Well, we may modify the theory, but it has to exist in some form, or we wouldn’t be here.”

My purpose is not to enter a Creation vs. Evolution argument with this example. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that your assumptions limit which conclusions you are willing to consider as “real.” My question for all budding scientists is whether you are open to evidence which points to mechanisms that are unpredictable, not replicable, and outside our naturalistic system, yet very real in the impact they have on our lives and existence. If one is not open to these ideas, they are living out the accusation most commonly made against people of faith:

 

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 1.20.54 PM

3. Religious people are closed-minded.

In John 3, a respected Jewish Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. He has a well-developed sense of how the world works, but Jesus has been challenging his foundational assumptions. In the cover of darkness, he asks Jesus his deepest questions. “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

If you asked fetuses in the womb if there was life outside the warm, dark environment in which they live, most fetuses would probably say no. In fact, most of them would prefer not to be born, but instead be content to remain quite comfortable right where they are. There might be a few indicators of something outside their contained environment – muffled sounds, sudden jostling, or even a needle from the occasional amniocentesis. From our vantage point, we know that the day will come when the fetus doesn’t have a choice whether or not to be born. Eventually he will be forced into a world that is bigger and brighter than he ever could have imagined from the closed system of the womb.

Jesus uses this analogy to gently tell Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Nicodemus has had a closed view of the system in which he lives. Jesus is encouraging him to be open and to accept that there is a spiritual reality superseding the earthly things he has believed.

So the question I pose to students studying science is, “Are you open, or closed?” Do you pay attention to the muffled sounds, the sudden jostling, and the occasional needles in your life? You can choose to see all of these things as a product of your natural environment, or you can be open to consider that these are indicators of a reality much greater than the one created by your own experimentation.

In asking this question, I am not encouraging students to trade their material reality for an immaterial one. I am asking them to be intellectually honest truth-seekers by considering all the possibilities that their material reality elucidates for them. I love science, because it teaches me about the fantastical world brought into existence through the mind’s eye of God. My hope is that more Christians will become excellent scientists, that their faith will be strengthened, and that discoveries of the natural world will reveal the beauty of God’s truth to all who open their eyes to see it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *