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The faith-science collision on campus

A UMNS Commentary by the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr.*
Sept. 28, 2000

It happens every fall. A young woman goes off to college. Call her Susan. Susan can be characterized in at least two ways: she is bright, intelligent and motivated to learn; and she is spiritual, religiously active and devoted to God. As classes begin on campus these two important dimensions of Susan's life come into conflict.

The conflict is most unavoidable as Susan wades into the sciences: biology, physics, earth sciences, astronomy, chemistry. The intellectual exercise is stimulating, but Susan is encountering a worldview that is at odds with her faith. In its extreme form, the scientific worldview is reductionistic, mechanistic and atomistic. In other words, there is no reality apart from the material, the measurable, the empirical. We are not spiritual beings, she is taught, but collections of molecules.

This can be quite traumatic for Susan, for it calls into question all of her faith experience to this point, which may have been no deeper than that of an older elementary level. The foundations upon which she is constructing a life can begin to crumble. Susan begins to question everything that she has been taught to this point in her journey. The collision can be seen in competing claims:

  • We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1. 26).
  • We share 98% of our DNA with the chimpanzee.
  • In six days God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2.1).
  • There is granite on the floor of the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old, limestone that is 500 million years old, and sandstone that is 300 million years old.
  • We believe in God, maker of all that is, seen and unseen (Nicene Creed).
  • The creation of life, as seen in the recent discussions of stem cell research, is happening across the world in academic, corporate and hospital settings.

Susan may seek resolution of this conflict, through a campus religious group that has walked with students like her year after year. Some of these campus groups are deeply suspicious of the sciences, of the worldviews of scientists who are agnostics and atheists, and so their response is also firm and steadfast. While well-intentioned, this can begin to set up a division in Susan's mind between the spiritual life and the intellectual life, between her identity as a Christian and her vocational life.

The Christian faith has a stake in the dialogue, experienced internally by Susan and being carried out externally in all sorts of places. Christians are interested in discovering the truth, as are scientists. Christians also believe that Jesus is the incarnation (word made flesh, John 1) of God, and so we value the material world as do our scientist friends.

Two simple concepts can help someone like Susan in the collision between the teachings of both faith and science. One is mystery. Both Christians and scientists confess that there is much that we do not know about this world. By faith we believe that God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1-2), but anyone who has peered into the Grand Canyon must admit that the creation is something of a mystery. And of course, mystery can lead us to awe, wonder and praise, in the presence of God who gives and sustains life.

A second concept is humility. Christians can be more honest about how little we know about the sciences. And scientists can admit that their critique of faith is often based on a stereotype that would not be credible to any thinking person. Both Christians and scientists can be less judgmental and more humble before the truth that we seek, even if in different ways.

Our churches and campus ministries can help Susan to make her way through the issues that arise when faith and science collide. We can help her remain grounded in the Scriptures, which speak of a God who creates and yet whose creation will always be beyond our comprehension (Job 38-39). The Scriptures can help her avoid the pain and confusion that occurs when faith is destroyed, when intellectual arrogance dismisses God, and when there is no openness to discovery of the truth.

A larger place for mystery and humility can help college students wrestle with these matters as they enter into adulthood as faithful Christians.

*Carter is senior pastor of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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