Shuttling between Cathedral & Laboratory

December 1987By Bryce J. Christensen

Bryce J. Christensen is Editor of The Family in America, a monthly periodical.

The Trademark of God: A Christian Course in Creation, Evolution and Salvation.  By George L. Murphy. Morehouse-Barlow. 138 pages. $6.95.

Philosophy of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective.  By Del Ratzsch. Inter-Varsity Press. 165 pages. $6.95.

Cross-currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith.  By Colin A. Russell. Eerdmans. 272 pages. $14.95.



Few historians of science now believe that the Scientific Revolution could have occurred in a non-Christian culture. Belief in the beneficence of creation, in a divine pattern in nature, in the imago dei impressed upon the human mind, and in linear history made possible the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, all devout Christians (though not necessarily orthodox). No Hindu thinker, taught to regard the physical world as an illusory maya, could ever have made the Newtonian leap from a falling apple to the orbiting moon. Yet since Newton died in 1727, wondering in his last recorded words if angels did not superintend the planets, relations between parent (Christianity) and child (science) have soured, creating a David-and-Absalom confrontation in modern culture.

If this cultural confrontation ever finds a lasting resolution, it will be because of intellectually honest and probing books like Cross-currents by Colin Russell and Philosophy of Science by Del Ratzsch. The chances for such reconciliation are only reduced, however, by glibly "progressive" syntheses between science and Christianity like that found in George L. Murphy's The Trademark of God.

A professor of the history of science and technology at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, Colin Russell has written a remarkably intelligent yet accessible book on a tangled subject. Looking back at the 16th- and 17th-century origins of Western science, Russell disputes the popular notion that modern science represented "the triumph of Greek thought emerging from the vanishing mists of medieval theology." The truth is that "Greek and other ‘pagan' ideas were shown to be inadequate in the new climate of biblical awareness brought about at the Reformation." Yet despite this "massive mutual debt between science and Christianity," the ascent of science - through Joseph Priestley and Pierre Laplace, Humphry Davy and Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein - has not redounded to the glory of religion. By the late 1800s, scientific naturalism had made public references to God and the supernatural intellectually suspect.

As Russell surveys the major physicists since 1900, he finds that "not one gives any obvious impression of working at a science undergirt by a Christian or even a theistic ideology." The pretensions of skeptical mechanists did suffer a setback with the discovery of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in 1925 and the subsequent development of quantum mechanics, which reduced the rigid certainties of classical physics to mere statistical probabilities. A few prominent scientists - notably Francis Crick, Arthur Eddington, and Wilder Penfield - have even concluded that the miracles of life and mind can find no strictly scientific explanation. Yet scientific rationalism retreats slowly, and modern thought rarely allows room for anything beyond a mere "God of the gaps," a dubious deity detected only where no mathematical formulae have yet been devised. This God may have been responsible for initiating the Big Bang, for instance, or for calling the first one-celled creature into being, but He could never work the miracles or command the worship of the powerful and personal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To his dismay, Russell finds that "in ordinary conversation a decline in religion is more often attributed to science than to any other single cause."

Millions have been indoctrinated in the shorter catechism of modern scientism: There is no god but empirical Truth, and experimental Science is its prophet. Religion is an illusion supported by nothing but historical prejudice and subjective faith. Del Ratzsch, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, explodes these mistaken views. Among the pre-empirical presuppositions of science, Ratzsch enumerates several - the uniformity of nature, the underlying simplicity of the universe, the competence of human reason to explain phenomena - which Christians may affirm as part of their faith but which "the secular thinker must often accept...as mere assumptions."

Indeed, in recent years secular doubt about scientific presuppositions has grown. Leading the movement away from scientific realism, Thomas Kuhn has stressed the importance of social values and metaphysical assumptions in shaping the conceptual "paradigms" within which scientists work. Some philosophers have even seized upon parts of Kuhn's thought to justify an utterly subjective and ideological "science." Ratzsch initiates the reader into the professional debates among philosophers of science, explaining in ordinary language why the issues matter for Christians. His discussion leaves little scientific ground for "creationists" to stand on, but it leaves even less for doctrinaire atheists. Admirable for clarity and evenhandedness, Philosophy of Science unfortunately lacks the historical narrative and texture that make Cross-currents such fascinating reading.

Both Russell and Ratzsch effectively defend Christianity against anti-Western ideologues who blame the faith for all of the evils wrought by modern science and technology. Russell documents the ecological devastation wrought by pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures. In noting the peculiarly Christian reasons for doing science, Ratzsch also points out that Christianity keeps men vigilant for "the potential for harm and rebellion against God."

Some readers may regret that Ratzsch did not expand on this point by providing a fuller critique of the Promethean temptation in modern science. After all, the Baconian belief that "Knowledge is Power" has inspired the scientific enterprise since its beginnings. Often the power sought has been simply technological. But perhaps just as often, scientists have pursued the power to manipulate a model of the universe and call it their own. After the exhilaration of wrapping the mind around the mathematical dimensions of time and space, how many men can maintain a sense of humility? Why not claim omniscience and dismiss God, angels, miracles, and all of the other prescientific beliefs that will not fit to formula? Equations all too often provide the mind with a clean, well-lighted place in which to hide from God, from the devil, and from things that go bump in the night.

Even after resisting the seductions of Prometheanism and omniscience, the scientifically minded may still forget truths essential to Christianity. In the case of George Murphy, a Lutheran pastor with a Ph.D. in physics, the pursuit of science has apparently evolved into a form of pantheism. In his pastoral guide for Christian study groups. Murphy links Creation, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection to a joyful Darwinism. The evolution of man "through competition and death bears the divine ‘creation out of nothing' trademark" in the same sense that "resurrection of the dead is creation out of nothing." As a Mormon I admit to my own peculiar doubts about creatio ex nihilo, but I suspect that many Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will share my discomfort at this particular wedding of scientific theory and religious doctrine. Martin Luther, for one, would surely have been stunned to learn that the chief cause of sin is an individual's "turning away" from the divine evolutionary process that is sweeping the great mass of humanity toward a paradisiacal Omega Point.

Borrowing freely from Teilhard de Chardin, Murphy never once criticizes Teilhard's pantheist tendencies, though he does caution the reader that Teilhard's philosophy is "not completely compatible with Darwinism." From his more-Darwinist-than-thou perspective. Murphy even suggests that evolution, "specifically Darwinian evolution," is "almost a theological necessity." Murphy justly censures creationists for distorting science for the sake of religion, but his own trimming of doctrine for the sake of scientific respectability seems at least as objectionable. Worse, the zeal for a scientific orthodoxy invites an eventual recapitulation of the sorry confrontation between Galileo and those medieval Scholastics who defended an outmoded science as divine truth. Dubious science texts depict Moses as a scientist; a worse Bible adds Darwin to the canon."



DOSSIER: Evolution



Back to December 1987 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!