Science and Religion in Higher Education

Science and Religion in Higher Education

As America has become more pluralistic and secular, Marsden argues, Christian higher education has failed to make an appeal to this broader audience.[1]  The rise of specialists helped put an end to the generalist approach once held in high esteem and the place for theologian-scientist was marginalized.[2] This challenge is addressed by physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne argued the need to accept dialogic engagement from those who venture outside their expertise to undertake the risk of interdisciplinary study.[3] The Bible must be allowed by Christians to be confronted by science without fear of exposing evangelical theology to criticism.

A genuine integration of faith and science must eschew Presuppositionalism and superficial accommodation which treats science as simply a set of beliefs appended to a common statement of faith which is easily dismantled when science changes and comes into conflict with long-held beliefs.[4] This penchant for superficial accommodation was dominant in American Puritanism that accepted the findings of science but lacked a deep integration of its findings with their faith eventually led to two camps of pragmatism and positivism.[5] The superficial integration of science and religion in American can be seen in the embrace of Newtonian physics and the frenzied rejection of Darwinian philosophy; both rooted in the same basic mechanistic philosophy that was not properly considered by theologians. This eventually led to the marginalization of religion in general. The door to meaningful engagement was opened with the science of quantum mechanics. The cosmos was no longer a static machine, but a dynamic world once again open to new metaphysical realities explored through different methodologies. The new science has opened the door, but Christians must engage science with a thoughtful philosophy that understands the implications of various theorems and the undergirding presuppositions.

Consequently, the Dialogue Model is the ideal framework for understanding the historic relationship between science and religion and for advancing higher education. This approach allows both science and religion to maintain their unique approaches to epistemology while allowing them to interact in their common interest to describe reality.

[1] George Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstoff (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1995), 220.

[2] Ibid., 221.

[3] J. C. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, Belief in God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 83, Logos.

[4] Marsden,  in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, 223.

[5] James Ward Smith, “Religion and Science in American Philosophy,” in The Shaping of American Religion, ed. James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 414.

The Roman Catholic, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical Response to Science

The Roman Catholic, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical Response to Science

The Roman Catholic response to the scientific revolution was mixed as it encompassed both positive and negative elements. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church had fully adopted Aquinas’ 13th century Aristotelian philosophy. This set the framework for the oft overstated conflict between Papal authority and the Copernican minority. When Galileo began espousing Copernican astronomy, the Roman Catholic Church chose to accept the more well-attested scientific paradigm; backed by esteemed astronomers like Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and bolstered by Aristotelian scholasticism, and reject a minority scientific opinion with questionable veracity.

Ultimately, the conflict between The Roman Catholic Church and the Copernican theory was more about the neo-Platonic natural philosophy advancing against Aristotelianism than it was science vs. religion. The new heliocentric scientists reinterpreted key passages the Roman Catholic Church interpreted to support geocentric cosmology: Genesis 1, Ecclesiastes 1: 4– 6, Joshua 10: 12, and Psalm 19: 4– 6. Galileo’s cosmology required a different biblical hermeneutic that the Pope, relying on the decision made by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the early church fathers, was not willing to make. The conflict between Galileo’s views and the Roman Catholic church’s acceptance of the dominant scientific view of the day occurred at a time when the Roman Catholic church was losing power to the Protestant Reformers. This made the Pope more sensitive to any dissent and fostered a reaction to try and preserve their power. Despite their reasoned rejection of heliocentrism, the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries continued to support scientific research and supported men such as Georges Lemaître who postulated big bang cosmology.[1] A view which was originally rejected by secular scientists as overtly religious in nature and which today has become the accepted standard of most cosmologists.

The terms evangelical and fundamentalist are very broad terms defined differently depending upon who is using these terms. Still, broadly speaking, both traditions developed in the English-speaking West as descended of the Protestant Reformation and both were highly engaged in social issues including science. However, Evangelicalism tended to focus on experiential faith and did not have a strong bent toward the integration of science and faith.[2] This idea is reflected in a letter written to the Methodist theologian Adam Carke whose commentary on Genesis offered a unique integration of science and religion. Mr. Butterworth wrote to Clarke,

I conceive that the generality of our commentators are divines only, and have but little knowledge of natural philosophy and science in general, which greatly serves in the illustration of the sacred text.[3]

So while some evangelicals have promoted an anti-intellectual faith, others, as illustrated in the preceding quote, had a great concern to integrate science into biblical understanding.

Fundamentalism is another term often used disparagingly of conservative Christian groups who rejected the influences of intellectual and moral liberalism. Like evangelicalism, this broad spectrum included both those who were opposed to scientific pursuits perceived to undermine the authority of the Bible and others who saw science as an ally of Christian faith. Dispensationalists are often characterized by historians as a dominant force in fundamentalism that was strongly literal in their biblical interpretation, overly focused on eschatology and unwilling to accept naturalistic science.[4] However, fundamentalists such as the Scottish theologian James Orr were in favor of integrating science and faith. Orr wrote in The Fundamentals:

It is an unhappy illustration of how the best of men can at times err in matters which they imperfectly understand, or where their prejudices and traditional ideas are affected. But it proves nothing against the value of the discoveries themselves, or the deeper insight into the ways of God of the men who made them, or of real contradiction between the new truth and the essential teaching of the Scriptures.[5]

In the works of men like Clarke and Orr one finds an Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism that are both interested in developing a holistic approach to reality that integrates faith and science. This history is matched well in the many evangelical apologists and academics who today integrate natural theology and science into their arguments in favor of a reasoned faith.

[1] Steven J. Harris, “Roman Catholicism since Trent,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 252.

[2] Mark A. Noll, “Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 262.

[3] Adam Clarke, An Account of the Religious and Literary Life of Rev. Adam Clarke, vol. 1-3 (New-York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1837), 396.

[4] Noll,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 263.

[5] James Orr, Science and Christian Faith, vol. 1, 4 vols., The Fundamentals: a testimony of truth (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), 335.

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