How can Christians in science support science literacy among believers? (STEAM Grant Series)

ESN is currently creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’ve partnered with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and we’re commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in this series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups. Today, we’re delighted to welcome Royce Francis to address the topic of “supporting science literacy among believers.” This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.

2018 College Campus Science Research

How can Christians in science support science literacy among believers? Introduce them to believers in science!

Science literacy is critical. We live in what could be described as a technological society, where every moment of our lives is enabled by recent scientific and technological discoveries. The profound ways this has changed our lives can tempt us to believe that man is the measure of his own glory and power. Technological advances have overwhelmed us with such remarkable achievements that these advances have led some to believe that science and its methods are the principal ways we approach truth. We have now reached a point where science has enabled humanity to engineer not only our tools and toys but even our minds and bodies. Therefore, we must be science literate to fundamentally navigate our lives–materially, spiritually, and philosophically. We cannot live as informed or responsible citizens if we do not have a basic science literacy.

Moreover, due to the remarkable ways that we can now direct nature to our own ends, a fear of God and reflection of His personality is all the more indispensable to the ethical practice and use of science. Science literacy is crucial for contemporary Christian practice. However, it is difficult to determine how best to support science literacy among believers because:

  1. There is much broken trust, fear, and misunderstanding between science and Christians because many perceive that science disproves many of the claims of the Bible; and,
  2. Many questions about the relationship of science and faith also raise complicated questions about biblical interpretation and context, so the task of addressing them is doubly complicated. This, combined with the misunderstanding and fear mentioned above, may prevent more Christians from being motivated to pursue science literacy.

Fortunately, I don’t think the solution to this challenge is that complex: Introduce our fellow believers to believers practicing science!

While many scientists work and educate without any concern whatsoever for Biblical knowledge or Christian discipleship, many of our most influential scientists have been Christian believers. Believers must understand that the Christian worldview has been profoundly influential in developing the Western scientific enterprise. Belief in the God of the Bible and His personality has motivated many important scientists in their inquiries. Therefore, the first way that scientists can promote science literacy among believers is to promote awareness of Christian participation in science. As more believers become familiar with the biographies–historical and contemporary–of Christians in science, the idea that science is in conflict with the Bible will become less compelling to them. They will see from these exemplars that science and Christian faith mutually inform one another in diverse ways. These exemplars must be made more prominent in lay Christian circles than they presently are. Most importantly, introducing our fellow believers to these scientists will also involve introducing them to these scientists’ philosophical and theological ideas. By studying these philosophical and theological ideas, we have the opportunity to simultaneously deepen science literacy and biblical literacy.

There is a general perception that science is in conflict with the Biblical witness. I personally believe this sense is misguided. First, while most people believe that science is “objective,” the work of Thomas Kuhn, Alvin Weinberg, Michael Polanyi, and others shows that science is socially constructed. The problems that are formulated, perception of observations, and methods of interpretation all depend on particular social assumptions and decorum. Second, while most people believe that science deals with “objects” that are either outside of us or available for controlled observation, this is flatly untrue for many modern fields of scientific endeavor. For example, while the evidence base anthropogenic climate change is undeniable, no individual experiment or investigation can observe the entire Earth over relevant time scales. The coupled ocean-atmospheric system that determines the climate cannot be completely observed from outside because we are situated within it.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, many of the most important questions in science and engineering today are what Alvin Weinberg called “trans-science”: they can be written in the language of science but cannot be answered by scientific methods. For the purpose of this discussion, any question that involves human behavior and/or policy concerns falls into this category. These questions may involve issues of value or utility (e.g., complex systems science, innovation studies, risk assessment or analysis, benefit-cost analysis, resilience analysis, etc.) and their investigation cannot typically satisfy the traditional demands of science (e.g., full documentation, complete peer-review, reproducibility and replicability, etc.). In fact, honest reflection on these questions at the intersections of science and social science in conjunction with honest theological reflection may lead one to conclude that both types of literacy mutually reinforce one another.

I believe that growth in Biblical literacy will help to resolve some of this conflict because it will enable us to follow Christ into some of these difficult scientific and technological challenges. As we become more familiar with the purposes and possible interpretations for challenging Biblical texts and become more familiar with the cultures and languages in which the Biblical witness is situated, we will be able to identify synergies with our technological endeavors that may encourage us to pursue new questions. We may become more familiar with the evolution of historical interpretation within the church of key Biblical texts and be instructed by our spiritual ancestors. And, as we grow deeper in our understanding of science, we may more deeply moved to worship the One who has created it all.

All of this to say, scientists must make themselves more prominent in their own church communities. Not only do our brothers and sisters need to hear about the Christians that have excelled in science before and now, but they need to know us! In short, scientists must become disciplemakers and reproduce disciples who will also become scientists. Christians who are scientists must be leading small groups or home Bible studies in their churches. If we want to increase science literacy among believers and overcome the broken trust between science and believers, scientists who are disciplemakers must be at the forefront. We Christians who are scientists must bring others alongside us to observe how we resolve these apparent conflicts and retain confident faith. We need to begin to build the requisite trust and provide the proper environment for difficult conversations about scientific questions and professional issues. Short of this ideal, we as scientists could offer courses or seminars in our churches. We could conduct demonstrations or lead discussions on challenging topics that cross ecclesial and academic boundaries. We might even develop programs in our churches that expressly train future scientists.

As we become more engaged in introducing believers to scientists, we must remember one important thing. If discussion of science, especially where it conflicts with more common understanding, comes outside of the context of ministering care and concern to those closest to you, our perspectives will at best be ignored. To avoid unnecessary confrontation, these issues should come up appropriately within the context of Christian community. They might be prompted by discussion of current events or by consideration of the Scriptures themselves. I also believe that in these small group Bible studies, it is critical that the entire Scripture is covered using either a whole-Bible reading plan, Book of Common Prayer, or other liturgical resources. This way, the discussion of difficult passages will be placed into the broader Scriptural context and questions can be directed towards these specific passages. These discussions should always start from areas of common agreement or clear, unequivocal truths before proceeding to the more difficult or controversial points.

Group Discussion Questions

  1. Of the Christians in science you personally know, who are some you admire? How do they model engaging with their local churches, in general and in terms of conversations about science and faith?
  2. In your church experience, have you seen especially effective ways for the local church to engage with science? For instance, was there a Sunday school class or worship service where science was featured in some way?
  3. Are there any historical Christians in science you especially admire? How did you learn about them?
  4. Brainstorm some ideas for sharing your love for science with your local church. For example, would you be interested in giving a short testimony about a way that you see God at work in science, or teaching an adult Sunday school class about a historical Christian in science? What about writing a short article for a church newsletter or donating a faith and science book to a church library? What other ideas come to mind?

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Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

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    Keith B. Miller commented on June 29, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for this essay. I strongly concur about the need to advance scientific literacy within the church. I also have found that discussion of both the history of science (including especially the contribution of Christians in the sciences) and of the history of biblical interpretation (including changing theological understanding of God’s creative work) are critical to achieving this goal. Those of us in the sciences need to seek out opportunities to share our perspectives with fellow believers. — Keith Miller

      royce commented on June 29, 2018 Reply

      Keith, thank you very much for your encouraging response to my post. I am happy that you engage our brothers and sisters in Christ on this important topic, and I also look forward to learning more about the contributions of Christians in science, and on historical interpretations of important biblical passages. Please share any thoughts or references you’ve found helpful! RAF

        Keith B. Miller commented on July 1, 2018 Reply

        There is a huge list of excellent books on the history of science by internationally respected Christian authors. Since my interests are in geology and evolution, my knowledge of the literature is largely restricted to these broad disciplines. I will list some books that I have found particularly useful. David N. Livingston, Martin J.S. Rudwick, and Mark A.Noll are all excellent historians and prolific writers. See: D.N. Livingston, “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders”; D.N. Livingston, “Putting Science in its Place”; M.J.S. Rudwick, “The Meaning of Fossils”; M.J.S. Rudwick, “Bursting the Limits of Time”; D.N. Livingston, D.S. Hart, & M.A. Noll (eds.), “Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective.”
        Other works that come quickly to mind are: Davis A. Young, “The Biblical Flood: A case study of the Church’s response to extrabiblical evidence”; and Edward J. Larson, “Summer for the Gods”.
        Reading the writings of important individuals in the historical science/faith dialogue is also important (such a B.B. Warfield or Asa Gray) as are contemporary theologians.
        The website of the American Scientific Affiliation has links to many relevant resources. I encourage others to research the history and theological debates associated with their own chosen disciplines.
        — Keith Miller

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