Wavering at the Intersection of Science and Faith

Fuller Youth Institute | May 22, 2014

As part of our launch of Can I Ask That? 8 Hard Questions about God and Faith, we’ve been sharing different perspectives on faith and doubt. Fuller Seminary’s student journal The SEMI recently ran an interview on faith and science that we thought our readers might find helpful. What follows is an excerpt from that interview by SEMI Editor Reed Metcalf with Dr. Wilfred Graves, Jr., reprinted by permission. Dr. Graves is a pastor, professor, and author who has studied and worked in both aerospace engineering and theology.

Reed Metcalf: Is the scientific community really as atheistic and religiously-antagonistic as many of us have been led to believe?

Dr. Graves: As I see it, there are four ways of viewing the relationship between science and religion. The first is that the two are in conflict; this image gets sensationalized a lot in the media, and much of it is based on some seriously flawed understandings of Christian history. You hear things like, “All Christians in the Middle ages believed in a flat earth.” The majority of Christian scholars in the Middle Ages, though, didn’t believe in a flat earth—they believed in a round earth. The top scientists and intellectuals of the day were educated by and operated in the church. So we have this rewriting of history to try and get the sensationalized dichotomy that we see often portrayed in the media. We also see a lot of polls—statistics about who believes what, and these tend to bolster the idea that there is a conflict between science and faith. But I am a statistician, so I am very careful about these sort of things; when you dig a little deeper, you see the other factors that play into the equation: how those questioned were raised, their characteristics, that sort of thing. It might drive them to science, but science is not the reason they don’t believe in the first place. All things considered, the conflict model doesn’t help me sort out the two of them.

Another model: the two are independent. Science tells you about the physical world, faith about the metaphysical. I think this leaves out historical concerns: many people have been driven to appreciate God more as they study science, and vice versa; because God created the universe, let’s explore it via science. The independence model doesn’t consider these motivators.

I am much more in favor of a dialogue model, an integration model. In my own experience, I don’t see as big of a hostile climate as some would imagine. I certainly didn’t encounter overwhelming hostility in my environments [at Stanford and working in aerospace engineering]. Is hostility out there? Yes, in pockets. Yes, we have some very vocal atheists who enjoy antagonism and ridicule. But the growing trend that I have seen is that more and more scientists don’t see science and faith as mutually exclusive. Doctors and mathematicians are still more likely than other groups of scientists to embrace belief. I think, though, that the media is still playing a big part in creating a specter of warfare. In reality, the situation is much more tame than we typically think.

Reed Metcalf: How do you communicate to your congregation and students—since many of us buy into the model that the media feeds us—that science and faith are not diametrically opposed?

Dr. Graves: Well, we are in a world that God has created. God has written this book of nature that we are reading. The scientist’s pursuit is just one to enrich knowledge; if we start from that place, we understand it as a search for truth. If we believe the Bible is the Word of God, we are also pursuing truth there. If we believe that the same author produced both books, then they really shouldn’t conflict. If they do conflict, maybe it’s just your interpretation of the data. It is a two-edged sword; you can start from false premises in either the science camp or the faith camp. I think it is important to communicate to our congregations, though, that both books really do have the same author.

After that, I think it is important to push for open-mindedness. For instance, we all understand that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. But if Ecclesiastes talks about “the rising of the sun,” we don’t conclude today that the science is wrong and that the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun because the text says the sun “rises.” We instead understand that the text is speaking from the vantage point of an observer on earth, and we understand the idiom. There doesn’t need to be a conflict.

Of course, there were conflicts in history. People think about Galileo. Supposedly Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the cosmos was embraced pretty adamantly, and Galileo got himself in hot water for adopting Copernicus’s view of heliocentrism. Even that story, though, is clouded by misinformation. Everybody involved in the debate was a part of the Church; it wasn’t secularists versus religious. Galileo’s attitude probably was part of what got him in trouble; I understand he remarked something along the lines of, “The Holy Spirit tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” You know, he was being antiestablishment in many ways, but the history is that Galileo’s findings riled other scientists. They went to the Church and said, “He’s challenging science!” and then the Church got involved and said, “Wait a minute—what is going on here?”

On the other hand, we do need to recognize the pejorative language often used in demythologizing projects, where some say, “Because we can’t replicate this with science, it can’t be true.” Well, miracles fall outside the realm of science. If an all-powerful God accelerates a process or suspends some principle that we have typically held as scientific law—what we would call a miracle—science can’t speak to that. Both sides need to be honest about that.

But we can be honest that science can flow out of faith. God’s voice from Job—“Prove to me—test all things—examine me”—these are scientific principles. It’s okay to let our faith lead us to science.

Read the Full Interview

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