In this year of anniversaries and celebrations, dead scientists like Darwin and Galileo are getting their due. Live ones, like the atheist former Oxford don Richard Dawkins, attract media attention pretty much every time he opens his mouth or slings a godforsaken poster on a bus. But what of the scientists with strong Christian faith currently building bridges, quietly or outspokenly, between the religious and scientific community? We don't hear much about them, do we?
These men (interesting that reporters don't seem to dig for faithful women scientists) are the subject of a lengthy and well-written article in a recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
There are few hiccups here, but they seem minor when one thinks that the topic is so undercovered.
The reporter starts off in England, exploring the paradox of lively and overt faith in an unlikely place-among scientists.
Riding the train down to London last summer, after a two-week fellowship session on science and religion at the University of Cambridge, I noticed an article in the Independent newspaper about a new book which reinforced that notion of an increasingly irreligious Europe. It is true that outward signs of faith--apart from biblical passages emblazoned on London's famed red double-decker buses by jesussaid.org--are difficult to come by.
But I found deeply felt Christianity alive and well in an unlikely setting: the academy's scientific community.
The writer goes on to talk about some of the Christian heavy hitters in the fields of cosmology, biology and physics who describe themselves as "evangelicals." But they are, asserts the author "evangelicals of a particular sort."
This is typically dangerous territory. Evangelicals in England are often a different sort from American evangelicals. And the writer doesn't describe what "sort" they are. He compares them (favorably, one assumes) with the "apocalyptic American evangelical tribes of arrogant dominionists or fanciful premillienal dispensationalists of the 'Left Behind' stripe."
Ok, so now we know what they aren't--and what they reject, like creationism and intelligent design.
But focus of the article is on a hot topic among faithful scientists-climate change. The writer does a lovely job of weaving wonderful quotes from scientists about how their faith does or does not affect their work with examining the impact that their research is having on the debate itself.
There is definitely more than one side to this controversy among conservative Christians. The writer comments that there scientists who believe that there is no such animal as global warming, or that it doesn't matter because the world might end soon, anyhow. But this view is being debated both in England and in the United States, says the author.
Yet increasingly, the fundamentalist view of climate change is losing force and is being challenged by other scientists who are equally devout in their evangelical beliefs. At Cambridge the renowned reproductive biologist and ethicist Sir Brian Heap, a self-described "open-minded evangelical," is a leading advocate of addressing climate change. He said he had no difficulty reconciling his personal faith and scientific discovery and advocacy. "When doing my own bench research, it was clear that personal faith influenced decisions about the wisdom of carrying out certain experimentation." He continued, "The religious foundation comes from the Christian motivation to seek the best for others...for the world we too easily damage."
I'm not crazy about the use of the word fundamentalist, which becomes an easy tar to brush people who don't agree with you.
I also wish the author had covered possible interfaces between Christian scientists and activist "green" evangelicals here and in the U.K. He alludes to a relationship between Sir John Houghton and megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, but documenting more such cooperation would make the story even stronger. There's a political dimension here (the struggle among evangelicals) that definitely needs more coverage. (While we're on that subject, the topic of what exactly happened to Richard Cizik, formerly of the National Association of Evangelicals is a third rail that he probably would have been advised to stay way from--it weren't just a fundamentalist revolt.)
I love the quote at the end--it reminds me of the 17th century laments of poets and theologians like John Donne, who saw the two disciplines beginning to separate themselves from each other.
Many believe that ideally science and religion should be inseparable. As Houghton put it, "We are integrated people. Theology was once called the 'Queen of the sciences.'"
With its flaws, this is still a good beginning. It is news not only that well-known British scientists see no impediment to being believers and researchers both, but that so many are willing to speak out about what has traditionally been considered a deeply private subject. They are British, you know. They've got to be feeling pretty passionate about the subject.
Maybe the climate really is changing.
Hat tip: Rod Dreher.
Picture of the Mathematicians Bridge at Cambridge University is from Wikimedia Commons