Science and religion are often thought of in the popular imagination as being at odds with one another. It is assumed that one can either believe in science, which is rational and evidence based, or in the teachings of a religion, understood to be irrational and unprovable. This is, of course, a caricature of both science and religion. Scientific enquiry has always required imagination and leaps of faith, and many religious believers have thought deeply about the doctrines of their respective faiths, and examined the evidence for what they believe. Science is not the opposite to or a replacement for religious faith. If science and faith aren’t by their nature at odds with one another and completely incompatible ways of looking at the world, are there ways in which science might be able to serve the Church? I think that the answer to that is ‘yes’, and I would like to suggest three specific ways in which it can do this.
First, science shows us the wonder of the natural world and the cosmos. This has two benefits – it reminds us of just how magnificent both God and his creation are, and it helps to draw our focus away from ourselves. Our society is very focused on the individual, “my needs,” and “my rights.” But when we experience awe and wonder, we are reminded that there are things in the world other than ourselves that are beautiful and amazing and precious. When we stop thinking about the world in terms of ourselves, our own needs and desires, we gain a broader perspective. We can, in fact, adopt a God’s-eye view of creation. How does science help us to do this? Science has been able to peer into the building-blocks of matter, looking at things at the sub-atomic level, and has discovered there beauty and complexity. At the other end of the scale, science has revealed the immensity of the universe. We are learning more and more about what exists not only in our own solar system, but right across the galaxy. Science can reveal to us the beauty, complexity and diversity of creation – all of it greater than we are likely to have imagined. When considering these things, it’s hard not to have one’s perspective changed and to view the world with new eyes and renewed appreciation.
Second, science provides us with facts and insights that can inform our theology and our thinking. This can, of course, be challenging, especially when it comes to how we interpret the scriptures. But this can be a good and healthy thing. Why should we assume that the way we’ve interpreted texts in the past has been correct, or that an interpretation that fits one context will be right in another – especially if we have been working with incomplete knowledge? Christians’ changing attitudes towards the environment is one example of this. For much of Christian history, “dominion” (Gen 1.26) was understood as mastery over creation; it was believed that because we had been given dominion, the earth and its creatures existed solely for human use, and there were no limits to how we used them. Science has been able to demonstrate the damage human activity has on the environment, both in terms of damage to habitats and ecosystems, and climate change. That understanding has prompted some Christians to revisit the idea of dominion and look at it in a new light. By, for example, interpreting Genesis 1.26 in the light of other scriptural passages, such as Psalm 24.1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” dominion is now more commonly understood as stewardship – human beings do have a God-given authority over the earth, but this is to be used to preserve and care for creation, honouring it as God’s creation and God’s possession.
Third, science, particularly the social sciences such as sociology and psychology, can provide information that the Church can use in relation to its own practices. My own field of research is the Psychology of Religion. Some Christians can find that a bit worrying, as they assume that the purpose of study in this field must be to debunk religion. That’s not at all what I do. I am interested in the psychology of worship. Worship is an activity that expresses our faith, but it also helps to shape us. Both of those aspects of worship can be of interest to psychology. What is then learned through psychological study can potentially inform how we construct and use worship, either to make it a more effective expression of faith encountering lived experience, or to be more intentional in personal formation. That’s just one example of how this one particular social science can be used in the service of the Church, and there are others. Psychology can also, for example, inform pastoral practice.
These three areas – evoking awe and wonder, informing theology, and directly informing Church practices – can all help the Church in its mission to love God and serve the world. But to take advantage of what science offers, we need to engage with it in the first place.