Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Science and theological education: Learning theology at the aquarium

Georgia Aquarium. Credit: Girish…, cc via Flickr

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2015 in the SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (http://www.pastcf.org/).  

To conclude the required introductory course in Old Testament, I took my class to the Georgia Aquarium. No, this was not an end-of-class celebration, although some considered it so. My students were actually on assignment as they gazed in awe at the graceful belugas and the bizarre sea nettles. The event was part of a number of teaching events that took place on campus throughout the year, both in and outside the classroom, made possible through a generous grant from the AAAS1.

The program is designed to integrate forefront science into a seminary’s core theological curriculum, thereby increasing scientific literacy among students of ministry (especially those who had forgotten their high school biology) and developing an informed appreciation of science as part of theological inquiry. Columbia Theological Seminary, I must add, was the only Presbyterian institution selected to participate in the pilot program, which included ten seminaries.

For our first year, we focused on three courses: Old Testament Interpretation, Introduction to Christian Theology, and Introduction to Pastoral Care. Since I was one of the teachers in the Old Testament course, here are my reflections.

Dr. William P. Brown

The Old Testament course began, as most introductory courses do, with a discussion of the first several chapters of Genesis, wherein it was discovered for the first time by many students that the Bible begins not with one but two very different creation accounts. Moreover, we later discovered other creation accounts dispersed throughout the Old Testament such as Psalm 104, Job 38-41, and Proverbs 8:22-31, to name but a few. Together they acknowledge the natural world’s glorious complexity2.

In our study of the Old Testament creation traditions, we also added, science to the mix. For example, while studying Genesis 1 in its theological and historical context, we also heard from scientists sharing their rich discoveries of the universe, from the cosmological to the biological.

Why do so? Not to pick a fight or to argue over differences between the so-called biblical perspective and the scientific — far from it. We did so in order to fulfill the biblical mandate to seek wisdom (Proverbs 2:1-5), including the wisdom of God evidenced in creation (Proverbs 3:19-20). Throughout our course we brought into constructive dialogue the unfolding drama of the Bible and the epic story of Creation as told by science, sometimes described as God’s “two books,” a conceptual framework that has deep roots in Christian tradition, beginning at least with John Chrysostom (ca 347-407) and Augustine (354-430), and extending to Galileo (1564-1642).3

Augustine, for example, refers to creation as God’s “great big book, the book of created nature.”4 He goes on to say, “Look carefully at it from top to bottom, observe it, read it…. Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit.”

That “religious spirit,” however, does not mean rejecting the findings of science in favor of the three-tiered model of the universe presupposed in Genesis. To the contrary, Augustine finds it utterly shameful for Christians to make empirical claims about the nature of creation by spouting Scripture.5

So it is a matter of duty that God’s “two books” be read together, for God is the author of both. It is no coincidence that a certain psalm begins with “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and concludes with reflections of the efficacy of God’s Torah: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:1, 7-8). This single psalm binds together God’s creation and God’s Torah, God’s world and Word, into an inseparable whole.

Science and Searching

To disregard what science reveals about the intricate order and unfathomable age of the natural world as we know it is tantamount to tearing out the first pages of the Bible. The unfolding drama of God’s redemptive work in the world need not have begun with creation; it could have begun just as easily with the exodus account or with the family history of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12 and following). But it didn’t.

It is canonical fact that the Bible begins with the cosmos. Moreover, it ends with the cosmos. It is merely a coincidence that creation serves as the Bible’s bookends? Is it accidental that in between these bookends psalmists, sages, and prophets often inquire of the natural world in their testimonies to God’s providence? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers … “ (Psalm 8:3; cf. 19:1). “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things … “ (Ecclesiastes 7:25). “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Proverbs 25:2; cf. Jeremiah 31:37). The first sentence of the first chapter of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species begins with the words, “When we look to … “6

Looking and searching, observing and studying – psalmists, sages, and scientists are the cohorts of wonder and the practitioners of “inquisitive awe.”7 Together they validate the human desire to explore the world, “to search things out,” to observe and study the world that God in wisdom has create (Proverbs 3:19-20). “the self-revelation of creation,” as the great biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad once described biblical wisdom,8) 144-76.] is an integral part of divine revelation. To construe biblical faith as anti-scientific is truly anti-biblical. If theology is “faith seeking understanding” (a la Anselm), and science is a form of understanding seeking further understanding, then theology has nothing to fear and everything to gain by engaging science.

Faith “vs.” Science?

Culturally, however, we confront a very different situation. In their fight against “soulless science,” creationists champion a view of creation so narrow that it is decidedly unbiblical. At the other extreme, certain scientists construe faith in God as the enemy of scientific progress and human well-being.9

As one might expect, misunderstandings and distortions abound as each side reduces the other to laughable caricatures. Illiteracy, both scientific and biblical, reigns. The problem lies in the vain attempt to treat the biblical accounts of creation as scientific. This is like forcing a round peg into a square hole. The scientific method and its resulting discoveries are products of the Enlightenment, thousands of years after the Bible was written. Moreover, it was never the intent of the biblical authors to provide a scientific report on the nature of the world and how it developed, but instead to claim the world as God’s world. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for constructive dialogue between science and theology, even biblical theology, but first some deep misconceptions and prejudices have to be vanquished.

Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery? Not the science I know. Is faith a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension? Not the faith I know. What if faith in God entailed, among other things, acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation as well as its mystery? What if science informed and enabled persons of faith to become more trustworthy “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:12)? What if faith fostered a “radical openness to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be?”10

The faith I know does not keep believers on a leash, preventing them from extending their knowledge of the world. The science I know is not about eliminating mystery but about enhancing it. The experience of mystery “stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” as Albert Einstein intoned. “Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”11

Faith with Science

Christian faith demands familiarity with and appreciation of science. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobhzansky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”12 Christians can say something parallel about faith: “Nothing in the Christian faith makes sense except in the light of the Incarnation.” Here, in fact, is common ground: Faith in God incarnate “will not allow us to ignore the physical world, whose “nuances” are its delicate balances and indomitable dynamics, its life-sustaining regularities and surprising anomalies, its remarkable intelligibility and bewildering complexity, its order and its chaos. Such is the World made flesh, and faith in the Word made flesh acknowledges that the very forces that produced me produced microbes, bees, and manatees.

As much as we cannot ignore the incarnate God, we cannot dismiss the discoveries of science. Theologically, there is no other option. Faith in such a God calls people of faith to understand and honor creation, the world that God has not only deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31) but saw fit to inhabit (John 1:14). In Christ, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Through the lens of science, we find ourselves more connected to creation than we could ever imagine, countering once and for all the sinful tendency to see ourselves utterly apart from, rather than as a part of, creation. We are connected to a creation that is incomprehensively large and marvelously complex, strangely diverse, and constantly in flux. We are part of a creation that at its most fundamental (i.e., quantum) level is fuzzy and indeterminate, assuming different states at the same time. At creation’s macro-cosmic level, things we once thought were stable and steady turn out to be dramatically dynamic, both catastrophically (e.g., supernovas and black holes) and generatively (the birth of new stars and planets), with every bit of it interconnected, including time and space itself. As the universe is fearfully and wonderfully made, so also the human self (Psalm 139:14). The saga of science can only enhance the greatest story ever told. All truth is God’s truth.

Dr. William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He earned his Ph.D. at Emory University, his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his BA from Whitman College. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some specific interests include creation theology, faith and science dialogue, the psalter, and wisdom literature.

  1. See www.scienceforseminaries.org for more information.
  2. For a study of the various creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible read through the lens of science, see my book The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  3. For a concise historical survey, see Peter J. Hess, “‘God’s Two Books’: Revelation, Theology, and Natural Science in the Christian West,” in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cosmology and Biological Evolution (Australian Theological Forum Science and Theology Series 2; Hindmarsh, Australia: Australian Theological Forum, 2002) 19-5.
  4. Augustine, “Sermon 68,” in The Works of Saint Augustine: Sermons Part III (51-84), trans. Edmund Hill (Augustinian Heritage Institute; Brooklyn, NY: New York City Press, 1991) 225.
  5. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), I, xix, 39.
  6. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, ed. E.O. Wilson (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006) 453.
  7. My shorthand definition of wonder: See William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 1-14.
  8. Gerhard von Rad. Wisdom in Israel. Trans. James D. Martin (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988 [1972
  9. For a survey of the conflict between Christian fundamentalist and the modern champion of atheism, see Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007). John Haught argues that critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens – succumb to a fundamentalism comparable to that which afflicts the creationists. See God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
  10. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2000) 63.
  11. Albert Einstein. “The World as I See It” (originally published in 1931 in idem, Ideas and Opinions Based on Mein Weltbild, trans. Sonja Bargmann, ed. Carl Seelig (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954)
  12. Theodosius Dobhansky, “Nothing in Bology Makes Any Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teachers 35 (1973): 125-29.