Our motivation to do science is different from non-Christians. But while this may change how we see science, it should not change how we do science.
Last month I started an exploration of a public statement by Governor General Julie Payette, in which Payette implied that religious faith and rigorous scientific exploration are incompatible. This month I return to the same question: What is the relationship between faith and science? One common Christian response is to say that faith covers “why” questions and science covers “how” questions and so in their respective spheres they are not incompatible. This answer might not be complete as we see Christ as Lord over all of creation.
Two approaches were suggested as to how Christians might look at science. One is that we use our faith to frame the questions we ask science to answer; with a different starting point Christians would provide unique insights into God’s creation. The second is that we build a Christian science different from secular science. Is science in a different sphere than the particulars of our religion and our faith may open our eyes to differing aspects of creation, or does our faith change the very fabric of science? This was the question posed in my last column, and I suggested that an either-or answer might be too simplistic.
The first thing to note is that for Christians everything is done under our relation to and love for God. Thus the fundamental direction of our lives is different from non-Christians. When we see the glory of the heavens we praise our creator, and non-Christians simply say “wow.” Our motivation to do science is different from non-Christians. But while this may change how we see science, it should not change how we do science.
Another approach to how faith affects science is to note that as we address more and more biologically and socially rich aspects of creation, coming closer to our being image-bearers, the distinctions between Christian and non-Christian interpretations become larger and increasingly significant. For example, we all live in the same physical world. While the study of atoms and rocks is complex, as seen in any modern physics text, it may be that in the sciences like chemistry, physics and astronomy, both believers and non-believers may have the same understanding of how God’s world works. In contrast, in the human biological sciences and social sciences, our affirmation or denial of humanity’s being given the image of God is a critical difference; in these areas, we should do Christian Psychology or Biology, etc., rather than consider ourselves as Christians who study psychology or biology.
As a Christian, concepts like love and forgiveness change fundamentally how I think about my behaviour and relation with others. When evil happens my mental health is better if I practice and exercise my love and concern for all, victim and perpetrator, than if I hate and seek vengeance. Part of our image bearing is to love. If we don’t recognize the importance of the rich concept of forgiveness to our own mental health we can be trapped in hate and fear. A non-Christian psychology framework would certainly not give a central place to the forgiveness that Christians ultimately see in God’s gift of Christ.
Nevertheless, even in a field like psychology, the same appeal to levels of understanding may need to apply. While the motivation to eat may have similar neural biology in my rats and in my grandchildren, the culture and richness of food in human society suggests that reducing feeding to its biology looks at only a small part of human motivation. Scripture is full of stories of how we are to treat food, its harvest and production in our relationship with our neighbours and God. One can study the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in feeding or explore the role of yeast in understanding human food behaviour. With dopamine, Christians and non-Christians alike can track this system in the brain and determine how it works, but Christians may have a very different understanding of how yeast affects our feeding behaviour; here God’s commands make all the difference. The closer we come to God, the more our faith changes things.