Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation
Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.
Iowa State University
From: JASA Vol. 12
(March 1960): 24-26.
This column is being written soon after the author's return from a week of evangelistic effort on the campus of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The University Christian Mission there was sponsored by all of the protestant student religious groups on campus, who agree to the following statement of the Aims of the mission.
1. To confront the university with the claims of Jesus Christ, the son of God and Saviour of the world.
2. To show the relevance of faith in Jesus Christ
a. to the pursuit of truth
b. to the personal life and eternal welfare of every individual
c. to the great social issues of our age;
3. To present the urgent need of our day for intelligent, trained, and consecrated Christians in all walks of life;
4. To help members of the University community to better serve Jesus Christ and His Church."
The strategy of the Mission was to schedule talks with the eight visiting missioners throughout the week on the relation of Christianity in their fields of endeavor and to have missioners conduct '"bull sessions in residence groups each evening. From the questions asked by Students after a talk or during one of the bull sessions· it was easy to distinguish the earnest seekers from the "hecklers''; one could then make appointments with the former for further private conversation about the claims of Jesus Christ. By and large the strategy seemed be effective: there were a number of very fruitful contacts which are now being followed up by correspondence and mature Christian students on the campus.
It is customary to invite one or more scientists to serve on such a team, and I know of several A.S.A. members who have been participating in this form of campus evangelism. From time to time some of us receive invitations we cannot accept, so it would be good to hear from others who would he willing to do this sort of thing occasionally so you could be recommended when invitations come. My own policy is to devote one week each year to this kind of evangelistic activity and I have learned to make this policy clear when being interviewed before accepting a new position. In fact, it was a sympathetic employer who suggested the policy of limiting myself to one week each year, in order to be fair to my colleagues on the staff. I have found most department heads willing to regard such activity as a legitimate professional responsibility, similar to giving technical lectures on invitation--especially these days if I promise to snoop around for prospective graduate students while on other campuses! Sometimes missioners or "Religion-in-Life Week" speakers are asked to lecture on their own research to a faculty or student group during the week in addition to giving strictly religious talks. At some colleges, there are invitations to address regular classes during the day, my invitations usually being to chemistry or biology classes.
After a week of giving several talks each day, meeting dozens of students and faculty members, and being bombarded hy questions far into the night, one is fully aware of the paradoxical importance of both thorough preparation and thorough dependence upon the Holy Spirit. What a frightening responsibility to know that you must say the right thing to a student who is groping his way toward Christ, without knowing exactly what the right thing will turn out to be! Undoubtedly any earnest evangelistic effort involves intellectual, emotional, and spiritual strain of this kind, but it seems particularly intense on a college or university campus. The atmosphere at a university is one of open inquiry and challenge of authority (and quite rightly so, I think) ; in such an atmosphere it is often particularly difficult for a young person to give himself to Christ. or indeed, to commit himself to anything at all. Furthermore, he may have been forced into making false choices already, such as having to choose between "the Bible and science," as one student said his minister had put the choice to him (He chose science!). And of course there is the tension provided by the real hecklers who have aligned themselves against Christianity, sometimes on the flimsiest grounds imaginable, who feel compelled to attack any intelligent Christian witness lest its effectiveness threaten their own position!
It is encouraging, refreshing, and sometimes down right amazing to see the of ways in which the Lord attracts students to Himself, sometimes through what we have to say and sometimes in spite of it. How wonderful it would be if we could get across to Christian students now in college that every idea, every bit of information, every course they take, can be of value in their witnessing to educated people as well as being useful in their future occupations. I always come back from a week of campus evangelism with an urgent list of things to read up on, ranging from Zen Buddhism, theology, and politics to quantum mechanics, evolution, and astronomy. Whenever some topic is touched on in a conversation with a non-Christian I praise God for even a smattering of knowledge that helps to break clown barriers to the communication of the Gospel, and resolve not to be satisfied with merely a smattering. Some of my acquaintance with other t1elds of science has come through contacts with other members of A.S.A. through the years, for which I also praise God. Incidentally, participation in campus evangelism provides excellent opportunities to spread the word about our Affiliation and to recruit new members. We already have one new applicant from the U. of Alberta!
One of the talks I gave
during the .Mission was scheduled for the medical building and directed
primarily toward medical students. It was entitled "A Biochemist's View of Life"
and was in the form of a modern parable. a sort of analogy between physical life
and spiritual life as seen by a "mechanistic" biochemist. The gist of that talk
be presented for your
criticisms in the next issue of this column. Basically, it was an attempt to
describe the nature of Christian experience in language acceptable and
understandable to students raised on physics and chemistry rather than on the
Old and New Testaments. It seems to me that we are often terribly careless in
our approach to non-Christians with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially to
people in our own cultural setting. Anyone can see the necessity to learn good
Spanish or in order to preach the Gospel in Latin America, but how few of us
take the trouble to speak good Existentialism, or good Evolution, even if that
is the particular "language" being spoken at the moment by those to ·whom we
the most agnostic student seems to listen attentively when we try to describe
what being a Christian really means to us, if we are patently honest and make at
least some effort to put our into his language. After all, if he is sincerely
agnostic he is interested in new evidence, and our experience is evidence which
he could not already have. Often, when effective communication has been
established, it becomes obvious that his "language of experience" is
describe what we are trying to convey, and the real issues of Christianity are
made abundantly clear at this very point. Much time beforehand must often be
spent in clearing away intellectual roadblocks, getting rid of pseudo-problems,
and simply in showing by our consistent faith and concern for him as a person
that our evidence is worthy of
One approach to science students is to show that science itself involves commitment-- that one becomes a Christian in essentially the same way one becomes a scientist; by a personal, conscious choice. Many undergraduates have such an oversimplified concept of science that they have no idea at all of the importance of subjective choices in the day-to-day business of doing research. Barriers to faith are often broken down when a student is helped to see that science is not wholly objective and Christianity not wholly subjective. I have found this important to emphasize to students who seem afraid to consider becoming a Christian out of fear of losing their objective approach, so valuable to a scientist. To show them that I have not lost mine by becoming a Christian, I often say that Christianity is a "working hypothesis" for me. That is, I try to remain open to new evidence that might conceivably overthrow my faith, but my commitment is sufficiently firm on the basis of presently available evidence that I do not wallow in doubts or dread further investigation. As an illustration, I try to show how a scientist actually proceeds in the laboratory. He has to make assumptions in order to plan new experiments, knowing that someday an experiment might overthrow even his most firmly held assumption; his faith in his assumptions that are not overthrown is strengthened by the results of his experiments even though sometimes his interpretations may later be shown to be incorrect. The point is that his realization that he might be wrong (and probably is wrong in at least some of his ideas) doesn't keep him from committing himself to his assumptions for the purpose of designing and carrying out new experiments,
Of course. as a Christian one must be honest about his openness to new evidence which may affect his faith if he is to take this approach. In my own experience I have found that demonstration of this openness pro vides a most effective avenue of approach to non-Christians. That is, I do consider every intelligent non-Christian with whom I come in contact as a new piece of evidence: he may know something I do not know which has kept him from becoming a Christian. If so, I had better find out what he knows! It may he embarrassing to "give our testimony" for Christ at times when no body has asked for it, but it is never embarrassing to "share our testimony" with each other my testimony that Christianity is true, and the non-Christian's that it is false! If it is true, Christianity will stand up under cross-examination, and the fact that it stands up is powerful evidence that it is true.
Unfortunately, many evangelical Christians do seem to take a thoroughly dogmatic attitude toward their faith, and do seem to be afraid of even considering new evidence. Such an attitude not only makes them ineffective witnesses among almost any group of people who see the value of a scientific point of view, but must also deprive them of much of the excitement and "abundance" that should be characteristic of a life of faith. In fact, one could almost say that they cannot be leading lives of faith at all, since genuine faith welcomes the exploration of new paths of thought. It seems to me that members of the American Scientific Affiliation can be of great help to other evangelicals by showing them that dogmatism is as out of place in genuine Christianity as it is in genuine science. One way to demonstrate to our fellow Christians the value of an "experimental" approach to faith rather than a dogmatic one is to show that it is actually more effective in bringing college students to living faith in Jesus Christ.