Science in Christian Perspective



Walter R. Hearn, Ph.D.

From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 85-87.

Recently the last issue of this column was read before a group of graduate students at a meeting of the Graduate Christian Fellowship sponsored by IVCF on a university campus, as an example of an approach to the presentation of the Gospel in the language of a particular scientific specialty, biochemistry. In the discussion which followed, one of the organic chemists in the group asked if every Christian in science should try to work out his own evangelistic approach based on his own field of study. His question is part of the larger question which each of us in the American Scientific Affiliation is seeking to answer with God's guidance: How can I integrate the practice of my scientific work and the practice of my Christian faith so that my life becomes one consecrated whole? Chemists seem to ask this question with particular earnestness, possibly because our daily work in the laboratory often seems more remote from philosophical or theological considerations than the work of a physicist, biologist, anthropologist, or psychologist.

Should we, as scientists, experiment also with the presentation of the Gospel in scientific language? It seems to me that there is already much unfortunate twisting of scientific ideas to serve Christian purposes, and that one should be very careful not to stretch analogies or to oversimplify a line of thought in any evangelistic presentation. On the other hand, at both the local and national level, the A.S.A. provides an excellent forum for testing an evangelistic approach before a group of Christians who speak the language of science, to refine our statements in the fires of constructive criticism. A most important factor in judging the adequacy of any evangelistic presentation is the degree to which the language chosen actually conveys the message to the hearers. As scientists accustomed to precise expression, we should be particularly conscious of this problem.

It is not difficult to find fault with many evangelistic presentations on the basis of inadequacy of communication. There is a sentimental fondness for one's "own" language, which is the "Language of Zion" for many evangelical Christians. We have a tendency to use words which have cherished meanings to us because they are Scriptural words (though often restricted to a single Bible translation) or because they call up recollections of rich spiritual experiences from our own past. The more exclusively we associate with ,other Christians, particularly with those brought up in the same denominational tradition or on the same translation of the Bible the more difficult it is for us to avoid using this esoteric language in trying to communicate the Gospel to non-Christians. The most effective medium for evangelism in my own experience has been the ",dialogue" with a non-Christian, in which the Christian spends as much time listening as be does in speaking, and is asking questions as ,often as he is answering them. In this way our communication of the content of the Gospel can be tested, and when we hear it restated in terms of the other person's vocabulary our own understanding is deepened, no matter what the immediate outcome in the other person's life. It takes time to sow the Seed in this careful way, unless someone else has previously prepared the soil witl the same degree of care.

Recently I have been reminded again of the almost incredible misunderstanding of spiritual issues which can exist -in the mind of even a well-educated non-Christian, having had close contact over a long period of time with a declared atheist, a chemist with whom I cat lunch regularly. Hardly a day has gone by in the past nine months when we have not discussed the deepest things of the Christian faith and the impact of Jesus Christ upon my own life. My approach has been chiefly to try to clear up misunderstandings and to point out what a Christian means by the terms that my friend uses in distinctly different ways. Christians are at times impatient to "get on with the real business," often meaning by -this merely the preaching of an evangelistic ;sermon, a form of discourse many of us cherish because we may have responded to it although usually after years of preparation in Sunday school or by Christian parents or friends. Many of our colleagues in scientific work lack this preparation and the Gospel can hardly be presented intelligibly to them at all without taking time to lay a firm foundation of understanding through reciprocal communication.

A few years ago I tried an experiment in subtle evangelism among university students on my own campus. Every other Sunday afternoon an informal get-together we called "Coffee and Conversation" was held at our home. I sent written invitations to each student to whom I had found some previous opportunity to witness, suggesting in the invitation a topic with which we might begin the conversation, the topics sometimes being directly related to Christian faith and sometimes only peripherally related. At various times the group included atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Roman Catholics -of varying degrees of devoutness, recent converts to evangelical Christianity -a thoroughly random assortment of students, including some who came out of curiosity or because ,they had never been invited to a faculty member's home before. To season the conversation I would invite a few Christian students who I thought were prepared for this kind of evangelism, but I was often disappointed by their negative reaction to it or their failure to make the most of the opportunities. In the course of the discussion, a Christian would often contribute by reading or quoting verses of Scripture and then seem hurt that the message was not received enthusiastically by the others, not realizing that the context and often the very words he quoted were completely incomprehensible to them. Sometimes the reluctance of the Christian students to take a genuine interest in the ideas of the non-Christians became painfully obvious or even embarrassing. And sometimes the fact that the Christians were ill at ease or on the defensive in a forum where all sorts of ideas could be expressed and criticized gave a poor testimony to the validity of the Christian point of view. As it turned out, the "new" Christians were often most effective in spite of their immaturity in matters of Christian doctrine; they still expressed themselves in the language of non-Christians, and they still sympathized with the genuine difficulties in becoming a Christian which they themselves had so recently faced. Is not this a lesson for all of us, lest we end up talking only to ourselves rather than really communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ to others?

It seems to me that every chemist who is a Christian should think about his spiritual life in the language he uses every day, and that if he does it will become perfectly natural for him to talk about his faith to,his colleagues in the language they use even, day. Perhaps the reason we have not -done enough of this among scientists in the past is that we have not had enough contact with other Christians who speak the language of science and particularly the language of our own -specialty. This contact with others united in a strong bond of both spiritual and intellectual fellowship has come to me largely through the A.S.A. and is a major reason for my enthusiasm for our Affiliation. We are helping each other by providing the stimulus we have searched for and often found inadequate within the confines of our own church, our own campus or company, or our professional :society. Having found it once within the A.S.A., we can then do more to provide it for others in these other associations.

In considering the integration of our scientific work and our Christian faith, what are some of the areas in which a chemist might find the greatest satisfaction as a Christian chemist?

Evangelism among our colleagues has already been mentioned. Are our contacts too limited to "~specialize" in this way? If they are, here is a challenge to expand them! In a large university or industrial laboratory therei s sufficient turnover to keep anyone constantly supplied with fresh opportunities to witness to colleagues. In a more thoroughly inbred Christian environment, there should be all the more incentive to make contact with non-Christian colleagues by taking an active part in the A.C.S., science teacher groups, or other associations beyond our own "in-group." If these -horizons are limited for some reason here is still the unlimited opportunity of correspondence. It should be perfectly natural for us to discuss our Christian orientation with professional acquaintances, former students, and even some complete strangers when carrying on correspondence with them. In the past week I have had opportunities to let my Christian position be known in a letter -of reference for a student, in writing for a reprint, and even in replying to a high-school student who wrote to our department for some chemical information for a science project.

Along with direct evangelism there are always opportunities to witness indirectly by our willingness to put ourselves in a position of service. Being a chemist opens up some new possibilities of service not available to other Christians, and evangelicals are beginning to realize that we have too often left altruisin and simple humanitarian motives to the theological liberals by default. Within the Christian community there are increasing avenues of service. A numher of A.S.A. members are becoming associated with DATA International through its Technical Fellowship, which provides a source of technical information for evangelical missionaries on the foreign field. Recently a missionary asked DATA about the feasibility of converting abundant local limestone into cement for building purposes, and some chemist or chemical engineer was able to supply the answer. Within or without the Christian community, have we looked bard enough to find the needs of people which we as chemists could help to meet with our own training and experience? I think few of us have, but this is another area in which the A.S.A. can provide a stimtilus. Could we, individually or collectively, devote some of our time to do research or development work with the conscious purpose of bringing immediate or long-range benefit to the underdeveloped countries of the world? To sufferers from disease? To the mentally ill? To others in some other kind of need? Can we not at least challenge each other to consider what we are doing with our scientific training and what we could be doing with it, so we will not overlook these possibilities? Are we really peacemakers, for instance, or merely peace talkers?

Finally, I think each of us has a responsibility to deepen our own scholarship and to demonstrate the value of critical and objective thinking in all areas of our lives. Too many of us, particularly the chemists, have let the narrowness of our daily work narrow our entire outlook, having applied the gift of scholarship which God has given us to problems so limited that we pass on this gift to only a few students who know our technical work. We literally "bury our talents in the field" the field in which we specialize. It is natural for young graduates to do this because this is the way we have been trained to make the most efficient use of our knowledge and our labor, and because this is the way the game is played; as we mature, however, we should be willing to expand our thinking and reading and association with scholars until we also become scholars in the deepest sense of the word. We need to break -out of the confines of overspecialization, courageously, and even at the cost of some professional advancement perhaps, because we are Christians; evangelical Christianity urgently needs our best contribution as scholars and we must stir up this gift which we have been given. Chemists or engineers who are self-conscious about lack of emphasis on the humanities in their training and feel they have not been prepared to give scholarly thought to broader human problems may be interested in the comments of Sir Eric Ashby in his book, Technology and the Academics (Macmillan & Co. Ltd. of London), quoted in the current issue of the American Scientist (Vol. 48, No. 2, June, 1960). Sir Ashby argues that even the narrowest scientist can be "humanized" by contemplating first the technological implications of his own work, at first a rather surprising statement. The point made is that technology always involves human problems as well as scientific problems. For example, an organic chemist may proceed from the purely scientific aspects of his work to broad human concerns by first allowing himself to become thoroughly aware of the effects on society of developments which may arise from the work he is doing-as, for instance, the commercial availability of tranquilizing drugs, or oral contraceptives, or even of new plastics (and certainly of new fuels for ballistic missiles!). In my own experience, a growing fascination with history in general has, been derived largely from digging into the !history of science and of conflicts between science and theology-and this is another case of stimulation by my contact with the American Scientific Affiliation. The need to learn languages for technical reading purposes has broadened into an interest in linguistics and from there into cultural anthropology; writing reports and technical papers prepares one to write more skillfully about anything, etc. No matter how narrow our field, it touches 'human life in some way and can serve as a starting point for the development of the wisdom and understanding which our Lord desires us to possess. "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdoin: and with all thy getting get understanding."

These are some of the ways, then, that our Christianity and our chemistry can interact so that we become more effective Christians for having been chemists, and more profound chemists for having been Christians.