Science in Christian Perspective
An Essentially Religious Unity
ROBERT E. VANDERVENNEN
Institute for Christian Studies 229 College St.
Toronto, Ontario MST IR4 Canada
From: JASA 35 (March 1983):
I believe that there is a fundamental unity encompassing all things that exist. By this I mean that there is a single meaning and purpose in which all things in the world participate and to which they contribute. Nothing exists or has meaning outside of that central meaning and purpose of the universe. Everything in God's creation, except where marred by sin, fits together with harmony and accord.
The foundation for this f undamental fact of existence is the religious confession that everything that exists, except for God himself, has been created by God. All things exist by the will of God. God's law is the orderly way God has designed all of creation to exist in response to his will. There are no contradictions nor unrelated elements within God's will.
This statement affirming unity in creation is a statement of faith, not a scientific statement based on observation or logic. My belief about unity is confirmed by experience and reason, but it is not based on them. I believe that the world is a unity because I am sure the Bible teaches it. Genesis 1 strongly suggests unity, many Bible verses clearly teach that God created all that exists, and the Bible leaves no room to doubt the singleness of God's will and purpose. The New Testament, as in Colossians 1: 16,17, shows us that the core meaning of all things is centered in Christ. He is the Truth (John 14:6) and there is no truth apart from him.
I want this confession of my heart to color and give direction to the way I live and the way I do scientific work. I am predisposed to see the world as a fundamental unity, and where observation or logic may at times lead me to think that part of the world lies in fragments and disunity, I trust that the fault is mine and that the problems may be cleared up in the future. I look at the world through glasses of a certain color. Everyone, whether aware of it or not, has a distinctively colored outlook. It is best to be as aware as possible of the color of glasses each of us wears so that we can be alert to how this color may affect the conclusions we draw from our experiences, and even our scientific work.
The scope of the unity of creation is world-wide, excluding no created thing. Embraced in over-arching unity are material things, laws and relationships. The fact of sin, of course, is a challenge to God's perfect unity in creation. Sin is rebellion against God's will, but God's will and law remain intact, and even the rebels themselves must live within the structures of God's law whether they want to or not.
The nature of the unity of the world is fundamentally religious. God has created all things for his own glory (Romans 11:36), and all things are called to respond in a never-ending harmonious chorus of praise to him. Stones, trees, animals and especially people, with the fantastic multidimensionality of our lives, are called to respond obediently to God's will. Therein lies the essence of the unity of all things. It is not that some things are subject to God's law and his will, while other things are not.
The unity in creation can be apprehended by us in various ways. We can understand relationships, including logical relationships, from one end of creation to another. There are intimations of certain laws, like equilibrium and economy, which hold for many kinds of situations ranging from subhuman to human relationships. Yet it is my conviction that the universe is not in principle knowable by human rationality, and that rationality is not the key to nor the means of apprehending the unity of creation. Our rationality is limited, is less comprehensive than the universe itself (Isaiah 55:9, 1 Corinthians 13:9).
The belief that the world has an essential unity does not imply that everything is the same. There is a great diversity in the world. In the Bible we read of the "many-splendored wisdom of God" (Ephesians 3 :10), and of the manifold works made in wisdom by God (Psalm 104:24). Only those who fully accept the fact of unity are fully free to accept the fact of diversity. Our drive for simplicity should not trample genuine differences. Reductionism as a search for ontological unity is bound to be a fruitless activity. There are genuinely different kinds of things in the world, and very different aspects of things. They have all been created with interrelationships to the rest of creation. Although we may have a limited understanding of the nature of such interrelationships, in the deepest sense we stand before a mystery. Boundaries between kinds of things indicate the God-given uniqueness of different things. A fascinating aspect of difference among kinds of things is that some laws are valid for different kinds of things but other laws apply only to a given kind of thing. Both humans and rats, for example, are subject to the same numerical laws and laws of gravity, but there are some laws for rats that do not apply to humans, and vice versa.
If there is a basic unity to all reality that is essentially religious, with its meaning centered in Jesus Christ, this leads to the interesting and tricky question as to whether Christians and non-Christians are on the same footing in doing scientific and analytic work. I think the answer needs to be both yes and no. Unbelievers have the same scientific and analytic gifts as believers, and they can observe the same phenomena, since God's world impinges on all people whether they acknowledge it as his or not. It has become widely (though not universally) accepted that one's worldview is likely to influence one's scientific conclusions at certain levels. Einstein's rationalistic and deterministic worldview led him to honestly by what they see in experiment and observation, and be led honestly by the canons of logic. But there is more to the research than description and theory. A Christian and a humanist understand "scientific law" rather differently, the Christian believing it to be an expression of the will of God to be discovered in part, while the humanist may believe that laws are human inventions. A theist and a materialist will differ in some of their understandings of living organisms. Such differences arise from different religious standpoints, and in the case of such differences, I consider a non-Christian to be handicapped. In the social sciences, where a great deal depends on the view one has of the nature of the human person, I should think that Christian research built on a
The nature of the unity of the world is fundamentally religious. God has created all things for his own glory, and all things are called to respond in a never-ending harmonious chorus of praise to him.
work toward a unified field theory and to shy away from quantum mechanics. It is clear that differing worldview and faith commitments are at work in producing different conceptions in the field of psychology. In our day and in previous generations the fact that religious views shaped work in the biological and geological sciences is beyond dispute.
What is not so clear is that the unbelieving scientist is demonstrably handicapped by not responding in faith to the fundamentally Christ-centered nature of the universe. There are too many ways of being wrong, and for Christians to be wrong, too, to come to that conclusion in general terms. Perhaps Christian and non-Christian scientists are most likely to be in close agreement when the scope of an investigation is narrow rather than comprehensive. On a broader scale, where the experiments and conclusions range on a wider horizon, there are more likely to be differences which arise from different worldviews and different belief-commitments.
This position implies that full objectivity is not possible in scientific work. To be sure, all investigators must be led. A biblical view of man should have an edge. However, a Christian may draw faulty conclusions even from his or her Christian convictions, and may generally lack the competence of one who denies the Christian revelation, so that it cannot be assumed that the findings of a Christian will be superior to those of a non-Christian.
If it be true that there is a unity to all of reality, and that this unity is fundamentally religious because the world was created by God and has its central meaning and coherence in Christ, it follows that a true understanding of the world is intrinsically and inescapably a religious matter. This will be reflected in how people handle scientific knowledge, whether that be expressed subliminally or explicitly, whether one understands the religious implications or not. Therefore the distinctives of the Christian faith will be expressed intrinsically in the basic sciences as well as in applications of science to societal situations.
Robert E. VanderVennen is Executive Director of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. He holds the Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Michigan State University, and has done chemical research at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Applied Physics Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory. He has served as Professor of Chemistry at Belhaven College (Mississippi) and at Trinity Christian College (Illinois), at which latter institution he also served as Academic Dean for ten years.