The Future of the ASA: Challenges and Pitfalls


Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 42 (December 1991): 273-279.

The central charter of the ASA is to maintain support for authentic science and for authentic Christian theology, seeking to integrate valid insights from both without sacrifice of either. Faithfulness to this charter requires the recognition that: (1) neither redemption theology nor "gifts of the Spirit" are changed by changes in our scientific knowledge and understanding; (2) we must avoid "scientific theology," which becomes pseudotheology as theology is bent to match current scientific understanding, as well as "theological science," which becomes pseudoscience as science is bent to match current theological understanding; (3) we must avoid false syntheses of science and theology, which effectively remove the authenticity from both science and theology. The ASA should be neither a "scientific scholarly society" nor an "evangelistic branch of the church," while in fact making contributions to both endeavors. The members of the ASA are called to serve as a bridge between the scientific community and the Christian community. It is not that we should be involved in building a bridge between the communities by some kind of forced synthesis, but that we ourselves be such a bridge. Finally we should seek a variety of ways to continue to reach out beyond our own communities and the strictly American Scientific Affiliation in order to establish contacts with others of like mind and purpose around the world.

Sometimes a look into the future can be clarified by a look into the past, particularly if what we're seeking are guidelines for the future. In our search for the future directions and spirit of the ASA, therefore, let us start by taking a look at some of the guidelines that have been provided to us today by our own past. I would like to call your attention to the words of five individuals or groups of individuals who saw a vision for the ASA.

In 1950, nine years after the ASA had been founded in 1941 with a primary emphasis on providing insights to college and university students, the 2nd edition of Modern Science and Christian Faith was published. The preface to that volume was written by F. Alton Everest, then President of the ASA, and a stalwart voice through the years. He notes that the book had been "widely adopted as a textbook and as a reference book for collateral reading by Bible institutes, theological seminaries, and Christian colleges." He goes on to define the purpose of the ASA and its avoidance of common pitfalls.

One of these pitfalls is too-ready acceptance of anything in the name of science and a forcing of scriptural interpretation to fit. The other is a stubborn clinging to some doubtful biblical exegesis which distorts the whole outlook. The main function of the American Scientific Affiliation is to survey, study, and to present possible solutions.

In this insightful 40-year-old message, Alton sets forth some of the answers to our questions about the future of the ASA. (1) We should set forth possible solutions to problems that arise from an interaction between science and Christianity, without falling victim to departures from authentic science or authentic biblical theology. (2) We should set forth these solutions in such a form that they are accessible to and useful for students in Bible institutes, seminaries, colleges, and universities, without sacrificing their integrity as solutions defensible before and useful to experts in either science or theology.

In 1968, Aldert van der Ziel, himself a contributor to the literature on the interaction between science and Christianity in The Natural Sciences and the Christian Message (1960) and Genesis and Scientific Inquiry (1965), wrote in the preface to The Encounter Between Christianity and Science,

The authors show that their science and their faith do not battle against each other, but that they mutually enrich and complement each other. The harmony thus achieved is not attained by rejecting major parts of the Christian doctrine or the scientific endeavor, but by accepting the basic tenets of Christianity and by keeping an open attitude to all aspects of science.

He emphasizes again a basic respect for both authentic science and authentic Christian theology so that they are both brought together to complement one another.

Both Alton and Aldert spoke from the perspective of scientists. In 1971, in the preface to The Human Quest, Dr. Paul K. Jewett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, gave expression to a similar perspective from the theological side.

The human mind seems to have an inveterate tendency to extremes . Too often the Christian thinker is either threatened into overreaction, and defensiveness by the results of scientific inquiry or else embarrassed into abject compromise of the Christian faith by accommodation to the repressive role of the Church against free inquiry the reader will find this book characterized throughout by a practical concern to meet the needs of today's college and university students.

Here we find from a theologian's point of view the attractiveness of a neither/nor approach to some of these problems, a repeated warning against forsaking either authentic science or authentic theology, and a concern for the availability of these discussions to college and university students, and others with similarly questioning minds.

For our last two examples we move forward to 1986 to look at two publications by ASA authors. The first of these is The Fourth Day, the book by then President of the ASA, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Howard Van Till. In the preface to that book, Howard writes,

It is my contention that neither the scriptural nor the scientific view of the cosmos is complete in itself, despite the fact that each view contributes an essential perspective on the complete reality . This book is addressed to those who want to take both the Bible and the Creation seriously, to those who, like myself, are vitally concerned first to get clear and accurate views of the cosmos through scriptural exegesis and scientific investigation and then to form a unified, coherent perspective that incorporates both views.

Howard stresses the importance of obtaining valid insights into the nature of reality from both science and theology, and then integrating them to form a unified, coherent perspective that is faithful to both kinds of insights.

Finally, consider that outstanding example of the ASA's concern with students and the process of education, the discussion first published in 1986, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy. In this now widely disseminated treatment, we read,

For some of the deepest human questions about ultimate meaning and purpose, religious faith is part of the investigative process. The methods of science probe how and when, but cannot reach "beyond nature" to explore why things exist or whether a supreme intelligence is behind our own existence. For many students the two sets of questions appear to be thoroughly entangled . ASA wants teachers to present the subjects of origins and of biological evolution with accuracy and openness. Students are better served by valid, up-to-date scientific information than ideological arguments of strong attackers or defenders of evolution.

These quotations taken from over the past 40 years of the ASA's activity illustrate a continuity of perspective and application. Our challenge is to see that these guidelines of purpose and practice continue to be developed and expanded in balance.

Let's now focus on four major challenges that are critical for the faithful witness of the ASA in the future. We might say that they deal with "how we should think," "how we should act," and "what we should be." Since what we think to a large extent governs what we do and, hence, what we are, we will spend the largest part of our time on the first of these.

(1) At the very heart of the ASA's purpose and work lies the fundamental need to support both authentic science and authentic biblical theology, seeking to integrate valid insights from both without sacrificing the integrity of either. Any failure here, any major departure from the clear vision with which the ASA was founded, any undiscerning compromise or syncretism, regardless of how noble the motive, will destroy the effectiveness of the ASA as nothing else will.

(2) We need to carefully define our own mission, so that we do not lose our mainstream identity in the midst of the interaction between science and Christianity in the real world, only to become either an inaccessible club of scholars on esoteric subjects, or a division of the church organization with the single purpose of defensive apologetics. Even as we strive to develop perspectives that are formally defensible among the most outspoken scholarly critics, we must also be faithful in expressing the results of these reflections in a form accessible to the layperson, the student and the pastor.

(3) We need to live up to the unique opportunities that are afforded to us by being active members of both the Christian community and the scientific community, living out in our own lives and testimonies what it means to bring these two types of valid insights into practice, and serving as a kind of living bridge between the two communities.

(4) We need to continue to think globally, beyond the confines of church denomination and nation, to communicate with and be of service to the whole body of Christ around the world.

Discerning Authentic Science and Authentic Theology

By authentic science we mean a particular way of knowing based on the human interpretation in natural categories of publicly observable data obtained by sense interaction with the world. The hermeneutical procedure in science follows fairly well-defined standards. Any activity claiming the title "scientific" that departs from these criteria is not authentic science.

By authentic (Christian) theology we mean another particular way of knowing based on the Spirit-guided human interpretation of the Bible and on human experience lived out in personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. The hermeneutical procedures in theology, however diverse the results have been in historical perspective, still follow fairly well-defined standards. Any activity claiming the title "theological" that departs from these criteria is not authentic theology.

Both science and theology are the results of human interpretation. Both science and theology provide us with descriptions of reality. But we must remember that the descriptions of authentic science do not provide us with theological insights; nor do the descriptions of authentic theology provide us with scientific insights. A mystical convergence of science and theology in the future does not speak of authentic science and authentic theology. If such a convergence of science and theology were to occur, it might well be because we had lost both authentic science and authentic Christian theology. The defense of authentic science is closely coupled with the defense of authentic theology; if one of these comes under serious attack or reformulation, the other suffers with it.

Insofar as the descriptions of science are compatible with the actual physical world, and insofar as the descriptions of theology are compatible with the actual relationships that describe our life in and with God, both provide true and valid insights that need to be integrated in each individual. These insights may be said to be complementary, providing different kinds of information derived from the two different kinds of disciplines, yet dealing with the same reality.

We must remember that the descriptions of authentic science 
do not provide us with theological insights; nor do the 
descriptions of authentic theology provide us with scientific insights.

Maintaining the creative tension that results from this view of science and theology is not something that human beings readily accept. We much prefer to have simple and well-defined categories. The history of the interaction between science and theology has seen us often driven to maintain such simple and inadequate categories even when conflict and rejection of one or the other is the major consequence, or even when compartmentalizing and trivializing them results. Nevertheless, it is this creative tension that the ASA must be dedicated to preserve and defend.

There are three principal ways in which this creative tension is threatened. (1) There is the attempt to make science the ultimate guide for acceptable theology, sacrificing biblical integrity for the sake of apparent scientific credibility, thus producing a pseudotheology. (2) There is the symmetrical attempt to make theology the ultimate guide for acceptable science, sacrificing scientific integrity for the sake of apparent theological credibility, thus producing a pseudoscience. (3) Perhaps the most seductive of all is the attempt to make a forced synthesis between science and theology in a "new age" situation, destroying the integrity of them both in the process. It is frequently found that pseudoscience and pseudotheology reinforce one another. Let us consider each of these in a little more detail.

Theology passes from being authentic to being pseudotheology whenever the methods of interpretation suitable for this mode of revelation are rejected, whenever theological concepts and constructs are dictated by non-theological concerns, and whenever theology is called upon to provide information or guidelines in areas where it is unable authentically to do so.

So-called "scientific theology" usually supposes that biblical categories of thought are hopelessly unacceptable to the modern scientific mind, that religious beliefs are wholly products of human activity, and that in the final analysis it is knowledge and understanding that save. The task, therefore, is to reconstruct biblical categories and translate them into acceptable scientific categories. What is envisioned is frequently described in terms of such dramatic words as a "new Reformation," a "reformulation" of religious concepts to bring them into line with contemporary scientific descriptions, or a "new paradigm."

All of these expectations call for a reinterpretation of biblical theology so as to make it consistent with contemporary science. This task may result, for example, in seeing Nature as God, the natural system as the Kingdom of God, science as truth, evil as non-viable, and salvation as the human quest for survival. The biblical concept of "sin" disappears from any discussion. Theology constructed in this way, being shaped by current scientific descriptions and not by authentic biblical interpretation, can be nothing else than pseudotheology.

Theology constructed in this way, being shaped by current 
scientific descriptions and not by authentic biblical interpretation, 
can be nothing else than pseudotheology.

It is profoundly disturbing when Christians appear to agree with the premise that changes in our thinking due to science are really going to make significant differences in our involvement in and expression of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, redemption and regeneration. What increased understanding of scientific descriptions does provide is a guide to enable us to identify theological caricatures based on a previous misguided identification of theology with a particular contemporary type of scientific description. For example, the insights of quantum physics suggest to us that the faulty view we had of God's action in the universe in terms of classical determinism is no longer acceptable.

In a similar way, science passes from being authentic to being pseudoscience whenever the methods of interpretation suitable for this mode of revelation are rejected, whenever scientific concepts and constructs are dictated by non-scientific concerns, and whenever science is called upon to provide information or guidelines in areas where it is unable to do so. To suppose that a "theological science" can be constructed on the basis of theological interpretations of physical mechanisms in the universe, never intended in the purpose for which the biblical revelation was given, is to become involved in pseudoscience.

Visionary views of a future convergence of science and theology frequently are based on the assumption that science is going to provide us with insights into the meaning of reality. But to insist that science lead to interpretations of meaning, morals, ethics and human values is to advance a pseudoscience. These are things that authentic science cannot do. To attempt to construct a science in the effort to support any previously accepted philosophical, metaphysical or religious view, is once again to enter into pseudoscience. Authentic science, limited by its methodology, must nevertheless be left free to explore to the best of its abilities what the nature of the physical universe is, thus providing us with the possibility of partially true insights into that part of reality accessible to authentic science. Any attempt to use "science" in order to give support to a particular previously conceived perspective on the nature of reality is pseudoscience.

To insist that science lead to interpretations of meaning, 
morals, ethics and human values is to advance a pseudoscience. 
These are things that authentic science cannot do.

Certainly it is essential that the ASA stand steadfastly as part of its witness and perspective against any attempt to develop a pseudoscience or a pseudotheology. This may not be as easy as it might seem, because sometimes it seems as if such developments actually support the faith and contribute to a lessening of the apparent conflicts between science and theology. Nowhere is this more evident and more challenging than in those cases where pseudoscience and pseudotheology have been joined together in the effort to synthesize a new relationship between science and theology, a great new transformation in the not-too-distant future spoken of in glowing terms: a transformation in which science and theology will join together, their conflicts will end, and the two will become one marvelous and mystic celebration of the human spirit.

Such a movement also claims the authority of science, but actually rests upon a particular philosophical or religious interpretation of science not actually derived from authentic science itself. Seeking to meet the demands of the religious yearning of human nature without a commitment to biblical theology, this approach rejects the limitations of scientific reductionism but replaces them with what might be called "preductionism." If reductionism claims that the properties of the whole are only illusory because they are not explicitly in the parts, "preductionism" claims that the properties of the whole are authentic because they are indeed present implicitly in the parts. If reductionism claims that there is no such thing as "spirit" because that is not a category used in physical and chemical descriptions, "preductionism" claims that the reality of "spirit" is scientifically established by its presence in all of matter.

This might seem like a positive move to some Christians, seeking to defend the reality of concepts such as "soul" and "spirit," but a principal difficulty with this approach is that there is no real evidence in its favor. It claims the insights gained from the "new science," by which it means usually relativity and quantum mechanics, as its scientific basis, but in reality it is little more than an ad hoc semi-poetic construction. It speaks in mystic terms about the findings of modern science showing the reality of an intrinsic "spirit" in all reality. But as a matter of fact scientific descriptions have not shown any such thing; by their very nature they are intrinsically incapable of giving information about the existence or non-existence of "spirit." In fact, consideration of the effects on human society that have been brought into prominence by scientific and technological developments strongly suggests that the trend is toward depersonalization of human beings, not toward recognition of a non-material spiritual quality.

Contrary to frequently heard claims, physicists are not telling us that there is an innate "intelligence" present in each atom of matter. There may well be people saying such things, but they are philosophers who are mistakenly seeking some kind of apparent foundation in science for their own preconceived faith commitments. They are attempting a grand synthesis of pseudoscience and pseudotheology. It requires only the subtlest of shifts to become identified with animism, pantheism or the monism of Eastern religion. Indeed, its strongest advocates have adopted these viewpoints and then sought to find support in modern science.

The ASA will be walking a philosophical tightrope 
between these various pitfalls of pseudoscience, 
pseudotheology, and their mystic synthesis in the years ahead .... 
It will be easy to be misled, to be drawn into visionary expectations 
without realizing that one is cutting out the ground from under one's feet.

Much of the enthusiasm for new world views relevant to theology as well as to science, arising from modern quantum mechanics, cites the major change in scientific thinking from determinism in classical physics to indeterminism (chance) in quantum mechanics. But we tend to forget some fairly basic distinctions: (a) scientific descriptions by their very nature must be either deterministic or chance in form, (b) to deduce philosophical or theological meaning from such descriptions, thus arriving at philosophical Determinism or Chance as world views, is not a scientific activity, (c) scientific determinism interpreted as Determinism may pose a problem for maintaining human freedom, but scientific chance interpreted as Chance also poses a problem for maintaining human responsibility, (d) the indeterminism of quantum mechanics showed the fault with the simplistic view of determinism in classical physics, but does not provide any basis of its own for the speculations described above.

The ASA will be walking a philosophical tightrope between these various pitfalls of pseudoscience, pseudo-theology, and their mystic synthesis in the years ahead. At the same time the ASA is committed to maintaining the fundamental truths of the biblical revelation. It will be easy to be misled, to be drawn into visionary expectations without realizing that one is cutting out the ground from under one's feet. We must exercise great love, patience, care and discernment if we are to be true to our fundamental charter of upholding authentic science and authentic biblical theology.

Scholar or Practical Evangelist?

After 50 years of existence, we need once more to consider what kind of a group we are supposed to be and whom we are supposed to be serving. We face a tension here that draws us, on the one hand toward becoming an increasingly elite society of scholars, men and women highly trained in the formal disciplines of science and theology and the interactions between them, dealing with difficult philosophical and theological conundrums at an advanced level of logical consistency and humorlessly debating theoretical solutions to highly abstract problems.

With an appeal for understanding from Jack Haas, our excellent Editor, permit me to be explicit by using our Journal as a specific illustration of the meaning of these choices. In this extreme our Journal would become a thoroughly scholarly publication, dedicated only to the difficult issues that challenge the intellects of the elite, where each published paper corresponds to the style and approach typical of a paper published in a professional journal of a specific, specialized discipline, replete with a sufficient number of references and citations to give it professional validation. Our goal, totally commendable in itself, would be to establish such a standard of scholarly and professional excellence that we would contribute directly to the frontier issues in modern theology and philosophy for the benefit of other Christian scholars, and that we could stand tall as far as the quality of the publication was concerned, when compared to any equivalent secular, scholarly publication.

On the other hand, we could just as easily be drawn to another extreme in which specific service to our Christian community and outreach beyond that community for evangelism of potential non-Christian readers would be the dominant purpose of the ASA. Again using the Journal as an illustration, this would mean that the Journal would focus primarily on articles that were apologetic or inspiring in nature, treatments of issues that are stumbling blocks to the average Christian,written in a language and a style that makes them immediately accessible and useful to laypeople, students and pastors.

It is evident that major concentration on either of these extremes would virtually exclude the other. Our dilemma is that we do not wish to exclude either extreme, while at the same time we desire to be involved in some kind of middle-level activity. We want to be neither this only nor that only, but to offer an appropriate selection along the continuum between the two extremes.

We would like to make some contributions in the areas of scholarly issues, practical interaction between science and theology, reflection on God's power revealed in nature, apologetics to remove the stumbling blocks of caricatures about science and theology that blind so many to the truths of Christ, evangelism to reach out with the assurance that committed scientists can also be committed Christians, and service to provide our own contributions to the ongoing efforts to help others in the world both intellectually and in more practical ways.

Ideally, our Journal would have a range of types of papers matching all of these categories, in a format designed to attract and appeal to a wide range of readers. We would seek to involve authors from a variety of different backgrounds and scholarly qualifications, stimulate interactions in print between different types of authors and issues, and develop a somewhat less formal format that might include photographs, cartoons and humor. We would strive to achieve these variations from a purely scholarly publication without really diminishing the overall quality of the publication. This pattern of activity, illustrated here in terms of the Journal, would also characterize other types of ASA activity.

A Living Bridge

The September 1973 issue of the Journal of the ASA featured a cover showing an island with active scientists separated from an island with active Christians, the two islands being joined by a bridge from which hung a poster saying, "ASA." After another 18 years, it is still relevant.

To be a "bridge over troubled water" has been claimed for many different types of ventures and activities since the phrase was immortalized in song by Simon and Garfunkel. And yet it seems that we in the ASA must recognize the special and unique way in which the ASA is called by God to be such a bridge between the scientific community and the Christian community: two all-too-often isolated islands in the midst of a troubled sea of controversy. The 1961 book by Anglican priest/physicist William Pollard, Physicist and Christian, expresses clearly in several ways the formal similarities between the scientific community and the Christian community: how one must be a member of the community to truly understand the community, and how major positions are arrived at in practice by community consensus.

The ASA is an organization of Christian men and women of science. It is not an organization of Christians who are interested in science. Nor is it an organization of scientists who happen to be Christians. Its existence assumes the significance of a whole world perspective to which men and women, who are Christians and scientists, can make a meaningful contribution. If the ASA were to function only as a particular arm of the church, it would fail its opportunities in the scientific community. If the ASA were to function only as a sounding board for scientific theories and ideas it would fail its opportunities in the Christian community. To fulfill the unique potentialities possible in its existence, therefore, the ASA must be intimately related to both the Christian and scientific communities.

The possibilities of this relationship exist in its members. Here are men and women who have made a personal commitment of themselves and their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We know the Christian community from within the family warmth and fellowship. We know the grace of God's forgiving love in Jesus Christ. We understand the call to be salt and light for Him in the world. Here also are men and women who have made a personal commitment of themselves and their lives to a scientific understanding of the world. We know by experience not only what science is, but what it means to do science. We are accepted by our scientific colleagues, respected for our teaching and research, and worship the God of creation through our obedience to Him who calls us to be responsible for this created world in which He has placed us.

If such a bridge is not to be peopled by Christian men and women of science, by whom is it to be peopled? Scientists who have no real understanding of the nature of the Christian community can get no further across the bridge from their side than Christian theologians with no real understanding of the nature of the scientific community can get from their side.

By its very nature the ASA has provided some kind of bridge for 50 years. Sometimes it was perhaps more like a swinging bamboo bridge, fragile and mobile. And sometimes perhaps it was more like the bridge over the River Kwai, the purpose and circumstances of the construction of which were almost forgotten. But a bridge it has been and a bridge it remains, today with new foundations and a vision of a new stability. As we look to the future, we see men and women forming a bridge with their own lives and bodies, a bridge named "ASA" that links the disciplines of authentic science and authentic theology. Those of us in physics may be excused if we see these ASA members as the "particles" being shared in the process of bonding between the two communities. It is not that we desire to end the existence of the community of authentic science and the community of authentic Christian theology by pressing them into an artificial synthesis, but that we pledge ourselves to be the shuttling messengers from one community to the other so that each may know and understand the other better.

The International Scientific Affiliation

In the third issue of the Journal published in June 1949, then called the ASA Bulletin, there is a letter to the editor that discusses the name of the Affiliation. The author of that letter wrote,

"The American" is not necessary. We could well receive as members of our organization qualified persons from Canada or Cuba or Mexico or South America or even Europe.

Twenty years later another letter to the editor appeared that also discusses the name of the Affiliation. This author wrote,

I believe that the ideas, discussions and philosophy of the ASA could more readily be promulgated in other parts of this world if our organization and its publication were not "burdened" with the word "American" in the name . Why not broaden our horizons and set out to establish a world-wide "ASA"?

Those words may be considered prophetic of what has happened to the ASA, and as guidelines for future concern and activity. Starting with a handful of American members in 1941, the ASA now has a membership of about 2800 in the United States, 178 in the Canadian Scientific Affiliation, and 117 in 44 different countries around the world from Argentina to Zimbabwe. We should continue to consider different ways in which we can increase our ties to other people around the world with common concerns in relating science and theology.

The two conferences held at Oxford in 1965 and 1985 in conjunction with the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship of Great Britain (now Christians in Science) were two landmark occasions for outreach of the ASA beyond the borders of North America. The preparation and dissemination of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy has been an excellent outreach step, bringing insight and encouragement to many beyond the traditional confines of the ASA membership. Certainly also the anticipated presentation of the TV series describing a scientific view of the creation consistent with authentic science and authentic theology will also be another effective outreach step. Plans for cooperation in an African research institute are exciting.

Perhaps it is not necessary to remove the "American" in the title of the ASA to bring about such outreach and increased relationship between different peoples from different cultures in the world, provided that we remember that we are also part of the international communities of science and theology. But we should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities for genuine sharing between our American members and people in other countries with similar concerns and interests. We should be particularly aware of and open to establishing communication links with others of similar concerns in developing countries.

God has blessed the American Scientific Affiliation in many ways during its first 50 years. We pray that that blessing will continue. And we pray that we may be found worthy of that blessing.