response to the question of J. W. Haas, Jr.,
"Are Evangelical Scientists Practical Atheists?"1
Blair Professor of Geology
Department of Geosciences
Princeton, NJ 08544-1003
When Al Plantinga encouraged me a few years ago to embrace a theistic science 2 or when less thoughtful fellow evangelicals have accused me of naturalistic materialism or practical atheism I could truthfully claim ignorance. I had no idea what this theistic science that Plantinga was pushing would be like. What could I possibly do differently? When I asked him, he said something to the effect that he wasn't a scientist but he thought that evangelical scientists should seriously consider the issue and come up with a valid theistic science. Fair enough. But I have considered the issue some and have yet to find anything of substance to embrace.
It does seems possible to imagine hypothetical Universe/God combinations in which some kind of theistic science would make practical sense. But ours is a combination of natural Universe/personal communicating God, which doesn't leave a lot of room for making significant changes in how we go about making discoveries about the Universe. It's hard to swim up stream against the way things are, especially in scientific discovery.
Does this mean that faith has no impact on my life as a scientist? May that never be! I've been a scientist for 36 years and a Christian for 18. Some aspects of my science have changed profoundly and some haven't changed at all. What has changed is that I have seen the Lord lay discovery after discovery before me like a banquet set in the presence of my enemies. And he has led me by the Spirit through difficult interactions with my fellow scientists and faculty. But the way I've gone about making discoveries about the history and mechanics of mountain belts on Earth and Venus hasn't changed. And my salvation hasn't compelled me to abandon earlier insights, nor would we expect it to. Even if I had been working on the origins of life or evolution I can't see how the logic of discovery could possibly have changed by my becoming a Christian. This is because successful discoveries about the Universe have to mirror the way things are.
Now there are realms of thought, inquiry and experience where something like theistic science makes sense within our Universe/God combination. For example, answered prayer and the providence of God are realms in which Biblical and non-Biblical perspectives lead us in quite different directions. These are realms in which some evangelicals could be accused rightfully of being methodological atheists.3 How we think in this area profoundly affects how we act.
For example, some evangelicals are afraid to pray about the weather because weather is controlled by physical processes of the universe. How could God change the weather without violating physics? In the same mail that brought the issue of PSCF with J. W. Haas' challenge, I received an account from Zambia of a drought and crop failure. The villagers had been doing traditional rain dances asking their gods to send rain, but none came. The Christians asked them to stop for a week while they prayed; the pagan villagers agreed. The Christians spent their whole Sunday evening service praying for rain, then went home. That night the rains came and continued. "The villagers were amazed and now ask the Christians, `So you really talk to God?'" 4 It is, of course, possible to develop wholly naturalistic explanations of the Zambian experience. But the fact is that very little serious research has been done by scholars on this sort of grass-roots Christian experience from either a theistic or a naturalistic perspective; I am convinced it is because of methodological naturalism. Under methodological naturalism, answered prayer isn't a very interesting thing to research.
There is more to be learned from our Zambian brothers and sisters. Note that they didn't attack their pagan fellow villagers but were bold to pray for their physical needs. Perhaps they can serve as a model of more fruitful ways for evangelicals to interact with scientists and other intellectuals. For example, the Zambian experience reminds me of a non-Christian Chinese professor of computer science who was a visiting scholar at Princeton University. He was staying in our home for the last month or two before going back to China and was under a great deal of pressure to successfully complete a machine-language program to control a multiprocessor computer. The program had a significant bug and he couldn't find it. One morning at breakfast he once again told my wife and me about his distress, My wife and I offered to pray right there at the breakfast table that the Lord would show him the bug that day. We prayed with the Chinese professor listening. He came home at lunch time excited to report that God had answered our prayer; the bug was found!
This is an example of a realm in which methodological naturalism would have been self defeating; as a result my wife and I wouldn't have experienced the joy of seeing God's personal communicating action in the natural Universe, and the non-Christian professor would not have been confronted with an experience that caused him to ponder whether this was coincidence or the power of the personal communicating God. Maybe praying for the needs of our non-Christian colleagues is a better way to witness on the university campus than attacking the scientific enterprise we evangelicals generally don't understand or value. 5
1Haas, J. W., Jr., "Are Evangelical Scientists Practical Atheists?" PSCF 48, no. 2 (1996): 73.
2 Plantinga, Alvin, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible," Christian Scholar's Review 21 (1991): 8-33.
3 Brown, Colin, Miracles and the Critical Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/Patemoster, 1984), 383.
4 Francis, S., "God answers with rain," Africa Action (Africa Evangelical Fellowship, Charlotte NC 28241-1167) 10, no. 2 (1996): 2.
5 Noll, Mark A., The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 274.
From PSCF 48 no. 2 (1996): 184-5.