“So vast, without any question, is the Divine Handiwork of the Almighty Creator!”
– Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, 1543
Since the period of the Enlightenment, when philosophers advocated for reason as the primary authority for knowing any truth, many have pitted biblical faith and science against one another. Renaissance astronomer Copernicus ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church of his day because his studies led him to see that the Earth orbits around the sun, rather than the other way around. Such a view, however, was contrary to existing church dogmas which understood Scripture to claim that the Earth was the center of the universe, not one of many planets orbiting an average-sized star. Surely Copernicus’ vision of the Earth as spinning one revolution each day and whirling around the sun each year contradicted Psalm 104:5: “He has set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”
The vast majority of Christians no longer make that argument because they have come to understand the verse in question as being a poetic description of God’s creation rather than a scientifically rigorous description of reality. But the perception persists that since Christians accept the authority of biblical revelation, their faith commitments automatically shut down honest scientific inquiry and truth-seeking. To be fair, this perception rests on a variety of historical examples, Copernicus being one of them.
However, despite those clashes between faith and science over the centuries, is it fair to assume that this must automatically be the case? Since 1916, surveys have found that about 40% of working scientists are believers. Today’s prevailing assumption that having a half a brain and an open mind will automatically lead to disbelief is belied by world-class scientists and believers such as Harvard Astronomer, Owen Gingerich, Human Genome Project Director, Francis Collins, and Templeton Award-winning Physicist, John Polkinghorne. These thoughtful believers, among others, suggest that we need not allow the terms of the religion/science discussion to be set by religious fundamentalists on one side and vociferous atheists on the other.
I have long believed that truth has nothing to fear from investigation. The Christian virtue of humility is a most appropriate means for us to hold our Christian convictions while always allowing God and God’s universe to surprise us with wonder and perplex us with mystery. In his book “The Language of God,” Geneticist Collins writes: “I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and religion. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” As followers of Christ, may we faithfully seek to understand our Creator and the creation with equal parts gusto, curiosity, and a childlike openness to discovery.