Communicating faith in a science dominated world

by Tan Huey Ying // October 27, 2018, 6:43 pm


Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

How can we speak of Jesus and His Gospel in the scientific age?

Rev Dr David Wilkinson, astrophysicist and Methodist pastor, shared some of his views at an apologetics seminar held at Covenant Community Methodist Church over three nights in September 2018.

His first PhD was in astrophysics, specialising in the study of star formations. After he became a Methodist minister, he completed his second PhD in theology. But a common question that he gets asked is: “How can you be a scientist and a Christian with integrity?

That little question, Rev Wilkinson says, tells us a lot about the culture of the world we live in, and also about the tasks that Christians have before them when evangelising.

In his talk, he shared some suggestions which he hoped “might just stimulate you in your experience, life and culture to think about these things as well”.

Science and religion are not at odds

Rev Wilkinson started by challenging the status quo: “We have to do something about the conflict model. This is the model that says science has always been in a battle with religion. But, in fact this model is only a hundred years old!

“It comes from a man called Thomas Henry Huxley, who was called, Darwin’s bulldog – it is also why Richard Dawkins is sometimes called Darwin’s Rottweiler.”

Rev Wilkinson went on to explain that the major issue in Huxley’s time in the United Kingdom, was the domination of science by the Church of England.

“The God who speaks, speaks science!”

“If you wanted to be a professor in Durham university in the 19th century, you had to be an ordained Anglican clergyman.”

Huxley, however, was a populariser of science and a great believer in the status of science. So he gathered some others and formed a society called the X Club, featuring a number of leading scientists of the day. They wanted to move the control and give science its own political status.

They created the conflict model and they recast incidents into a simple battle between science and the Bible – even Galileo and Darwin’s story!

“But if you knew your history, you would know things were more complicated than that!” Rev Wilkinson maintained. “This model has continued partly because it’s simple, and partly because it’s good for television to have a conflict between a scientist and a Christian.”

Huxley’s simple model soon became the basis for many famous atheists and has infiltrated almost every level of thought and consciousness.

Not only have the intellectuals followed the conflict model, but comedians have taken it on too.

De-constructing the conflict

Rev Wilkinson then gave a suggestion on how we might break down this conflict model: “First, we need to help children understand the scientific method and its limits.

“Too often we’re so busy doing science at school though we haven’t got time to think about what science is actually claiming to do.

“And part of our Christian education or our Christian contribution to education is to help children think about the scientific methods and limitations.”

Second, Rev Wilkinson believes that we need to consider the importance of an early age of cross-disciplinary dialogue education. “That is,” he clarifies, “to get scientists talking to artists and the humanities. Too often in our educational systems we push the scientists off to only do science and the people doing arts and humanities not do any science at all.”

The Methodist minister emphasised: “And the Church can help!”

Celebrate that gift

A subtle but important point is that: People who are pushed into scientism often are reacting against a belief that the churches are negative towards science.

So how can churches affirm science as a gift from God?

Rev Wilkinson observes that, in some churches, scientists and accountants are often at the bottom end of the totem pole in terms of professions “recognised” by the Church. Missionaries, ministers and caregiver professionals are typically at the top.

Disagreeing, he says: “This is not the biblical view!”

Quoting from Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer, Rev Wilkinson said: “In fact, science is thinking God’s thoughts after Him.

“This is a Christian vocation and we want to affirm it. We need to pray for our scientists, engineers and technologists.”

The beauty of creation

But it doesn’t stop there, Rev Wilkinson believes that, in worship, too, “we need to proclaim the joy of science”.

The song, So Will I, by Hillsong, interestingly picks up on the joy of God of Creator and the joy of science.

Rev Wilkinson said: “The lyrics are very clever poetry. But underneath was this affirmation that the God who speaks, speaks science!”

He summarised the point about the conflict model saying: “How do we break down the conflict model?

We can do it in lots of different ways but one of the main ways is that we affirm science as a gift from God.”

His second suggestion had to do with Christians’ perspectives towards the existential questions.

Rev Wilkinson said: “We need to take seriously that people are still interested in the big questions.

“Whatever post-modernity is, it hasn’t taken away the interest of many people in the big questions. And you can see that by the popularity of what I might call the science bestseller or the science television series.”

“People are still interested in the big, existential questions of life.”

Stephen Hawking and 10 million copies of A Brief History of Time is just one example that supports Rev Wilkinson’s belief that we live in a society which still is interested in questions that ask where the universe comes from and what being human means.

His point: As Christians, the Church should be engaged in that dialogue!

“We need to take those questions seriously – Christianity has, over 2,000 years, developed a lot of resources that are related to these issues.” Rev Wilkinson gave a clarion call to the audience that day: “Let’s be confident that we can engage in some of these big questions.”

In his last point, Rev Wilkinson said: “I’ve talked about how we need to take on the conflict bottle and undermine it and I’ve talked about how we need to take seriously the opportunities that people are interested in big questions.

“But most importantly, we need to be clear about the nature of science.”

A scientist himself, Rev Wilkinson says: “Too often we reduce science to Stephen Hawking in front of a blackboard with equations, or Galileo with a telescope looking at the sky, saying the Sun is the centre of the solar system, or Mr Data from Star Trek simply computing the answer … science is a complicated complex activity.

He cautioned: “The nature of science is messy; it’s got a Christian heritage and it’s wonderful! It’s a reminder that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

An undefensive defence

Finally, the Bible is clear when called to give an answer for our faith. As Peter says, we have to do so with gentleness and grace (1 Peter 3:15).

“Remember the centrality of Jesus; that’s what we’re called to proclaim.”

But sometimes, in being offended by some atheists, we lose the sense of what they’re saying. Instead of lashing out, however, Rev Wilkinson ended his talk with four handles on how to communicate our faith differently:

  1. Don’t fear the questions. Don’t worry about people asking questions of the Christian faith. We are not here to defend it, God defends it!
  2. Don’t be conned into fearing science. One of the strongest responses is to enjoy science and rejoice in it.
  3. Know your history: Know where the conflict model comes from and where science itself comes from.
  4. Be careful of any new logical proofs. Trying to prove God logically is a blind alley – God is beyond logical proofs.

At the end of the day, Rev Wilkinson says that the whole point of Christianity is God revealed in Christ: “Remember the centrality of Jesus; that’s what we’re called to proclaim.”

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".