Science and Faith: A Brief History

At one point in my career I taught physical geography and systematic theology courses back-to-back … often to the same students. Some students were a bit skeptical when I reassured them, telling them that theology – etymologically “the study of God” – and geography – etymologically “the study of the earth” – are inextricably related. (Note physical geography is the natural science which deals with natural earth processes, while human geography is the social science that studies the cultural, social, economic, historical, and built environment – of course when humans interact with the natural environment, as we often do, physical and human geography are inextricably interrelated).

In practice, systematic theology is the study of God and much, much more. Typically systematic theology includes scriptural reflection, teaching, and application on topics and doctrines including:

  • God Himself (theology proper) – this includes wrestling with God as triune (the Trinity), God’s character and attributes, and further examination of each of the Persons of the Trinity:
  • God’s self-revelation – often sub-divided into His
    • general revelation – including God’s creation, His continuing care and providence, His general work in humanity (conscience, etc.)
    • special (or “Word”) revelation – including His ultimate self-revelation in Jesus, His gift of Scripture, His ongoing self-revelation through the work of the Holy Spirit
  • Humanity – who were created to be, who we became (through sin), and who we continue to be (in need of salvation and restoration from beyond ourselves)
  • Salvation – through the Person and work of Jesus
  • The Church – the church as God’s redeemed people and His Kingdom coming in the world
  • Christian Living – how then should we live as God’s people?
  • Last things – including judgment, heaven and hell

In practice, physical geography is the study of earth and atmospheric sciences, including

  • geomorphology – the study of the earth’s landforms. This includes looking at earth materials (geology), weathering, mass movement (landslides, rockfalls, etc.), and landforms shaped by rivers, glaciers, wind, and human activity.
  • climatology – the study of climate. This includes looking at the spatial distribution of various climatic zones, and longterm changes to climate over time (both natural and human caused).
  • meteorology – the study of weather. While climate reflects longterm trends and conditions, weather is the short term, immediate conditions of the atmosphere, including air masses, temperature, humidity, precipitation, and extreme events like hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • biogeography – the study of the spatial distribution of ecosystems and living organisms. Different plants, animals, and other living creatures live in different places for all sorts of reasons including climate. As climatic conditions change and human beings build cities and infrastructure, clear forests, farm land, fertilize and irrigate, we influence what plants and animals live where.
Bringing Theology and Geography Together

If we accept the theological principle that God created the earth, its atmosphere, and natural processes (as Christians do), then as we study geography we are studying God’s handiwork. The astounding world of knowledge generated by the sciences (like geography) about the incredible earth-atmosphere system provides us with glimpses into the nature, character, and mind of its Creator, God.

Thus when I study the natural world as a geographer, I am looking at God’s creation, an aspect (to use the language of systematic theology) of His general revelation. As I learn more about the natural world, God’s creation, I am also learning more about God, the Creator, Himself.  Studying geography, then, is one specific aspect of studying theology.  Doing research in the natural sciences is doing theology!

If we accept the premise that God is the Creator, we also can appreciate that one legitimate aspect of theological study is God’s creation.  If we want to understand God as completely as possible, we will want to explore His creation.  Being good theologians inevitable leads us to appreciate and support good scientific research.

In ecology we use the word “symbiosis” to refer to an interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both. The word comes from two Greek words literally meaning “living together.”

Science and Christianity:  Symbiosis

Symbiosis – a mutually beneficial living together – is an apt term for how I view my life as a Christian involved in the sciences. My scientific understanding of the natural world is incredibly enriched by my theological knowledge that this is God’s good creation: as I reflect on the wonder, beauty, and perfect balance in natural systems I am understand that what I’m observing and learning is profoundly theological _ I am learning more and more about who the Creator and Sustainer of the universe – God – is.

My theology and relationship with God is enhanced as I explore and study His creation; the more I learn about God’s handiwork the more I am humbled by His wisdom and understand a little bit more about His character and ongoing care and providence in His creation. What God reveals of Himself in His Word and in His World will always be consistent and complement one another.

My theology would be poorer if I were not also actively seeking to learn more and more about God and His creation. And my geography would be infinitely poorer if I did not appreciate that this is God’s good creation and that as I learn more about it, I am learning more and more about God.

Here is my (very) brief history of the symbiotic relationship that has existed between science and faith.  In contrast with the current popular “conflict model” – that suggests Christianity and science are in intractable conflict and incompatible – I am unapologetically highlighting how Christianity and science have actually worked together, hand in hand, throughout history.

BACK: Scientists in Congregations Project