Integrating Science and Faith

A 2015 Pew Research poll indicates that 59 percent of Americans believe that science and faith are “often in conflict.” Sadly, an even larger percentage (73 percent) of nonreligious Americans believes that science and faith are “often in conflict.” These data suggest that Christians are not doing a very good job of helping people understand the proper relationship between science and faith within or outside our faith communities. In this issue of Perspectives, you will hear from scientists and theologians who reject a model that pits science against faith. Neither are they satisfied relegating science and faith to nonoverlapping magisteria, as advocated by Stephen Jay Gould. Rather, they are faithfully and courageously integrating faith and science. In the essays to follow, the writers share personal reflections and experiences, explore ways in which they are using critical thinking to ask probing questions about assumptions and perspectives on science and faith, and model intellectual humility and integrity. As they do, they hear not discord but the beautiful harmony between science and faith.

Christians are not doing a very good job of helping people understand the proper relationship between science and faith.

As a lifelong Christian and a scientist, I find that science and Scripture complement one another and, when integrated, affirm the truth I find in both. My dissertation adviser studied the changes that happen in cells to move them from normal to cancer, or tumorigenic, cells. One cell line in our lab was tumorigenic but had acquired a mutation such that the cells were no longer able to make tumors. She wanted me to do an experiment to understand this change. I designed the experiment and did it. It was a big one. It involved plating the cells so they were suspended in a semisolid substance called agar to see if they could grow. After waiting two weeks for the cells to grow (or not), I took the hundreds of plates out of the incubator and settled on a stool in the lab to count. I held the plates under a magnifying glass that was lit from behind. As I peered through the magnifying glass, counting colony of cells after colony of cells, the answer to my adviser’s question emerged: The cells could no longer make tumors because they had lost a gene whose function pushed them to be tumorigenic.

Let me be clear: This experiment was a good one. It was well designed and well executed, but it was in no way earth-shattering. In fact, its results were never published. However, this experiment was personally significant and was, for me, an example of the harmony between science and faith.

Throughout my life, I’d heard Scripture testify that the all-powerful Creator is also a personal God who cares so much that he sent his son to redeem the world. That afternoon over that magnifying glass, I heard cells declare that the One who created the DNA that choreographed their behavior was also the One who allowed me to be privy to a tiny bit of knowledge about their behavior that no other human knew: a secret God allowed me, for a moment, to hold with God alone.

Throughout my life I’d heard Scripture attest to God’s faithfulness; now I witnessed that faithfulness in a laboratory experiment. Because a faithful God is the author of the laws of nature, I could believe the results of my experiment. One gene made all the difference. One gene was acting or failing to act in the context of the whole cell. We could tease out and understand the action of that one gene.

Psalm 19 says that the “heavens declare the glory of God. Day by day they pour forth speech. There is no language in which their word is not heard.” In the laboratory that unforgettable afternoon I heard, in the language of scientific inquiry, cells declaring the glory of God, pouring forth speech that pointed me to an all-powerful, yet intimately personal and faithful God.

A worldview that pits science against faith as enemies in conflict is not fruitful or necessary, because science viewed through the lens of faith declares the glory of God. The integration of science and faith is a powerful testimony within and outside our faith communities. We hope you find that this issue of Perspectives is part of that testimony.

Sara Sybesma Tolsma teaches biology at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa, and is co-editor of Perspectives.

Image: Horla Varlan/Flickr under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 license.