Nature’s Witness

One of my all-time favorite books exploring the relationship between science and Christian faith was written by a pastor… a pastor in a university community, committed to taking science and faith seriously. Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith is a book I recommend highly to Christians interested in the topic – especially those with little or no scientific training. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. The book is worth a new look. As I am traveling a great deal this month, this is an excellent time to step back and revisit the book with some lightly edited and updated reposts.

First some background … Daniel Harrell is a Southerner by birth, has a bachelor’s degree from UNC, an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Boston College. He has been a minister for something like 30+ year, with over 20 years as an associate at Park Street Church Boston before moving to Minnesota. His book comes out of his experience as a pastor, his experience interacting with students and other scholars from Harvard, MIT and other schools in the Boston area, and his experience interacting with Christians wary of the idea of evolution.

In this short video Harrell reflects on the scientific method as a way of knowing about the world and about embracing science for what it can tell us, while questioning the overarching claims made by some people concerning the scope of scientific knowledge.

Science is a persuasive explanation for the development of life, the workings of an airplane, or the life-cycle of a star, but it is not a persuasive explanation for the theological reality or psychological behavior or for morality and ethics.

In the first couple of chapters of Nature’s Witness Harrell introduces some of the scientific and cultural impetus for this discussion. He opens the book by recounting an experience where, as a minister at Park Street Church with a Ph.D. in a somewhat relevant field, he was asked to be the “religious voice” at a student organized conference on genetic technology and society at MIT and Harvard. The response was … ah… mixed. An interaction with a bioethicist angry to be made to share the stage with a minister had him longing for the days of Elijah (See 1 Kgs 18). And it convinced Harrell to study up on the issues more carefully. Key to his approach is the idea, commonly expressed, that all truth is God’s truth. But if we really mean this, we have to take science seriously.

Granted “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), but that only means that there’s more to reality than what we see. It doesn’t mean we ignore what we can see. Faith is not fantasy. If faith is going to matter, it too must correspond with the way things are rather than with the way we believers want things to be. … Clinging to false notions about how God operates in nature only forfeits the opportunity to praise God for how he truly operates. If “all truth is God’s truth,” faith needs to work with science. Otherwise, as I was beginning to realize myself, theology becomes not only irrelevant but boring too. (p. 10-11)

And theology has much to bring to the table, angry bioethicists aside. In fact, over the last decade since Daniel Harrell’s book was first published, this has become more and more obvious. With gene editing and CRISPR-babies hitting the front pages and other technologies in the wings ready to take the stage, these topics are too important to leave to the scientists alone.

In the second chapter Harrell gives a very broad brush view (the chapter is only 23 pages after all) of the science behind evolution, including the big bang, the age of the universe and the age of the earth – sufficient to provide time and material for evolution to occur. He introduces Aunt Bernice, who provides a voice for the questions so often raised by Christians against the concept of evolution. Mere mention of the E-word made Aunt Bernice through up her arms in vexation. “So you think we came from Monkeys?” It was more of an accusation than a question. Evolution was a fightin’ word. I assured her I didn’t think people came from monkeys. More likely we came from fish. (p. 17) Modern monkeys are distant cousins, very distant cousins, not ancestors.

More interesting than Harrell’s description of the science though, or even than Aunt Bernice, is the theological perspective he brings to the questions raised by modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. This is where I’ll turn in the next post on the book.

Is it possible that at times we need our faith to be threatened?

If all truth is God’s truth, are there times when our faith should be reshaped in response to what we learn about God’s creation?

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