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How can a Christian write science fiction?

September 22, 2012

I love science, and I am a Christian.  I believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, and I think science is a wonderful and reliable source of knowledge.  To many, this may seem to be contradictory.  There is a presumption that Christianity and science are conflicting belief systems, or at best, are conflicting sources of knowledge that sometimes produce conflicting conclusions.  When it comes down to it, you have to choose one or the other, don’t you?

Chief among these conflicting conclusions is, of course, the Creation vs. Evolution debate.  (At least, it’s the chief one in our century.)  I’m not going to dive into that question now, though I hope to write a series of posts on the subject in the future.

So, why are science and Christianity at such odds?  If God both wrote the Bible and created the world, shouldn’t the two be in agreement, or at least be moving towards agreement?  I think there are two main reasons this doesn’t happen:

1. Christians resist new ideas, seeing any change in understanding as an attack on revealed truth
2. Atheists are eager to use any change in understanding to justify their rejection of God

These tendencies feed on each other.  Atheists hail a new scientific understanding as the final nail in God’s coffin, so Christians naturally feel the new understanding as a threat.  At the same time, Christians resist the change on the basis of doctrine, thus confirming in the minds of atheists that proving the new theory is equivalent to disproving Christianity.  Generally, the new scientific understanding is not incompatible with Christianity.  Proving it true does not bring Christianity crashing down; on the contrary, the church generally embraces the new understanding in a century or so.  By that time, of course, there is a new theory that atheists are hailing as God’s death knell.

We see this throughout the history of science.  In 1543, Copernicus published the first mathematically-based argument that the Earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around. (In fact, he published it as a “thought experiment” because he knew it would meet resistance.)  The math required to make the sun and other planets orbit the Earth was horrendously complex and included a lot of odd rules and exceptions.  In contrast, the math required to make the Earth orbit the sun was remarkably simple and straightforward and eliminated the odd retrograde motion of the other planets (although it would become simpler still when Kepler introduced the idea of elliptical orbits in 1609).  Copernicus suggested that this mathematical simplicity reflected reality.

Why did the Christian Church see this as an attack on truth?  The Bible doesn’t say that the sun revolves around the Earth, does it?  Actually, from the perspective of most 16th century Christians, it did.  In response to Copernicus, Martin Luther wrote, “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolved, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

To understand this, you have to realize how deeply an earth-centered philosophy was embedded in the Christian worldview.  The human race, and by extension, the Earth, was the center of the world, the whole focus and point of God’s creation.  Far more important than the minor quotes from Scripture that speak of the sun rising or traveling in its courses was this central notion of man as the center of the universe.  To relegate the Earth to just one of a series of planets, not the largest or most important, circling one unimportant star in a galaxy full of them, was to undermine a central theology of Scripture.

Copernicus’s book was banned by the Catholic Church and opposed by the Protestant reformers.  Much of the trouble with the Church that Galileo experienced late in his life was because of his support for Copernicus.  To many 21st century Christians, this opposition will seem silly and misguided, a misinterpretation of Scripture and a stubborn nearsightedness.  For the Christians at the time, however, Copernicus was challenging a central truth about man’s place in the world as decreed by God.

Another idea resisted by Christians was the the concept of extinction, first raised in 1750 when fossils kept turning up that didn’t match living animals that anyone had seen.  After all, God cares for the sparrow and all the creatures he made, doesn’t he?  The idea that animal species could go extinct was unthinkable.  God had made the world perfect, unchangeable, exactly as it should be.  It seemed to go against the very character of God that he should allow an entire race of creatures to die.

In 1785, Scottish scientist James Hutton found layers of volcanic rock (formed by cooling magma) interspersed with layers of sedimentary rock (formed by precipitation out of water), which contradicted the prevailing idea of the day that all rock formations had been laid down during a single great Flood.  In fact, all the rock formations Hutton studied demonstrated innumerable cycles of erosion and deposition of different types of rock.  But there was a bigger problem.  Erosion and deposition are slow.  In order for water to have caused the formations he saw, it would have taken a long time.  Millions of years, in fact.  This seemed to fly in the face of the Biblical six day creation narrative.  Today, most Christians accept the basic principles of geology set forth by Hutton, though many still try to avoid his conclusion.  This leads us, of course, to Darwin, who published the Origin of the Species in 1859, sparking controversy still in evidence today.

Even Benjamin Franklin encountered resistance from the Christian establishment in his time.  Lightning, after all, was a supernatural phenomenon, a vehicle of God’s judgment.  We joke about being “struck by lightning” for wrongdoing, but in the late eighteenth century, it was no joke.  For Franklin to suggest that he could turn aside God’s wrath with a piece of metal strapped to the roof was ludicrous.

Of course, Christian resistance to new ideas is only one side of the story.  For centuries, atheists have seen each new scientific development as further proof of the non-existence of God, or at least his irrelevancy.  People like Richard Dawkins have made entire careers out of such claims.  There is good reason for this.  Science has, indeed, stripped away many of the traditional reasons that people believe in God.  Ancient people thought of many natural phenomena–thunder and lightning, earthquakes, rain or drought, conception and birth, disease and death–as purely supernatural.  Now we can predict many of those phenomena, explain their causes, and control them to some extent.  We don’t need God to explain why it rained today or why we get sick.

There’s a tendency to insert God into the gaps of any theory–if we don’t understand something, that’s where God must have intervened.  This is dangerous thinking for a Christian.  When the gap is explained, then the reason for believing in God in the first place disappears.  If you point to the fine-tuned constants of the universe as evidence for God, what happens when scientists discover a natural cause?  If the belief that animals did not evolve from earlier lifeforms is foundational to your faith, what happens if the evidence in favor of it mounts up so high that you can’t deny it?  Many students begin college with such a faith and abandon it when the foundation crumbles.

In reality, however, Christian faith need not be based on such intransigents.  Our belief in God as the creator and sustainer of the world is not limited to those things for which we have not described natural, secondary causes.  Rain falls when condensing water vapor becomes heavy enough to yield to gravity AND it falls where and when God decrees it.  Lightning strikes when an imbalance between electric charges in the atmosphere and the ground cause an electrostatic discharge AND it strikes where and when God chooses.  God is the creator and commander of all of nature.  Random events (whether statistically random or the foundational probabilities of quantum physics) are chosen and elected by God.

Passages like Psalm 104 and Job 38 describe events we know to be natural in supernatural terms.  If we think natural causes cannot also be caused by God, we must reject passages like this as written by ignorant ancient people who didn’t know better.  But we don’t need to.  There are two different causes at work here.  When we say God caused something, we mean he commanded it to happen and it did.  When we say nature caused something, we mean we can describe the underlying workings in detail.  When something in this world behaves according to natural laws, and a scientist studies and then predicts it, he is merely gaining an understanding of the intentions of God.  When we see the sunrise and praise God for accomplishing it, we are not abandoning the idea of the rotation of the Earth; we are simply acknowledging that the Earth’s rotation is decreed by God.

This is why I love science and write science fiction.  The study of science is the study of God’s character, creativity, and purpose.  Of course, some people contend that the character of God revealed in nature contradicts the character of God in the Bible, but that’s a topic for another day.  The study of science is, for me, a form of worship.  It can be fully explored freely, without fear of what is discovered, because it is, ultimately, the study of God.

Sources:
The Lost World of Genesis 1, by John Walton
Galileo’s Daughter, by Dana Sobel
The Man Who Found Time, by Jack Repcheck
Stealing God’s Thunder, by Philip Dray

Some of these themes are also explored in my novel Quintessence, due out from Tor on March 19, 2013.

The next post in this series can be found here.

 

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