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Can I Be a Scientist and a Christian?

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Years ago, when I pastored a church in Hawaii, I met a young woman named Mary, who was working on her Ph.D. in biology. On the one hand, Mary felt drawn to Christianity. But on the other hand, she struggled with the issue of science and faith, especially evolution. She told me, "I want to believe in God, but I cannot forfeit my mind in the process." She then asked me a question I will never forget. She said, "Dr. Thielen, can I be a scientist and a Christian?"

People answer that question differently. Some say science and faith don't mix, that you have to pick a side. Others argue science and faith are not mutually exclusive, that one can be both a person of faith and science. Two months ago, during the premiere episode of the remade TV show, Cosmos, this tension between faith and science was vividly portrayed. Perhaps the best example of this long-standing faith/science tension is the ongoing debate over evolution.

Although an oversimplification, three major options exist when it comes to evolution. The first option can be called "atheistic evolution." For example, Bill Nye, "The Science Guy" argues that we live in an evolving universe that began with the Big Bang, with no need or evidence for a creator. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 15 percent of Americans affirm this view.

The second option is called "scientific creationism." This view, held by many conservative Christians, insists on a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 to explain the details of creation. Proponents of scientific creationism argue that evolution is a myth, a lie and an enemy of faith. It may surprise you to learn that large numbers of Americans affirm this view. In the Gallup Poll mentioned above, 46 percent of Americans said they believed that God created human beings, fully-formed, not evolved, less than 10 thousand years ago.

In spite of a large following, scientific creationism presents major problems. First, it has scientific problems. It denies virtually every branch of modern science including physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, anthropology, genetics and biology. From a scientific perspective, creation science is hopelessly flawed. Not only does this position have scientific problems, but it also has biblical problems. Contrary to what this view teaches, the Bible is not a science book. The book of Genesis was never written to give us a scientific explanation of creation. In fact, Genesis has two completely different creation stories, one in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and another in Genesis 2:4-25. The two accounts don't agree with each other and cannot be reconciled. For example, in the first account man is created last, but in the second account man is created first. So what's the deal? The deal is that the Bible cares little about science and very much about theology. Beyond the obvious scientific and biblical problems with scientific creationism, its biggest flaw is that it forces people to make an either/or choice between science and faith, a totally unnecessary choice.

A third, more promising Christian position concerning creation is called "theistic evolution." Theistic evolution affirms, along with science, that the universe was created by some kind of evolutionary process. However, unlike atheism, this view believes that God directed that process. This position claims that God created the universe but did so through the process of evolution. Theistic evolution is the overwhelming position of scientists who are also believers. It's also the position of most mainline Christians. Theistic evolution provides a satisfying synthesis of science and faith that makes sense for millions of Christian believers.

Years ago a conservative pastor asked me, "Do you believe in creationism, or do you believe in evolution?" I said, "Yes." He gave me a strange look and said, "What do you mean, 'yes.'" I said, "Yes, I believe in creationism. And yes, I believe in evolution. I believe God created the world, but I believe God created through evolution." He was not happy with that answer, and you may not be happy with that answer either. But, for millions of Christians, theistic evolution is the only option that makes both spiritual and scientific sense.

Several years ago, the state of Kansas fought a major battle over the teaching of evolution in the public school system. Of course, that battle is not new. Way back in 1925, evolution was hotly debated in a Tennessee courtroom. A public school teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for violating a state law against teaching evolution in public schools. They called it the "Scopes Monkey Trial." During the proceedings battle lines were drawn; no middle ground existed. You either believed in godless, atheistic evolution; or else you believed in God, Christianity and the Bible.

Hollywood made a movie about that trial, which became a classic, called Inherit the Wind. In the closing scene of the movie, the attorney who defended John Scopes for teaching evolution was picking up his things from a table, including two books. The first book was The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, which first laid out the theory of evolution. The second book was the Bible. The attorney picked up Darwin's Origin of Species and then set it down. Then he picked up the Bible and set it down. Back and forth he went, holding one book, then the other. Which to choose? Biology or Genesis? Reason or faith? Science or Spirit? Finally, the attorney picked up both books, Darwin's Origin of Species and the Bible, tucked them under his arm, and walked out of the courtroom.

And so Mary, the young biology Ph.D. student asked me, "Can I be a scientist and a Christian?" The answer is yes -- a thousand times yes!

More information about Martin Thielen and his books can be found here.