National Lutheran News

Science and religion: friends or enemies?

Tom and Dale Trapp teach religion and science, respectively, at Concordia University, St. Paul.

Tom and Dale Trapp teach religion and science, respectively, at Concordia University, St. Paul.

How faculty on Lutheran collee and university campuses bring these disciplines together

Ever since The Enlightenment (an age of discovery, especially in the social and natural sciences, which flowered during the 1700s), science and religion have been trying to figure out what to do with each other. A key arena for the discussion is, naturally enough, college and university campuses whose charters voice a commitment to religious values.

Can a scientist be a Christian? Can a theologian trust a scientist? What about creationism vs. evolution? Metro Lutheran asked four Lutheran college and university faculty members to weigh in. Two are theologians, one a scientist, and the fourth is an ordained clergyman whose teaching discipline is science.

At Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran institution of higher learning in Valparaiso, Indiana, students sometimes sing a hymn celebrating the school’s mission. One verse makes reference to the school’s appreciation for the contributions of “Athens and Jerusalem” (science and religion). It’s Valpo’s way of saying that these disciplines are appropriately in conversation with one another.

That’s pretty much the message Metro Lutheran got from the four professors who took time for interviews during July.
Metro Lutheran asked all four how they saw the relationship between science and religion, and whether they or their students consider these disciplines to be at odds with one another.

Professor Dale Trapp chairs the Department of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Concordia University, St. Paul. He said, “Students ask, ‘What about those long ages of history? How do they square with the biblical story of creation?”
Said Trapp, “I use handouts to explain the possibilities. I don’t tell students, ‘This is what you have to believe.’”
Dale’s brother, Tom, teaches in Concordia’s Department of Theology and Religion. He says he takes time in his Old Testament course to look at alternative views. He reminds students, “In many ways, science is also a faith. Everybody begins with presuppositions. If you assume cause and effect, you can get to certain conclusions.”

Said Tom Trapp, “Rather than ‘fight’ science, I see it in its own realm.” He said, “If you presume no higher being, it limits what you can observe.”

According to Dr. Garrett Paul, chair of the Religion Department at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, the question of relating science and religion is “very much a live issue.”

Paul teaches a Science and Religion class. He said, “Oftentimes, students who go into the sciences think their fellow scientists believe they can’t be religious and a scientist at the same time.” He said many scientists think all Christians are creationists (holding to a literal biblical understanding of how the universe came to be). “They don’t realize there are Christians who have other approaches. Some [scientists] believe that all religious people are backward looking, because of what they hear the most conservative Christians saying loudly.” Paul said people in the Christian mainline don’t express themselves very well. Scientists do a better job,on the whole, than theologians.

The Rev. Mark Engebretson has a foot in each camp. An ordained ELCA pastor, he teaches physics at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. He bemoans the fact that the science/religion relationship has often become a battleground on which proponents of opposing views have used the issue to club others in their own disciplines.

Engebretson said, “Talking about a science vs. religion conflict is putting it too simply. Many college students have heard there’s a conflict; those in a first science course are uncertain. We assure them science is not anti-God.”

The Augsburg professor asserted, “Religion has used science to prop up faith against atheism. But that’s a dangerous game, because atheists can use science too.”

What about the idea that religion fills in the gaps where science doesn’t have any answer (so far)? All four faculty members admitted this “God of the gaps” idea is popular to some people, and all four rejected it out of hand.

“It’s not wise theology,” Engebretson explained. “It’s a risky strategy because it makes for an insipid relationship between God and people.”

Garrett Paul reflected on the Old Testament story of the sudden, unexplained death of the Assyrian army, besieging Jerusalem. He said, “You could explain their demise by seeing the Angel of the Lord at work. Or, you could chalk it up to dysentery. But why can’t you say both?”

Dale Trapp said a “God of the gaps” approach is unrealistic. “With each new scientific discovery, I see God becoming more important, not less. For example, we have better telescopes with each passing year. Now we see more stars than ever, more wonders to behold!”

Said Tom Trapp, “If God only fills in the gaps, then you don’t need religion. I teach about the difference between religion and faith. There is something wrong in nature that we cannot fix. Science doesn’t speak to that, but Christian faith does.”

Does a Christian have to take sides in the “creation vs. evolution” debate? Tom Trapp said, “Personally it doesn’t bother me. I teach what I believe we can know about how things were created. Science can make assertions it thinks it should, but if these are presented as fact, that isn’t really playing fair.”

Engebretson didn’t hesitate to say, “Our biologists [at Augsburg College], most of whom are Christian, think evolution is the best theory available. They think creationism is just bad science.”

Dale Trapp admits he confronts parents of prospective Concordia University students for whom the controversy is important, and troubling. “Some of them tell us, ‘Our students won’t attend on your campus because of how you teach.’ When I teach, I share what’s in the textbook. But in a theology class, they should get that point of view. We offer both at Concordia.”

Garrett Paul says, “For many, evolution does contradict creation. Clearly it does contradict a six-day, 24-hour creation.”

The Gustavus religion professor went on to say, “We need to distinguish between Creation and creationism. People don’t often do that.” He said very conservative Christian apologists, not the sort one would encounter at his school, are now promoting “intelligent design theory.”

Paul suggested that creationism, which does not allow for the idea of development of life forms, makes the assumption that you can’t believe in “intelligent design” without rejecting the idea that life forms could have changed over long periods of time.

He said, “Our science faculty teaches evolution, but many of them also share their faith in chapel.”