Science and Faith in Campus Ministry

Regent Interface recently interviewed Alan Chettle, a Campus Minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada (IVCF) at the University of Alberta. Alan has a background in Engineering and undertook doctoral studies in Aerospace Engineering (University of Manchester).

The interview was conducted by David Raimundo, the Regent Interface project assistant and a current student in Regent College’s Master of Arts in Theological Studies. David holds a Ph.D in Mathematics (University of Lisbon) and his theological interests include the interplay of science and theology. David is also preparing to join Grupo Bíblico Universitário, a student ministry in his home country of Portugal.

David Raimundo: Let us begin by talking about your personal background. How did your interest in science develop and where did it take you in your academic path?

Alan Chettle: I have been exposed to high-level science since my childhood because my father was a Professor in Applied Radiation Physics. It was normal to have science as a part of dinner conversation, which means that I grew up in a context of great privilege that shaped my scientific curiosity from an early age.

Later on, I did a Bachelor of Engineering and a Masters of Applied Sciences in Mechanical Engineering, both at McMaster University. Then I undertook doctoral studies in High-speed Aerospace Engineering at the University of Manchester, studying a potentially dangerous shockwave interaction at high-speeds (Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound). This research applies to an area of flight known as Hypersonics, and my niche area of research aims at being able to travel at extremely high speeds (generally, greater than Mach 5) without worrying that an off-design shockwave interaction would cause potentially catastrophic damage to an aircraft.

Still on a personal level, how does your interest and experience in the scientific realm relate to your Christian faith?

During my graduate studies, I grew to understand science as a way in which I could find a deeper relationship with God. The beauty of the natural world discloses the mightiness of God. Glorifying the God revealed in creation is surely a biblical response. But we can go beyond glorifying God, as creation becomes a place to delight alongside God. For me, science became integral to knowing God more deeply, sharing delight in His presence.

Unfortunately, many Christian students have the opposite experience since their interaction with science entails anxiety rather than delight. In your opinion, what are the main unwarranted assumptions in the academy that can lead Christian students to perceive science as a threat to their faith?

The strongest assumption is the materialistic worldview that often remains unchallenged. This is most obviously promoted by someone like the biologist Richard Dawkins, who takes the assumption to an extreme degree, affirming that only that which can be proved by science is worth knowing. Since this statement cannot itself be proved by science, Dawkins’ own assumption unravels if subjected to scientific inquiry.

There is a gentler version of materialism, which I think arises from seeing science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria, after Stephen Jay Gould. Gould himself sought to affirm a proper realm for religion, but other scientists tend to conceptualize the two magisteria as if religion can only hold a few temporary convictions that will be outright dismissed once science grows to explain and claim everything.

Scientific materialism assumes too much of science’s ability to attain truth. Science is great to investigate processes in the natural world, but it cannot answer questions of ultimate meaning or research the supernatural. Nevertheless, materialistic assumptions are still pervasive in classrooms and they can really trouble young Christians.

It is only fair to acknowledge that unwarranted assumptions are also promoted in the Church. Can you point out some of the most common assumptions promoted in Christian settings that lead to unnecessary perceptions of conflict with the sciences?

Most of those assumptions come from a misunderstanding of how the Bible transmits science. The most obvious example is the issue of origins, particularly when we read Genesis 1-11 as a scientific paper or a history textbook. Scripture is actually interacting with stories from Egypt and Babylon, but we fail to understand the working assumptions of the Israelites and the genres of these ancient texts. Likewise, we gloss over the understanding of myth, assuming that myth means not true as opposed to a story that carries meaning. Reading the Bible as if it only transmits truth through propositional statements reduces it to our culture (in the terms of Enlightenment rationalism), rather than reading it with a view to the culture and context in which it originated.

Your answer provides the cue for a more pointed analysis of instances of perceived conflict between science and faith. Is origins the most acute instance of perceived conflict among current students? Are there other issues that often lead students to question their faith?

There are other areas in which students raise questions pertaining to science and faith, for example whether biblical miracles really happened (e.g., Jesus’ resurrection). This question can be particularly troubling to students coming from “cessationist” churches, especially when they face a materialistic worldview in the classroom.

But origins is still the issue causing more struggle, since many students have to take a Biology course and will necessarily deal with Evolutionary Biology. Reinterpreting Genesis with my students is therefore very important. We compare Genesis with the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation myth) to stress the vast difference in how these ancient texts portray the character of the Creator and the status of human beings, even if the physical structure of the world is effectively the same in the two stories. The unique intentionality and desire for relationship built into the biblical creation story reveals something about God that goes beyond questions of method or process. Hence, a concrete, literal reading of Genesis could risk overshadowing this deeper truth with questions that constrict the beauty contained in this text. Allowing Genesis to breath as a beginning story gives space for the structured ordering (progression of days, space created and then filled) combined with the story they tell (Elohim spoke… it was so… Elohim saw that it was good…) to provide rich meaning and purpose. 

Still concerning instances of perceived conflict, would you say that students have been raising new questions as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic—either as a rejection of science in the name of faith or, in the opposite direction, taking the motto “follow the science” too far?

My perception is that students who come from churches that insist on a concrete scientific reading of Genesis 1-11 are much more likely to distrust scientific wisdom, medical advice, and vaccines. They are also much more likely to insist on an oddly concrete reading of Revelation, suggesting, for example, that the vaccine is the mark of the beast. Such hermeneutical gymnastics is again the consequence of disregarding genre when reading the Bible, even if it is driven by a commendable desire to be faithful to Scripture.

In the other direction, I have seen a few students almost paralyzed with fear while looking at the worst case scenarios in Alberta. Such fear is often caused by “doomscrolling,” so I encourage these students to spend time with God instead of inundating themselves with the latest news.

I must say that, broadly speaking, I am truly impressed with the response of combined caution and care from most students.

In recent years, campuses in North America have also been agitated by issues pertaining to racism (US) and reconciliation (Canada). In your experience, do these issues intersect science-and-faith conversations?

There are different aspects in which the conversation about reconciliation intersects science and I try to provoke students in this respect. For example, when it comes to indigenous medicine, I remark something like “Look, we have just discovered a treatment that Salish people have known for 2,000 years—maybe we should listen to their wisdom!”

We also talk about how we tell truth and how we experience it, noting that indigenous understanding is very much attuned to finding truth in story. If students come to agree that truth can really be understood through story—like in a parable—then they will acknowledge more readily the wisdom and beauty in indigenous worldviews. I must add that I am a learner in conversations about reconciliation and it is a privilege to take part in them.

As you provide advice to students that navigate these issues concerning science and faith, have you identified some preferred themes and resources that are particularly effective in helping those students? Can you provide a few examples? 

John Polkinghorne, Denis Lamoureux, Alister McGrath and Tom McLeish are among the writers that I have read and recommended on science and faith. I have witnessed the great impact of Prof. Lamoureux’s lectures at the University of Alberta and I would advise campus ministers to engage similarly with Christian scientists working on their campuses. I actually recommend Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to students who are strong in their faith. I ask them to read the book carefully and to unpack its underlying materialistic assumptions.

When it comes to exploring and understanding biblical genres, Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth has been widely used in InterVarsity’s staff training. It is still extremely helpful to begin a conversation about the different genres in the Bible.

One can also frame the conversation by means of key biblical texts. I often study Proverbs 8 with my students, a text that invites an approach to the natural world following a more ancient way, as the biblical writers saw it. Similarly, we study Job 38, where God lists the many amazing things that He has made and Job has no idea of how they work. What awe this passage evokes!

Finally, I want my students to understand the concept of worldview and to question common worldviews around us. The goal is to help them to understand that the divergencies often noted among scientists and Christian believers do not necessarily sprout from a conflict between science and faith but from a deeper contrast of the underlying worldviews.

This interview is made possible through the support of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and particularly through Science for Seminaries, a Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program which focuses on promoting scientific literacy within ministry education, including of course ministry organizations such as IVCF.

Regent College provides theological training to several campus ministers. As Regent seeks to improve its engagement with the sciences, what are some key principles or skills that campus ministers should acquire at Regent?

I believe that Regent already covers the major topics that I have alluded to: biblical genres, scope and limits of science, worldview analysis, etc. It is also necessary to affirm that science and faith are both created by God as ways to engage Him and to know Him (cf. Romans 1:20) thus upholding science as good and beautiful.

Finally, there is a soft skill that is very much needed nowadays: to be able to disagree in a way that is loving and honouring. If we look over the last five years of North American politics, we see that disagreeing without being disagreeable has become extremely difficult. This soft skill must be practiced in one-on-one and group conversations with people from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, formal education can endow students with the right attitude to develop this skill.

At Regent we not only have students that go into ministry but also students committed to the marketplace, including careers in the sciences. Thinking of the latter, let me conclude with a somewhat provocative question: is it really possible to be a faithful Christian and a faithful scientist?

The very short answer is yes, of course. Being a Christian allows us to affirm that God has gifted us not only with spiritual gifts but also academic gifts which are for the common good. There is good work that God cannot do if we do not exercise our gifts. This is true in the Church in respect to those gifted as prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, etc. But the same is true in the academy. The world and the Church miss out if Christians do not exercise their gifts in every possible scientific area.

I am committed to the view that being a truly faithful scientist will ultimately entail the delight, wonder and worship that comes from seeing science as an instrument to witness to God’s amazing creation. If the academy was modelled after 1 Corinthians 12, it would immediately be transformed in a beautiful way, since academic gifts would be embraced as God’s gifts to engage and heal the world collaboratively.

Thank you, Alan, for your inspiring vision of how science can be integrated into a Christian worldview. It is good to conclude with your refreshing words of delight and joy, as I hope that such delight will increasingly characterize the science-and-faith conversation.

Alan Chettle
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