2) The history of the science–faith debate, including its many odd detours and dead ends.
3) The relationship between evolution and creation.
4) The insights of the emerging field of neuroscience.
5) How to connect contemporary scientific cosmology—the study of the universe's structure and origins—with the biblical view of the world.
Of the five, number two—the history of science and theology—may contain the most surprises. So often our history of the alleged "warfare" between science and religion is based on outright myths: doesn't everyone know that the church thought the world was flat and Columbus sought to disprove that error? Not so fast. The notion that the church thought the world was flat actually comes from an 1828 novel by Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It made its way into more scholarly literature through Cornell president Andrew Dickson White's polemic, A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. One of our grantees, Berkeley Covenant Church, presents the fascinating elements of the story (and more) in an excellent, punchy 3-minute video, "The World Was Never Flat." As Lawrence Principe, historian of science at Johns Hopkins, concludes, "No one thought that Columbus would 'sail off the edge of the earth.' ... The notion that people before Columbus thought the Earth was flat is a 19th-century invention."
While the history of science and religion has taken its share of wrong turns, I'm discovering that neuroscience's implications for religion present a promising frontier. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans let us map the brain in action, in extraordinary detail. What do we discover from fMRI studies about the mind—and the spirit—and their relationship to the brain? Is there something we can call a soul, or is human identity and will just an illusion created by a fundamentally random process?
When we convened over one hundred pastors and church workers at a conference in May 2013, Oxford trained neuroscientist Justin Barrett (now a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary) introduced us to some of the key insights of contemporary neuroscience that can be summarized as the "cognitive structure for belief."
In his work developing the field of cognitive science of religion, Barrett has amassed strong evidence that human beings are wired to see purposes in events. "People are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered," Barrett observed, which naturally leads to belief in a Creator. For example, preschoolers "are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design."
Of course, some skeptics think this tendency explains away belief in God—we cannot help but believe. But it's just as reasonable, if not more so, to consider our innate tendency to search for meaning and purpose as, well, a meaningful and purposeful part of God's creation. We are created with an openness to belief. Theologically inclined readers will note, as Barrett does, the remarkable similarities with John Calvin's sensus divinitatis, "sense of the divine." Put more simply, we are wired for God.
Stepping into the Conversation
Our website currently has over one hundred resources for bringing science and theology to your congregation. That should be enough to help any pastor or leader begin to address these topics. Even better, ask a scientist in your congregation to teach a class with your pastor. Or use some of the other amazing resources out there like the Faraday Institute's DVD series Test of Faith, NIH director Francis Collins's marvelous book The Language of God, or the church-friendly book my own denomination asked me to produce, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science.