A History Lesson

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Histories can be told in different ways, each vignette part of a more complex story.

A marker of pride in the Rick-Miller family story is the Howland lineage on my mother’s side. My youngest daughter, Emma Kate, is named after one of the more remarkable Howlands: cousin Emily as my mother called her. Cousin Emily was an abolitionist who worked alongside the likes of Harriet Tubman and others to improve the plight of freed slaves. She is most known for helping them access education and opportunity.

And all of her work was motivated by her deep Quaker convictions.

Of course, history reminds us that for every abolitionist like cousin Emily, there is at least one story of a slave owner who was also motivated by faith. The history of Christianity, like any family history, is terribly complex with examples that make us proud and others that remind us of the need for confession and forgiveness.

This, of course, is also true of the history of Christianity and science.


In his 1991 text, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, John Hedley Brooke fleshed out the complexity thesis for understanding the history of Christianity and science. Through years of careful research, Brooke realized you could select historical details to make almost any claim about the relationship between science and religion. This is precisely what Draper and White did in their classic texts that established the conflict narrative (or warfare thesis) that lives on over a century later.

Other historians have detailed the ways Christianity contributed to the rise of science and continue to move it forward today. For every Galileo or Giordano Bruno, there is at least one Robert Boyle, George Washington Carver, Georges Lemaitre, or Francis Collins.

Rather than focus on these individual stories, historian Peter Harrison in his excellent, new Faraday Paper details how Christianity itself contributed to the rise of modern science. Note, he is not saying that Christianity alone led to the rise of modern science, but rather it was one of many forces working together that led to the Scientific Revolution’s emergence in the Christian west.

Rather than just summarize his key ideas, below is an outline for a class that could be part of your church’s educational offerings.

Getting Our History Right on Faith and Science: Lesson Outline

Background work: (i) read Peter Harrison’s Faraday Paper, (ii) watch this video debunking the conflict thesis, and (iii, optional) research to debunk one myth (Galileo Goes to Jail is a great resource for this) or find one historical example of collaboration between faith and science.

Objective: Explore the history of science and religion to break down perceptions of conflict between faith and science and encourage more compatible understandings.

Opening Prayer: Creator God, we know that all truth is your truth and that science has the potential to reveal your handiwork to us. Yet, all too often, we see and even feel conflict between faith in you and modern science. As we consider today the complex history between faith and science, we ask that your Spirit be with us so that we may better understand—good and bad—the ways Christians and Christianity have interacted with science. We do this for the sake of and in the name of Christ Jesus, the Logos, who with You and the Holy Spirit reigns over all of history and all of creation. Amen.

Step 1: Introduce the conflict narrative, by asking: Have you felt conflict between faith and science? If so, what are some historical or contemporary incidents that led to your perception of conflict? If not, who or what helped you see compatibility? [10 minutes]

Step 2: Show the video on the conflict thesis followed by a few minutes of reaction [10 minutes].

2a. (optional): Debunk a myth about religion and science, or introduce an exemplary scientist who was a devote Christian as a further means to debunk the conflict thesis [5-10 minutes].

Step 3: Introduce the complexity thesis and how Draper and White ignored countless examples past, present, and future that undermined their argument [5 minutes].  As a transition, note that it is not just individuals or events, but specific Christian ideas that undermine the conflict thesis.

Step 4: Present the following ideas from Harrison’s Faraday Paper [15-20 minutes]:

4a. Brief background items:

i.         Modern Western science broke from Aristotelian science in that it was experimental and practical in orientation; it was aimed at improving the human lot; it used mathematical laws; and it relied on a community accumulating knowledge over time.

ii.         Science arose elsewhere, but it was the “boom-bust” pattern Harrison mentions.

4b. Present three features of modern science that are indebted to a theistic outlook:

i.         The laws of nature: Rene Descartes pioneered the idea that science seeks to understand the laws of nature, “laws that were imposed on it by God.” Develop the connection between this idea and the Protestant reformers’ emphasis on God’s sovereignty.

ii.         Mathematics, mechanics, and atoms: (a) Math: modern science relies on the arguments of scientific pioneers like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton that God used mathematical archetypes in creation as suggested by the Wisdom of Solomon, God had “ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” (b) Mechanics: the idea that machines could serve as a model for nature grew out of the idea that nature was an artifact created by God. (c) Atoms: natural things were made of particles motivated by an external force that was God. Again, from Descartes, “God alone is the author of all the motions in the world.”

iii.         Reformed anthropology and experimental method: Following the Reformers, modern science recognized the fallen nature of humans, including their minds and senses. The experimental method and scientific instruments like telescopes and microscopes replaced an Aristotelian trust in human rationality and our senses as the tools for science.

4c. The Role of Faith in the Status of Science: Today, we think that science has its privileged social status due to its extraordinary explanatory power and utility. But early on it was justified as a religious vocation where scientists studied the book of creation as “priests” doing “philosophical worship.” Others described how science contributed to moral and religious formation. Still others like Francis Bacon legitimated science as means for humans to recapture our dominion over nature that had been lost in the Fall (an idea not without problems).

Step  5: Close by again validating the complexity thesis [5-10 mins.]: The history of science and Christian faith is not all conflict; indeed modern science relies at least in part on Christianity (and Christians). Emphasize the importance of reducing the perception of conflict so that the church can better support scientists; see the manifold ways science reveals God’s handiwork and serves the needs of others; and create new opportunities for the Gospel to be heard by our scientific culture.

If you use this with your church, please let us know how it goes.




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