Note: This was a guest post for SlimJim on Domain for Truth back in October. Thanks Jim!
As the university year commences, around 14.5 million students in the US will either begin or return to their studies. How can we support students and academics to serve Christ in an often secular environment?
Serving in campus ministries, like UCCF or Intervarsity, offers great opportunities for fellowship, to engage in evangelism and Christian leadership.
But, we also need to be careful not to separate our lives into ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ compartments. As Abraham Kuyper reminded us, the sovereignty of Christ has implications for every aspect of our life:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
This was not just theory for Kuyper. He was a pastor, the first Prime Minister of the Netherlands, founder of the Free University Amsterdam and also the founder of a national newspaper! Most of us will not be as influential as him but we can seek to live out our calling where we are:
“Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” (1 Corinthians 7:24)
I became a Christian in the final year of my Psychology degree. At first, I was reluctant to work in a secular university. But a few days after I’d decided to study theology, I received an offer to do a PhD in psychology. Over 20 years later I still feel God has called me to work as an academic.
How do we love God with all our minds in research, teaching and studies?
First, we need to understand and critique the assumptions of secular academia. I’ll use an apologetic tool from Cornelius Van Til, summed up by John Frame:
“Unbelief is rationalistic, because it insists on the autonomy of human thought, and therefore insists that human thought is the ultimate criterion of truth and falsity, of right and wrong. On the other hand, unbelief is also irrationalistic, because it believes that the apparent order in the universe is ultimately based on disorder, upon chance.”
Second, we need to bring our intellectual life under the Lordship of Christ. We need to ground our studies in the Christian worldview.
The ‘subtraction story’
Subtraction stories and rationalism
Charles Taylor’s Secular Age seeks to explain how secularism became influential in Western culture. He calls the standard explanations ‘subtraction stories’.
In medieval times, people in Western culture needed religion as a tool for explanation. They believed in an ‘enchanted’ world of magic, demons, and evil spirits where faith in God comforted them. But now we have science we can leave that world behind. We are now free to face reality.
Subtraction stories and irrationalism
As Van Til predicts, this rationalist tale leads to irrationalism. People rarely state the scientific evidence for these subtraction stories. They may refer to the success of science or evolution but with little further justification.
Taylor argues, the real attraction is the moral imperative of the story. They imply the divorce of science from religion is an inevitable stage in humankind’s development. If you dare to face the cold realities of life you can cast off the superstitions of Christianity. These stories gained popularity in the 19th Century but are still common in the “culture wars”. Where those who reject their norms are dismissed as being “on the wrong side of history”.
But, if naturalism is true, why would history have an inevitable course? As with most sacred stories, it reflects the time and place of its origin. These secular narratives combine the rise of science with rugged individualism – which grew in popularity as people left their villages in search of a new life in cities during the industrial revolution. It is not surprising that these subtraction stories have struggled to gain traction outside of Western culture.
Methodological naturalism and rationalism
It is now common to argue academic research requires methodological naturalism.
It’s easiest to begin by defining a related concept, metaphysical naturalism. Michael Ruse calls this “a complete denial of the supernatural” (Oxford Handbook of Atheism, p383).
Ruse then defines methodological naturalism: “a conscious decision to act… as if metaphysical naturalism is true…”(Ruse, p383)
Methodological naturalism requires us to assume there are no authorities – other than human reason and science.
Is methodological naturalism amenable to evidence?
People will often present methodological naturalism as a neutral position. We will act as if metaphysical naturalism is true until there is enough data to reject it.
But what would be sufficient evidence to reject methodological naturalism? Richard Lewontin, formerly Professor of Genetics at Harvard, provided a candid response:
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Methodological naturalism and irrationalism
Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein is a classic. It helped me grasp that the naturalist worldview cannot account for the objective validity of logic.
They both agreed the laws of logic are objectively true (that is, true for all people at all times). They also concurred that this is a foundational assumption of the scientific method. But as Bahnsen pointed out, in the naturalist worldview the laws of logic can only be human conventions:
“well if you’re an atheist and a materialist you’d have to say they’re just something that happens inside the brain… If the laws of logic come down to being materialistic entities then they no longer have their law-like character.”
Stein had no answer. Since the debate in 1985, a viable naturalistic account is still lacking as acknowledged by several atheists.
For example, Thomas Nagel essentially repeats Bahnsen’s conclusion. Most naturalists believe in the objectivity of logic but “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis.” (Mind and Cosmos, p83-84).
Paul Feyerabend, in Farewell to Reason, rejected the claim that scientific knowledge is objectively valid. He argued this was impossible as the scientific method is based on culturally bound conventions.
Christian worldview of academic research and study
Creation and logic
Bahnsen, in his debate with Stein, argued God’s creation provides an objective foundation for the validity of logic:
“God created the world. And this world reflects the uniformity that he imposes on it by his governing and our thinking is to reflect the same consistency or logical coherence that is in God’s thinking.”
As creatures made in God’s image, we can understand the world because it reflects God’s character of order and coherence. Coming to know God inspires our study of his world.
The fall and experimental science
Another key assumption of the scientific method is that we are prone to error and bias.
Modern experimental science emerged in the 17th Century. Leading scientists argued that our reasoning needs to be tested by empirical methods to minimize biases.
Peter Harrison, formerly professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, argues the rise of experimental science needs to be understood in historical context. The Protestant reformation led to the rediscovery of Augustine’s teaching on sin. A key theme in 17th Century science was the effect of Adam’s fall on our ability to understand the universe.
Harrison provides a nice summary of how the fall inspired scientists to use empirical methods:
On the one hand, the fall provided an explanation for human misery and proneness to error; on the other, Adam’s prelapsarian perfections, including his encyclopaedic knowledge, were regarded as a symbol of unfulfilled human potential.” (Fall of man and the foundations of science, p11)
The Christian worldview provides a solid foundation for the objective validity of logic in the doctrine of creation. Humanity’s fall presents a foundation for experimental science and other empirical disciplines.
We need not leave our faith at home when stepping into the lab or the lecture theatre. We can love God with all our minds, knowing he has given us the tools to understand our world, and also with humility as his fallen, but redeemed, people.