Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 12
Goto chapter   Previous  a, p, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, a1, a3, a4, a5, a6  Next

12. Forming a Christian Mind

  • We need to work on gaining a mature knowledge of the Bible as a unique account of the reality created by God and the human place within it.
  • We need to understand the application of that to all that we do.
  • For many practical reasons we need also to study and understand God's creation.
  • All truth is God's truth and we must be confident in seeking it wherever, including particularly through science which uniquely opens understanding of God's creation.
  • We need in and through the churches to be better equipped in apologetics.

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, after his monumental dissertation of the ways of God, St Paul comes down to the 'so what' of the Gospel: "Do not conform any more to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind," he says. Or as J.B. Phillips' translation has it:

Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Rom 12:2)

This chapter is about the Christian mind. Our minds and our thinking are central to faithful discipleship as they are progressively changed under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Christians are greatly handicapped if they do not learn to 'think Christianly'; Christian maturity depends on how we grow in understanding, as well as in obedience, as we seek to make sense of the world and our role in it.

Forming a Christian mind is not a matter of learning pat answers and resorting to proof-texts. Nor is it separate from spiritual worship and practical obedience; in fact St Paul precedes the exhortation above by urging his readers to "offer your bodies as living sacrifice ... this is your spiritual act of worship", he says and it leads to renewed minds.

The challenge to develop and maintain a Christian mind includes:

  • gaining a mature knowledge of the Bible as a unique account of the reality created by God and the human place within it;
  • understanding the application of that truth to all that we do as Christians;
  • understanding our culture and how it increasingly differs from its Christian roots;
  • being better equipped at defending our faith in the face of scepticism or opposition, and;
  • studying and understanding God's creation - which for some people means a lifetime vocation as a scientist or in applying science through technology.

Another aspect of forming a Christian mind is developing wisdom. We cannot put this better than Graham Hooper, writing for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (28/10/13): In Proverbs 1:2-6, 'wisdom' involves the acquisition of knowledge and understanding through listening to instruction - leading to prudence and discretion, justice and fairness. Such qualities may not seem particularly exciting. We might easily dismiss them as common sense. Wisdom, however, is very uncommon - 'more precious than rubies' - and is not to be confused with educational qualifications or IQ, with being 'street-smart' or 'business-savvy'. Biblical wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence for the Lord God. It is not merely intellectual capacity, but linked with discipline and discernment, shrewdness and skill. Such wisdom produces a certain kind of character and demonstrates itself in particular sorts of actions. Wise people make a difference for good in the world by the way they speak and act, by the way they handle conflict, by their honesty, hard work, faithfulness and reliability, and by their thoughtful insight and generosity of spirit. Such people also have the less tangible but deeper impact that comes from a faith which sees the whole of everyday life as an essential part of worship of God. Wisdom requires humility, an openness to God's word in reflecting upon it, and an eagerness to seek it. James 1:5 reminds us that if any of us 'lacks wisdom', we may 'ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given' to us.

In this chapter we will look at three main themes: first the question of knowledge and truth that arises especially in the 'postmodern', relativistic context. Secondly we will look at the vexed issue of the relationship between science and faith, and finally we will look briefly at apologetics-the art of giving a defence or a justification for what Christians believe.

12.1 Knowledge, truth and relativism

A fundamental consideration framing discipleship, guidance, vocation and our role in the world is what we can know about God's nature, purposes and the created world, and how we can know it. Who wants to invest their life in something uncertain? Christianity is unique in its dependence on God having made himself known-in the created Earth and its inhabitants, in the Old Testament and supremely in Jesus.

Christians thus have a particular approach to truth, and a unique perception of what is true. Truth is not simply propositional but it expresses the very nature of God. The way we understand and think about the totality of God's creation and his special revelation accessed in the Bible frames our life, our relationships and our behaviour.

The process of gaining knowledge and developing understanding can therefore be open and engaging, as we learn from the 'two books' of God - his word and his created world. On the one hand we can be confident in reading the Bible and asking the Holy Spirit's guidance, and on the other hand we embrace learning through scientific and other endeavours. The Christian should be open to thinking, discussion and challenge, and need not be closed or live with a divided mind in which faith and reason go their different ways. Christian worship-which amounts to all that we do and is not confined to church on Sunday-is done with the whole self and not in a way that disengages our mind.

In the humanities, where Christian ideas, or even Christian-friendly ideas, are perhaps under greatest attack, there is also a major challenge. Some people not only question Christian truth but they question the very idea of truth itself. Many Christians aren't sure how to respond in a way that both remains faithful to Christ and will also lead to good grades. It has been suggested that the truth problem can be traced back to a rejection of the idea of a universally common human nature, which occurred in the Enlightenment. However, it took time for the 'new logic' set in motion to unfold, eventually resulting in the relativism popular today.

One manifestation of relativistic ideas is the New Age movement which allows people to pick and choose amongst religious ideas and 'spirituality' without the demands of having to be consistent. While New Age views vary greatly, they commonly include an exultation of nature linked to a flirting with the occult and a rejection of traditional morality founded on Christian values. We need to be able to address those whose worldview is formed accordingly. We do have something in common in rejecting a reductionist approach to science, and perhaps looking to what nature may say to us of its creator.

Meanwhile, the worst manifestation of relativistic ideas is seen in the way they are infecting the church and causing a widespread breakdown in even the most basic orthodoxy in doctrine and ethics, with central truths and teachings 73 being dismissed as cultural accidents. It is difficult to take issue with a movement so embedded in our academic culture, but at the very least Christians need to be able to come through university still believing the orthodox faith. And even better, they ought to be able to recognise when what they are being taught is inadequate and contrary to Christian truth, and to be able to counter it rigorously. So there is much scope for fellowship and mutual encouragement among those grappling with these ideas and Christian students should be encouraged to talk together, to read widely, and to seek the wisdom and experience of Christian academics.

The point here is that Christian maturity means avoiding going off the rails either by schizophrenically separating how we know about God and how we know about his world, or by sliding into relativism.

Another dimension of knowledge relates to understanding the past. It is a truism that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, but more broadly our generation can easily be absorbed with the present in a way that disparages what may be learned from the experience of those who have gone before. It is foolish to disdain the lessons of the past; a sense of history is important in defining our identity. For Christians it is doubly foolish because of the historical basis of our faith as well as the repeated exhortations in Scripture to remember, reflect and learn. Even in the shorter term between generations, there is scope for the young to learn a few things from the old!

Another important part of our learning about God is experiential. It is based on faith and arises from our relationship with him through Jesus. Beyond, but not divorced from propositional knowledge derived from the Bible, is our experience of living in fellowship with a great and mighty God, and being guided by his Holy Spirit. We have the sense that God is bigger than all things in life and that he has everything under control. In some respects it is good to realise that we cannot know everything intellectually; this means that there has to be a certain element of faith that God is who he is. The evidence of this is seen through the way that we have been impacted in our own lives. So there has to be space for faith and belief in a God with whom we have a personal relationship. This involves trusting him as Lord and also as a friend who has everything under control and knows everything, even though we never will.

A practical question arising from this is having a perspective which counters worry. Many people are driven by anxiety about many material things, but a Christian view of the world framed by understanding God's power and grace should more readily give rise to contentment and trust than to worry. Such worry dwells on negative possibilities and potential outcomes, especially those due to our own limitations. A mindset focused on God's love and provision frees us to get on with life and building his kingdom, using the opportunities and gifts we have.

Knowing God: Jesus, Revelation and the Bible

The Bible uniquely reveals God to us. It gives us access to knowledge about him and his manifestation of himself in Jesus, and hence tells us what is involved in following him. It also tells us of God's purposes in his creation and for his people. It thus informs the way we think about every aspect of life and human nature, and especially it reveals God's grace to us. If we neglect regular reading of and reflection on the Bible, such as in daily quiet time, our thinking and values must inevitably be shaped largely by our culture.

The Bible is essentially a grand narrative, which sets out God's role as creator and the one who will eventually restore that creation and consummate his rule over it. It is a unique account, which stands in contrast to the humanist narrative that shapes much of our Western culture, and the Islamic narrative, which aspires to do so with its closed cultural template. Unless we understand something of the magnitude and importance of this biblical account of reality, we cannot do justice to communicating its elements in our different cultures worldwide. We need to enter into that story, and be countercultural in this world while fully engaged with it.

The primary way we know God is through Jesus, and so again, we need to study the Bible. As we do so, we organise our God-knowledge as theology, which needs to be applied wisely in many aspects of life; this is the task of ethics. As well, the study of the natural world in all its aspects gives us important practical knowledge about God and his creation. This is the role of science, as both a process of learning and a body of knowledge that is applied through technology.

Our understanding of all that knowledge - theology, ethics, science - must be coherent; any apparent disagreement would reveal a contradiction in our worldview and would arise from a failure of our biblical interpretation or of our science. It would also amount to a distraction from engaging in God's wider purposes.

This means we need to learn to read the Bible intelligently and faithfully, understanding the context of the writing, distinguishing one literary form from another, appreciating the multiple metaphors and their cultural context, all of which leads us to an understanding of a transcendent God. In many churches we can soak up this methodology of exegesis (leading the meaning out of the text) as we hear the preaching. The key exegetical questions are, "What does it say? What does it mean in context? How does it apply to me now?" But we also need to grapple a little with broader interpretation or hermeneutics as we relate one part of the Bible to another, and each part to our emerging theological framework of understanding God and his purposes.

12.1 Discussion questions:
- To what extent have you formed the habit of asking: "What does it say? What does it mean in context? How does it apply to me now?" as you read the Bible?
- Where have you experienced relativist ideas and in what ways do they pose a challenge to you?
- In what contexts have you come across New Age ideas? How do you go about countering them?
- How does your experience of God relate to your more intellectual understanding of him?

12.2 Faith and Science: The two books of God

The Christian has nothing to fear from a sincere search for truth wherever it lies; as the saying goes, 'all truth is God's truth'. This includes the realm of the natural sciences that uniquely help us to understand God's creation.

To what extent do we get our range of knowledge and understanding from the Bible and within the Christian fellowship, and to what extent from studying God's creation, i.e. through science? If we limit ourselves to the first, then there is a huge risk of an impoverished understanding of God's world and his purposes in providing for basic human needs from it. Of course if we rely too much on the latter, then it is easy to lose our bearings and misunderstand God's wider purposes. Science can never be a metanarrative or overarching worldview that answers all the big questions; science is a process of enquiry and explanation of the substance of God's creation. It can tell us how it works, not why, or where it is going.

God has given us the tools to learn about his creation through science in order to engage with his creation mandate ever more fully. One would hardly have confidence in a doctor whose professional knowledge of anatomy and physiology came largely from the Bible. Nor would one trust an engineer who depended simply on the Scriptures for maths and materials science. Nor a meteorologist who pointed only to biblical statements about God sending the rain. The same goes for all science and its outworking in technology and human affairs.

A proper discipleship holds science and faith coherently together, giving each its proper place and authority in our growing understanding. We can have great confidence that God's creation and his revelation in scripture are complementary, therefore we should have confidence in exploring both, knowing that they can never contradict one another since they have the same eternal origin. This means pursuing a proper understanding of both science and the Bible, leaving aside the misrepresentations of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins as well as those of Christian fundamentalists who deny the findings of established science because they misread scripture.

The fact that very many of the world's foremost scientists have been Christians makes it clear that an understanding of God's word enhances a scientific approach to understanding his works. Denis Alexander speaks of looking for coherence in the laboratory as in life and even sees science as a spiritual pursuit:

Science for me is a holy enterprise because we have this great privilege of finding out a little bit more of how the created order works.

Having understood that science and faith are not in conflict, we have the opportunity to explore the interface of word and world, and bring a theological perspective to worldly affairs-thinking for instance of the applications of science and technology in medicine and reproductive biology. This involves both hermeneutics (the interpretation of scripture) and epistemology (the study of our ways of knowing) as well as basic science. It also includes ethics in respect to the life sciences and environmental issues. And it includes apologetics as we attempt to relate Biblical truths to the thinking and life experiences of people who question the Christian faith (see section 12.3 below).

The conflict thesis

If Christians suggest that there is a conflict between science and faith then a major stumbling block is put in people's way. This gives a free kick to those detractors of Christianity such as the militant "new atheists".

Truth is necessarily consistent across both creation and scripture so our understanding needs to be coherent in respect to both. If there seems to be an inconsistency, we need to review our interpretation of the evidence or the validity of the evidence. While taking the Bible seriously, we must also take God's creation seriously. If we take creation seriously, we must take science seriously in exploring that creation which God delights in. We must never be drawn into setting up a false conflict, where people feel they need to make a choice between elements of truth made evident through science and the truth of faith (based on God's revelation in history and scripture), or live with unreconciled tension between the two. Regrettably, there are those practitioners both of science (interpreting creation) and of hermeneutics (interpreting the Bible) who try to make each say more than they properly can, and thereby set up a spurious conflict.

In fact the conflict thesis is relatively new. Historically, science grew out of theology but over hundreds of years the connection between science and theology has become obscured. So science has drifted away from its theological context that acknowledges a Creator. It is true that science and theology are distinct disciplines addressing different but complementary questions, but both acknowledge that there is such a thing as truth in and about this world and both work towards revealing that truth. But much academic and cultural discourse today denies this, as we saw above. This relativism about truth makes everything dependent on the observer and in that sense raises difficulties for both science and faith because both the Christian and the scientist claim that their beliefs are founded in reality rather than fantasy.

While Christians reject this sort of postmodernism they need to also be a little wary of modernism, which exalts science. Modernism tends to be overly confident about the human ability to encounter truth, including in the realm where Christians look to revelation. Such a view can shut out non-scientific perspectives on creation and define faith in such a way as to make it merely subjective. What Christians share in common with modernism is the view that truth is knowable and that both our beliefs and our ethics should be constrained by it, despite the limitations on our understanding.71

An implication of perceiving the world as God's creation is that it is good to understand it better and that acquiring such understanding through science may even be an activity of worship. In particular it is very important to understand the epistemological implications of perceiving God as both Creator of the world and the author of Scripture; if he is both then the knowledge of both must be seamless and not disconnected. Augustine's 'two books' model is central - God's book of works (the created world) and God's book of words (the Bible) are complementary, and this view seems to have been the basis of most Christian understanding down the centuries. Only relatively recently have some Christians made the terrible mistake of seeking to drive a wedge between them. Epistemological coherence and unity of truth need to be foundational assumptions otherwise there is no proper Christian basis for even discussing the whole issue.

Science and theology both involve exploring God's creation on the assumption that it is comprehensible, that both are rational processes and that they are complementary. Atheism is an anomaly. There is now wide agreement about the origins of everything that exists in the universe, including time, in an explosion of energy and light - the so-called 'big bang' some 13.8 billion years ago. There is also wide agreement that there must have been a cause for this, but atheist scientists refuse to concede the most plausible cause, nor credibly suggest any other. The biblical account is shown to be congruent if read as it traditionally has been. In recent years science has removed a plank of the traditional atheist platform by better defining this point of beginning. More fundamentally, the rationality of the universe enables science to proceed as rational enquiry, and though the notion predates Christianity, it was reinvigorated by perception of God's logos. 71a

Evolution, design and creationism

The theory of evolution is often seen as a battleground between science and faith. Reference is sometimes made to 'atheistic evolution' as if evolution was intrinsically atheistic and some militant atheists have sought to foster this view among Christians in order to discredit Christianity. But biological evolution is neither theistic nor atheistic. It is no more than a coherent scientific explanation of a massive amount of evidence for a process that Christians believe to have been initiated and sustained by a generous creator. The explanation is overwhelmingly supported by science and provides the basis of medicine and the biological sciences. Christians should resist the temptation to identify it either with a faith position (atheism) or a view about human perfectibility (humanism).

We should always be alert to assertions about purpose and meaning which claim to be based in science; such claims are illegitimate because science cannot comment on purpose or meanings. Christians for their part should avoid pitting biblical imagery against science in explaining how God's creation works or how it arrived at its present form - as distinct from why it works and what God's purposes are for us in it.72 There should be no support for anti-scientific views in the church, but rather a worship of the creator and an eagerness through science to learn how he works in his creation.

Young earth creationism is perhaps the most common and saddest expression of a so-called conflict between science and faith today. It is possible to read scripture with the same kind of literalism as some people apply to Genesis 1, to infer that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. (Thankfully such things are not asserted by any Christian groups that we are aware of.) Using a similar hermeneutic some people assert that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, and that this was only a few thousand years ago. This is known as young earth creationism (YEC), and ignores the literary form of Genesis chapter 1 being very similar to other early Middle Eastern creation narratives (but very different in content!).

YEC is strongly anti-science and is based on a fairly novel reading of a few verses of Genesis (and not on any full reading of scripture). Any student or layman with basic scientific literacy knows that the earth is probably about 4500 million years old and that there is not the slightest scientific dissent from the clear evidence of progressive biological evolution over many millions of years. The evidence for an old earth and a process of biological evolution is incontrovertible - in genes and rocks, genome and geology. We cannot proclaim Jesus as the Way and the Truth on the basis of lies about his creation although some Christian polemic attempts to do so. 71b

Science is unique among 'academic' disciplines in helping us understand God's wonderful creation and it is an appalling witness for Christians to say, in effect, that science is nonsense and that God is deceitful. Those who package particular views of how the world works with faith issues based on God's revelation in Christ have a lot to answer for because they imperil the faith and intellectual integrity of young Christians.

The more recent 'intelligent design' movement is little better than YEC because it implies that God is not able to be sovereign over processes such as biological evolution. Christians can be confident in God's original and continuing sovereignty over all of creation including its biological and geological processes. We need to develop an integrated understanding of God's creation and providence which draws upon both scripture and science and which allows us to enjoy the benefits of his provision through such things as medicine and technology without a schizophrenic denial of their scientific basis. Having said that, theories of the development of life and the cosmos are areas of debate among scientists, and probably always will be, even when the broad patterns are clear and settled. Christians are to be encouraged to engage in this debate, providing there is proper respect for both science and scripture, coupled with humility in articulating our understanding of each.

Bioethics

Bioethics concerns human (and also animal) life and death issues. In relation to the application of medical technology, the central issue is a correct understanding of what constitutes a person made in God's image. Although the Bible offers few direct precedents for contemporary medicine, it says plenty about our place in creation, and what it means to be human, and it is important to draw on this biblical view when deciding how properly to apply technology in relation to health, reproduction, and relationships, and when defining the beginning of human life. 72a

12.2 Discussion questions:
- How do you understand God, his creation and his word? Do you see them as coherent, and tied together?
- How does this affect your approach to understanding both creation and scripture?
- Do you agree that a proper understanding of science and scripture means that they can never contradict one another? Is the idea of God's two books helpful?
- Does studying science encourage or discourage your faith? Does it lead you to a sense of worship?
- Have you encountered people trying to make science the basis of statements about purpose and meaning? How do you respond to them?
- Where do you think the biblical teaching of humans being made in God's image is most applicable today?
- What place is there in your thinking for scepticism? For cynicism?

12.3 Apologetics: The mind in defence of the faith

Apologetics is the defence of the Christian faith in the face of opposing arguments. 1 Peter 3:15 says "Always be prepared to give an answer [apologian] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Traditionally apologetics has dealt with philosophical questions such as proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil or the historicity of the resurrection. But the 21st century context adds further issues that thinking Christians will confront.

The 21st century context for apologetics

Several things have contributed to a more pressing need in the churches today, and especially among its younger members, to engage with a range of issues and not merely know their Bible.

First is fundamentalism in the church and in other religious movements such as Islam. Fundamentalism is the irrational and reactionary grasping for certainty where it is inappropriate, often out of fear or at least insecurity. This is antithetical to the kind of Christian mind outlined in this chapter and it is tragic and wrong in its lack of confidence in God's world, his works and his word. Today, not only are Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms prevalent but atheistic fundamentalism is on the rise, led by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who are vitriolic in their attacks on faith although they have not taken the trouble to understand it.71 These fundamentalisms often impact people's freedom of speech and basic individual liberty which arise from a Christian view of humanity.

Postmodernism is the second more recent context of Christian apologetics. As noted above, a key characteristic of postmodernism is the premise that absolute truth in science or anything else, notably faith, cannot be known. Although its influence is waning, there is still a generation of people affected strongly by this sort of relativistic thinking with detriment to their understanding of both science and revealed truth.

The challenges of both postmodernism and fundamentalism demand of Christians that they understand something of the interface between the Bible and culture so as to be able to talk with those strongly influenced one way or another by these movements. Apologetics - the use of reasoned arguments to promote or defend the faith - needs to feature in preaching and teaching programs, not merely being left to motivated readers to pursue - although that too is a necessary start.

While few Christians will be capable of mastering a wide understanding of apologetic issues, each of us can grapple with those areas in which we are competent by virtue of vocation or because we have a personal interest in issues that we reflect on in our daily lives. One area that is central and that Christians should have a basic grasp of is the nature and limits of science.

Science

An understanding of how science relates to theology is important in order to counter some of the very damaging assaults on both of them from within the church, from academic circles and especially from popular culture (as we have seen above with respect to the New Atheists.) The issues expounded briefly in the previous sections are basic to this enterprise. If major parts of the church become infected with anti-scientific nostrums put forward by fundamentalists as essential to faith, then any scientifically-literate Christian is faced with either renouncing that faith or compromising their integrity by living according to two conflicting frames of reference and avoiding discussion of the contradiction. Centuries ago, Saint Augustine cautioned against this danger in The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books [Scripture], how are they going to believe those books?

Francis Collins, who was head of the Human Genome Project and now of the National Institutes of Health in the USA, has written a gentle science-based apologetic for the Christian faith from his standpoint as one of the world's most eminent scientists.74 In respect to this issue in the US churches he writes:

By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, young earth creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents. ... [And it] does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. ... To adhere to the faith of their childhood, they are required to reject a broad and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing intellectual suicide.

So people turn away from faith with its anti-scientific baggage in order to opt for the truth of science. Collins does not labour the point beyond "A Plea for Reason" lovingly addressed to "the evangelical Christian church", but he supports the view that this will progressively debilitate many of those parts of the US church which are not already spiritually compromised in other ways.

Science and the anthropic principle

In recent decades our scientific knowledge of God's creation has expanded greatly, and for many Christians this has provided an increasingly substantial basis for belief in God. One of the significant areas of recent scientific agreement that concords with Christianity is cosmology. It is now widely agreed that the universe began with what is colloquially called the "big bang" some 13.8 billion years ago. Christians don't have to look far to see an echo of Genesis 1:1-2. Given that the universe had a beginning, one of the questions that arises is how life on Earth occurred and survived. This question is about what is called the anthropic principle or the fine-tuning of this universe. The extraordinary thing about the universe is that it is fine-tuned so that it supports life on Earth. It is worth taking a lengthy excursus and allowing John Polkinghorne to explain.

John Polkinghorne on the fine-tuning of the universe

"Four fundamental forces of nature operate in our universe. Their intrinsic strengths are determined by the values of four corresponding constants of nature. The fine structure constant (alpha) specifies the strength of electromagnetism; Newton's gravitational constant (G) specifies the strength of gravity; and two constants specify the strengths of the nuclear forces, gs for the strong forces that hold nuclei together, and gw for the weak forces that cause some nuclear decays and also control the interactions of neutrinos. The magnitudes of all these constants are tightly constrained if the universe is to be capable of producing life.

"If gw were a little smaller, the early universe would have converted all its hydrogen into helium before it had cooled below the temperature at which cosmic nuclear processes ceased. Not only would this have meant no water, so essential to life, but there would also only have been helium-burning stars, which would not have lived long enough to support the development of life on one of their planets. If gw had been somewhat bigger, supernova explosions would have been inhibited.

"The latter fact would have had serious consequences for the elaborate and delicately balanced processes by which the chemical raw material of life are made. Because the very early universe is simple, it only produces the two simplest elements, hydrogen and helium. They have too boring a chemistry to provide the basis for anything as interesting as life. That requires more than twenty further elements, above all carbon, whose chemical properties enable the formation of the long chain molecules that afford the biochemical basis of life. The only place in the universe where carbon is made is in the interior nuclear furnaces of the stars. All living beings are made of stardust. Untangling the chain of nuclear interactions by which carbon and the heavier elements were made was one of the triumphs of twentieth-century astrophysics. Fred Hoyle, who was a pioneer in this work, saw that stellar carbon production was only possible because there was a resonance (a large enhancement effect) occurring at a particular energy in carbon, and also there was the absence of a similar resonance in oxygen, which prevented the carbon's being lost because it had all got turned into oxygen. These detailed nuclear properties depend upon the value of gs, and if that value had been somewhat different, there could have been no carbon, and thus no carbon-based life. When he realised this, Hoyle, atheist though he was, is reported to have said that the universe was a 'put-up job'. He could not suppose that such significant fine-tuning was merely a happy accident.

"Inside a star it is not possible to produce elements beyond iron, the most stable of the nuclear species. Two problems therefore remain: how to make the heavier elements, some of which are also necessary for life, and how to get the lighter elements out of the star that has made them. A supernova explosion solves both problems since the neutrino interactions that accompany it also make elements heavier than iron, provided that gw takes an appropriate value.

"Stars have a second role to play in enabling life, simply by providing long-term (billions of years) and relatively stable sources of energy to fuel the process. This requires the ratio of electromagnetism to gravity to lie within close limits - otherwise stars would either burn so furiously that they could only live for a few million years, or so feebly that they were not much use anyway.

"Many other anthropic constraints could be mentioned."

"An anthropic universe is a very particular universe indeed. It is also worthy of note that, while multiple conditions constrain the constants of nature, yet there is a set of values consistently satisfying them all, a remarkable fact in itself about the constitution of the world. All scientists agree that the physical fabric of the universe had to take a very particular form if carbon-based life were to be able to evolve within its history. Where disagreements begin is in discussing what might be the significance of this remarkable fact."
John Polkinghorne, The Anthropic Principle and the Science and Religion Debate, Faraday paper # 4.

The creation

In recent years, especially as the question of human-induced climate change has become high-profile, we have become increasingly aware of the need to have a solid Christian understanding of what it means to be responsible stewards of God's creation.74a Ian Barns, for instance, has written of the need to recover "an authentically Biblical creation discourse within the life of Christian communities". While he reiterates some of the points expounded in this chapter, he also makes the valuable point that while we are individually responsible for the state of our own minds, there is a community role in building one another up on a wider front than simply faith and ethics. Despite the efforts of theologians and philosophers, he says,

at the level of most Christian congregations there is a significant gulf between Christian faith and science, particularly with respect to evolutionary biology. This is a great concern, since in the long term an authentic Christian engagement with modernity depends on the capacity of Christian communities to read the Scriptures in a way that engages with, rather than reacts against, developments in science and technology. It is within church communities that ordinary Christians should be able to find guidance for dealing with the metaphysical challenges of modern evolutionary biology. It is from within such communities that young Christians embark on university studies in science-based disciplines and other professions that take for granted a worldview suggested by contemporary science. A lack of a faithful and intelligent creation discourse can make all the difference as to whether the children of the church learn to think Christianly in their secular pursuits, or instead compartmentalise their different worlds, or simply drop out. 75

Aesthetics

One step away from apologetics, and particularly related to the creation, is aesthetics. Being created in God's image means that humans are intrinsically creative, and part of that creativity relates to the arts, beauty and aesthetics. These are possible responses to the wonder of God's creation, considered aesthetically rather than with the utilitarian emphasis of science and technology. Celebrating God's creation and responding to the beauty of God himself has produced wonderful works of art and music, and should continue to do so. That is a very proper outworking of the Christian mind and an endeavour that anticipates the full redemption of creation.

God uses wonder to teach us of himself and encourage us to respect his creation. Wonder is an attribute to encourage; it spurs the mind to enquiry and to dispel ignorance as well as to take pleasure in understanding God's creation. This in turn leads to worship of its creator.

12.3 Discussion questions: - Which areas of apologetics do you find most interesting? - Would you say you are able to counter postmodernism in discussion with peers? - Do you agree with the quoted words of Francis Collins? Or of Ian Barns? Would you say this is a problem in your church or fellowship? If so, how might you counter it? - Where do you most readily see God's beauty expressed in the arts?

12.4 Ethics and culture

The ethics and laws that govern western society owe much of their origins to Christian teaching - to the dignity of the individual, made in the image of God, and the freedom and responsibility that underpins. This fact is decreasingly evident, and those values are under challenge on several fronts. Often self-interest, which has a proper form, is becoming detached from consideration of others and the common good. The 'postmodern' emphasis on the rejection of absolutes and the substitution of an individual's own authority and perspective, if unmodified by any transcendent set of values and meaning, can lead to a na•ve tolerance or a destructive form of self-interest. Individual freedom needs to be exercised within an ethical framework and within some form of mutual responsibility and obligation, not with assertion of rights disconnected from corresponding responsibilities and duties.

So there is a major challenge for Christians to engage this self-centred and subjective set of values and commend an alternative, pointing to a freedom which serves others, or at least fully considers others. Consumerism arising from prosperity with a culture of entitlement and exaggerated individualism are in stark contrast to gospel values, and our lives need to witness to that.

It is becoming increasingly common for people, especially through the use of social media, to stigmatise and condemn certain ideas or viewpoints which they regard as beyond the pale. Some of these are indeed reprehensible, but others are simply expressions of social conservatism, or a right-leaning politics, or a traditional approach to moral issues. Condemning or stigmatising viewpoints in this way, especially where the aim (and sometimes the effect) is to destroy a person's reputation and see him or her removed from post, is contrary to a healthy free speech in a free society and should not be indulged in or encouraged by Christians of whatever political or theological persuasion.

On the other hand, the responsibility which freedom requires to be sustainable and civil is best supported not by laws which penalise aberrant behaviour, but by social pressures to recognise and accept moral responsibilities. A free society which is healthy will have few laws but will maintain decency and point people towards civil and responsible behaviour by the ethically informed interaction of citizens. In this context, some measure of social disapproval and stigma is salutary for discouraging undesirable behaviour, provided it does not leave people unable to function as productive members of society or deprive them of their rights.

Conclusion

This chapter has shown why it is essential for Christians to feed their minds and to be able to engage with important cultural issues from a thoroughly Christian point of view. So there is an important ongoing responsibility for us to feed our minds with wholesome and positive material from reputable Christian teachers and writers. There are many good Christian books suited to any individual (as well as the junk or too-lightweight on one hand, and the too-sophisticated on the other). More resources are available from reputable sources on the internet. A steady diet of these over many years has a great effect.

In relation to knowledge, a sense of humility will help prevent us from asserting more knowledge, understanding and wisdom than is appropriate. And a respect for knowledge and understanding will help us wisely reject shallow dogmatism. Increased understanding of God's creation, especially through science, should lead to worship-and in our experience often does so.

Finally, cynicism is not appropriate as a Christian mindset, and sits uncomfortably with any positive view of God and his world. As a default attitude it questions people's motives and the worthwhileness of much that we are faced with, even life itself. Yet it is unavoidable in some circumstances unless we switch off our critical faculties-who can avoid being cynical about many offers and claims that are made to us? It is hard to remain uninfected with the cynicism which pervades much public and especially political discourse. Of course a healthy skepticism which does not take things at face value and which questions a great deal is vital in life (as well as to science).

We should not be gullible or too-easily convinced. But cynicism, which erodes trust, can readily infect our attitudes rather broadly and become a corrosive and soul-destroying cancer. It can prevent us seeing the positive things God is doing because we look only for the hidden negatives, and our default assumptions are suspicious and negative. A Christian mind needs to counter this and be open to perceiving God's action and purposes in many things, even if we don't understand them or even have some discomfort with them. At the same time we need to be wise, not naive, often skeptical but seldom cynical.

Goto chapter   Previous  a, p, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, a1, a2, a3, a4, a5  Next

71 A very worthwhile book covering not only science but also philosophy and morality in the context of atheist critique is Dinesh D'Souza's What's so Great about Christianity, 2007. A review is appended.

71a Logos is a Greek word used by John in his Gospel and normally translated 'word' ("In the beginning was the word ... and everything was created through him/it ...and the word became flesh.") But the word logos has a broad meaning and usage and can mean 'rationality', 'rational principle' etc.

71bA 2009 IVP book Should Christians Embrace Evolution? is particularly reprehensible in being an ad hominem attack misrepresenting a leading scientist and supporting young-Earth creationism.

72 Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project, writes: "If these claims [of Young Earth Creationism] were actually true, it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology."

72a John Wyatt's book Matters of Life and Death - Human dilemmas in the light of the Christian faith, IVP 2009, is particularly commended

73 Notably divinity of Christ, reality of his resurrection as well as primacy of humankind in nature, possibility of the miraculous, possibility of acquiring truth, uniqueness of truth, corruption of man in himself and not simply as victim of social forces (original sin), personal moral responsibility of the individual and justness of punishment for moral failure, as well as continuing centrality of marriage despite social changes.

74 Collins, Francis S. 2006, The Language of God - a scientist presents evidence for belief, Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York.

74a Christians should never talk about 'the environment', which is an abstraction that tends to carry a lot of baggage inimical to proper stewardship of it. God's creation should never be reduced to that noun in Christian discourse.

75 Ian Barns, 2008, draft paper Constructive border crossings: Towards a more effective response to some issues raised by the Intelligent Design movement.