Winter 2016

How Good Science Makes Us Better Christians

Say the words “science and faith,” and people’s minds tend to go straight to the supposed standoff between Genesis, geology and genomes. But there’s so much more to the conversation than debates over creationism. Science needs Christians to be active voices in questions of ethics, medicine, ecology and more. And Christians need science to give us a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s world — and our role as stewards over it.

Biola Magazine recently gathered five faculty members in the sciences at Biola to discuss these dynamics and related questions about science and Christian faith. The filmed discussion was moderated by biological sciences professor Jason Tresser, and included physics professor John Bloom, nursing professor Donell Campbell, biological sciences professor Hyuna Lee and chemistry professor Jonah Chang. What follows is a transcript of their discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Jason Tresser: There are a lot of people today who have an understanding that there’s a conflict between science and Christianity. John Bloom has recently written a book called The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, and John, I wonder if you could start out our conversation by commenting on how as Christians we resolve this perceived conflict between science and faith.

John Bloom: Well the conflict is a bit of a myth. ... If you look historically at Christianity and science, it’s been more of a partnership. As Christians, we’re seeking truth, and in science you’re seeking truth in the physical world, so the two really work well together as a partnership. I think that’s how we all approach it here at Biola.

Tresser: I feel like the definition of science has gotten too narrow, that “science” now means you have to do science with a certain worldview. ... As Christians, that’s what we have a conflict with — that we have to look at science just through a naturalistic lens, and not give any room for explanation beyond that.

Bloom: In the history of the relationship between Christianity and science, Christianity actually gave the right lens or right world-view for that perspective. It was kind of stolen by the naturalists later, saying you have to look at it only naturalistically. But why should we expect the physical world to be constant and fixed? Because it was created by a God who set it up that way. Science uses a lot of Christian principles that affect how we view the world. That’s why partnership is a good way to see it.

Tresser: We can expect the natural world to be rational and repeatable because God is rational and created a repeatable world. Anybody else have comments resolving science and faith?

Donell Campbell: Well for me, I grew up thinking science was interesting, awe-inspiring and incredibly useful. So the challenge as I got older and went further in school was how to marry the science with some sort of practical application that I could make meaningful not only in my career but also in caring for people. I think that’s where Christianity served as a wonderful bridge, because it really lent itself to answering some of the questions that science didn’t completely answer.

Bloom: And what do you do with what you know? You apply it to help others.

Tresser: I’m wondering if we can comment on how each of us has found that our background and training in science has helped us to think about how to serve God or to walk out the Christian faith?

Jonah Chang: I think because I studied chemistry in graduate school, I gained an appreciation for how difficult chemistry is. It took me five or six years to try to replicate what a natural organism does in a couple hours in water as a solvent. There were some really incredibly difficult things that I couldn’t do. So it really gives me this sense of awe and it produces within me a sense of humility when I see that even the best technologies that we have in chemistry today don’t even come close to what a natural organism can do.

Tresser: Two words that I wrote down in preparing for this are awe and humility. Just to see the amazing, intricate design that God has put in the genetic code of every organism. ... It’s awe-inspiring and for me it follows with a humility of just like, “I only have a scratching knowledge of the surface of what genetic complexity is.” It leads me to appreciate how much care and design and thoughtfulness God has put into his creation. It’s just very humbling.

Bloom: You guys are looking under the microscope on the biology side, and I step back to astronomy, which is one of my favorite areas in physics. The Hubble Deep Field photos give us scale looking the other direction — the microscope and the telescope — at what God has made. At that scale you see the same balance and tuning and precision and design. It’s on a scale that’s really mind-boggling because it’s bigger than me, way bigger than me. What that returns me to is our definition of God: the Creator of heaven and earth. We’re just seeing all the things that God has made ... worshiping the God who did this.

Tresser: What’s something that you wish that other Christians knew about your discipline that would help them and encourage them in their walk and in their faith in Christ?

Bloom: I think it’s the sense that God is the Creator. ... For me, studying science is to get a better appreciation of God. That’s what I’d like students and just Christians in general to have: a better sense of, “What is God?” Well, look at his handiwork.

Hyuna Lee: And we see the Lord’s handiwork in everything that we do. Even just us as organisms, as human beings, made out of genome — which is composed of four bases, just four letters, three billion of which make us each so unique. As Psalm 139 says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Tresser: When my students come in during their first year of general biology they all want to be medical missionaries, which is wonderful because they want to share the gospel and they want to care for the sick. But what I always want to try to convince them of is that there are so many other ways that you can serve God in studying his creation and studying science. ... If that’s environmental science, environmental chemistry, organic chemistry, cell biology, there’s more to the sciences than just being a doctor.

Campbell: That’s really true, there’s a lot of ways to make a difference.

Tresser: Being a doctor and being in health care is wonderful; that’s why we’re talking to a nurse!

Campbell: Well, and sometimes, my challenge as a nurse is to take the highly technical, the very complex and to try to synthesize and simplify it, to put it into words that can be communicated at the bedside or with family members who are grieving or hurting or trying to make sense of whatever is going on within their own bodies or the bodies of their loved ones. If we stay in the strongly scientific and the molecular and the cellular discussion, we’ve lost them. So we need to do both. We need to understand it from varying aspects.

Tresser: As professors, each of you is deeply committed to preparing students to go into careers and graduate programs in sciences and health. Why do you believe it is so vital for Christians to go into these fields?

Chang: As chemists we are trained to eventually go into two major areas: academics or pharmaceuticals. And so we really want [chemists] to have strong moral fiber to, for example, report correct data on the efficacy of a drug or to actually carry out the research for which we asked for federal grant money. We need this type of honesty and integrity in science today. ... We need people who will report the correct data even if they end up with a result that is not favorable or with a project that is not a success.

Tresser: We have to make sure our students know that glorifying God, not getting another grant, is the end result of their research. Giving false data is not glorifying to God. I think we can provide unique leadership there.

Bloom: There’s also an ethical component in the sciences where people say, “Well, if we can do it, then we should.” ... We should be cautious of this kind of thinking and that’s something the Christian perspective can offer.

Campbell: I would love to see believers in positions of influence all throughout science, health and technology. ... As you mentioned, it is helpful to have a counterbalance or someone who at least is going to ask a question from a different perspective.

Tresser: I think one unique thing Christians bring as well is that if we really believe that God’s creation is worthy of studying for its own sake, we have the chance to enter areas that are kind of neglected by the scientific community. Because if it’s not immediately profitable or does not have an immediate end in mind, then a lot of things aren’t going to get funded and they’re not going to be pursued. But if we are just pursuing God’s creation to show his glory, then we can go explore those things that are being overlooked and we might actually bring wonderful profit to health care and to the pursuit of knowledge.

Lee: We see a lot of Christians going on to mission fields, helping out the poor, and then we see this small crowd of intellectuals all around the world who have such influence. I think to be able to reach this crowd of people, we ourselves have to be equipped intellectually as well to be able to converse with them; to be able to rationally explain to them and really share the gospel. I think that’s our calling.

Bloom: I sometimes think of the scientific community as an unreached people group. It takes a certain language, a certain set of skills, a certain reputation, to gain a voice for Christ in this discipline. We need more Christians doing that.

Tresser: We come from a diverse educational background, with degrees from major public and private research universities. But only a few of us have been students at a Christian university. So what do we hope students gain from our classroom in a Christian university that we didn’t encounter in our secular universities? Why might a science student want to choose Biola as opposed to a larger state university?

Bloom: One reason is that at Biola, a science student is not forced to look at the world through the naturalistic blinder, but to see the world, like we were saying earlier, through the eyes of God as the Creator. We are studying his handiwork. This doesn’t explicitly show up in a homework assignment all that often, but it’s more that it percolates through how you approach these things. That makes the Biola experience eye-opening, rather than “put on your naturalistic blinders.”

Tresser: What I love about being at Biola is that I think that when students come, they not only come to a science department, but they enter into a community where people are all hopefully, by and large, on the same page. And what we’re doing is we’re trying to serve the Lord and glorify him. I think at a secular university, if it’s a big university you’re probably not going to find much community that’s built around that.

Campbell: I remember in my [employment] interview with President Corey, he asked me, “How will the students know if you love them?” It was a question I must admit I had never been asked. ... The freedom and the encouragement I have at Biola to integrate my theology and my beliefs and to truly love my students is indeed a privilege.

Chang: My answer to that question was that I would give the students the grade that they deserve. Not that that doesn’t happen at other universities, but just like the students at Biola are trying to be faithful to their call as a student, all of us here have a desire to be faithful to God’s call for us to be teachers. One way that I try to be faithful is I evaluate students in a fair and honest way. So if they do poorly in chemistry, they know that it was a legitimate poor performance, but if they do well, that is a potential career path for them. I want them to have a realistic look at what their career path can be once they go through my class.

Tresser: That is a central part of discipleship, too, just being honest with the person that you’re walking through life with; saying, “This honestly is not where you’re supposed to be. Let’s hope you can find what God really wants to do with you.”

Bloom: It’s that kind of care that would stand out to me at Biola. I have students who transfer to other schools as part of the three-two program in engineering and the common thing I hear from them is, “Nobody cares about me here. I’m just a number. I’m here and my tuition pays their salary and they could care less. But you cared.” So I think that’s a huge part of the atmosphere in the Biola community.

Tresser: Biola University is in the midst of its biggest campaign ever, raising $180 million dollars. The capstone of this campaign is the new Center for Science, Technology and Health. I’d like to talk about what we are so excited about and what opportunities are going to open up for us as we get a new building.

Chang: I am so excited for the undergraduate students that now will have instrumentation and lab space so that they can do undergraduate research. I was not a very good student in undergrad, but I had an undergraduate research opportunity and I was able to get a publication out of it and it covered a multitude of C’s when I applied to graduate school. The building will allow us to level the playing field for our students, to have them say that they did real research and went through the scientific method, as opposed to the traditional textbook question with the answer in the back of the book. We can really turn them into scientists in their senior years and I’m so excited for the students to have that opportunity.

Campbell: I think it’s pretty cool to see the linkage of science, technology and health. Even though they are very diverse, very distinct pathways, they are forever linked. I think in our world it’s easy to be siloed in a building on this side of the campus and a building on that side of the campus and we intersect when we need to and have to. But we will actually be working side by side and have the ability to create programs and be purposeful and intentional in the intersection of the prerequisites that they are taking in science that are part of nursing, and to be able to be partners. I think this is very exciting.

Bloom: I echo what Jonah has said in that science is not just textbook stuff. There is a hands-on apprenticeship [aspect] to training in the sciences and we just don’t have the space to do well with our current facilities. The new space will open that up.

Lee: I think that us faculty are also excited about gaining more lab space and to really share that passion with our students.

Tresser: The research I’m doing now is really restrictive because I’m sharing my research space with laboratory classroom space. If you’re studying living organisms, they do not cooperate with you from 1 to 4 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Living things are responding and doing things, and once you start an experiment, you have to have full access to that. So one of the things I’m really looking forward to is having dedicated research space that doesn’t have to be shared with a classroom. It can allow the research and investigation to go at whatever timing it needs to go to. It allows students to ask those more interesting questions that can’t be answered in a short, restricted time period.

Campbell: We do the same thing in our nursing simulation lab. To be able to have a dedicated space set up so we can simulate hospital rooms and have actual practice labs for the students will be very exciting.

Chang: There has to be a payoff. When I go hiking — the rare times that I do — there has to be a view at the end or it’s just not worth it. So for all of those semesters of chemistry and physics and pushing electron arrows and teaching students the fundamentals, they have to be able to see that everything we’re teaching them wasn’t a lie.

Tresser: It’s going to be fun, too, to have that interaction of other disciplines, to be just right down the hall from somebody who’s crunching numbers in statistics and biology stats. I think this will fertilize ideas in us that we wouldn’t have had. You can plan for collaboration, and you can plan a meeting, but you can’t plan to bump into the statistics professor in the hallway and get an interesting idea from that conversation.

Campbell: What kind of research can we come up with if we were rubbing shoulders?

Tresser: Running into you and saying, “This would be really helpful to add to microbiology, because this is what our students are facing this week in the hospital.” That kind of spontaneous collaboration is something that I’m really looking forward to.


About the Experts

JASON TRESSER
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences
Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara
M.A., Biola University B.S., University of California, San Diego

JOHN BLOOM
Professor of Physics
Chair, Chemistry, Physics & Engineering Department

Ph.D., Annenberg Research Institute
Ph.D., Cornell University
M.Div., Biblical Theological Seminary
B.A., Grinnell College

DONELL CAMPBELL
Associate Professor of Nursing
M.S., Warner Pacific University
B.A., George Fox University

HYUNA LEE
Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences
Ph.D., University of California, Irvine
B.S., University of California, Irvine

JONAH CHANG
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
B.S., The University of British Columbia

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