CHRISTIAN MISSION AND SCIENCE

By Sean O'Leary

The third conference in the series on 'EVANGELISING IRISH CULTURE TODAY' was led by Dr Sean O' Leary - a Wexford based scientist and educationalist who gave us a wonderful reflection on 'MISSION AND SCIENCE'. Below is the text of his presentation.



In today’s world, the challenge of believing in God might possibly result from a certain cognitive disconnect: the origins of humanity and the universe itself that religion talks most about ‘appears’ to conflict with the modern sense of how the world operates, as proposed by those who only value scientific discovery.

Once we realise that a harmonious narrative of ‘science & faith’ can be challenging for people, then we have to work hard to re-present the faith in a way that makes integrated sense to the contemporary scientific mind as well as re-present science in a way that makes integrated sense to a traditionally religious mind.

One area of concern is the oft-cited ‘God Delusion’ phenomenon. Backed up by public engagements and mainstream media with a poor tolerance for religious complexity or even by religious media with a poor tolerance for scientific complexity, evangelical atheism strives hard to give the impression that the Christian intellectual life dwells in the ignorant corners of the Dark Ages.

This shallow and dehumanising ideology is a product of scientism and claims to be able to explain all that was, is and will ever be. Even though this belief is highly speculative at best and is not based on a reliable nor broad view of evidence, it is important to remember that science itself does not make this claim.

Sometimes, people ask about ‘the problem’ of Adam & Eve or the incoherence of Genesis when compared to either evolution or cosmology in modern science. The real problem here is that some people insist on treating the Bible as a scientific textbook. But, it is not a scientific account!

Both the scientific accounts of origins as well as the Biblical accounts of origins enrich our overall view of reality. We cannot know reality by simply looking outward all of the time with something like a wonderful telescope or even by looking at the building blocks of matter in superb detail with highly specialised instruments.

We cannot connect all the pieces of reality by simply immersing ourselves in material concerns without reference to our immaterial concerns. Reality is a mysterious blend of the visible and invisible.

The Christian view of reality asks us to look inside ourselves at our lived experience whilst also looking at the world around us with a crystal-clear vision. An insightful quote from Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s Call to Fraternity, which was published on Sunday 4th Oct 2020 on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, is:

‘There is a growing conviction that, together with specialized scientific advances, we are in need of greater interdisciplinary communication. Although reality is one, it can be approached from various angles and with different methodologies. There is a risk that a single scientific advance will be seen as the only possible lens for viewing a particular aspect of life, society and the world. Researchers who are expert in their own field, yet also familiar with the findings of other sciences and disciplines, are in a position to discern other aspects of the object of their study and thus to become open to a more comprehensive and integral knowledge of reality.’ (Fratelli Tutti, 240).


In other words, scientific investigation and mainstream Christianity are not at odds with each other and are best described as allies. This is certainly the case when it comes to relativism, which declares through philosophical acrobatics that there is no such thing as truth. Indeed, science often supports the credibility of Christianity and the Church has long viewed science as an important gateway to knowledge.

The article, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God,” was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2014. Since then, the article has been shared over half a million times on Facebook and generated about 10,000 comments. The extraordinary level of interest in this Wall Street Journal article as well as current research on young people’s experience of either religious or scientific instruction tells us that there is a pressing need to help people to become more aware of the harmony of science and faith.

To quote John Paul II, ‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.’ (1988, Papal Addresses, p. 300).

At its best, science helps humankind to reconcile with nature; it helps us to conquer our fear of unknown forces; it helps us to understand the wounds that we inflict on the planet and it helps us to understand the damage or illnesses that we receive from the natural world.

Science is a questioning discipline that has its roots in a much more ancient range of questions about the world. In our Judeo-Christian heritage, the scientific worldview grew from our search for wisdom through exploring Creation in the books of Genesis, Proverbs, in the letters of St Paul and the Book of Job, amongst others.

The Bible reveals that God does not just do miracles but is always intervening supernaturally in human affairs and in creation. This is known as providence, which emphasises the regular behaviour of natural phenomena and God’s providential sustenance.

Science affirms God’s working through regular patterns to sustain his Creation. Miracles testify to God’s character and Kingdom. Science concerns itself with the natural world but does not comfortably deal with ‘Why’ questions.

In all cases, science assumes natural causes but the scientific method cannot, of itself, distinguish the natural from the supernatural. For people of faith, the supernatural is an intrinsic part of the natural. They are inseparable. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

When viewing any online debates, we should be wary of those who use isolated quotes from the Bible to prove a near-sighted view of Creation, whether they be atheists or Christians. In reality, there are more than twenty Creation accounts in the Bible, all using different metaphors, images and language.


Some themes relevant to science include the:

1. foundations of the earth & heavens;

2. nature of Creation as God’s dominion;

3. cosmos as God’s temple;

4. forming and ordering of Creation;

5. human stewardship of the earth;

6. numbering the structures of the cosmos;

7. story of Creation as the background for history;

8. strange mix of both the wonder and suffering of Creation as a guide for trusting in God’s incredible love and power;

9. role of Wisdom;

10. divine Logos as the rational form of Creation;

11. journey of Creation; and

12. redemptive road towards a New Creation.

We participate in God’s work of Creation by striving to perfect Creation through our lives whatever avenue this might lead to, whether it be caring for the sick, exploring the complexity of the natural world or sharing the Good News of the Gospels.

Through the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, we glimpse the reality of our Creator. The Incarnation and Gospel accounts of the Son of God shows us the way. In every circumstance, be it joyous or challenging, we are each prompted to ask ourselves the question: Am I bringing goodness into the world?

All our knowledge including science, the arts, personal experience, Sacred Scripture and Church teaching can be rationally assembled to form a coherent, consistent and truthful view of reality that not only protects humanity from itself but supports humanity to truly flourish with the help of God.

In a homily in the Pro-Cathedral on the 9th August 2020, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin stated: ‘Faith must be adult faith. Faith must enrich the search for our future by a view of a God who cares and who inspires us to use our earthly talents to ponder the deeper questions and witness by the way we live to the care of God. Faith and science and human progress belong together.’

For those open to exploring science and Catholicism, our faith tells us that we bear ancestral links to all known life forms that have evolved from the Tree of Life and that this history forms a meaningful part of the story of the cosmos. Recognising our origin from the ‘dust’ of the universe and our kinship to all life on earth is a profound spiritual experience made possible by God.

In recent years, though this has not always been the case, science broadly affirms the Christian view that we are one human family living worldwide and both science and the Christian faith agree that our history is one of conflict, co-operation and progress. It can be declared with a real and deep conviction that the light of God’s truth draws us forward through time towards deeper levels of compassion and love. For Christians, it is entirely clear that this love reaches its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, which we glean from the historical accounts of his birth, death and resurrection.

The divine love and universal communion at the heart of Catholic teaching makes perfect sense as it has unfolded through millennia of tradition and centuries of scientific discovery. It could not be otherwise when we are connected to each other, to all of Creation and to God in a deep mystery that is wonderfully explored by both science and faith.

When something is closely connected to the reality of God, we call it a mystery because it transcends our grasp. Made in the image of God, we reach beyond the horizon towards an infinite depth. It is a strange but beautiful truth that mysteries expand our use of reason to the beauty, truth and goodness of God in a way that also encourages us to wonder at the cosmos, appreciate the biodiversity on earth, peer into the very heart of humanity and explore the depths of the human soul.

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