Faith & the scientific senses: Purpose

November 29th, 2022

This article is the second in a series of resources that seek to bring new angles on faith and science. While such conversations have often focused on trying to bridge the space between faith and the ‘hard sciences,’ these resources are aimed at another purpose.

This series offers an experience for how scientific method and practice can become a renewing agent for our life together in Christ. In deploying the virtues of key scientific “senses,” we can discover a fresh resource for discipleship.                              

Here’s how to use these tools with an Action—Reflection—Action model:

First, Action: read through this article, together or ahead of time as a group. 
Second, Reflect: reflect as a group on how this particular “sense” is revealed here, and how you can collectively engage that “sense” in the week ahead.
Third, Reaction: more on this step at the end of this piece.

In an earlier article, we considered how the Christian faith supported the development of modern science by promoting a view of the universe as God’s good, orderly creation.  This encouraged scientific exploration as a way of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” The goal of this series is to consider how the scientific method can be a refreshing resource for our life together as Christians.  That earlier article invited us to consider the first element in the scientific method: Observation.  Science begins with paying attention. And yet, paying attention is also one of the keys to life in Christ.  Jesus taught his earliest followers to pay attention as he challenged them to listen, look, and reflect on what was happening around them, on the natural order, and especially on those who tend to be overlooked or “unseen” by society. Developing the scientific sense of observation can lead us to discoveries that propel us forward in Christian discipleship.

Such discoveries can be life-changing. Anthony Newton Flew is an example of disciplined observation leading to a sense of purpose not previously experienced. On December 9, 2004, an Associated Press headline read, Famous atheist now believes in God. The news story was about the British philosophy professor, Anthony Newton Flew, who was regarded as the leading intellectual proponent of atheism during the past fifty years. The article startled me because I recognized the name from my seminary days. He was raised in a Christian home and attended a private Christian school. He father was a minister in The Methodist Church of England. As a young man he rejected the Christian faith because of his doubts about the existence of God.

Then in 2004 Anthony Newton Flew announced that he was no longer able to justify his atheism intellectually. He reached a turning point in which the very intellectual integrity that made him an atheist  now led him to identify himself a believer. In his book, There IS a God, Flew ways, “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite intelligence. I believe this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine source.” (Flew, Anthony Newton; There IS a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: Harper One, 2007; page 88.). The final chapter in the book is a dialogue between Flew and the Christian theologian, N.T. Wright. In their conversation, Flew shares how his newfound belief in God makes him want to explore the Christian faith.

How did pursuing his interest in science result in his finding faith in a purposeful creation?

Flew points to DNA research as an important factor in his change of mind. Specifically, increasing knowledge about the DNA molecule made possible through modern science led him to question how such incredibly complex life could come about without a superior intelligence directing the process.  

Another influence is the understanding of the origin of the universe known as the Big Bang Theory.  Prior to the emergence of this cosmological theory Flew was secure in thinking that since the universe had no beginning but had always existed, no thought needed to be given to a divine creator. The universe wasn’t created; it simply always existed. But then came the Big Bang Theory with its assertion that the universe began with a specific event. Flew says, When I first met the Big Bang Theory as an atheist, it seemed to me the theory made a big difference because it suggested the universe had a beginning and the first sentence of Genesis was related to an event in the universe.  If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning (Flew, 136). 

We might say that science had an evangelistic effect on this leading proponent of atheism. The observations of science enabled him to discover for himself a sense of purpose in the universe. Flew appreciates the scientific method: asking questions, developing hypotheses, collecting and interpreting data. And when that scientific method led cosmologists to embrace the Big Bang Theory, Professor Flew demonstrated intellectual integrity in his willingness to apply the scientific method to his own atheism. Through observation and questioning he compared and contrasted both atheism and theism in terms of their resonance with the Big Bang and he arrived at his own conclusion: there is a God. In doing so, he was willing to question his fifty-year commitment to atheism. This is what I mean when I say that faith and science are not only complementary, but science can actually be a resource in  our own faith development. In Anthony Newton Flew’s experience we have an example of  science leading to a fresh apprehension of  the purposefulness of the created order.  

There is actually a name for the way scientific method and practice led Anthony Newton Flew to move from atheism to theism: natural revelation. This refers to knowledge of the existence of  God that can be derived by human reason while reflecting on the created order. Creation points to a Creator.  And since human beings are created in the image of God, they have the capacity to surmise the presence of the Creator by paying attention to the natural world. We see this in operation when the study of nature leads us to affirm that there is both a complexity and an order in the universe. Hundreds of years ago, the early church fathers and mothers understood this and referred to “reading the Book of Nature” and being outdoors in “the Cathedral of Nature.”  

Anthony Newton Flew moved from Observation to a sense of Purpose after discovering natural revelation through the scientific method. Many have made that journey over the years. One of those is Dr. Francis Collins who headed the Human Genome Project and recently retired as director of the National Institutes of Health.  In his book, The Language of God, Collins speaks of discovering a sense of purpose to the universe’s operations through others’ research and our ongoing scientific discoveries: 

There are fifteen physical constants…including the speed of light, the force of gravity, and so on….  The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to resulting in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet, those are exactly the parameters that we observe  (Collins, 75).

The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the big bang is enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.  (Collins, 75).

The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming. The anthropic principle:  …our universe is uniquely tuned to give rise to humans (Collins, 75).

Dr. Timothy Johnson, author of Finding God in the Questions, adds this insight to the discussion of the purposefulness that seems to be present in our finely tuned universe:

The initial explosive force was just right to result in a universe like ours. But a slight shift in magnitude of that force one way or the other—1/10 to the 59th power, that is a “1” followed by 59 zeros—and the universe would either have collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. One researcher says that this kind of accuracy is like firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, 20 billion light years away, and hitting the target! (44)

By demonstrating how Observation can lead to a sense of Purpose, these scientists are reminding us of a biblical truth that is easily overlooked in our day: nature is a theater for God’s self-revelation.  St. Paul is speaking of this when he writes, “This is because what is known about God should be plain to them because God made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made. So humans are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20).  We see this also in Psalm 8 and in the many other psalms that refer to nature as revelatory of God’s presence (for example: Psalm 29, 65, 104, 136).

But if nature can be a source of revelation, we might ask, so what? To discern the presence of a Creator is one thing but then the question arises: What else might be known about the Creator?  How does the perception of a purposeful creation inform and influence our own lives?

Psalm 19 is significant for the way in which it affirms that God’s purposeful presence can be discerned not only in creation but also in the holy scriptures.  The first six verses point to natural revelation:  The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Then, starting with verse 7, the psalm focuses on special revelation:  God’s purposeful presence disclosed in the scriptures (the law of the Lord):  …reviving the soul…making wise the simple…rejoicing the heart…enlightening the eyes.  Nature and scripture are complementary. The sense of purpose that is revealed in nature is affirmed and expanded in the scriptures. The same God is behind both nature and scripture.  

In the New Testament, both natural revelation and special revelation are present in the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2:1-12. Their journey came about because of their own empirical observation, “...we observed his star at its rising....” They were paying attention to the world around them and were willing to travel to gather the data they needed to arrive at a conclusion.  These wise men are good scientists. They know the stories of bright stars appearing to announce the birth of great rulers. They are willing to follow the light wherever it leads them, even to the point of entering unfamiliar territory and a culture that is not their own.  Their persistence in pursuing empirical research related to the star makes them good role models for all who would be honest seekers after the truth. 

But let us note that there came a time when the light they were following had carried them as far as it could—to Jerusalem. Then, like good scientists, they started asking questions.

Where is he that is born the king of the Jews….?

To which Herod responds by calling the religious leaders and scholars and asking them where the Messiah was to be born. They tell him: “In Bethlehem…” quoting the prophet Micah.

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2).

Acting on this information, the wise men went to Bethlehem, where they found Jesus. Here we have an example of the complementary role faith and science can play for each other. Their faith kept them open to a universe in which the sacred is revealed in many ways, including celestial phenomena.  Like scientists, they investigated what they observed until they had enough evidence to draw a conclusion. It can be said of the wise men that they “...represent pagans who though they do not have the special revelation of the Torah, travel to Jerusalem following the light they do have” ( New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8: p. 144).  This familiar Gospel story challenges Christians not to put limits on the ways in which God’s presence is revealed in the world, including the observations and inquiries of the scientific method. But it also challenges non-Christians and those of no religion to remain truly open to the spiritual dimensions of the scientific method: follow the light you do have, wherever it leads you; acknowledge the truth in whatever form it presents itself;  and, be willing to receive additional light when it arises.

The wise men are a great help to us because they lived at a time when there was no sharp distinction between faith and science. This allowed them to draw on the resources offered by both faith and science. Eugene Boring summarizes this when he says that the Magi “expressed their hopes for the meaning of things in quite unbiblical and anti-biblical ways (astrology!),” yet, “their search led to the God of the Bible, whose definitive revelation is found not in the stars, but in the story that goes from Abraham to King David to the coming of Jesus” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 8: p. 144).   

This well-known story of the wise men becomes fresh for us as it challenges our tendency to think of faith and science as separate and distinct ways of viewing life. In the example of the wise men God gives us a glimpse of the complementary relationship between faith and science. Without being part of the tradition that produced Jesus, they nevertheless came to him through their empirical observations and their radical willingness to follow the light wherever it led.

The scientific method can be a fresh resource for Christian disciples as it calls us to reflect on our own encounters with natural revelation and the sense of purpose that arises from those reflections. Consider these questions as you reflect on discovering a sense of purpose through the natural world:   

  1. What have been your own experiences of nature?  
  2. Have you read “the Book of Nature” and, if so, what have we learned from it? 
  3. Do you have any memories of time spent in “the Cathedral of Nature”? 
  4. How have you pondered the sense of purposefulness revealed in the orderliness of our complex universe?
  5. How have you been amazed over the mystery of what goes on inside a single cell in our bodies?  
  6. What aspects of creation point to the Creator?
  7. What are the particular experiences that led you to sense orderliness in creation?
  8. When and where have you experienced a sense of purpose in life?

These questions are opportunities to be more consciously aware of natural revelation in our own experience. Conversely, reflecting on these questions may lead us to conclude that we have separated ourselves from nature so effectively that our ability to receive natural revelation is severely limited.  Additionally, these considerations remind us that we, too, are part of the created order. In reflecting on own humanity, body and spirit, as a source of natural revelation we may come to say with the Psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  

The result is expressed in this statement from The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church, We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and Word are enhanced (160.F). Just as creation points to the Creator, natural revelation can increase our appetite for the special revelation found in the written Word and in the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.


And now, the third step, Reaction: 
In this step, we will put this “sense” into action, putting our observation skills to work in our community for the sake of discovering a sense of purpose.

If you have the time/capacity as a group, take a community walk together out into the natural spaces around your church or in your nearby community.  

As you reflect together, end by asking: 

  • How have we experienced our souls being revived by the beauty of nature? Where are the places of rest and renewal in our lives, and are they connected to natural spaces and experiences in nature?
  • What are we doing as a community of faith to care for the natural world, remembering that it bears witness to the glory of God?
  • Where are we “sensing” our purpose in and through participating in creation?
  • How can we help others “sense” a purpose to creation, and their purpose in it, in one small way this week? 
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