Why I am a Christian

Chris Wittwer, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Chris Wittwer, http://www.sxc.hu/

When describing her own Christian faith, Rosalind Picard, a Professor at the MIT Media Lab, said that ‘I know some people will assume I have lost my marbles…I also know that if they move beyond such superficial characterisations and ask hard questions, the ones about real meaning and purpose, that they will see more of what I see.’ That is how I feel in trying to describe my own faith. I’ve already given some hints about what I believe in previous blogs[1], but I thought it would be good to spell it out a bit more.

How can a scientist be a Christian? W.K. Clifford, a mathematician and philosopher at University College London in the nineteenth century, said that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence’. I agree with Clifford, although our definitions of evidence will no doubt vary a bit.

Some people want scientific evidence for everything, but there are some questions that lie outside the scope of science. For example, mathematics, logic and philosophy are all very important disciplines that have contributed to the assumptions and practice of science, but they don’t come from science.

Science also assumes that we are rational, that experiments are repeatable, and that we can find law-like behaviour in the world. All of these assumptions come from outside of science. Finally, science can tell us with great accuracy how the material world works, but it cannot answer questions about ultimate truth or meaning. So I will use a few arguments both from within and outside of science to make my (very short) case for faith.

The best analogy for an examination of Christianity is a legal trial, rather than a scientific experiment. You need to weigh all the evidence and make a judgment. You have to take some risks in order to answer an important question about the way things are. That’s when I find it helpful to use the analogy of a relationship. If you enter any relationship with a person science isn’t the first thing on your mind: there are more important ways of knowing someone. Christianity is about a personal God, so the same principle applies. There are other ways of knowing in life: philosophy, history, logic, eyewitness stories, personal experience, and so on. To investigate God you have to look at all of these and more. Here are three that have been particularly important to me.

First, there is both great beauty and a fantastic level of order in the universe. To me, these are hints that suggest an organising mind or being was involved in its origins. The fact that we can make sense of the world using mathematics is astounding – could a chaotic uncontrolled process have produced that? It also looks as it the universe was set up so that life could evolve, and people call this fine-tuning or the anthropic principle.

Second, I was drawn to a God who revealed himself in history, and in person. If you stop at fine-tuning, you will have the religion of Einstein: a being is or was there but we have no interaction with him, her or it. To find out any more about God you have to look at the person of Jesus, and there are quite a few things about him that we have good evidence for. Jesus of Nazareth existed, he taught as an itinerant Rabbi, developed a large following, and was crucified. His followers claimed to have seen him alive again, no one ever found his body, and his following increased. The Christian church became famous for being a positive force in society, and has never stopped growing since.

Third, the evidence of answered prayers and changed lives is also important, and to me this one speaks the most loudly (though without point 2, this one wouldn’t be worth bothering about). Christians are followers of Jesus, and we believe that Jesus was God. God created the world, communicated with the people he made, developed a relationship with them over several millennia, and finally came to show himself to us. Jesus was born into a poor family, and remained poor throughout his life. He showed that God is wise, loving and forgiving, respects people regardless of their gender, age, race or position in society, and hates injustice and religious hypocrisy. He taught by asking questions and telling challenging stories. In other words, he was more concerned that people follow in his footsteps, thinking maturely about their decisions, than live by rules.

The Christian way of living is a challenge, and involves a level of generosity and love that is difficult to sustain. God knew we could never be perfect, so he didn’t just leave us to our own devices. Instead of leaving us to die, which was the natural consequence of our wrongdoings, Jesus died to give us freedom and a way of being with God forever. After Jesus came back to life (there was no way God was going to stay dead) and returned to his Father, God sent the Holy Spirit who is a source of wisdom and power for his people. We can also pray, coming into God’s presence to ask for change in the world and to be changed ourselves. Another resource is the Church: a group of people who worship God and try to follow Jesus’ teaching, supporting each other and reaching out to the community around them. Of course people are not perfect, and Christians are not God’s puppets, so we mess things up. Despite our limitations as human beings, the Church remains God’s way of working in the world – we can’t function well alone.

Faith in a person or in God is not irrational; it simply goes beyond the limits of pure reason.[2] As the French mathematician Blaise Pascal said, ‘Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.’[3] This was also the approach of C.S. Lewis, who is often quoted by the theologian Alister McGrath as saying, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’ If faith is in something real, then even if that reality includes something beyond what we can detect with our senses, it should help us to make more sense of the world than we could otherwise.

I’m a bit biased, but I think scientists are often more open to these things, and it’s to do with their idea of truth. The Test of Faith book tells how some scientists found faith through a full exploration of Christianity. They were courageous enough to realise that they needed to investigate it with an open mind. I think that’s one of the marks of excellence in science: to be aware that you might have been wrong; to disprove your own theories, and be prepared to change your mind, even if it means changing the whole direction of your future research.

There was a commonality between the different scientists I interviewed for the Test of Faith book. The ones who became Christians as adults were all challenged to look at it by a friend, they realised they had not considered it properly before, and wanted to find out the truth. For a scientist the truth is something real and solid, it’s a brute fact and you can’t deny it. But if you discover the truth that’s a good thing – that’s the whole point of life, even if the consequences are a bit uncomfortable to begin with and others might think you’re crazy. If your data and your interpretation of it were good, then that risk will be worth it.

——————–

Further Reading (you can also find recordings of talks by some of these authors online)

Fine tuning (paper) – John Polkinghorne, The Anthropic Principle & the Science and Religion Debate

The limits of science (paper) – Roger Trigg, Does Science need Religion?

Who was Jesus? What is Christianity? (book) – John Stott, Basic Christianity

Evidence for the resurrection (free ebook) – Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?

Scientists who are Christians (book) – Test of FAITH

A book that has influenced many scientists with its logical arguments – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Can we believe the Bible? (book) – Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible?

Difficult questions (book) – Tim Keller, The Reason for God


[2] From ‘If science is the answer, what are the questions?’, lecture by Alister McGrath, Cambridge Science Festival, 2013

[3] From N.K. Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)

5 thoughts on “Why I am a Christian

  1. Joe, London January 9, 2014 / 2:41 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    First I’d like to thank you for your work. I’ve enjoyed reading both your blog and “Test of Faith”. Secondly I’d like to applaud your summary here, too often apologetics tries not to admit the necessity of going “beyond the limits of pure reason” which I think denies the experiences of the christians I’ve heard from. Though I must admit to finding the “other ways of knowing” line agitating, I suspect this is an epistemological or semantic difference of opinion rather than anything substantial.

    I wanted to take issue with your paragraph on fine tuning. You present the good old unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as suggestive of design in the universe. I’d like to provide a counterpoint. As a data scientist I like to describe this in terms of model fitting. Maths is a a powerful and flexible tool, it can be used to describe any number of possible universes including our own. The (good but not perfect) correspondence of our models to reality is as much evidence of how cool maths is as of order in the universe. Moreover, we have developed mathematics in part to understand the universe. Saying that it is remarkable that mathematics explains the universe is like inventing skis specifically to travel over snow and then saying “gosh isn’t it amazing how perfect snow is for skiing on”. Your question about “chaotic and uncontrolled” processes was a particular head scratcher for me. Of course chaotic and uncontrolled processes give rise to systems which are amenable to mathematics: that’s why we have the mathematics of chaotic and/or stochastic systems. AND these tend to be the ones most useful in describing elements of reality. Finally I think you misuse the term anthropic principle. Anthropic principals don’t refer to the fact of fine tuning, but rather its necessity.

  2. Ruth Bancewicz January 10, 2014 / 1:58 pm

    Hi Joe, Interesting points! You’re obviously a mathematician, and some of the words I’ve used been used in a general and not a technical sense. The sentence about ‘knowing’ might make you scratch your head a bit if you’re into philosophy. I’m not using the word in a philosophical sense, but just to point out that there are different ways of finding things out.

    I have only ever heard mathematicians say how surprising it is that maths works, and they trust the maths more than the science even. Einstein was so convinced relativity was right that he sat back and waited for the experimental evidence to come out. (and I think he made a divorce settlement based on his confidence this would happen) – I see that time and time again among experimental physicists. So I think there’s some thing deeper than just a system that evolved to explain the world we see. There is inherent order in the world, and until you find another universe you can’t test it, you can only postulate it using maths (and so your argument is circular).

    On chaotic and uncontrolled, I was referring to the fact that fine-tuning shows that the universe is not at root chaotic, there are finely-balanced laws behind everything that happens.

    And yes, the terms anthropic principle and fine-tuning are not interchangeable, but they are very closely related, and both are involved in the discussion of whether the universe was ‘set up’ for life. John Polkinghorne’s paper is helpful on this http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/resources/Faraday%20Papers/Faraday%20Paper%204%20Polkinghorne_EN.pdf

    Thanks,

    Ruth

  3. Andrew Nightingale January 11, 2014 / 5:58 pm

    I really liked your point at the end. I think it captures the essence of scientific and theistic endeavour.

    “But if you discover the truth that’s a good thing – that’s the whole point of life, even if the consequences are a bit uncomfortable to begin with and others might think you’re crazy”

    The ‘truth’ of Christianity seems to be impossible to pin down, and determined by the preferences of the individual. (For example, transsubstantiation is either true, untrue, or metaphor but I think it will be some time before a consensus is reached amongst Christians. mind you, this might be a good study to run given advances in medical imaging)

    Christian views on ethics also seem to differ depending on who you speak to. (Nicholas Epley carried out an interesting study in 2009, looking at brain activity when believers where asked about their own vs God’s moral beliefs)

    My non-belief is largely down to the creation and ungenerous treatment of ‘out-groups’ by some Christians in much the same way that many Christians will rightly object to the poor treatment of their group by some atheists. You didn’t say whether God respects people regardless of their sexuality (yup, that old chestnut.) The American Psychological Association has done since 1976 (I accept the vote wasn’t unanimous but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a psychologist who thinks that conversion therapy is safe, effective, or even necessary, especially given Robert Spitzer’s retraction in 2012)

    Given the large body of scientific data on sexuality I would put it forward as another area the Templeton Foundation could work on to try and build a consensus on an issue that causes so many people to close their minds to Christianity: As well as bringing you back to your own words, I think Jesus would approve.

    Matthew 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

    Epley et al., 2009
    Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2787468/

    • Ruth Bancewicz January 13, 2014 / 6:32 pm

      Hi Andrew, Thank you for your comments. My definition of the core truths of Christianity would be in a creed like this one https://www.ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html – though interpreting it is another matter… Yes, Christians will disagree a bit on the finer details. But thankfully we can still work together.

      Jesus deliberately hung out with the ‘out groups’. He disagreed with what tax collectors and prostitutes were doing, but he knew they were social pariahs and deliberately sought them out and ate with them – a sign of social acceptance. They were drawn to him like a magnet and he didn’t repel them. Loads of other people followed him too – they all wanted to know how to be part of God’s radical new kingdom, and they changed their lives for the better.

      So the idea of an out group is not a Christian one – the incredible teaching of the new testament is that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, free or slave, etc. So the early churches had a huge impact on the world, and our current ethical values with a respect for the worth of every individual stem from that teaching.

      I expect that if Jesus were here today he would be hanging out with ex paedophiles and violent criminals. No one should feel unwelcome in a church, and I apologise on behalf of my fellow Christians if anyone has ever been treated badly.

      Of course people are people and they stuff up (as I said), and start excluding people they don’t like. But it shouldn’t happen – and any healthy church will put a stop to such behaviour. I know that this sort of situation damages people, and put them off faith – hopefully only temporarily. I’m more sorry than I can say.

      I’m not going to go into questions of sexuality because this blog is supposed to be about Jesus not specific issues.

      God loves us, and he wants us all to be holy. We respect God, and he treats us with mercy and far more respect than we deserve, the way we carry on. None of us deserve God’s love, we all do wrong, but he gives it to every one of us, as a free gift. That’s amazing! That knowledge has changed my life.

  4. Richard Hosking January 13, 2014 / 3:55 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    Nice to hear more of where you’re coming from!

    I like your bit about Jesus being an itinerant Rabbi. A couple of great books by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg use this to place Jesus in his Jewish context.* Like many, I enjoyed a performance of Handel’s Messiah over Christmas, and it’s interesting to count how many verses come directly from the Hebrew Scriptures.*

    The idea of God’s covenant with the Jewish people is central to those ancient sacred texts. It’s always nice to have something to observe, measure and compare – especially stuff that can be evaluated independently of any religious belief. Applying the principles of your final 3 paragraphs, there’s a wonderful opportunity to use modern genetic, demographic, scientific, cultural, ethical, historical and biblical analysis, to ask what that ‘covenant’ might look like if it was sustained over time.

    The relevance to the science-religion debate is that God’s covenant with the ‘descendants of Jacob’ should parallel his covenant with the ‘fixed laws of heaven and earth.’ In which case, the New Testament says there’s hope for the rest of us, too! (Jeremiah 33:25-26; Ephesians 2:11-22)

    —–

    http://ourrabbijesus.com/about-lois-tverberg/

    Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg ‘Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus can transform your faith’ (Zondervan 2009)
    Lois Tverberg ‘Walking in the dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish words of Jesus can change your life’ (Zondervan 2013)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structure_of_Handel's_Messiah

    Behar et al ‘The genome-wide structure of the Jewish People’ Nature 2010 Jul 8;466(7303):238-42

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20531471

    Ostrer H, Skorecki K ‘The population genetics of the Jewish people’ Human Genetics 2013 Feb;132(2):119-27

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23052947

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