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Gary Patterson
Carnegie Mellon University
Professor of Chemistry

CMU academic site

 

 

When Prof. Patterson learned about the Pittsburgh Christian Studies program, he offered to teach a course called Christianity and Science, if we could drum up enough student interest. We spread the word and the course ran in spring 2014 with 20 students. Here Prof. Patterson tells the story of how and why he developed the course.


 The Christianity and Science Story:
A CMU Odyssey

         The making of a scientist is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child. I read novels and biographies about scientists. I learned that real scientists are humans with a passion for understanding physical reality. I also learned that most people who earn their living as scientists are only playing science.  I was also fascinated with the making of a Christian. I learned that real Christians are humans with a passion for following Jesus Christ. I also learned that most people who claim to be Christians are only playing church.

         When two groups of people who are both only claiming to be clothed differ on fundamental issues, a great deal more heat than light is generated. But, is there a community of actual humans who take a scholarly approach to the questions of science and Christianity? Indeed, there is such a group of people, and organizations like the Templeton Foundation have made it possible to pursue this paradigm in a rigorous and irenic way.  An international competition to design courses in the interaction of religion and science was carried out in the 1990s. I was one of the exemplar courses chosen for this task. 

         The real miracle was that Carnegie Mellon University actually solicited courses in the humanities that transcended departmental and disciplinary boundaries. This course has been taught at Carnegie Mellon since the 1990s. Students are exposed to the scholarly study of Christianity in a lecture/discussion format using real books. Students are also exposed to the scholarly study of the practice of science using Thomas Kuhn’s classic “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” This background knowledge is then applied in a historical survey of the interaction of science and Christianity over 20 centuries. Christian faith and science, rather than being sharply divergent activities, complement each other. Real scientists and real Christians are knowledgeable about the past, engaged in the present and open to the future. Both activities require deep faith in the intelligibility of either physical or spiritual reality.  Both communities are committed to the truth, whatever it turns out to be. This does not stop some members of both communities from deviating from scholarly and humane protocols. But, the two communities are composed of widely overlapping members that are comfortable with the canons of both groups.

         One of the most pressing issues in this area is the interpretation of texts, both scientific and religious. An attempt is made to inculcate the principles of hermeneutics, and this knowledge is applied to the interpretation of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. Careful exegesis of texts, and irenic synthesis of known facts lead to a better understanding of both scientific and religious truth.

         While many of the most famous scientists who were devout Christians are now historical, John Polkinghorne stands out as an exemplar for the present. He is both a good particle physicist and a great Christian. He has written many books that explore the interaction of science and Christianity and has received the Templeton Prize for his work.

         This is a life changing course and every student who has taken it has remarked that they are quite different in their mode of thinking afterwards. This does not mean that they adopt predetermined positions on particular topics; instead it means that they can approach all questions with an open mind and can insist that discussion be carried out in a professional and irenic manner. They are much more able to deal with diversity of opinion when humans of good faith can express both the ideas and the reasons associated with them.  Acceptance of other rational humans as worthy interlocutors is an essential part of the interaction of science and Christianity.