On March 9, 2014, the world lost V. Elving Anderson (b. 1921), a geneticist at the University of Minnesota for more than three decades. Six months earlier we lost Oliver R. Barclay (1919-2013), one of the most influential evangelical leaders in Britain of the 20th century. In a century when science and religion too often appeared as antagonists, these men showed another path is possible.
Anderson studied genetic disorders, especially breast cancer and epilepsy, and served as assistant director and then director of the Dight Institute for Human Genetics. He was also a devout Baptist who dedicated considerable time and energy in service to the church. Barclay spent thirty-five years with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF, formerly Inter-Varsity Fellowship), serving as General Secretary of from 1964 to 1980. Before then he had earned a PhD in zoology from Cambridge University, and in 1944, shortly before finishing his degree, founded a group today called Christians in Science.
Despite professional and geographic distance, these men shared an appreciation for both science and religion, rejecting the claim that affirmation of one meant rejection of the other. Together they helped redefine the evangelical engagement with science.
When Anderson and Barclay first turned their attention to questions of science and faith, the outlook for a positive relationship between the two fields seemed bleak. During the opening decades of the century, notable figures in both science and theology sought reconciliation between discoveries about the natural world and traditional Christian doctrines. Soon after World War I these efforts virtually ceased and were overshadowed by the antievolutionary crusades of the 1920s. From the 1930s to the 1950s, while most trained scientists and theologians were ignoring each other, antievolutionism was incubated in America’s fundamentalist subculture, and by the 1960s began reemerging as “modern creationism.”
During the last third of the century, public figures such as Henry Morris and Ken Ham and groups such as the Creation Research Society and Answers in Genesis helped antievolutionary creationism become a movement within conservative Christianity and America culture more broadly. By the 1980s, church leaders, educational administrators, and local and national politicians were often heard questioning the validity of mainstream science. As a result, the assumption of many was that Christianity entailed a rejection of ideas fundamental to modern science, especially regarding evolution and the age of the universe.
Anderson and Barclay’s ideas stood in stark contrast to the anti-science attitudes popular within the churches. The two first met at a gathering of Christian scientists at Oxford in the summer of 1965. Barclay, who helped organize the meeting, and Anderson, who was then president of the American Scientific Affiliation, an evangelical scientific organization, were joined by nearly three-dozen men who had come from across the globe to discuss the most pressing scientific issues facing Christianity.
Their discussion went far beyond creation and evolutionincluding the history and nature of science, divine action and natural law, psychology and sociologybut demonstrated how theologically conservative Christians (those who affirmed the divinity of Christ and inspiration of the Bible) could accept evolution without jeopardizing their faith. (A summary of the discussions were published in Malcolm A. Jeeves’s Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith, Inter-Varsity Press, 1969.) The Oxford conference marked the beginning of an enduring partnership between the two men and their efforts to offer a positive Christian witness to the scientific world.
At the heart of Anderson and Barclay’s understanding of the relationship between science and Christian faith were convictions about the limitations and complementary perspectives of their methods of inquiry. On the one hand, they affirmed science’s powerful capacity for discovering truth about the natural world, but they denied the idea that this meant that science could discover all truth. Its ability to offer observable or measurable explanations for scientific questions did not entail that observable/measurable stuff is all that exists.
On the other hand, they affirmed the Bible’s authority for questions of theology and faith, though they did not believe that its authority extended to all of its statements about the natural world. The Bible, they insisted, never intended to teach science and to force it to do so missed its point entirely. If these qualifications were granted, then one could recognize that science and the Bible (more accurately science and theology) offered complementary, rather than contradictory views of the world that were both reconcilable and necessary for answering the overarching questions about the universe, life, and humanity. The problem was that many were either forgetting to ask the overarching questions or were attempting to answer them too narrowly, with some failing to look beyond science and others failing to look beyond the Bible. As a result, dialogue often failed before it started.
In the years following that first meeting, Anderson and Barclay remained vanguards in the attempt to bring a positive voice to science-and-religion dialogue. Their writings, which were read on both sides of the Atlantic, offered biblically grounded and theologically informed critiques of antievolutionism, affirmed the need for the church to be engaged in public discussions about science, and called on Christians to pursue scientific research. Their personal lives touched generations of scientist-Christians striving to reconcile their faith and work.
In recent decades they were joined by an increasing number of individuals and organizations who share their goals. The creation of the BioLogos Foundation, which promotes harmony between science and biblical faith, the John Templeton Foundation, which encourages dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, which sponsors research and education about science and religion from its base at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, evince tremendous progress in the cause these men shared.
As I watch Fox’s reincarnation of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and read the responses it has received from some well-meaning but misinformed Christians, I can’t help but think about the legacies of Anderson and Barclay. They, and those who follow in their footsteps, would have rejected Neil deGrasse Tyson’s anti-religious commentary about our meaninglessness and loneliness in the universe, but they also would have rejected the reactionary criticism of those who challenge the validity of theories that are virtually unrefuted by scientists. Anderson and Barclay’s lives and work still have much to offer our twenty-first century world.
Christopher M. Rios is assistant dean for graduate studies at Baylor University.