Seeing Faith Through Science

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost nobody agrees with Hugh Ross.

During his university talks, Ross--both astronomer and evangelical minister--often comes under friendly fire from Christian fundamentalist students. They want to shoot down his scientific approach to faith.

Ross, president of Reasons to Believe, a Christian think tank in Glendora, believes that creationism should never be taught in public schools.

"There's no science or Scripture to back it up," he says. He argues that the universe was created in six consecutive long, unspecified periods of time. "The problem with some Christians is they don't get far enough away from the creationists."

Armed with the latest discoveries in astronomy, physics and biology and backed by a small army of scholars, Ross is on a quest to scientifically prove that the Scriptures are true and that the God of the Bible is the designer of the universe.

In doing so he has alienated both ends of the evolutionary debate, from fundamentalists to scientific advocates of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Scientists affiliated with Reasons to Believe will unveil their latest findings at a four-day conference beginning Thursday at Grace Church in Cypress. Last year's event drew more than 750 scientists, theologians, doctors, engineers, pastors and laity.

The nonprofit organization is the radical cousin of the more widely known "intelligent design" movement, which seeks to detect intelligence behind the universe's formation but doesn't speculate on the nature of that force.

Though both movements try to dispel Darwin, Ross rejects the intelligent design strategy as too "pessimistic and defeatist."

"The intelligent design theory uses a big-tent approach," Ross said. "It says, 'Let's first get in this thin wedge of truth' [that there's a legitimate alternative to Darwinism]. I really worry that we will win the battle of proving an intelligent designer but lose the war of convincing society that the designer is Christ."

Ross, 55, founded Reasons to Believe 16 years ago after working as a research fellow at Caltech and as a minister. He resembles actor John Malkovich and looks the part of a college professor, especially on casual Fridays when he comes to work in blue jeans, a button-down shirt and running shoes.

He has a paid staff of 35, thanks to private donations, fees from speeches and the sales of books, videos and magazines. He has also attracted scores of scientists who volunteer their time. They comb through the latest scientific research to find evidence of God.

For example, Ross sees the intricate, rotary motor of the flagellum of bacteria as a mirror of engines built by human hands, and therefore a reflection of an intelligent designer.

That, like most of Ross' ideas, is at odds with most evolutionary scholars.

"It's hard not to laugh," said UC Irvine genetics professor Francisco Ayala, a former Catholic priest, who hadn't heard of Ross' work but dismisses anything along the lines of intelligent design. Ayala believes God simply lets nature take its course.

"Drawing parallels with machines is nothing new," Ayala said. The flagellum and the engine "look like machines because they are functional." Both humans and the natural selection process always will create the most functional form, Ayala said, which means they will look similar.

Ross says the jump from a generic intelligent designer to Christ as the designer is a logical one. His argument is this: Scriptures closely parallel what science now knows. The universe had a beginning. Ross believes that beginning had to be brought about by a transcendent being who operates beyond matter, energy, space and time--the same as described in the Bible.

Then, the high degree of fine-tuning that scientists are discovering throughout the universe must have been carried out by a loving and caring God, who mostly closely matches Jesus Christ.

"He's a God who's concerned with providing optimally for all of his creation," Ross said.

UC Berkeley professor Phillip Johnson, a leader of the intelligent design movement and the author of "Darwin on Trial," said Ross' critique is "intelligent and not unfriendly," but wrong.

"He thinks we don't go far enough, and we think he goes a little too far," Johnson said. "That's what you'd expect in a debate like this."

Mike Strauss, an associate professor of particle physics at the University of Oklahoma, volunteers his expertise to Reasons to Believe. He said he was drawn to the organization by its reputation for scientific and theological integrity.

"Hugh Ross is credible. He does a good job integrating science and faith," Strauss said. "Many people claim to integrate the two, but they don't."

Ross said he grew up in a moral but secular household. At 17, he began to secretly study the great philosophers and religions, trying to figure out who God was. After six months, he said, he quickly discarded other faiths because he found them too illogical. But he kept researching the Bible.

"There's so much ridicule heaped upon serious Christians. I had strong motivation to keep it secret--until I could figure out how to defend it."

He said he found the Bible to be scientifically and historically accurate, and the only holy book to invite objective testing.

After two years of self-study, Ross signed his name in the back of the Gideon Bible he had used, marking his conversion.

Ross is a Christian apologist, someone who uses evidence from sciences of all kinds to defend Christian doctrine. "God's fingerprint can be seen through all the disciplines," he says. He tries to distance himself from many of today's apologists, who he says can be divided into three categories: "Top, pop and slop--and only 10% are in the top category."

He says his most receptive audiences are scholars who attend his presentations at major universities such as Princeton, MIT and UCLA.

"Hugh is somewhat controversial" among fundamentalists, said Gregory Koukl, president of Stand to Reason, another apologist group. "But he's much less controversial on the scientific side. He's careful, he's honest, and he's very happy to put his ideas against peer review. This is the acid test of scientific analysis of intelligent design."

Ross knows his complex interpretations are difficult for most nonscientists to understand, and tough for most secular scholars to agree with.

"Both scientists and Christians are trying to find an easy way through this, and that doesn't exist," Ross said. "I think it's fun. God left us with unsolved problems so we can have the joy of discovery."

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