How is Our Knowledge of the Natural World Similar to/Different from Our Knowledge of God? (STEAM Grant Series February Question)

Question: How is our understanding of faith and God different from our understanding of the natural world? How is it similar?


This year, supported by generous funding provided by the John Templeton Foundation through Fuller Seminary’s STEAM program, ESN is creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’re partnering with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and then commissioning thoughtful Christians in science to explore those questions in a once-a-month series at the ESN blog, to be published as a booklet curriculum in 2017. You can find the September introductory post here, November’s question here, and December’s question here. This month we have the privilege of sharing a piece by Ciara Reyes, a science PhD who helps facilitate one of the local InterVarsity STEAM graduate student discussion groups and also has graduate theology training. Ciara reflects on the question below in light her scientific experience, her theological background, and her own story of seeking to know God.


As someone who self identifies as both a Myers–Briggs INFP type and an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), while also being shy, I am supposed to be notoriously hard to get to know, and I do not disappoint. I am. Not to misrepresent or essentialize my fellow INFPs, HSPs or shy people out there—although we do only make up a small percentage of the population, I know that we are a large enough population to come in different flavors, and I preface this by saying that I’m only one of those flavors. All this to say, that even as a scientist, I’m human; and as a person, I can appear enigmatic. Of course, I don’t like to think of myself as enigmatic, because I am not intentionally so, but I acknowledge that I am quiet and reserved, and it’s a product of the complex interplay of emotions and anxieties and probably the molecules and chemicals inside my brain—a combination of nature and nurture. To know me, is to be patient. To be persistent. To speak with me one-on-one. These introspective ponderings about my identity curiously led me to wonder, “What type of person is God?” To my surprise, reflecting on what it’s like to be known, my theology, and my scientific experience turned out to illuminate each other in ways I didn’t expect. Here, I will share some of that story, interspersing it with short poetic reflections, which I hope guides the reader through the free flowing nature of my thoughts.

I grew up in a non-denominational pentecostal tradition where literal interpretation of scripture, including the Genesis creation account, was emphasized; and where the religious framework, while priding itself on being charismatic, free and open to the spirit, provided little room or freedom for self-discovery. It was a world where biblical interpretation had already been predetermined by tradition and where the answers to all the hard questions had already been arrived at. What need was there to answer questions that had already been answered? Or to ask questions I didn’t need answers to.

Studying science taught me to ask questions, and to be skeptical. It forced me at times to re-evaluate and even reinterpret my faith, and it helped me find room for questions and self-discovery in my religious tradition. With the freedom to ask questions, I’ve recently wondered if just maybe God is easier to know than the self-proclaimed INFP HSP that I am. My experience with science tells me that the scientific endeavor is not an INFP or HSP—it can neither be personified as an introvert nor extrovert, because it has no agency. The protein a molecular biologist seeks to characterize is, through no active agency of its own, neither conspicuously seeking to be discovered nor intentionally being elusive—I’ve often regretted the former, but certainly not the latter!

As I reflected on this truth about scientific discovery, it made me wonder more about what it means to know God. Maybe knowing him is easier than I thought; maybe God isn’t shy. But did I know him? Or just how might I go about knowing him, especially in moments when he too appeared enigmatic? The questions I found myself asking were like the ones Jesus posed to Peter, “who do people say I am?” and “who do you say that I am?”

Who do I say that God is?
What does it mean to know him?
Do I even know him? Or do I only know of him?
Did I ever really know him?
My knowledge of him was from Sunday School and church and small group Bible studies—most of what I knew about him was what I had been taught. Even the times I had read the Bible were only me reading of him—history and stories and parables from people who knew him, personally, or in the case of Paul who wrote most of the New Testament, had had a vision of him.
Perhaps, I only knew of him
and all this time I had thought I knew him.
Could I ever really know the God I thought I knew?
Could he ever really be known?

I was beginning to feel like my knowledge of God was like my knowledge of biology before graduate school. Limited. Textbook knowledge. Sterile like the experiments I did in the controlled environment of a pre-planned lab with mostly expected outcomes, where the experiments were designed to work. I knew of biology, but I didn’t really begin to know biology until graduate school. And even then, it was only a small subset of biology that I really began to know well: cellular and molecular biology, or more specifically, my protein, and its involvement in helping cells divide and maintain contact with their neighbors. The more I learned, the more I knew, but the more I knew, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. In research-based science, you ask a question to find an answer, but the outcomes are not always clear or even as expected. Sometimes you make an educated guess, a hypothesis, and you are right. Other times you are not, and yet still other times, there is no clear yes or no, but rather a “yes and no” kind of like what an “its complicated” relationship status on Facebook might imply. You answer one question, only to have found several more to ask in its place. Or you revise your original question after you realize that you asked the wrong question, because your question was based on assumptions.

Did I even know biology before graduate school?
Or did I only know of biology?
Did I ever really know biology before then?
Most of what I had known about biology was what I had been taught. Even the times I had read my biology textbooks were only me reading about biology—history and stories from people who made discoveries personally, or in the case of Henrietta Lacks and others made invaluable contributions to the advancement of science indirectly.
Perhaps, I only knew of biology
And all that time I had thought I knew biology.
Even now, post-graduate school
Could I ever really know biology?
Could the mysteries of life ever really fully and completely be known?

In the midst of something resembling an existential crisis, I realized that both the religious concept of seeking God and the scientific inquiry I was doing were quite similar. While this realization did not solve my existential questions, ruminating on these thoughts did prove fruitful. Both are processes of knowing, even without the promise of ever fully and completely knowing. A scientist may not discover the answer to a question in his/her lifetime—another, following in his/her footsteps, may discover the answer to that question. A modern scientist may answer a question asked by a previous generation, or more often than not it is the cumulative work of many scientists over time that contributes to the answer of any single question. Even without the promise of discovery during the course of one’s inquiry or even one’s entire lifetime, scientists don’t stop their pursuit. If scientists stopped prematurely or stopped searching for answers just because the answers were not guaranteed, the advancement of science would come to a staggering halt. Within the striving, there remains hope, even when an outcome remains to be seen.

I’ve come to the realization that perhaps the process of knowing God is similar. An inquiry. An endeavor. A process of knowing without the promise of fully and completely knowing all there is about him, at least in this lifetime. And perhaps both are processes that begin with questions, followed by a hope-driven striving for answers.

Perhaps where these two processes of inquiry might differ is in the types of questions they ask. The questions scientists ask are safeguarded by those in the science community, and rightly so—questions that are too big or too broad to yield an answer or even meaningful results are replaced with narrow and more focused ones. This proves to be a real strength of science, even if at times restrictive to creativity—risks must be tempered with pragmatism. However, the questions I find myself asking God lately are not safeguarded—they are big and broad and bold, and perhaps for me that’s a strength of the religious experience. I can ask God in the midst of frustrating moments of the human experience, the most impractical and unsubstantiated of questions—in the voice of a cathartic lament mimicking the psalmist and with an audacity like that of Job.

So how does one get to know God?
I’m still trying to figure this out.
All I know is how I came to know science
or at least a part of it really well,
and perhaps therein lies an answer to the question.
I came to know science by asking questions and by doing it.
I came to know science when my bubble burst, the bubble of preplanned experiments in the controlled environment of a lab that was designed to work, when that bubble burst.
When I tempered idealism with reality.

Recently, my theological bubble burst. Divinity school didn’t do it, and even if it did, I’d be rather indebted to it as my bubble burster. The bubble of traditions and dogmas and ideas other people fed me about God, when that bubble burst, I realized that like the active agency of a graduate student in a research lab, there was room for me to take a more active role in the religious experience. As I navigate this new terrain, I find hope in the promise of a God who tells me he is an active agent in the process—perhaps, this is uniquely religious.

I’m told that God seeks humankind out with his love,
that he pursues, that he came to seek and save the lost,
and I want to know this for myself.
Even now, as I struggle to see a God that is good, a God that is love in a world that
feels like it’s falling apart, when it’s hard to see his goodness and feel his love
and when it’s easy to wonder where he is,
Even without the promise of discovery, I unexpectedly find comfort in
the scientific process that continues, the scientists that seek answers to questions
even without immediate answers in sight, all for a greater good.
Science has taught me how to seek and hope.
And so, I will seek, and I will hope, even when what I hope for remains to be seen, because I believe in a God that is good.

These days, the God I find myself believing in is different from the God of my childhood. He not only allows room for my questions, but makes room for them, sees a virtue in my skepticism, is threatened neither by my questions nor my skepticism because he’s so confidently who he is, even if I don’t fully know who he is, yet.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12

Questions for Discussion:

1. How do others get to know you (labmates, peers, strangers)? What does that process look like? Feel free to describe how that process is related to your personality type, whether in a Myers Brigg system or otherwise. Do you find that how people get to know you gives you any insight into how you get to know your scientific field? Does insight into science or how others know you give you any insight into how you know God?

2. What faith tradition(s) or denomination(s) did you grow up in, or are you presently a part of, and how does it inform your approach to knowing God? How does your faith tradition and sense of what it means to know God inform your understanding of science?

3. What limitations in the scientific process have you encountered in your personal research? What limitations in the process of seeking God have you encountered in your faith walk? How have you responded to the awareness of such limitations?

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Ciara Reyes

Ciara Reyes is a scientist, and a singer-songwriter who enjoys creative writing and coffee. She finished her Ph.D. in the Program of Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan in Summer 2016. Her thesis project focused on characterizing another role for Anillin, a protein with a well-known role in helping cells divide (cytokinesis), and in helping cells maintain contact with their neighbors. During her time at Michigan, she stumbled across the Midwest Religion and Science Society science and religion conferences, which reignited a passion for science and religion that had grown dormant. She also participated in a weeklong workshop at the Center for Theological inquiry, where she worked with an interdisciplinary team of scholars (biologists, theologians and ethicists) to explore the theological and societal implications of scientific discovery in the search for extraterrestrial life (Astrobiology). Her passion for science communication and outreach, particularly to religious communities, led her to start a Masters of Theological Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity school in Fall 2016. While here, she has been actively involved in the science and religion group Vandy STEAM, the Divinity Choir and the Voices of Praise gospel choir. She is currently developing a blog as an outlet for creative expression for her coffee-fueled interdisciplinary interests (coffeebeingsandthings.com). She also hopes to use this as a creative platform for science communication and outreach. Some of her creative nonfiction freelance writing has been featured in the Cellular and Molecular Biology newsletter of the University of Michigan (http://cmb.medicine.umich.edu/sites/default/files/CMBNewsletter_Issue29_SP2016.pdf), and the American Scientific Affiliation publication, God and Nature Magazine (http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-hermit-by-ciara-c-reyes.html).

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2 Comments

  • David Parry commented on February 3, 2017 Reply

    I’m not a scientist but also have a charismatic church background, whose main emphases and values I pretty much still embrace while having become sympathetic to aspects of other Christian traditions along the way. There is some interesting and creative thinking out there by Christian academics of a broadly Pentecostal-charismatic background/persuasion. I wondered if you’ve come across this book:

    James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong (eds.), Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences (Indiana University Press, 2010)

    http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=661727
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SAfMRAWoYr4C
    https://muse.jhu.edu/book/1559

    • Ciara commented on February 10, 2017 Reply

      Hi David, I haven’t come across the book that you mentioned, but it definitely sounds like something I should check out – thank you for the suggestion, and for sharing the resources!

      I too have learned to appreciate aspects of other Christian traditions, and even while identifying these days as non-denominational, I value and appreciate my charismatic pentecostal background, especially the element of expressive worship.

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