This academic year, 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 or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in a series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here.
This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.
One questioner asked: “How does our work in science inform a positive vision of our faith?” Ruth Bancewicz recently wrote a book where she explored that question through conversations with other scientists, so we asked her to respond. Ruth shares some details of her own experience as a graduate student in science, and then describes the five things she learned when she asked other scientists how their work enhances their faith. Having explored this positive vision, in 2017 this series will tackle some tough questions about apparent conflicts between science and religion, so stay tuned.
There is a basic trajectory for a science PhD student, and it goes something like this. Enthusiasm and delight mingled with a frisson of fear, a gradual onset of hard reality and stress, perhaps a dash of boredom and possibly even some despair and disillusionment. This is followed by a long period of determination and hard work, which ends in joy and relief. This is the crucible in which characters are formed, careers are established, and skills are developed which will last a lifetime. Some of the skills learned are very useful: experimental techniques, ways of thinking, organisational and project management skills, and of course knowledge. The less useful ones might include procrastination techniques, ways of bluffing, online gaming and social media skills, and of course surviving for whole days on the contents of the department vending machines.
Joking aside, I know that I am very different after doing a PhD. Having glided through my education with reasonable ease until that point, I finally hit a wall and wondered if I could complete my research project. I was forced to rely on God in a way that I had never had to until then. I had to give him my fears and insecurities and learn to find my confidence in who he made me as a person, rather than my ambitions (and that process is still ongoing!). I had to learn to trust him more, lean a little harder on my friends for support, be honest about my struggles, and keep going when I felt like taking a long vacation. Overall, I found my faith helped me through this time. I came out of my studies with a stronger conviction that God existed and was able to help me work hard for him.
There was also plenty to enjoy in my studies. When things were going well, there was the sense of togetherness that comes from sharing lab space with a diverse group, the fun of hanging out with creative people, and the opportunity to explore my own ideas in my research. I learned how community is created, how to give as well as receive from my colleagues, that regular celebrations are a vital part of life, and how to respect my senior colleagues without taking them too seriously. These experiences also helped my faith and character to grow, led me to flourish in my work, and fed into my contribution as a member of a church.
Now that I am out of the lab and working full time in science and religion, I have the luxury of thinking about these experiences in more depth. One of my recent projects involved looking at how science feeds into faith in a positive way. As well as general growth in skills and knowledge, faith, character and community, five specific areas emerged time and time again in my conversations with working scientists. These were creativity, imagination, beauty, wonder, and awe. Some of these experiences are perhaps more obviously part of science than others, but all five are important to scientists so I will spend time on each one in turn.
Only those of us inside the lab (or field) get to fully understand the creativity involved in our research. To do well we need to have original ideas, be resourceful, solve problems and constantly find new ways of looking at our data and linking it with what is already known. Without creativity, science at any meaningful level would grind to a halt. As a Christian, I believe our creativity is a reflection of God’s creativity. He created us, slowly and painstakingly, and we reflect something of the Creator’s character. We cannot create from nothing, but we can be inspired by the things we see around us, making connections between them, and exploring the world in completely new ways. I find it is essential to use my creativity as regularly as possible, or something inside me dries up.
Imagination is an essential tool for creativity. We sort and sift our knowledge, run scenarios, and think into the future. We flip seamlessly between the material world and an imaginary world of thoughts and memories. We test ideas against reality, discarding unrealistic ideas, and rejecting scenarios that won’t work. In the end, we formulate ways of making sense of the world that take into account as much of the data as possible. This process is similar for both science and faith. Both involve integrating evidence and experience to come up with a model of how the world works, though at different levels: one close up and detailed, and one broad and all encompassing. Training in science can help us to use our imaginations more fruitfully, testing our ideas against reality—so long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that that Christian faith is much broader than scientific data. We must learn to look beyond our chosen academic field into metaphysics, relationships, scripture, spiritual experience, and more.
Scientists also get to see the very stuff of creation and share in the joy of the Creator as we uncover things no other person on earth has seen before. We all find certain things in our work beautiful, and some of them are even beautiful to other people. There are great beauties of form and colour, organisation and regular patterns, or even elegant simplicity in our equations. Some people appreciate particular techniques, organisms, or ways of presenting data. For C. S. Lewis, beauty was a reminder of the source of all beauty that can be found in God.
Wonder is an essential attribute for a scientist. We are the ones who never stopped asking questions about what things are and how they work. Without wonder we would struggle to get ourselves to work, keep on at difficult problems, or scrutinise our data in enough depth. Wonder is a also small part of the much bigger experience of awe, which comes along once in a while. Finally the experiment is working, answers are coming, and new surprises are just around the corner. Fresh questions pop up, but also a sense that something tremendously significant is happening—you are receiving the gift of an insight into the very structure of the world. This moment may feel like a reward for a long period of hard work, as if you reached the top of a mountain and can spend time resting and surveying the view before you head off to the next peak. These are the times when we sometimes use more spiritual-sounding language, as if more scientific words are inadequate to describe the experience. For the Christian, an experience of awe can lead directly into worship.
Finally, the very discoveries of science can also feed into faith in some way. The model I use to shape my thinking in this area comes from the British theologian Alister McGrath. He likes to think of theology as a lens which is used to look out at the world. When that lens is used, do things come into sharper focus? Do they make sense? For example, the physical properties of the universe seem finely tuned to allow life to develop. Would that idea make sense if a God existed who desired to create life? I think so! What about the repeated evolution of useful structures like eyes and wings? Or the importance of cooperation in the living world? What overarching worldview makes sense of these data? One must be very careful not to prop up faith with scientific arguments, but looking at it the other way—as a thought experiment—can be a useful exercise.
So there is much in science that can feed into our faith in a positive way, as is the case in every profession. The question is, how can we make the most of these opportunities to grow as individuals? How can we allow them to feed into our extended communities? Some of these experiences are unique to science, so maybe we should be sharing those with our churches? In the lab environment, these things can spark conversations or shape us in ways that may be unique to a Christian. So how can we discuss the relationship between science and faith in an interesting, relevant and helpful way? There is a lot here to think about, and the summary and questions below may help you unpack these ideas a little more in your own context.
Summary: ways in which science can feed into faith in a positive way
- Learning new skills that can be used to serve God in all of our lives
- Developing Christian faith and character
- Learning ways of building and operating in community
- Delight in creation: beauty, wonder & awe
- Using our God-given creativity & imagination
- Seeing the world in ways that resonate with the existence of God
Group discussion questions
- Have you had these experiences in your own work? What did you appreciate about them?
- Have you found science feeding into your faith in any other positive ways?
- If you have had fewer of these positive experiences, what can you do to help yourself flourish more? For example, do you need to develop some new habits, do some reading, or find some new people to hang out with?
- Have you ever had a conversation about science and faith in your lab? How did it go?
- Can you find ways to start some more positive conversations about science and faith in your own environment?
- Does your church help you to get the most out of your studies? If not, how can you help them to do that? Is there an existing activity you can join in with, or can you suggest a new initiative?
- What do you find beautiful, wonderful, or awe-inspiring in your own field of research?
- Has anything in your work ever made you think about God or want to worship him more?
- What do you think of Professor McGrath’s way of doing ‘natural theology’?
- How could the ‘lens’ idea of theology help you to process your own experiences in science?