Science, Community, and Communion

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Physics students at my Christian liberal arts school engaging science out of wonder and delight.

In “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About… The Life of a Scientist,” Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch pens a science-and-faith manifesto of sorts, both widely applicable and intensely personal. Reflecting on the experiences of his wife, a Christian and physicist, Crouch details the insights and struggles that Catherine and he have shared because of her scientific vocation. Because people are deeply affected by the routines of their lives, the scientific life and its practices cannot be separated from the new life found in Christ and its practices. After examining the aspects of science that contribute to growing in grace and truth and those that do not, Crouch moves on to how we as brothers and sisters in Christ may encourage those scientists  in our community in their relationship with the Lord.

Scientists usually find their motivation to study nature rooted in a sense of wonder. The usefulness of scientific knowledge and the technologies that result from such inquiry do motivate science.  Yet for many (if not most) researchers, including Dr. Catherine Crouch, the deepest drive to understand is rooted in simple, jaw-dropping amazement at nature. The best expression of this sentiment I’ve seen is found in a cartoon of two characters each being asked about a recent discovery. The science advocate and popularizer, self-confident and snazzily-dressed, lists off the useful applications of the research. However, the scientist who works on the project, who is hunched over his lab monitor and clearly hasn’t shaved in days, explains (in less-than-appropriate but highly accurate language) his excitement for the discovery: “It’s f***ing awesome!” The wonder of scientific discovery motivates the frustrating lab failures, debugging code, and long, often isolated, hours to achieve a better understanding of how the world works, as this very secular cartoon demonstrates. For the Christian, though, this wonder doesn’t stop with math and matter. The beauty and wonder of nature is a call to worship. Unlike the materialist, the worship of the Christian is not given to inanimate matter, but to the personal Creator and Source of wonders. Worship is a personal, communal response to God’s personal and communal Presence that places us in the joy of praising the only One worthy of worship. Crouch recognizes the fundamental importance of worship to the scientist who is in Christ. His point about the wonder and delight of science helped to solidify my previous thinking about the interconnected relationships of man, nature, and God that had begun to develop from a sermon on the topic of nature as a call to worship.1, 2

From this starting point of why Christians ought to do science, Crouch moves to another overlap between physics and Christianity. Physics cultivates humility in ways that few other academic disciplines do. From the uncertainty and fundamental limits to what may be known in quantum mechanics, to the frequent falsification of (formerly) obviously true theories, physicists must blush with shame as they inherit Laplace’s boast. This humbling of the proud and reminder of our limits as time-and-space bound creatures fits nicely into the Christian life. “Where is the scholar of this age? … Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” the Scripture asks. Instead, the same passage reminds us that in all areas of life, including physics,

 …then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4: 6b -7, NIV)

Whether we follow the ideas of a Stephen Hawking or a Leonard Susskind, the Christian physicist is reminded that the knowledge we have is a gift, and our side on an issue may ultimately be wrong.

            While Crouch makes a few more points that the Christian community might take from the physics community, space limits this response to only the above two such points. Moving from the lessons we can learn from physics, he subsequently addresses the pastoral needs of physicists, and other scientists, of which he is so aware. Crouch notes that science

makes such demands on its practitioners that those who succeed in it tend to be either strikingly mature and wise persons, or sadly foolish and stunted—with relatively few in the middle. The stakes in a scientific vocation are high.

While he sees very little in the church that acknowledges, much less builds up, scientists specifically in Christian community, I think he makes his case a little too dire: “I can’t help noticing that in all these years, unless I am forgetting something, I do not remember hearing one thing, in church or a Christian Bible study or another Christian context, that even acknowledged most of the dynamics [Catherine] encounters every day.” Certainly, science has its spiritual dangers and rewards, but these things are not unique to science. In Christ we have been given all we need for life and godliness, so we do not need to directly address science in church to grow in grace in a scientific vocation. As Crouch observes, every vocation points us toward and requires death to self and trust in Jesus. The exposition of Scripture faithfully taught makes clear what to make of wonder and delight in nature (see Psalms 8, 19, ad 104, for instance), why we ought to be humble in our knowing, and how to pursue collaboration and healthy competition that are the hallmarks of modern science. (Philippians 2: 3) Those scientists in the Body of Christ must make those connections of the gospel’s outworking into their specific career, aided in seeing these connections between their faith and vocation by those walking alongside them. The businesswoman must come alongside the scientist in the working out of salvation, just as the scientist must do so for the businesswoman in the Body with her. That said, Crouch provides, both in his article and person, an excellent example of coming alongside the scientist, encouraging her as she grows in science and in Christ. Crouch’s exhortation spurs onward a life of deeper examination into how the faith that has been held in all times and all places by all Christians is sufficient now for approaching modern science and ministering to scientists in Christ. The categories of inquiry he suggests (like wonder and worship, humility, and collaboration) are not the end of such inquiry, but only the beginning.

 

 Notes and Works Cited:

1. O’Kelley, Aaron. “Sermon on Psalm 104: God of Wonders.” Web. Retrieved 2/4/14 from  Cornerstone Community Church, Jackson at http://www.cccjackson.org/index.php/resource/sermons/text/1014-140-of-150-psalms.

 2. Howard, Ward. “What has Christianity to do with Science?” Web. Retrieved 2/3/14 from The Soapbox Guild at https://thesoapboxguild.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/what-has-christianity-to-do-with-science/.

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