Reflections about Faith and Science … in 3 parts
By, Dr. Al Goshaw – Lenten service March 21, 2018
Scripture: Genesis 1: 20-31
Hymn 679: For the fruit of all creation
My journey to faith and science
This all started gradually in high school in a small town in Wisconsin (West Bend) in the 1950’s. My interest in science developed from just playing around with random parts I scavenged from a local factory dumps and abandoned pin-ball machines. I made quite a lab in our basement, built from scratch voltmeters and oscilloscopes, other electronic gadgets, high-fi systems, and made a dark room for photo development. My activities were all do-it-yourself science with little academic or book guidance.
My mother and father had no regular ties to any church. There were only two choices in our town – Catholic and Lutheran. I do not remember exactly why but I started going to church – and chose Lutheran. Every Sunday morning I would get up, walk across town and sit in the back row of Trinity Lutheran Church. From there I got inducted into a confirmation class, with a group of friends, some of whom I know to this day. This was my do-it-yourself introduction to faith.
When I was about to graduate from high school, I took the usual vocational tests. I can still remember the guidance councilor commenting, that my results were unusual – they implied I should study to be either a scientist or a minister. Somehow my interest in faith and science were incubated early on even if I did not realize it. They continued as an engineering major at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I dabbled in theology courses. It never occurred to me that there was a conflict between these two pursuits. In fact my research mentor was a devote Christian, and spoke freely of his faith – a rarity in the community of people doing basic physics research. This provided me with a comfortable environment for my latent faith and science inclinations.
However, I went with the science path, graduated in physics at the University of Wisconsin, spent time at Princeton and CERN in Geneva Switzerland before migrating with my family to North Carolina in 1973, where I took up a faculty position at Duke. While doing research at Duke I was fortunate to be involved with the discovery of Nature’s two most massive elementary particles, given the unusual names the top quark and the Higgs boson. These observations clarified our understanding of Nature’s behavior in micro-world and completed one of our most successful science theories, called the Standard Model (small advertisement, wait for the book version if you want details). The “faith” part of my faith and science development sort of went on hold during this period.
Fast forward to more recent times. A few years ago when I was dealing with a very difficult event in my life I started meeting with Pastor Will to clarify some of my bible readings. These conversations lead me to find a book1 written by two Catholic scholars who are also scientists in the Vatican Astronomy Observatory. This book included wonderful discussions of the beautiful harmony between science and religion.
My studies contributed to our forming a Sunday morning Holy Trinity reading group that stimulated broader discussions of faith and science within our congregation. This lead to the Holy Trinity submission of a proposal for a STEAM (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) funding grant, focused on outreach faith and science activities. These have flourished under the leadership and encouragement provided by Pastor Will and others in our congregation some of whom you have heard from here in recent weeks. My interest in science and religion has been further stimulated by contacts with colleagues at Duke interested in these topics, both Christians and a Muslim who is teaching a Religion and Science course.
Why am I comfortable with the compatibility of science and religion?
Scientists have the privilege of learning how nature operates, whether it is the evolution of 25-million old frogs or studies of the 14-billion year evolution of stars. This is the world God created and I have confidence that he/she would be delighted in our developing an understanding of these phenomena.
I am amused that some my science colleagues get carried away with these science discoveries and are tempted to make the unreasonable jump to claim, “ by the way we now have all the laws of nature — there is no need for a God”. Some examples from history show that we should be more humble:
in the late 1800’s there were claims from scientists that we had all the rules of nature using Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, and it was just a matter of working out the details (… no need for a God)
then, whoops, in the early 1900’s a new theory was proposed, by Einstein (relativity) that overturned the predictions of classical mechanics in certain domains of nature (e.g. mass = energy). And then, whoops again, in the mid 1900’s the weird quantum nature of the micro-world was discovered. Now there certainly is no need to invoke a God!
Then a more recent whoops. In the past few decades we have discovered that the matter we are made of and describe with our beautiful theories, makes up only 5% of the mass-energy content of the universe. The bulk of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, for which we have no current scientific explanation.
This is a track record that shows science discoveries are work in progress. I see no conflict with truths we are discovering about the operation of the natural world with the truths we learn from the teaching’s of Jesus about how we should live our lives.
Why are conversations about faith and science important?
There are abrasive voices in both the science and religious communities that seem to delight in ridiculing the other, whether it is a conservative Christian or Muslim at one end of the spectrum, or a cosmologist or evolutionary biologist at the other end. These people tend to inflame conflicts between faith and science that both history and common sense show should not exist, and are detrimental to society at large. It is important for scientists and ministers to speak out to remove these artificial barriers.
Some examples of efforts to do this:
The HTLC STEAM grant we are currently implementing is a local step in this direction. I quote from the stated goal of this proposal:
“The stakes for cultivating engagement between science and faith are high. Young adults are at vulnerable and transformative period in their lives; the false choice of “Faith OR Science” could cause the lifelong abandonment of either. Moreover, by transforming the conversation for young adults from “Faith OR Science” to “Faith AND Science”, they will become more effective policy-makers, community leaders, and informed citizens in all their future endeavors.”
There are also efforts I am familiar with at Duke. I have been fortunate to have conversation with my faculty colleagues Ray Barfield (a Christian and professor in the Divinity School), and Mohsen Kadivar (a Muslim and professor in the Department of Religious Studies). Mohhsen is teaching a course this semester “Religion and Science”. He starts the introduction to his course with:
“Religion and Science are arguably the two most powerful social forces in the world today, however they are often perceived to be irreconcilable concepts.”
His course is designed to dispel this misconception by surveying modern scientific discoveries and discussing them in the context of Christian and Muslim teachings highlighting their complementary.
Finally I want to refer to an article2 recently published in a journal called “Physics Today” which focuses entirely on advances in basic science. The author of the article, Tom McLeish, makes a clear and articulate case for “Thinking differently about science and religion”. The fact that this commentary appeared as the lead article in a very secular physics journal shows awareness in the science community of the importance of promoting a civil dialogue between science and religion.
I end with a few quotes from this article:
“Maintaining the “alternate fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science.”
“Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical science. … The writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear they were motivated by theological philosophy.”
And in conclusion McLeish says:
“Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science from climate change to vaccinations. It damages the educational experience of our children, and impoverishes our understanding of science’s historical context”
We continue to pursue many exciting questions about the universe God created. Let’s not burden the task of making scientific discoveries by making spurious claims that they are in conflict with the faith we have about the existence of a God who created it all.
Would You Baptize and Extraterrestrial? By Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
Physics Today, February 2018 issue, Commentary by Tom McLeish