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Perspective and Humanity, a reflection on Faith & Science, Dr. Karen Pfennig

Genesis 32: 24-29

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said “let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said “I will not let you go , unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said “ Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans and have prevailed.

John 4: 7-15

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan women said to him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Tonight, I want to describe how we might approach the intersection of Faith and Science with a sense of perspective and humility.

Like it or not, we live in a world dominated by science. It touches every aspect of our lives in ways that was simply not the case 20 (or even 10!) years ago. It is amazing to think that the watch on my wrist and even the key fob in your pocket has more advanced computing power than what was launched on the Voyager space probe 40 years ago.

Science seems to have usurped religion’s hold on people’s imaginations, identity, and place in the world. For example, according to the “Ancestry” or “23 and me” ads, your genes––and therefore your need to sequence them––are far more important to who you are and where you come from than your actual relationships and life experiences.

In our Bible readings tonight, we see two situations: Jacob wrestling with God and a Samaritan woman peppering Jesus with questions. In both cases, the response of God and Jesus is not condemnation, but the offering of a blessing and eternal life in response to their requests (if not demands).

That is not to say that Jacob or the woman came away unscathed from their interactions—but their lives and love for God and Jesus were transformed, changed, and even evolved as a result of these interactions.

For me, our conversations on Faith and Science here at HTLC have been a means of wrestling with, and understanding more about, the intersections of faith and science. I have come to better appreciate the different ways that people hold on to their faith in a world obsessed by science and technology. And my faith has been transformed, even if I am not always comfortable or “unscathed” as a result.

One of the themes that emerges in asking questions about faith and science is the issue of “Truth”. Both science and religion make claims to have insights into Truth with a capital T and so the fighting begins where the contradictions start—evolution versus Genesis for example.  And yet, although science and religion might contradict one another, science and religion (Christianity) see eye to eye on the same thing: that truth exists. Both outright reject the notion that each of us gets to decide on a personal truth (aka alternative facts do not exist).

So how do we resolve the paradox that science and religion can be at odds over the truth while agreeing that a single truth exists?

Heidi Russell, one of our visitors here to HTLC as part of the STEAM grant activities highlights that there is a difference between each person having their own truth versus each person having their own perspective on a single truth.

Perspective differs. Where you sit in this room might alter your perception of how high my hand is lifted or even the color of my eyes. Perspective does not simply differ for each of us. Perspective also limits our awareness of the world around us—someone on the street does not even know I am in here, let alone what I am doing with my hands or my eye color. Imagine this: other animals do not perceive the world the way we do and so they’re perspective of the world is entirely different from ours. For example, bees do not see flowers the way we do—they can see in UV light and that reveals patterns on flowers and plants that are completely invisible to us.

As a scientist, I must remain keenly aware of this issue. Let me give you an example from my own work. I study two species of toad that are estimated to be about 25 Million years old. For scale, our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. So, my toads have been hopping around on the planet over 100X longer than we have been around! I study the evolution and origin of these species—I’ve been doing so for about 20 years. 20 years out of 25 million is about .00008% of the time toads have been on earth. If you imagine reducing the light in this room to .00008% of the light available, this room would seem pitch black and we would see nothing!

Keep in mind that scientists are good at expanding our perspective through instrumentation and patterns of inference. For example, I can use genomes as “time machines” to expand my perspective beyond my mere 20 years of study. But even then, these instruments are the products of a mind (as good as it is) that is limited in what it can perceive and process. And as products of a finite mind, they have the potential to exaggerate our own biases and limits.

What does all of this mean? Appreciating perspective should cause us to approach our questions, each other, and God with humility.

How might we do this in science?

It is often assumed that what defines an expert scientist is their vast and detailed knowledge of a subject.

While this is true at one level, what really defines an expert—and the best scientists—is their capacity to know what they do not know.

That might sound absurd, but I can attest that it is easy to state what is known. It is NOT easy for someone to ask questions that define the unknown.

We can take this one step further: scientists should appreciate that some of what we do not know might be unknowable through science. Science’s perspective is to describe the material world but this perspective cannot address non-material questions. Science cannot say if Van Gough was the greatest painter who ever lived for example.

So, if God is not of the material world, the perspective of science on God is completely blind.

As Eric Hall wrote in his book “God: everything you ever needed to know about the almighty” (The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God):

“Any affirmation or rejection of the possibility of God from the standpoint of the sciences simply misses the point of the sciences altogether.” (p. 143)

But what about perspective and humility in our lives of Faith?

Well, as people of God, we should ask: do we know what we do not know of God? Do we understand that perspectives on God might differ, and indeed, that our perspective on God might be so limited as to not fully realize God’s nature?

An appreciation of perspective and humility seems to break down however when scientific facts are denied out of fear that science will disprove our notions of God.

Heidi Russell puts it this way:

“When people close themselves off from the world and associate only with people who think as they do out of fear…we end up with a … self-made system—no exchange of energy or ideas, no openness to new information… Peace that comes from…a lack of engaged interaction with others in a “flee the world” mentality is a false peace.” (excerpted from Quantum Shift, p. 106)

This passage suggests that denying scientific truths also denies us an opportunity to broaden our faith perspective and therefore knowledge of God.

What does this mean practically? It means letting go of the need for science to fail in order to keep something of God.

Last Friday, for example, our visitor, Tripp Fuller stated that science cannot explain why he looks into his wife’s eyes or his feeling when holding his baby.  While I understood his desire to preserve those feelings as inexplicable, the reality is that science actually can explain them: gazing into the eyes of our partners or children releases a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone generates feelings of warmth and affection—it is a hormone that causes bonding.

In fact, you even get a surge when you stare into your dog’s eyes (and he does too—from a hormone point of view, yes, your dog really does love you).

But here’s the point: does that fact that science can explain those feelings lessen the awe and joy we have in response to those feelings? Does it diminish the entirety of relationships that transcend simple affection to make us something more together than we would be if we were alone?

As a biologist, I can explain a lot about living things, but none of that diminishes my awe, astonishment and gratitude for our world. And I do not feel lessened by the vastness of the universe—instead, I think how extraordinary it is that a relatively new mammal on this small little planet can actually explain what we see, figure out how to measure what we cannot see, and all the while contemplate our role in this vast universe.

I’ll end with a quote by Fr. George Coyne, a former director of the Vatican Observatory. He sums all of this up by saying:

“We do not need God to explain the universe as we see it today. But once I believe in God, the universe as I see it today says a great deal about the God in whom I believe.” (quoted in Quantum Shift, by Heidi Russell, p. 104)



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