When Worlds Collide: Science and Faith

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This article by Michelle Francl-Donnay, professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory, first appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times (the diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia), 12 June 2008.

Click here to read this article on Michelle Francl-Donnay’s blog.

When Worlds Collide: Science and Faith

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jn 20:27-28

“When Worlds Collide” sounds like the title of a campy 1950s science fiction film, which it is. But it could be the perfect title for my biography. Colliding worlds are my lot in life. My trajectory crisscrosses the orbits of family, students, science and faith. Most days I succeed in avoiding astronomical catastrophes, but last week two of my worlds came brushing past each other at warp speed. Science and God, reason and faith, intersected in the question: Is God truly present to us, here and now?

Early Saturday morning, at a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., a science writer whirled us through a tour of her new book. She ended by showing us evidence suggesting spiritual experiences are localized in one part of the brain. Religious people, she remarked, experience these moments as the presence of God, but it is just your neural network firing in a particular way. Science proves it. God is not here.

As it happens, it was the vigil of Corpus Christi and some of the late afternoon chatter in the plaza was about the upcoming Eucharistic procession through the streets. My scientist’s ears pricked up at the comment: “…They did a DNA test and it proved that it was Christ’s own blood in the chalice.” Science proves it. God is here.

Where was faith in all this? The science writer wants me to believe there is no one to have faith in; the murmurs in the streets seem to say science has made faith unnecessary.

This serendipitous juxtaposition of believers and unbelievers looking to science to address matters of faith sent me in prayer to the moment in the Gospels where faith and empirical evidence collide in the person of Thomas.

The scientist in me sympathizes with St. Thomas’ desire for proof he can literally lay his hands on: “Unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” Christ offers him the certainty of the experiment. But was the experiment alone sufficient to convince him? I wonder. John’s Gospel does not even tell us whether Thomas took Jesus up on the offer.

I think the mere appearance of a wounded man claiming to have risen from the dead would not have been enough to convince Thomas of the resurrection. He was instead confronted with a man he already knew intimately in life and death. To believe in Jesus risen, he had to have already known Jesus alive, known His voice and heard His Word. The tangible evidence could only take him so far, without the experience of God, without the existence of faith.

Scientific evidence may show that certain parts of our brains fire when we have a transcendent experience, but it is faith that tells us that this is God working through His own marvelous creation, touching our hearts through our minds. Not surprisingly, without faith, you might think it’s just your neurons.

The DNA proof of God hinges on faith as well. If you don’t have a sample of DNA known to come from Jesus, you can’t match it. We need to have already had an experience of God, a certain knowledge of God, to prove God in this way. What is this, but faith?

We believe. Not in spite of science, not because of science, but because we have encountered Christ, in Word and Flesh, and He has blessed us with faith.

Keep before us the wisdom and love
You have revealed in your Son.
Help us to be like Him
In word and deed,
For He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.