And then I wrote… In 2016 I was invited to be the first non-Mormon scientist to give the annual Summerhays Lecture on Science and Religion at Brigham Young University, nestled beneath the beautiful mountains of Provo, Utah. I wrote about my experience (they treated me like royalty!) in a column published here. The lecture itself was published as “Encountering God’s personality in creation” in Frontiers Magazine (Brigham Young University), fall 2016.
Here’s the text of my talk. Since it is long, I will publish it in two parts, this week and next.
Besides being a Roman Catholic Jesuit brother, I’m also a scientist. With a background like that, both as a Jesuit and as a scientist, it’s probably no surprise to hear me say, “I have no problem with faith and science.” I do it all the time. I live it all the time. My collar and my MIT ring prove that it’s possible to be, at the same time, a fanatic and a nerd.
People think that I can say, “as a scientist I endorse religion!”, as if God is thrilled that finally an MIT graduate believes in Him. It doesn’t work that way.
Some people think that I’ll be able to use science to prove my faith, but that really is a false hope. Science changes; God doesn’t. Any god that’s proved by science (as if science “proves” things) would be a poor imitation of the real God. Any religion based on science would be subservient to that science and prone to be thrown away when that science is superseded by the next version of that science. A supernatural god must be bigger than any natural, logical system. The supernatural is, by definition, above, outside of, bigger than the natural, so trying to pin down or limit or prove or disprove the supernatural in terms of the natural is a pointless exercise.
But that’s not to say that my science and religion don’t talk to each other; not to say that they don’t have interesting things to say to each other. They must.
I believe in God. I believe in science. The question isn’t, “Why do I believe in God?” but, “Why do I believe in science?”
My life of faith is essential to my life of science. My science depends on God. Even more than that, I’m going to insist that everybody’s science depends on God, even those scientists who claim they don’t believe in God. In fact, I can come up with several axioms that you must accept on faith before you do any kind of meaningful science, and these are axioms are religious. They depend on your religion, since not all religions have room for such axioms.
For example, you have to believe that nature follows physical, regular laws. You have to believe in the existence of these laws before you can even consider to look for them. Not every religion has room for such a belief.
If you think that volcanoes erupt because there’s a god-monster in the mountain and that lightning strikes the monster because there’s another god in the air throwing the bolts, you’ve already got an explanation for what’s going on in this picture. You don’t need science, because the nature gods make it happen. If you believe in nature gods, it would never occur to you to look for another explanation. On the other hand, if you deny the existence of nature gods, then you have to come up with another explanation for volcanoes and lightning. The latter religion allows for science, the former has no room for it.
And our religion plays another role in allowing science to occur.
I gave a talk a while back at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the students came up to me after the talk with all this enthusiasm, saying, “I want to be a geologist.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“Yeah, but what do I tell my mom?”
This was South Carolina. This was in the Bible Belt. In the culture where he grew up, studying geology, with our ideas of billions of years old rock formations, directly contradicted the way that he’d been taught about the Bible. To be a geologist, for him, would be declaring war against his religion, his home, his family.
Scientists are people; we have families, we have desires. Like every human being, we’re a mixture of reason and hurt. And like that student, we have to answer those desires inside us and the desires in the people who are closest to us.
Real people aren’t just Kirk or just Spock. Even Kirk and Spock were not just Kirk and Spock. And we have to live with others who are more than just Kirk or just Spock. It’s on the basis of both reason and gut feeling that we make all the decisions in our life. In the case of the student from South Carolina, it meant choosing his science or his religion.
But to me, as someone who has lived both with science and religion all my life, that kind of choice is utterly puzzling. Why would anyone think that you have to make that choice?
Anne Lamott said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Think about that. If you’re sure, you don’t need faith. It’s when you’re not sure, when you can’t be sure, that you have to say, “Okay, I’m going to go ahead anyway. I have faith that this is the direction to go.”
Faith is not blinding yourself to the truth—it’s proceeding after you’ve done everything that you can to find the truth, and you’re still not certain. Even when we’re blind, we can’t see, we don’t have the knowledge of the truth, we still have to step forward and proceed. If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need faith. And so, faith is how we deal with the fact that we have to proceed anyway; that we don’t know.
It’s with faith that we make choices about where we’re going to school, what career we’re going to pursue, where we’re going to live, who we’re going to marry. My student in Charleston would choose geology or not choose geology as an act of faith—not because he found the answer by looking in the Bible, but precisely because he couldn’t find that answer there and he had to follow the tugs of both his head and his heart.
All of life is making crucial decisions on the basis on inadequate information. It’s a leap of faith to start a family. It’s a leap of faith to join a religious community. It’s a leap of faith to move to a new home, a new city, a new country. So these decisions that change our lives are made not only on the basis of inadequate and often incorrect information—they’re made by ignorant, stubborn, and inexperienced teenagers: you and me, back when we were students.
At the very least, we hope we make these decisions with the help of some other people to advise us. We don’t want to make them on our own; we don’t want to make them without any input from a community of family and friends. Our faith is what we learned in the conversations that we’ve had with our elders, with our advisors, with our parents and our teachers, concerning these very questions.
It’s a rare moment that any of us know we’ve experienced God, and so it’s important that we pool those experiences together to compare and to learn from the similarities and the differences; just as important as to sort out the real experiences from the spurious experiences. That’s why we have communities that we call religion.
Science, like faith, is done as part of a big community, and if you don’t have the support of your community, it’s not going to happen; it can’t happen. And without a community, it couldn’t possibly be passed on to the next generation. And that’s why it makes a difference what your community, what your society thinks about the things that you choose to want to do.
If the society that you live in doesn’t think that doing science is what will make a mother proud, you’re not going to find many kids studying science. And you won’t find anybody who will teach it to you, and you won’t find anybody who will want to learn what you can teach to them. And so there’s another clue about the personality of this God who creates: we see that community is essential for doing science; it’s also essential for finding and worshipping God.
The people of the Book, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, we also have a belief that this physical universe was created by our God who looked at it at every stage; said it was good. God reveals himself in the things that he has created, and I believe as a Catholic that God so loved the world—not good people, not ethical behavior, but the world—so much that he sent his son—not to carry us out of this world, but to redeem the world.
St. Athanasius says that by the resurrection, this physical universe has been cleansed and made sacred. And thus if the universe is sacred, studying the physical universe is an act of worship; it’s an essential part of being able to do theology or philosophy.
[Next week: Even if your community encourages science, why does any particular person choose to become a scientist?]