Theology and Science, and why every Theologian Should Put on a Scientist’s Glasses [at least once in awhile]

I’ve just concluded what I hope is only the first round of an ongoing series of podcast interviews with some scientists from Gettysburg College.  [Most of them haven’t aired yet, but when they do, you can find them here:  The Seminary Explores.]  The impetus for this little series was the AAAS grant Gettysburg Seminary received to integrate science into the seminary curriculum; so this is me doing my part!]  Here are the professors who were generous enough to share their time and wisdom with me [in the order of our interviews]:

                     Dr. Kristin Stuempfle, Health Sciences
                     Dr. Sarah Principato, Environmental Studies
                     Dr. Michael Wedlock, Chemisty
                     Dr. Sharon Stephenson, Physics
                     Dr. Craig Foltz, Physics
                     Dr. Jennifer Powell, Biology

I have to say that I had an absolutely delightful time, and I was just amazed at the breadth of the conversations. I want to share a few of my reflections on these conversations in what follows, but first let me just say how gracious and kind the scientists were in our interactions.  I could tell what great teachers they all are, because they never made me feel stupid [even though at times, I asked really stupid questions], and they worked really hard to help me understand.  In other words, they brought me into their world with warmth and grace, and made me feel like I belonged there, and was really welcome.  If you don’t have any scientists in your circle of friends, I highly recommend seeking out a few!  

So, first let me say that I’m humbled by all I don’t know about even the most basic scientific concepts.  [Did you know that there actually are two immune systems in the human body?  We have an “innate” system, which all living organisms have–even plants; this refers to the defense system with which we are born.  But we also have the “adaptive” system, which is immature in infants and needs to develop–and only mammals possess, by the way.]  Did you know that humans have the power to time travel?  We do:  every time we look up into the night sky [depending on the strength of the telescope] we look back in time, millions and even billions of years?  [OK, maybe the scientists wouldn’t characterize it that way, but I would!]  Did you know that there is a rock with a visible dinosaur print in it on a very public place on the battlefield?  [Maybe those of you in Gettysburg knew that–I didn’t!]  So, one of my most important take-aways from these conversations is the unbelievable wealth of knowledge that scientists possess that we in the church really should avail ourselves of, in order to better know and appreciate the world around us.  [More about that in a moment….]

The second thing that struck me was the deep passion for the universe and enthusiastic curiosity about it that characterizes the core disposition of these scientists. Without exception, they all spoke about the wonder and amazement they continue to feel about what they are learning about creation [my theological term].  Jennifer Powell said something at the end of her conversation that really struck me.  She said [in my paraphrase], we never prove anything in Biology; we draw conclusions based on what we know now, but we always are learning, and we always are prepared to revise and change what we know.  I told her how much that sounds like the work of a theologian!  We always seek to speak a faithful word about God in the context in which we find ourselves, but we know that God continues to reveal Godself in new and surprising ways, so we also know there always is more to discover and learn.  If I took away one thing from the conversations, it was that people of faith should seek out and learn from scientists in any way they can: books, lectures, friendships, TV programs–because that scientific disposition of curiosity, study and wonder can and should animate a life of faith as well.

The third thing that made an impression on me was how the knowledge and perspective of science can shed fresh light on Bible passages we have heard a hundred times, and invite us to think about them in new ways.  So, for example, after my conversation with Craig Foltz, the astrophysicist, I simply can’t read the words of Psalm 8 the same way I did before:  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  After my conversation with Jennifer, the geneticist, I have a new perspective on the words of Psalm 139:  “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Far from fearing that science might take away our faith, Christians should welcome its wisdom, challenges, and insights.  I am 100% convinced that theology is richer for an engagement with science, not poorer or weaker.

The last thing I want to share is something Michael Wedlock, the chemist, told me.  When I asked him why what he does matters–what difference it makes; he said [again, in my paraphrase], I have a greater appreciation for the world because I know some of reasons why things are like they are.  So, for example, I appreciate the beautiful sunset even more because I know about the chemical reactions between elements that make those colors so gorgeous.  Isn’t that something we all can appreciate?  Knowing more about the world, knowing more about our bodies, knowing more about the universe:  this knowledge opens up to us pathways of appreciation and awe [and I would say thankfulness and praise] that we don’t even know are there unless the scientists show us.  

I guess, ultimately, that’s how these conversations felt to me:  like invitations into a new world, a new way of seeing that makes possible new ways of relating to God, to others, to animals, and to the whole creation.  As far as I’m concerned, to do its work faithfully and well, theology needs more science, not less. 

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