Science and Belief

Archive for the ‘worship’ Category

God’s Works

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I have been reading Nancy Frankenberry’s book ‘The Faith of Scientists’. The first four scientists covered – Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon and Pascal – were all Christians, and then the definition of faith gets somewhat broader. Einstein, Dyson, Dawkins and others are included, some of whom are vigorously against any kind of faith…

I want to focus here on Francis Bacon, well known for his contribution to the development of experimental science, and whose understanding of science and Christianity is fascinating. His faith informed his thinking and writing in a very overt way, though he was largely in favour of keeping science separate from theology. (Bacon would have been shocked by Kepler, ten years his junior, whose science was so obviously driven by his theology.)

In his writing Bacon highlighted the importance of some things that are now taken for granted, and contribute to the pursuit and transparency of science.

1.     The need to ‘ask the right questions’ in approaching new fields of study

2.     Appending methods to scientific papers

3.     Publishing errata

Bacon saw science as an act of Christian service, and took truth-telling very seriously. He was keenly aware of our ability to deceive even ourselves.

May God never allow us to publish a dream of our imagination as a model of the world, but rather graciously grant us the power to describe the true appearance and revelation of the prints and traces of the Creator in his creatures.

Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620

if in anything I have been either too credulous or too little awake and attentive, or if I have fallen off by the way and left the inquiry incomplete, nevertheless I so present these things naked and open, that my errors can be marked and set aside before the mass of knowledge be further infected by them; and it will be easy also for others to continue and carry on my labours.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620

Finally, I want to share this prayer, taken from Bacon’s ‘New Organon’. This is a great attitude for work of any sort, let alone science, which can feel so fruitless at times.

And therefore, Father, you who have given visible light as the first fruits of creation and, at the summit of your works, have breathed intellectual light into the face of man, protect and govern this work, which began in your goodness and returns to your glory.

After you had turned to view the works which your hands had made, you saw that all things were very good, and you rested. But man, turning to the works which his hands have made, saw that all things were vanity and vexation of spirit, and has had no rest.

Wherefore if we labour in your works, you will make us to share in your vision and in your Sabbath. We humbly beseech that this mind may remain in us; and that you may be pleased to bless the human family with new mercies, through our hands and the hands of those others to whom you will give the same mind.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620 (my paragraph divisions)

10 things I wish people knew about my science and my faith

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Copper(I) based inorganic compound, Emily Dry

This is a first attempt at communicating the things that I’ve found are most important to Christians working in scientific research. The idea (and some of the content) for this post came from a visit to the one of the departments at Cambridge University, where a small Bible study group meets every Wednesday lunch-time. The passion with which some of them spoke about how they were misunderstood by many people, both in and outside of the lab, made me realise that there’s a dire need to communicate the reality of life in science for a Christian.

So here goes. Some of these points are issues the group I visited wanted to address, some are from scientific friends and colleagues, and some are my own. I hope that readers who are scientists of faith will add their own comments to this list. Obviously writing a piece like this involves many generalisations, but hopefully I have captured something of the personality and motivations of a scientist who also has a Christian faith.

  1. There’s a reason why I spend most of my life on this work. It’s not primarily to make money (I could earn far more in another profession), and it’s certainly not for job security. Exploring the world is my vocation. Studying this incredible universe is a demonstration of my gratitude to God who created it, and leads to the incredible benefits of technology.
  2. There will be practical outcomes of my work, but at times these may be very far off, difficult to explain or frustratingly intangible. My faith might motivate me to work on projects that lead to more immediate technological outcomes, but even then progress towards such outcomes can be painfully slow. My faith might give me the hope required to work in a field where possible outcomes may only be realised far in the future.
  3. My work has intrinsic value. I get a real sense of satisfaction from a job well done. Often this is a love of tinkering and getting an experimental system to work. This is usually a more important factor in my motivation on a daily basis than longer-term goals.
  4. I love the process of discovery. I have to be patient, resilient, and tenacious. This has helped me to grow as a person and in my relationship with God. What do I do when I realise that six months work has been lost, or my latest paper has been scooped? The lab is a crucible for spiritual development.
  5. I think my experiments are beautiful. One of my main drivers is the sense of wonder that comes from scientific discovery, and that leads me to worship.
  6. Another big driver is curiosity. Science helps me find answers to the questions that made my teachers sigh.
  7. In my experiments I deliberately limit my attention to a small number of factors.  This is unique to my scientific work, however. In the rest of my life I am open to different sorts of evidence – not least in the area of relationship with people and God.
  8. I can do my experiments without my faith affecting what I do (although it will affect my ethics). People of all religions and none can work in a lab, and that actually helps the process of discovery – you need many personalities to make a successful research group.
  9. There is a high level of creativity in my work. I need to have original ideas, solve problems, make do with what equipment is available, and present my data in a way that’s easy to digest. My creativity reflects my being made in the image of God, who is mind-bogglingly creative (just look at quantum mechanics!)
  10. My faith makes me open to new scientific discoveries. It was belief in an independent Creator that drove the first scientists to get out and examine the world in the first place – who are we to predict how things will be!?

In short, my faith inspires my science and my science inspires my faith.

I’m sure there is much to add, and clarify. Please do!

God and Zoology

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This post is an extract from my interview with Jeff Hardin, Professor of Zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Part 1 here, part 3 here.)

“The first time I peered down a microscope at a living sea urchin embryo when I was a graduate student at Berkeley I was absolutely hooked on developmental biology. Christians, when they’re doing science, are experiencing something that I call ‘doxological fascination’.  In other words, they’re locked in on the minute details of something – which academics tend to do – and yet they’re doing it for God’s glory, in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) in all the margins of his manuscripts. [I know a scientist who writes SDG on all her lecture notes and in her lab book – Ruth]. They’re trying to, in Keplerian fashion, ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.

I teach two main courses, cell biology and developmental biology.  In each of these courses I start by telling the students that my main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are cool. They laugh, but I go on with this quote that I love:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Albert Einstein, from The World As I See It

I want them to be much better than dead by the end of the semester! My students don’t yet understand how incredible embryos are, and my goal in teaching biology is that they would not be the sort that are sitting around ‘picking blackberries’. I think that this is a new idea to some of my students, and it’s a touch point that I have in common with them, whatever their faith commitments are.

In my introduction to developmental biology I use some ancient Hebrew poetry, from Psalm 139, where David is musing about embryonic development. Even when he was developing in the womb, God was there and David uses poetic language to talk about how his own body was formed. He doesn’t understand that process, but he knows it’s fearful and wonderful. So I tell my students, whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or you don’t, by the end of the semester I want you to share this sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology and the processes that we have the privilege of studying. Usually in the teaching evaluations at the end of the semester there are lots of comments saying, ‘Wow, he actually cares about this material’.”

I love this example of someone who is passionate about his work, and who works hard to transmit that passion to his students. I meet so many people who are surprised that a scientist might think in this way – they feel as if science somehow squashes all the life and meaning out of things – so the more people who get to hear stories like this one, the better!

Worshipping God with science – The Test of FAITH US tour

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I wrote this post for the BioLogos blog about our US tour that starts this week. If you live near Boston, Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, San Diego or Los Angeles I hope you’re coming!

This summer I gave a series of talks at several youth festivals on the subject of ‘Why a Christian should be a scientist’. As someone who spends every day interacting with Christians working in science, I have no shortage of material to present on the topic, and it’s exciting to see the reaction of these young people when they are encouraged that science is a great career for a Christian.

The primary reason why a Christian should consider science as a career is because it offers unique opportunities to worship God. Exploring God’s creation, uncovering its secrets and marvelling at the vastness and intricacy of the universe is never a waste of time, and from the Psalms onwards, scientific information has informed the writers of worship songs. If worship is the chief end of man, then the further we explore using the tools of science the better.

The Test of FAITH documentary and study materials were developed at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion to meet a demand from church leaders, student ministries and scientists for resources to help people understand and explore the relationship between science and faith. They profile a number of senior scientists who are also Christians. The names will be familiar – they include Francis Collins, Ard Louis, Deborah Haarsma, Rosalind Picard, John Polkinghorne, Jennifer Wiseman, Bill Newsome, Denis Alexander, Simon Conway Morris, John Houghton, and Alister McGrath.

Among the topics covered by these study materials are astronomy, the big bang, the creation of life on earth, the environment, bioethics and the brain. They were developed with an ethos that, where controversial issues are concerned, people should have the opportunity to consider different sides of the debate, explore the Bible, and make up their own minds.

At the deepest level the debate between science and religion is really a debate about how do I obtain reliable knowledge about the world? How do I know that something is true, or how do I know that something is false, or how do I know that something is reliable, something is unreliable, and that’s a terribly important question.

Dr Ard Louis, Oxford University, in Test of FAITH

Test of FAITH demonstrates that being a Christian and a scientist need not result in endless personal conflict. Of course there are difficult issues at times, but worshipping God through science, living a Christian life in the lab, and playing a part in developing new technologies are all satisfying ways of serving God.

I think it’s exciting as Christians to go exploring, because we’re never going to find anything that’s outside of God’s realm. Everything is part of this majestic creation, and the more you discover the more amazed you get by thinking about God, and so I think exploration is a divinely Christian activity and people should be excited about it.

Dr Jennifer Wiseman, Astronomer & Author, in Test of FAITH

Dr Alasdair Coles is a neurologist at Cambridge University. He was drawn to neurology as a teenager when he saw the potential to help patients understand their disease by simply talking to them and making a series of clinical deductions. He is now involved in developing drugs to treat multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, Coles has recently been ordained in the Church of England, and has gained unique insights from being part of both of these worlds.

For me theology and science, and neuroscience are going to achieve little unless they start talking to each other. There are fresh insights that theology has for science, and vice versa. And the great theological truths that humans are unique, that we are in some way god-like, that we are the only beasts that are moral, these are things that scientists have to somehow conjure with and study.

Revd Dr Alasdair Coles, Cambridge University, in Test of FAITH

Rosalind Picard is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, and has pioneered the field of emotive computing – developing computers that interpret and respond to human emotion. She has used her expertise to develop technology that helps autistic people to interact socially. Her explanations of how she, as an analytical scientific person, approaches faith are extremely helpful for those who are trying to figure out how science and faith relate.

As I’ve learned more, my scientific method has informed my faith because I’m very analytical, and I question things constantly. You have to be careful as a scientist, however, that you don’t fall into the trap that a lot of atheists fall into. They just assume that God must be provable or disprovable by science. In fact some of them assume that the only things that are true are things science shows. Ironically what they are doing is claiming (dogmatically) that they have the only way to truth: science. But science, within itself, cannot prove the correctness of its own methods. It cannot prove its claim to be the only way to know truth. Science cannot prove most events of history but does that mean they did not happen? To believe that God is explainable by science is to completely mischaracterise God.

Dr Rosalind Picard, MIT, in Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists

Test of FAITH will be presented at a series of events across the US this Fall. A film showing will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Locations include Cambridge, MA; Wheaton, IL; Fairfax, VA; St Paul, MN; and Point Loma, CA. Details can be found here. Our aim is to equip people to start the conversation, and help them to grow in their relationship with God.

There are ways of finding truth. You can read the book of the Bible, you can read the book of nature and you can find truth in both ways. You need to be careful of course about what kind of question you’re asking, and which tools are appropriate for that question, but to be able to be a fully formed human being, it seems to me, to put either of those kinds of investigations off to the side and say, ‘That’s inappropriate,’ or, ‘That’s dangerous,’ is to be impoverished, to miss out on the experience of what one can do on this brief glimpse of time while we’re living here on this amazing planet, having the chance to search in all kinds of directions for the truth.

Dr Francis Collins, Former Director of the Human Genome Project. In Test of FAITH

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Atmospherics

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On my recent trip to the US I visited Kathy Strabala, who works in meteorology & remote sensing in the Space Science & Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Here are some of her thoughts on awe, wonder and worship.

How can you not see God in the power of a storm? The energy that’s created is more powerful than an atom bomb, and it all comes from the processes of the sun and the earth and the atmosphere and the ocean – talk about green energy! A storm rolled through Madison this morning that had spectacular power and energy in just one strike of a lightening bolt. We are powerless to stop it, and we can’t harness it – it’s too much energy. I see God in that. It’s exciting to me that I know what the structures are in the atmosphere that cause that storm. These structures are ordered, so we can study them. It’s not chaos, but that doesn’t mean we can control them.

During a big storm there’s no work done in our building. One time there was a tornado across the lake and the tornado warning sirens were going off. People were going into shelter areas, but everyone in our building was on the roof watching it. A small tornado doesn’t really ever show up in the satellite data, so the best observation is your eyes. When I see something like that I feel nothing but awe and respect, and am to a certain extent grateful even to witness something like that.

I teach workshops on how to use satellite data. We have a tool that allows the students to plot scatter diagrams that describe different spectra in the atmosphere: the clouds, the atmosphere, and the surface. The patterns that are revealed through these plots are just amazing. The student’s eyes get bigger and bigger as they think, ‘Look at this, wow this is exciting’, and that’s what happens when I look at that type of data too. I love being able to say ‘Look at this data, look at what you can see, look how beautiful this is. Look at these patterns that arrive in nature.’

There is no way that this field of study would exist if we didn’t have an ordered, structured environment. The more I learn the more I can believe that God is good. Even looking at the balance of our atmosphere is amazing. It’s so thin – just a tiny little layer – and yet we exist.

I love hearing this sort of reflection from a scientist, and hope – perhaps in another medium – to write in more detail about their work so that others can share the wonder.

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

September 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

The Open Secret

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I’ve been reading Alister McGrath‘s book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret‘, and learning a lot…

If the heavens really are “telling the glory of God,” this implies that something of God can be known through them, that the natural order is capable of disclosing something of the divine. But it does not automatically follow from this that human beings, situated as we are within nature, are capable unaided, or indeed capable under any conditions, of perceiving the divine through the natural order.

McGrath, The Open Secret, p1-2

What can we see of God in his creation? I’ve been particularly interested in the parts on awe, wonder and beauty. A psychological study of awe found similar responses to nature, large buildings, grand theories or encounters with God – so there may be links between natural theology and worship (p279-280).

An interesting question is, does science enhance our engagement with nature, disclosing its true character, or does the reductionist drive of science diminish our sense of wonder: ‘unweaving the rainbow’, as Keats suggested in his poem ‘Lamina‘. Dawkins has critiqued Keats’ rainbow idea in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow‘, and McGrath responds in ‘The Re-Enchantment of Nature‘ (perhaps more later). Though I agree with McGrath and think Dawkins has missed Keats’ point, I love Dawkins’ lyrical descriptions of science revealing a vast, complex and very beautiful world that would otherwise remain closed to us.

McGrath concludes – drawing on C.S. Lewis‘s ‘The Weight of Glory‘ – that our experience of beauty taps into our sense of longing for something more.

Lewis argues that we posses an instinct of transcendence, stimulated by beauty – “a desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now,” For Lewis, beauty evokes an ideal that is more real than anything we encounter in this transitory world, evoking a sense of longing for a half-remembered realm from which we are presently exiled. (p287)

I think that makes a lot of sense.

Songs about science…?

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Following on from last week’s post, I’m looking for material for new worship songs using scientific discoveries, in the hope that someone might take the bait…

What about the amazing discoveries made through the Hubble Telescope? The pictures from this incredible piece of technology in the sky grace our coffee tables, computer monitors and television screens every day. Hubble has filled in many of the gaps in our knowledge about how planets form. Before high-resolution images were available astronomers could only guess some of the details, but now a clearer picture has emerged – quite literally!

Planets form in vast clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. A new planetary system forms when part of the cloud clumps together and begins to collapse under the force of gravity. The compression at the centre of the cloud is so great and causes so much heat to be generated that a new star is formed. The remainder of the dense cloud rotates around the star and begins to flatten into a disc. Planets begin to coalesce within this circulating dust ring. The new planets grow larger and larger, gathering up the remaining dust until a new group of planets is formed orbiting around its own star.

It’s incredible that we can know about star formation in such detail, given that it happens so far away, and over such a long period of time. The discoveries from space telescopes such as Hubble provide plenty of fuel for the imagination, and increase our picture of how big our creator God is. Our universe was created through the same Jesus who appeared to a small nation on the tiny planet that we call home. It’s hard to keep those two things in your head at the same time…

And I can’t write on Hubble without mentioning that Dr Jennifer Wiseman, the chief scientific officer of Hubble Telescope, is a Christian and has written her own thoughts down in a paper for BioLogos about science as an instrument of worship. She also appeared on BBC’s Women’s Hour, speaking about a talk she was about to give at the Faraday Institute on life on other planets.

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

June 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Worshipping God with science

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The writers of the Psalms wrote about stars using the most up to date science of their day. Cutting edge astronomers in Israel in the first millennium BC knew that the stars were created (nothing was known yet about how that might have happened), they had their places, and they (on the whole) kept to those places and danced their set dances every year.

He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.

Psalm 147: 4-5

There is a wealth of hymns and songs that echo this theme but while science has moved on, the language in the songs hasn’t. I’m not suggesting that we do away with the old hymns, or that we use lyrics that might be divisive in a church context, or even that we tie ourselves in knots with technical jargon (I don’t think I could sing about DNA transcription with a straight face!) But what would it look like if we praised God in song for some of the things we have discovered in the last couple of centuries?

Here is an example of a hymn that uses up to date scientific knowledge, written in 1967 when the space race was at its peak.

God, who stretched the spangled heavens,
infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance
through the silent fields of space…

We have ventured worlds undreamed of
since the childhood of our race,
known the ecstasy of winging
through untraveled realms of space…

Catherine Arnott Cameron

What would it look like if more writers of worship songs and hymns started to include references to slightly more contemporary science?

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

June 16, 2011 at 10:15 am

Our Father, The Creator

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

This fabulous quote was used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan in his commentary on Psalm 148 (BRF/Lion, 2003). Psalm 148 almost feels as if it was written by a scientist, it is so tidy in its structure – moving from the outer reaches of the universe and zooming in to the tiniest creatures.

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above…

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars…

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…

you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all ceaders,

wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds…

Coggan says that

We are bidden to listen to the song of praise that creation sings, to join in the ongoing hymn of the universe. We are to become aware of our place in creation, of our relationship with the creator, with all creation and all created beings. This will lead to a realisation of our own littleness and yet to a realisation of the uniqueness of our humanity.

Coggan’s last point is what gets me – that I worship a God who created the universe, and I can call him ‘Father’ (daddy, even!) I can be amazed by an incredible view from the top of a mountain or by something I have seen down a microscope but I don’t have to be overwhelmed by my smallness or weakness. The one who’s responsible for the universe cares about me and enjoys my every act of worship. Worship is everything I do that’s offered to God, like a kid running to its parent with a picture for the fridge. I’m not earning something, I’m worshipping a God who already loves me. If only I could constantly keep that in mind and not get distracted by blackberries…

Written by Ruth Bancewicz

May 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Science is culture

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A few weeks ago I heard writer Andy Crouch speak at the Everything Conference. His three talks on creating culture are well worth a listen. Andy’s premise is that Christians spend far too long either critiquing culture or simply going along with what is produced by others. We should be cultivating the good that is present in wider culture and creating our own cultures – not in a ‘head-in-the-sand Christian subculture way, but in a way that speaks to the whole of society. I was particularly struck by his talk on creating culture together. Some of the best projects start with two or three people around the kitchen table and expand as they bring others on board. It’s not about the genius alone in their study (though I’m sure lone geniuses – genii? – have their place).

New cultures can take time to develop. Andy quoted Patrick Shaw: ‘We greatly overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years’. A prime example is the growth of Christianity. On a global scale the resurrection of Jesus Christ had a minimal impact to begin with, but as churches were established and the effects on people’s lives became apparent, Christianity spread so rapidly that within a few hundred years entire nations called themselves Christian.

Of course science both operates within and impacts culture, and all of the above is extremely relevant to scientists, as Andy Crouch knows because he is married to one! Catherine Crouch is a physicist based at Swarthmore College who works on microphotoluminescence and is currently engaged on a sabbatical project studying curvature in cell membranes.

Catherine has written a ‘meditation on light’ that draws on her own work in physics as well as her Christian faith. It communicates beautifully the process of discovery leading to worship. Science clearly contributes to the creation of culture: new discoveries lead to deeper knowledge about the way the world works and helps us to develop new technologies. But, as Catherine so clearly describes, science also shapes other aspects of culture in subtle yet far-reaching ways: a deeper understanding of the world around us impacts the way we see the world and what we believe in.

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