God made it, God loves it, God keeps it

[Galaxy Cluster Abell 370 and Beyond. Hubble Space Telescope. NASA, ESA, Jennifer Lotz and the HFF Team (STScI) / Public Domain—NASA]

We talked to four scientists who are believers—three with distinguished careers and one embarking on the journey. Francis Collins led the Human Genome Project and is now director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. William Phillips is a fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics. Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and the Political Science Endowed Professor in Public Policy and Public Law at Texas Tech University. Allison Greenplate is a postdoctoral fellow in immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

CHRISTIAN HISTORY: What led you to become a scientist, and how did this intersect with your faith journey? 

Francis Collins: I fell in love with science in a high school chemistry class. I was captivated (and still am) about how the tools of science can lead to reliable knowledge about how nature works. I started out in chemistry, but later switched to medicine because I hoped that I could contribute to ways to alleviate suffering. 

My faith journey had a different timetable. I was an agnostic in college and an atheist in graduate school—but those positions weren’t very well thought through. Then as a medical student I had to face the reality of life and death in the patients I was caring for, and I realized I wasn’t really sure what I believed. 

I dug into arguments about why people believe in God, and to my surprise came to the conclusion that faith is more rational than disbelief. Over two years of struggle, I came to believe in God, and ultimately to see the person of Jesus as an answer to all my questions. I have been a deeply committed Christian since age 27. To this day I have never encountered a situation where my faith and my science are in conflict. I wrote about that in The Language of God and founded an organization called BioLogos that has become the most heavily traveled meeting site for people looking for harmony of science and faith. Their motto is “God’s words, God’s works.”

William Phillips: I was interested in science almost as far back as I have any memories. I remember making myself a “chemistry set” from common things around the house and seeing what happened when I mixed them together—luckily nothing I combined was really dangerous. My parents were social workers, but they encouraged my curiosity and recognized my interest in science. By the time I was 10, I had an idea that physics was where I wanted to be.

I was born into a family that took faith seriously. My earliest memories involved going to church every Sunday, praying daily. It never crossed the minds of my parents that there was any conflict between science and faith. By the time I met people who thought there was a conflict, I’d already developed enough grounding in my science and my faith that it never bothered me.

I’ve always been Methodist, but I went to Juniata College, a church-related college started by the Church of the Brethren. We had required religion courses. They were among the most important classes that I took because they taught me to look at the Bible in a different way: here were scholars talking about how the Bible came to be, who wrote it, who edited it, who translated it, how the culture impacted the passages we were studying. 

I went through a time in graduate school where I didn’t go to church. I didn’t feel distant from God, but graduate school is pretty consuming when you’re a physicist. When I came to NIST, a colleague invited me to his church, an incredibly ethnically diverse church. I walked in and thought—this is what I’ve been looking for all my life: this is the place I want to raise my kids. 

Katharine Hayhoe: My dad was a science teacher, so some of my earliest memories include learning binary numbers before regular ones and how to find the galaxy Andromeda with a pair of binoculars. He was also a teacher in our local church, so I took for granted his perspective: what is science, other than trying to figure out what God was thinking when he created the universe? And if our science and the Bible appear to be in conflict, it must be our limited understanding that’s at fault. If they were created by the same person, how could they possibly conflict?

It’s no surprise that with this background I was planning to become an astrophysicist, but once again faith stepped in. Needing an extra credit to complete my undergraduate physics degree, I spotted a new course on climate change. It completely changed the trajectory of my life. I learned that climate change is not only an environmental issue; it is, as the US military now calls it, a threat multiplier, making issues of poverty and hunger, insecurity and injustice, worse. As a Christian who believes that we are called to love others, to act justly, and to walk humbly in this world, I couldn’t avert my eyes and pass this by.

It turned out that my physics background had given me the exact skill set I needed to work on this urgent global problem; and my heart said, how can I not? Caring about God’s creation, which includes the poor and the vulnerable as well as every other living thing, is a faithful acceptance of our God-given responsibility and a genuine expression of God’s love.

Allison Greenplate: As a child I spent a lot of time reading books about how the natural world worked—how ozone protected the earth, how the bubonic plague spread, how black holes formed. By my senior year of high school, I was hooked on the science of human health and the immune system. Around that time, I spent a day shadowing scientists at a local research lab that specialized in understanding the immune system and developing new medical interventions. I loved how they worked together to solve problems and help patients. Because of that experience, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology and, later, a PhD in microbiology and immunology. 

A favorite quote of mine comes from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Science is the perfect intersection between my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger. I have the pleasure of studying the fascinating, complicated immune system while also helping improve medical care. On difficult days in the lab, what carries me through is my unwavering belief that I am called to love and care for my neighbors.

CH: How would you describe the compatibility of science and faith to a layperson? 

FC: Science and faith are designed to answer different questions. If it’s a “how” question about nature and how things work in the universe, science is the way to approach it. If it’s a “why” question like “Why am I here?,” “Why is there something instead of nothing?,” or “Why is the universe fine-tuned to make life possible?,” then reductionist science doesn’t help very much; one needs to search for truths that can come from faith.

WP: Sometimes questions require the perspective of both disciplines—for example, if you’re asking about the possibility of making genetic changes to our makeup. You want to understand the science well, and also religious thought about the nature of humankind. 

I have a hard time reading the first few chapters of Genesis without crying—they are so beautiful. But the Bible is a book that tells us what our relationship is to God and what God expects of us, not a scientific textbook.

KH: Faith, the author of Hebrews tells us, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. And what is science, other than the substance of things that are here and now, the evidence of what we see and measure? They both serve a purpose, but a distinct and unique one. For difficult, thorny issues with ethical or moral implications, we need both. Science can tell us that climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are serious, and that our choices matter. But which solutions should we prioritize? It’s our values that guide our answers to these questions, not our science: and for the vast majority of us around the world, our values come from our faith.

AG: In science the pursuit of knowledge and truth relies on the data we can observe within the physical universe; it is not fit to answer questions like “Does God exist?” or “How can I best love my neighbor?” In the Christian faith, knowledge and truth are based on special and natural revelations, given to us by God. We look to the Bible to answer questions like those. 

But the Bible does not provide an exhaustive list of observations about the physical world and cannot help us answer “How do immune cells recognize cancer cells?” or “How do plants convert sunlight into energy?” Faith has led me to believe that all truth is united in Christ. As I learn new scientific knowledge through my experiments or reading scientific publications, I rejoice in seeing a new facet of God. For me, to understand the details of his creation is to grow closer to the Creator.

CH: Can you give a specific example of how your faith and research have influenced each other? 

FC: When I look at the complexity of living things, I am in awe. But as a scientist, I am convinced that once the first self-replicating life forms appeared, evolution has been fully capable of generating that complexity. That doesn’t mean the awe is reduced, however! I am in support of the synthesis known as “evolutionary creation,” where God is the author of the whole process, including all the exquisitely mathematical natural laws, but used evolution as the means of creation.

WP: I believe that the universe I am privileged to explore is the work of a loving creator; it gives a sense of holiness to my profession. When the Smithsonian came into being, they decided the ideal first director would be Joseph Henry, the great nineteenth-century physicist. People from Washington went to Princeton to see him. He invited them into the laboratory and said “We are about to ask God a question. Let us pray that we can understand that answer.” I’m asking God questions and getting the answers. I think scientists are tremendously privileged because they get to understand something about the nature of God that others don’t get. Unless you’re a physicist you don’t understand how beautiful James Clerk Maxwell’s equations are. There are things artists and poets and musicians understand that I will not get. But science helps me to understand God in a way that’s really amazing.

The question of theodicy is for me one of the most troubling questions of religious faith: why, if God is good, is there suffering unrelated to the bad choices that free creatures make? However, as a physicist, I am keenly aware that there are questions like “What are the position and velocity of this particle?” that seem reasonable and meaningful, and yet are clearly not meaningful in the context of quantum mechanics. Knowing this makes it easier for me to accept that there may be questions to which I cannot expect an answer in this lifetime because of a lack of understanding of the larger picture—which may be analogous to the lack of understanding that existed in physics in the nineteenth century before quantum mechanics was discovered.

KH: John Holdren, a physicist who served as President Obama’s science advisor, says about climate change, “We have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” I study climate impacts to quantify the benefits of mitigation and to inform adaptation, trying to prevent as much suffering as possible because I believe that we as Christians are called to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.

AG: In one of my college classes, we studied the work of Julian of Norwich. She famously wrote of a revelation from God in which she held a hazelnut that represented all of the created universe, and in it saw three properties: “The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” Like Julian I found myself holding (in a glove-covered hand) a tube filled with tiny immune cells. I marveled at the complexity and improbability of these cells and felt, in that moment, the weight of what it meant to be created, loved, and sustained by God. CH

By the editors and interviewees

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #134 in 2020]

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