Can science deepen your faith?
Written by J. Bennett Guess
February - March 2008
A not-so-quantum leap
||Randy Varcho | iStockphoto graphic|
Robert Greenberg marvels at the earth's intricate, interconnected ecological systems. He organizes Earth Day events, and he worries about evolving weather patterns and global climate change. He has studied geological time and, by leading field trips, is helping unlock the wonders of science for others.
And he believes in God.
"From my early years, I've always loved nature," says Greenberg, who teaches earth environmental science at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina. "And I've always seen God as the creator of everything."
Raised Jewish — "I was bar mitzvahed" — in Monmouth County, N.J., Greenberg now describes himself and his faith as "Judeo-Christian." In October, he and his wife, Jerri, who also has a science background, joined United Church of Chapel Hill (N.C.)., after attending for about five years.
Greenberg credits his Jewish upbringing as instrumental in helping shape his appreciation for the environment, and he's also grateful that his current community of faith validates his passion for all things science.
"Pretty early on, I understood that there was a scientific plan, and I'm fascinated by discussions about when the universe began and how it began," he says.
Greenberg, who has studied geology at West Virginia University, the University of Vermont and Montana State University, has never seen a contradiction between religion and science.
"Science explains how things work, but not necessarily why. Religion gives you the why to it," he says.
Greenberg says he was particularly inspired by Jimmy Carter's 2005 book, "Our Endangered Values," in which the former president argues there is no conflict between religion and science. Carter, however, does concede the seeming dichotomy is "one of the most ancient and persistent debates, especially in the United States."
"It seems obvious to me," Carter writes, "that, in its totality, the Bible presented God's spiritual message, but that the ancient authors of the Holy scriptures were not experts on geology, biology, or cosmology, and were not blessed with the use of electron microscopes, carbon-dating techniques, or the Hubble telescope."
Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, is known less for being a scientist and more for being a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher.
Greenberg says he's constantly recommending Carter's book to others — especially the religion-science chapter — because it succinctly addresses what Greenberg himself believes to be true.
"[Carter] never saw religion and science as incompatible. They both coexist. And that's the way I look at it," Greenberg says. "I don't understand the hostility [between religion and science]. To me it's ridiculous. I really think it's a lot of energy wasted, especially on the part of the media, because there's no conflict. I believe God gave us brains to use."
Another of Greenberg's heroes is contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking, widely considered one of the greatest minds in physics since Albert Einstein.
"Hawking says scientists now have a common understanding of how the forces were united [to create the Big Bang], but the spark that started it all, that's the miracle," Greenberg says. "I've always been curious about how it happened."
Greenberg says he's equally fascinated with both the "forces" of science and the unknown "spark" behind it — which he calls God.
Olivia Masih White, who retired as a genetics professor at the University of North Texas in Dallas and later served as executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries in Cleveland, says she's spent a lifetime fielding questions about the intersections of religion and science.
"All during my teaching experience, I have been challenged and asked by my students, 'How can you be a Christian and also be a scientist?' — as if they were two very different things," says White, a member of the UCC's Science and Technology Network.
"To me, being a scientist and being a Christian really is more harmonious," she says. "The more I learn about science, the intricacies — how the cells work, how our DNA works — it makes me more excited about this God who created all this, and my faith deepens."
White recalls how she felt in 1983, when the UCC General Synod passed a courageous statement in support of genetic engineering. That same year, White was completing her Ph.D. in genetics.
"For me, that was a turning point, that this church really welcomes science," she remembers.
White says each new scientific discovery leads some to fret that we've "gone too far," that we've learned everything there is to know. Some people, she says, even assumed — wrongly — that the human genome mapping project, once completed, would teach us everything there was to know about human existence and all our questions would be answered.
"But this is just the beginning!" she exclaims, insisting that each new scientific discovery only leads to bigger questions. "How can we help the public? How can we alleviate suffering? How can we prevent illness?"
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, says questions about science should not cause us "to argue about who's right and who's wrong, about what happened or didn't happen." Instead, he says, biology and physics should provoke us to ask, "What does this tell us about God?"
"God is amazingly more complex, more fascinating, more intriguing," he says. "Isn't it exciting that God wants God's creatures to be curious creatures, exploring and imagining?"
Science ultimately welcomes more mystery — not less — into the life of faith, Thomas believes. And that's a strange concept for some. Yet, the sight of seeing dividing cells through the aid of a microscope "encourages singing, not arguments," he says, and provides opportunities for science to offer "conversion experiences" for people of faith.
The outcome of scientific inquiry, therefore, is "a greater sacramental understanding of our life together," Thomas says. "It's not where most people would think that a conversation with science would take us, but that's where it takes me."
Honoring scientific vocations
Thomas tells the story of his own father, Walter Thomas, who was both a polymer chemist and a devoted lay leader in the church. But, looking back, John Thomas says he laments that the church never really legitimized or affirmed his father's scientific career as a true Christian calling.
"As I think back on his life and his life in the church, he was honored as a deacon, as a trustee, for being the moderator of the church," Thomas recalls, "but the church never encouraged him to connect those two parts of himself, the person of faith and the scientist.
"They never lifted him up and honored him as a scientist, but rather as a church worker. I felt, 'What a loss.'"
That's why Thomas says that one of his hopes is that the UCC will begin to be intentional about honoring church members who are scientists — engineers, mathematicians, teachers and students — "to help them make that deep connection between their vocation as scientist and their vocation as a Christian."
Greenberg, the science teacher, believes there's a hunger for greater understanding of the natural world, especially the earth's ages-old mysteries. He addresses that yearning for discovery by leading periodic field trips for church members and for his high school students.
On Feb. 10, for example, Greenberg will lead his next installment of "Celebration of Earth and Sky," an immersion event sponsored by a high school group named "SURGE" (Students United for a Responsible Global Environment), which he serves as faculty advisor.
"Part of living a good life is honoring, respecting and revering God's creation. To observe and enjoy it," Greenberg teaches. "I see life and the earth as a bunch of systems that interact with each other. As we live our lives, we come to deeper understanding of these connections. Unfortunately, some people stagnate. They're told something and they say, 'This is what I believe and I don't want to hear anything else.' I'm open to learning new things and I always see God in it."