t f p g+ YouTube icon

The Personal Journey Of A Faith-Filled Scientist

Bookmark and Share

September 24, 2013 Tags: Evolution & Christian Faith project, Lives of Faith, Science as Christian Calling

Today's entry was written by David Vosburg. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Personal Journey Of A Faith-Filled Scientist

Note: This essay, by BioLogos ECF grantee David Vosburg was originally published in The Claremont Ekklesia, a new online journal started by students at the Claremont Colleges. It will also eventually be featured in a new book from BioLogos, provisionally titled, “Evolving: Evangelicals Reflect on Evolution.”


My college pastor once asked me, “What does Christ have to do with chemistry?” He was challenging me to see how my faith might inform my intention to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, and also how my understanding of chemistry might enrich my faith. I did not have an answer for him, so the question lingered in my thoughts for several years.

When I was an undergraduate, I kept my scientific pursuits and my faith separate. Not because it had to be that way, but because I did not know how to integrate them. I had not read deeply into issues at the intersection of science and faith, but I was uncomfortable with the perspectives that I had heard. Generally these views were either suspicious of science or dismissive of biblical faith. Neither resonated with me, so I tried to ignore both perspectives. As I had only recently claimed my faith in Jesus as my own, I was protective of it and sought to avoid areas of potential conflict.

Such avoidance could easily have led me to give up my love for science or to abandon my faith. Indeed, I likely would have followed one of those paths, at least for a time, if I had felt alone. But I had a group of close friends—other students—with whom I felt a common identity and purpose. We talked, played, and prayed together. They rejoiced with me, consoled me, and forgave me. Through them I felt God’s wonderful love and grace, which sustained me. I thank God for that.

Perhaps I benefited from being a chemist, rather than a biologist, geologist, or physicist—those fields seemed to have more direct points of conflict with traditional Christian faith. Evolution, the fossil record, and an unimaginably old earth and universe were all issues of vigorous contention in some Christian circles. Were all Christians who embraced these scientific ideas untrustworthy? I was not ready to answer that yet, and avoided such controversial topics in my day-to-day life.

I only began engaging these controversial issues after I decided to do postdoctoral research in chemical biology. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I had been constructing complex molecules. My target molecules were typically natural products made by plants, fungi, or bacteria. Often these compounds had interesting biological properties: to react with a protein or kill cancerous cells. But what I found most compelling was the intricate chemical structure of these molecules. It often took me and my colleagues years to devise an effective strategy to synthesize our target molecules. How then did the bacteria (or other producing organisms) make the natural products so rapidly and seemingly effortlessly? I became fascinated with biosynthetic mechanisms.

Those biosynthetic mechanisms involve proteins, leading me to ask scientific questions about the evolutionary relationships between the proteins and their ancestors: How did these proteins come to be? Why do they make the natural products? I was going to need to learn about evolution. Furthermore, I would be working with biologists in my postdoctoral laboratory, and I absolutely wanted to have intellectual credibility with my coworkers. Yet my faith was central to my identity. It seemed that I could no longer hide in the safe haven of organic chemistry. I would have to confront some of the controversial issues around the origins of life and the Bible.

But why was I so afraid of doing this? Does the Bible really discourage the honest pursuit of truth? Is it in any way laudable to dismiss uncomfortable evidence? Actually, no. Some passages that came to mind were:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)1

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:2)

These Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

I believed that God created the universe and that he inspired the writers of the Bible. So if both creation and scripture were from God, could I not trust both? It seemed to me that science and Christianity ought to be compatible, since both sought truth. Hesitant though I was, I looked more intently for reliable resources. I saw Francis Collins give three lectures on science and faith at Harvard2 and found several helpful books that sought to reconcile biblical and scientific perspectives on origins.3

For me, wrestling with the ideas presented in these talks and books was slow and emotionally challenging. I faced many hard questions: What was I resisting, and why? Did I fear a spiritually precarious compromise with secular ideas? Where did I get the idea that science is secular, anyway? How do the most respected scientist-Christians and theologians reconcile faith and science? How might my views of scripture and of God change? What would other Christians think about me?

Thankfully, I was able to explore these questions in community—a community that extends back over 1500 years. I was surprised and encouraged by what St. Augustine and Galileo had written in the 5th and 17th centuries, respectively. Both cautioned against holding too rigidly to particular biblical interpretations in the face of apparently contradictory evidence.

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (ca. 415), St. Augustine of Hippo writes:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.4

Galileo Galilei echoes this thought in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615):

In St. Augustine we read: “If anyone shall set the authority of [the Bible] against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.” This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of wise expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.5

Augustine and Galileo showed me that there was great precedent in trying to reconcile Christian faith with reason and scientific exploration. To hear this from such prominent voices in theology and science was immensely helpful to me as I reexamined the creation accounts in Genesis.

The more that I read Genesis 1-3, the more I became convinced that those chapters are actually more concerned with Who created and Why we were created than a precise description of When the universe began and How living things appeared. I came to realize that Genesis was not written to 21st century Americans, but to the ancient Hebrews, and through them to the rest of the world. So as a truth-seeking reader of the Bible, I needed to be cognizant not only of the original language and genre of the text, but also of the intentions of the author interpreted through the conceptual framework of the culture of that time.6

I now believe the apparent conflict arises not from nature and the Bible, but from flawed interpretations of scientific data and from misunderstandings of scripture. For example, some people claim that evolution proves there is no God, even though the existence of God is not a scientific question. Others regard Genesis 1 and 2 as modern scientific or journalistic accounts, despite the fact that Genesis far predates our modes of historical and scientific writing. The conflict does not come from God or nature—we have created the conflict ourselves. Intentionally or not, we often extend science past its natural bounds and use the Bible for questions it does not intend to answer.

But if there seems to be a satisfactory scientific explanation for something, does that mean that God is not involved in it? Absolutely not! The spiritual reality of prayer is not diminished by our observation of concurrent electrochemical processes in the brain. Likewise, a kiss is not fully explained by a scientific description. Scientifically, a kiss is a puckering of the lips, a transfer of saliva, carbon dioxide, and some bacteria. If you’ve ever given or received a kiss before, that’s probably not what you were thinking of when it happened. When I kiss my wife, there is definitely more going on there than a puckering of the lips, a transfer of saliva, carbon dioxide, and some bacteria. If there weren’t, she wouldn’t let me kiss her, nor would she kiss me back!

So I believe we can be freed from the myth of intrinsic conflict. We can embrace both faith and science.

I can now answer my college pastor’s question: What does Christ have to do with chemistry? Jesus has everything to do with chemistry, since “all things were created through him and for him,” and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16,17). My response is to love God and to embrace science as a joyful form of worship, discovery, and awe, delightfully learning about God’s thoughts and designs at a molecular level.

As a synthetic chemist or molecule maker, I especially resonate with J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation: human creation that reflects God’s image as creator.7 Sub-creation is illustrated in Tolkien’s creation story of Middle-earth:

Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without any thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.8

My ability to create comes from God’s own creativity. Tolkien’s concept of rejoicing in this gift of creativity reflects the joy and inspiration I experience as a synthetic chemist.

Molecules are beautiful. Making new ones is a privilege and a cause for joy and worship. I delight in them, and I believe God does, too. He is the first and greatest chemist, and he has entrusted me with one small corner of his laboratory.

A traditional way to express joy and worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition is in song, as in the book of Psalms. Inspired by Psalm 148, I wrote this chemistry-themed psalm:

Praise the LORD.

 

Praise the LORD from the classroom,

Praise him in the laboratory, too.

 

Praise him, all his molecules,

Praise him, all his proteins and nucleic acids.

 

Praise him, all alkaloids and steroids,

Praise him, all you sweet carbohydrates.

 

Praise him, you manifold terpenoids

and you polyketides and peptides.

 

Let them praise the name of the LORD,

for he commanded and they were created.

 

He formed them from the elements;

he decreed how they should bond.

 

Praise the LORD from the NMR,

all you chemists in industry and academia,

whether you be famous or not,

 

carbon and oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen,

electrons that do all his bonding,

 

you fluorine and chlorine,

light hydrogen and heavy iodine,

 

all alkanes and alkenes,

every alkyne and aromatic ring,

 

all amines and aldehydes,

ketones and carboxylic acids,

 

esters, amides, and anhydrides,

alcohols and ethers.

 

Let them praise the name of the LORD,

for his name alone is exalted;

his splendor is revealed in our every molecule.

 

He has raised up for his people the Christ,

the praise of all his saints,

of the church, the people close to his heart.

 

Praise the LORD.

 

© David A. Vosburg 2013

Notes

1. All scriptural quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001.

2. The William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard University February 3-5, 2003. The titles were, “From Atheist to Believer: A Personal Voyage,” “Can a Geneticist Be a Believer? Evolution and Other Challenges,” and “Genetics, Ethics, and Faith.”

3. Some of the first books that helped me were: Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, New York: HarperCollins, 1999; Falk, Darrel R. Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004; Godfrey, Stephen J. and Smith, Christopher R. Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, Toronto: Clements, 2005; and Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, New York: Free Press, 2006. A new favorite is Haarsma, Deborah B. and Haarsma, Loren D. Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Faith Alive, 2011.

4. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.18, trans. J. H. Taylor, New York: Newman Press, 1982, p. 41.

5. Galilei, Galileo, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Stillman Drake, New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p. 186.

6. Walton, John H., The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

7. Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-stories,” In Tree and Leaf, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964.

8. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 43.

 


David Vosburg is an associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He holds a bachelor of arts from Williams College and a doctorate from The Scripps Research Institute. His research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, medicinal natural products, and green chemistry. He and his wife, Kate, have been actively involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for almost 20 years.


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 1   1
Merv - #82682

September 24th 2013

Thanks, David.  St. Augustine’s theme that no truths can contradict each other should be one of the great unifiers for highly disparate groups of Christians even on opposite sides of origins issues.  Even if some Christians reject large swaths of science, they should at least be able to agree that there is an objective creation to be understood.  That the rocks and stars can and do cry out their praise is a Christian rallying point even if we disagree about interpreting all the “languages” involved.


glsi - #82736

September 29th 2013

David,

I’m curious how you and Francis Collins have been able to “reconcile biblical and scientific perspectives on origins”.  We all know that the biblical perspective is based on the bible even if various bible-readers differ on their interpretations of  bible passages.  But what could a “scientific perspective” even mean?  That there was creation of life irregardless of God?  Or that life was created from dust (your beloved molecules?) through some unnamed random process?

Since you are a chemist, I have to ask you what in chemistry have you found that allows proteins to construct themselves outside of a living cell, or for life to arise out of lifeless chemicals?  If your answer is that nothing in chemistry has ever been shown to allow for this, then I would have to say that this perspective is not really scientific at all, but rather based on dreamings, fantasy,  faith or perhaps some type of pagan, materialist religion.


Dave Vosburg - #82805

October 7th 2013

Dear glsi,

Thank you for your questions and curiosity. I would say that a scientific perspective on origins is one that takes seriously the evidence we learn from science (about the origins of the universe, life, species, and humans). And this can be compatible with a biblical perspective, which asserts that God is involved in both creating and sustaining the world.

You seem to ask specifically about origins of life issues, about which there is greater mystery than the other three origins areas. Certainly there are molecules that can self-assemble and replicate, including very simple ones, but it’s hard to know how this may have happened historically. And we may never know much about it. I am open to the idea that God “intervened” to create life once he’d gotten the universe going and our planet was formed, etc. But I am not yet convinced either biblically or scientifically that God had to intervene in that way rather than using/guiding the natural mechanisms that he’d already set up himself (knowing full well what their capacity was). Maybe he did, maybe not. But I don’t sense that the apparent unlikeliness of life forming should be fashioned into a crude form of “proof” of God’s existence. I am ok not knowing the answer on this and being charitable to others who have divergent views on this very interesting, but somewhat peripheral theological distinction. Who Jesus was and is does not change much based on precisely how God chose to have life begin.

Shalom,

DAV


glsi - #82816

October 8th 2013

Dave,

I do agree with your final thoughts here that the original mechanism for the creation of life doesn’t really matter one way or the other regarding the question of who Jesus is.  It sounds as if we share a lot of common ground there.

 

Still, the intent of BioLogos is to convince Christians to follow the way of Science which in this case favors the idea that science will surely one day reveal some naturalistic process in which life came into being on its own, and moreover determine how and where the original matter came from with which to assemble itself.  This is the same hope and driven goal of the atheistic scientists as well.  Stephen Hawkings has already declared that God is not necessary for the creation of the universe through some math and logic so fuzzy that only he can understand it.

 

I choose science over Hawkings though and it’s now plain to see that the science of chemistry is fully on the side of believers in Yahweh who created the heavens, the earth and life itself out of dust.  There’s absolutely nothing in chemistry that allows for the creation of life and I think even the nonbelievers are beginning to suspect the truth.   Stanley Miller died a few years ago, his life’s work discarded in a bin for hazardous wastes. Is BioLogos sponsoring any new Stanley Miller devotees with that huge pile of money they’re sitting on? 


Dave Vosburg - #82843

October 11th 2013

Dear glsi,

Like you, I am encouraged that we share much in common in our Christian faith.

BioLogos, I would say, favors science over Science and likewise nature over Nature (not deifying either). I imagine that there are a variety of perspectives among evolutionary creationists as to how much science will teach us about the origin of life.

I am unaware of BioLogos funding any Miller-style origins of life research, though I know there are many scientists working in this area (to my knowledge, most if not all funded from non-religious sources). It is a really interesting area where chemists can have unique contributions, but I admit it currently seems quite speculative to me. I hope Christians can be charitable in areas where both the biblical and scientific evidence are open to more than one interpretation. We humans certainly don’t have everything right about God—I wonder whether in some of these non-essential areas, a diversity of perspectives could actually be pleasing (or amusing) to God?

Peace,

Dave


glsi - #82861

October 11th 2013

I’m glad we agree that it’s quite speculative.  And yet chemical evolution is not described as speculative in mainstream biology texts.  It’s obviously accepted as a perfectly acceptable assumption which is not supported by any known science.

I don’t know if you have any kids in school yet that are forced to consume these ideas masquerading as science.  I can’t speak for God, but I certainly don’t find it amusing or pleasing in any way.  


Dirk Bulinckx - #82887

October 13th 2013

So sweet post

Thanks


pastorscott - #83372

November 1st 2013

I understand the concerns that glsi is raising, but I do not understand the BioLogos perspective as insisting that all questions of physical life must be answered by the scientific method.  As a layperson, I believe that, as questions are answered, new questions arise.  Thus the exploration of science and the wonder of worship continue to both grow.


Page 1 of 1   1