Another kind of isolation comes from one of the great achievements of Western society: the division of knowledge into ever more specialized subfields. There is no doubt that ever-increasing specialization has unleashed discovery, creativity, and indeed much of the prosperity that we enjoy. But specialization has intellectual and personal costs for at least some scientists, like my wife, who went into physics for the love of physics, as a whole. It was physics’ beautiful and comprehensive elegance that she was most eager to study and teach — and surely one of the great gifts of every field of science is the glorious symmetries and patterns that seem written into the fabric of our universe.
But sustaining a research career in physics requires attention to what can seem to the rest of us absurdly minute sub-sub-specialties which have only become more tightly defined over time. Some, perhaps most, scientists thrive on these tiny areas of focus. But those of us who care about the way the world holds together, and believe that all things come together in Christ the wisdom and power of God, must insist that too much specialization is not good for anyone’s soul. The sterility that is necessary for a successful biological experiment, or the austere vacuum essential to many experiments in physics, are not viable environments for flourishing life. Nor is intellectual specialization the highest form of knowledge — it is more likely to be the kind of knowledge that merely puffs up unless, after the fruits of specialization have been harvested, they are re-integrated with the complexity of fully human lives.
Ministering to Scientists
Such is the life of a scientist, at least the scientist I have known best. Some of these formative realities have been elements of intellectual careers for centuries (wonder, frustration, competition, the demand for novelty, perhaps the intimidation of non-specialists). Others are particularly modern and not exclusive to science (specialization and isolation affect or afflict many careers in our age). Others are very specific to the vocation of a physicist and would be less true of a biologist or an ecologist. Since many scientists are also teachers, another essay’s worth of commentary could be added on the challenges of teaching faithfully and well. And I haven’t mentioned the many complexities that come with being a woman, and more specifically a mother, in one of the few disciplines that still sees persistent underrepresentation of women as well as ethnic minorities. But I hope that at this point you are sensing that embracing the vocation of research puts one on a path that will ultimately require tremendous spiritual and emotional growth — or that will hinder that growth. As with so many professional callings, I have found that science makes such demands on its practitioners that those who succeed in it tend to be either strikingly mature and wise persons, or sadly foolish and stunted — with relatively few in the middle. The stakes in a scientific vocation are high.
And here is my concern: With Catherine by my side, I have sat through 15 years’ worth of sermons in churches that by and large have served our family very well with worship, teaching, fellowship, and opportunities for mission. There is much that I’ve been grateful for in those sermons. But I can’t help noticing that in all these years, unless I am forgetting something, I do not remember hearing one thing, in church or a Christian Bible study or another Christian context, that even acknowledged most of the dynamics she encounters in her vocation every day. Does the gospel really have nothing to say to our sense of wonder and delight in the world? Is it silent on how to manage competition and risk? Does it give us no guidance on the qualities that make for real, fruitful collaboration? To the contrary, all these are the soil where discipleship can grow, where grace can be discovered, and where real faith can be nourished. What other opportunities are we missing to name the ways that every vocation in our congregation points us toward, and indeed requires, the death to self and trust in God that are the essence of trust in Jesus?
Another way of putting this is that all these challenges and gifts are intensely personal. That is, they bear very directly on what kind of person Catherine is. They affect her as an embodied human being, affecting her sleep, her thoughts, her dreams, her heart rate and blood pressure. And they are not fundamentally about the theoretical content of physics. They are about the practice of physics. They are about the embodied patterns of life that have shaped the horizons of possibility and impossibility for Catherine and her colleagues.
None of these realities, incidentally, can be given an adequately meaningful account within the framework of science itself. Science itself cannot interpret the practice of science — not in a way that does justice to the whole experience of being a scientist, answering the questions of why it is a genuine human calling, why it is potentially full of temptation as well as potentially full of grace, why it can produce such delight and such difficulty. Those are theological questions — but more immediately they are ministry questions, requiring someone to come alongside scientists with resources from outside of science itself.
Many people who end up in academic vocations are comfortable with abstraction. There is real intellectual leverage that can be gained by abstracting away from particular persons to talk about, for example, “personality”; to abstract away from a set of methods, practices, discoveries, and theories to talk about “science”; to abstract away from a set of beliefs and rituals to talk about “religion.” Yet ministry is one human vocation that dare not be abstract. The most fruitful ministry always is engaged with very concrete communities and persons.
Indeed, when theologians and pastors neglect the personal component of science and engage it as if it did not have tremendous implications for the personal life of scientists, the loss is asymmetric. Scientists do not do less valuable science if they set aside questions of theology. To the contrary: science is a discipline of specialized investigation. But this is precisely what theology, and ministry, are not. A friend of mine is fond of saying that most academic disciplines seek to know everything about something—but theology claims to know something about everything. As theologians and pastors we owe the world as comprehensive an accounting as is possible given our human limits. Our theologizing, preaching, and pastoral care cannot afford to ignore whole fields of endeavor, especially ones that both deliver such salient information about the world and that impinge so directly on the lives of people who practice them.
And if there is one thing that Christians ought to insist on when we approach questions of science and religion, it seems to me that it is the primacy of persons — the persons who practice science, and the persons who are affected by its practice. Persons are, to borrow a word from nothing less than the intelligent design movement, irreducibly complex. I am not at all sure that, evolutionarily speaking, the bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex. But I am quite sure that my wife is irreducibly complex. I am quite sure that you are irreducibly complex. And I am furthermore sure that that irreducible complexity demands from me a certain reverence.
I am also sure that the reverence you, my wife, and I myself command in our irreducible personhood is something that science cannot, using its own methods and practices, secure. In fact, neither can theology, or religion, considered as theories alone, secure the reverence and respect that our personhood requires. Only embodied communities can cherish these strange and wonderful beings called persons — only communities that consciously examine the practices of the society around them, and cultivate distinctive practices of their own.
The practice of science, and the practices of the world of technology that emerge from science, is one of the determinative features of our world, for better and for worse. Those practices in some ways give life to the deepest hopes we could have for human flourishing in the Christian tradition. In other ways they put most profoundly at risk true human flourishing as best we understand it based on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If there is a meaning to the word ministry, it must have something to do with shepherding persons into practices that lead to true life. Some of the practices of science and a technologically shaped world do exactly that; others do exactly the opposite. Those of us who teach and preach, and those of us who befriend — and even marry! — scientists, can offer them an incalculable gift if we are willing to accompany them on their journey of formation as scientists and persons. We can help them understand that the very fabric of their vocation is potentially a means of grace.
And then, like Hopeful, we may encourage their progress toward the one truly worthwhile destination, the Heavenly City, where all our days will be, like science at its very best, full of wonder and delight.
This is the third in a three part series, republished with permission from The Ministry Theorem.