Dr. Oscar Gonzalez: A Life of Science and Faith
Dr. Oscar Gonzalez is an avian ecologist from Peru who has written extensively on unity of science and faith.
Dr. Oscar Gonzalez is an avian ecologist from Peru who has written extensively on unity of science and faith. After obtaining his BS in Biology from La Universidad Agraria La Molina in Lima, Dr. Gonzalez received his PhD from the University of Florida and is now extending his doctoral research on nectarivorous birds in Peru’s Andes mountain communities, with a focus on pollinator-flower networks and climate change indicators. He currently teaches biology at Emmanuel College in Georgia.
Dr. Gonzalez also studies the integration of science and faith, both in theory and in practice as a researcher and teacher. He is exploring the positive impact of the “creation care” doctrine to engage churches in conservation in Peruvian Andes communities. For Dr. Gonzalez, pursuing questions about science and faith is not only a personal passion, but also a crucial aspect of his work as an ecologist and conservationist. I spoke with Dr. Gonzalez about his personal story and current work integrating science and faith.
How has your path in science connected to your journey of faith?
I received Christ as my savior when I was 16 years old, and that was also the year I started studying biology as an undergrad. I had always loved nature—I preferred the company of animals to people, I loved to have pets around, and when other kids were playing football (soccer), I was watching nature documentaries or reading science books. So, I have been interested in science all my life. And right when I started to develop this passion for science, then came a passion for God. I really wanted to find out how God interacted with my science, with my view of nature.
However, when I began my journey of faith, I was indoctrinated as a Young Earth Creationist, and those were the only books I had available about science and faith…At that time, in the mid-80’s, there was no other literature about science and faith available for us in Spanish besides that of Young Earth Creationists. So, for me there was no other option at first. But when I tried to do some “creation evangelism” with some friends at college, I was torn apart. That was my first crisis of faith, when I tried to argue with a friend who knew more science than me on the topic of evolution. He demonstrated to me that every argument that I had copied from the Young Earth Creationists was wrong. That was very hard. But when I started learning English, I got access to the publications of Christians in science through the American Scientific Affiliation, of which I became a member. I really loved reading the articles by these totally committed evangelical Christians who were also respected scientists. They didn’t have any problem with evolution. I started to just read a lot about how you can be a committed Christian and accept evolution as a scientific theory while also accepting the Bible as the unerring word of God.
Now, in my research on bird ecology, I love to see the benevolence of the Creator—how He has created this true evolutionary process and all the ecological interactions. Then, I try to tell the many people around me that the main point of having all this creation around is for us to care for it. That is the point of Genesis 2:15—the Lord put man in the Garden of Eden to care for it. We have failed at that.
Having struggled with this issue yourself, what would you say is the main miscommunication among believers regarding evolution, and how can this miscommunication be remedied?
I would start by asking, what do you mean by “evolution”? When I became an Evangelical Christian, I was told that I shouldn’t believe this idea because its main aim is to deny God and it is totally false science…I would say I do not “believe in evolution” because as a scientist I cannot have beliefs. I accept a scientific theory or I reject a scientific theory. So, as a scientist, I accept evolutionary theory because it works…and I can see that evolution does not deny the word of God. The point is that we now have to understand the word of God better. The main point of Genesis was not to be a scientific chronicle or a term paper. I rely on the interpretation of John Walton: the most important thing that we can get from Genesis is that God is the Lord of all things. In the time that Genesis was being written, everyone thought that the moon was a god, the sun was a god, and that the animals were different gods that you had to fear and worship and make sacrifices to. What Genesis is saying is totally revolutionary: that there is only one God…Then, man and woman were created as the pinnacle of creation to be God’s loving servants, not His slaves. That is the message of Genesis for me…
If we try to analyze the Bible according to science, we will conclude that it is wrong, and I don’t accept that. For me, the same God that is the Creator is the same God that is in the Bible.
Is it part of your goal as a scientist to figure out how some of these seemingly contradictory aspects of science and faith actually go together?
The very first class I teach to my [undergraduate biology] students (after the introduction) is setting up clearly that this is science and that I am a scientist but I am also a Christian. I believe vehemently that the Bible is the word of God. However, how we interpret the Bible is not the same as how we interpret science…It is the primary goal for me to first of all set up to my students that I do not want to destroy their faith, but that we have to be careful how we interpret the word of God…I cannot put God in a test tube…I want my students to focus on this distinction, very respectfully telling them what I believe without forcing my views on them.
To what extent do your science and your faith interact?
My science is something that helps me to see more of God’s wonders. I have been discovering how hummingbirds visit so many different flowers…and it makes me think of the Psalms that praise the greatness of God. And when I study the word of God, the comments about nature show that God is the Creator…I can’t make a geological theory based on “the earth shall not be moved” (Psalm 104:5), but these are words that tell me as poetry that God is our Lord, that He is in control of nature…By looking at nature we can feel more connected to God.
What are the main research questions you’re currently pursuing?
The research that I did for my dissertation was on the interaction of the networks of nectarivore birds with plants in the Andes. I currently have 5 papers in the review or publication process on topics that are derivations of that. Another big research question is how to promote creation care on different levels, especially with local people and lay people in different countries—from college students in the United States to farmers in the high Andes. Something else I am also interested in now that I’m teaching biology in a private Christian university [Emmanuel College, in northeast Georgia] is how to integrate faith and knowledge in science and biology—how we can see the Lord, the Creator, the God of the Bible in the different interactions we can see in biology.
What is “creation care”?
Creation care is a doctrine that says we have to see ourselves as stewards of creation, not as the kings of creation, not the owners. We are the caretakers of something that is not ours. Taking care of creation is part of loving our neighbor and loving God. This is not an option, not a hobby, it is something we must do. Creation is suffering, and all these problems of species extinction, pollution, climate change, these are problems of sin. This is also part of the creation care doctrine: we have to acknowledge that destroying nature is a sin, and we have to respond. We can’t say it’s not spiritual and none of our business—it is our business because our land is really God’s land. Our forests, our oceans are God’s property, and He will hold us accountable. And we have to hold ourselves accountable in our churches and our personal ethics.
What is the main takeaway of your research into sharing and applying creation care?
In the place where I worked on my PhD dissertation, a specific mountain chain in the Andes where I visited and lived for four years, you can find more than 10 endemic species of birds—species that are unique to that area—and many more plants. There are also people living there, and these are the people that are going to decide whether those forests will remain or not. So, part of my conservation work with them is telling them that this is God’s land, when I’m able to do that.
Also, I try to convince my fellow colleagues in wildlife conservation that the church is a very important part of this process. We should not ignore the power of local churches because usually the priests or pastors are people with a lot of influence. Sharing the doctrine of creation care creates a very important asset if they become conservation preachers. As scientists, we have to promote conservation everywhere we go; and for the Christian biologist, that idea of creation care is a powerful tool.
As believers, how should we think about or reconsider our relationship with the environment?
To anyone who hasn’t thought about it a lot, first I would say let’s read the Bible together. What was Jesus’s classroom? It was nature. When he wanted to make analogies, he said look at the birds, look at the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26-28). Let’s look at the Psalms. Psalm 104 describes a ravine with water flowing down from the mountains that gives life to trees and birds; and let’s read about the new Jerusalem, where it describes a river that gives health to the and nations (Revelation 22:1-2). And now let’s compare that to our cities and towns. Do you see rivers surrounded by life and tree animals, or do you just see trash? Let’s read about how sin impacts the land, and you will see that sin pollutes and destroys. The prophets say “you have defiled my land, you have polluted my land,” (Jeremiah 2:7) to the point where there are no more animals or trees. Let’s check out some laws of the Old Testament: there’s a law that says that if you find a mother bird sitting in her nest, you shall not take both the bird and the eggs, but you shall leave the mother bird and take the eggs with you (Deuteronomy 22: 6-7). That is sustainability, we can find a lot of things about sustainability in the Bible.
Something else that I think all Christians agree on is that we have to take care of the poor…Well, where are the poorest of the poor? They are in places where natural resources have been depleted or mismanaged, where forests have been totally destroyed, where the rivers are totally polluted and it’s impossible to find clean water. All this mismanagement of nature is really a sin, and ignoring that is a sin.
How should we think about our response to climate change?
First of all, by the way, the denial and skepticism of climate change is something that is quite North American. In South America and tropical America, you don’t need to convince people that there is climate change—they are living that! Talking to the farmers, the fishermen, they all agree that the weather is crazy: they say it’s raining when it shouldn’t rain, the river has less water, we used to be able to hike to see the glaciers and now we can’t…So, if you tell them that climate is changing, they’ll say, well, of course.
To me, to be a scientist is essentially to be a skeptic and that’s okay. But be clear on this: the thermometer is neither republican nor democrat. (By the way, I’m borrowing that phrase from Katherine Hayhoe, whom I fully endorse.) We have to look at the data, and the data is showing us clearly that climate is changing. People may say “well, climate changes all the time.” But now it’s changing in a way that’s destroying everything, in a way that is making the poor poorer, so we can’t just cross our arms and sit back. We are destroying the house that the Lord has given us…We have to act.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I really appreciate the work of BioLogos in teaching people of faith that we can accept evolution without throwing away our faith. We need more of that material available to everybody, as I know from my upbringing with the Young Earth Creationists. When I tried to live by that and base my theology by that, it was totally destroyed because I found that it couldn’t stand against the evidence of science. It was important to see that there are other options, that it wasn’t true that you must believe in Young Earth Creationism or you are not a Christian. BioLogos is really helping by showing how science and faith go together.
(See more of Dr. Gonzalez’s publications here.)
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