There are commonalities in the international dialogue on science and faith: the recognition that all Christians share the same basic beliefs regardless of their views on secondary issues, the importance of Christian role models in science, the need to explain that there are different standpoints on evolution, and the positive impact of understanding that Christianity contributed to the development of modern science.
Another factor that we all share is the need to understand what science is really like. Now thatTest of Faith has been released, I have moved on to a new project, working on positive dialogue between science and faith. To illustrate the aim of my work, I often tell the story of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars.
My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder, and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.
So my question to working scientists who are also Christians is, “How do you start a conversation on science and faith?” They are so used to responding to issues that they often take a while to think of something to say. Nearly everyone mentions the beauty they see in their work, and the sense of awe and wonder they feel. What they discover in the lab helps them to appreciate what God is like, and to worship him.
One of the people I met on my travels was Fernando Caballero, a palaeontologist from the University of the Basque Country who also spends some of his time working for the Centre for Science and Faith at the SEUT School of Theology, Madrid. He explained what helps him to worship God in his work. “When you work with stones, as I do, sometimes it’s difficult to feel the sense of awe that more biological scientists often talk about. But when I’ve finished cleaning up my specimens and look at them under the microscope – that’s when I see real beauty. One of the greatest experiences of my career was when I was working with an electron microscope. The magnification was so high that I could see fossilized nano-plankton sitting in the pore of another plankton that I was studying.
“Outside of the lab, I often experience awe when I look at geological landscapes. For example, there’s a spectacular glacial valley in the Ordesa National Park in Northern Spain. Standing at the top of the valley, I have fossils under my feet, and in the distance I can see the limit of the Palaeocene period, the Eocene period, and so on. In my mind’s eye I am able to follow a three-dimensional reconstruction of these rock layers all the way to France in one direction, and towards what used to be the sea bed in the Basque country (where I live) in the other. It’s breathtaking.
“In the dedication at the end of my PhD thesis I wrote, ‘Soli Deo Gloria [Glory to God], because He was the one who said that the stones will speak’. After my thesis examination we had an informal lunch with the examiners, and the conversation centered around this quote. All the people there were asking me, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘What do you believe?’ One of my examiners was very confrontational with me, because he couldn’t understand how a scientist could believe in God today.
“Later on, one of the other examiners wrote to me. At first I was afraid that he was also upset with me, but he said, ‘To your ‘Soli Deo Gloria’, I say ‘Magnus in magnis, maximus in minimis’ ’, a quote attributed to Augustine: ‘God is great in the big things, but is greatest in the small things.’ I was very surprised that he should encourage me in this way, because he was not a religious man. At the time he was the Chairman of the stratigraphy sub-commission of UNESCO. It was strange that this person who I admired scientifically thought the same as me: that these small fossils are so great, and reveal something about God.
“When I see a fossil, or when I am on top of a mountain looking at beautiful landscapes, I always think, ‘Grace to God’, because it’s his creation. I have no problem with saying that God is behind what I’m seeing, in the same way that I have no problem in saying we receive food from God when I understand how the water cycle and other factors produced it. By faith I believe that God created the natural laws that produced the geological structures I see.”
Fernando’s response to what he sees in the lab and the field is typical of the believing scientists that I meet. Everyone has some stories to tell, and some reflections about how their science enhances their faith life. When I am asked to recommend speakers for Christian events, I often try to link the organizers up with a local scientist who I know is a Christian. There are times when it’s important to hear from someone who is very well-read in science and religion. At other times, perhaps even more often, what we need to hear is how a workaday scientist fits their science and faith together, and how what they see down a microscope or on their computer screen helps to enlarge their view of God.