It’s been almost ten years since Francis Collins first published The Language of God, the book that led to BioLogos. I read The Language of God almost as soon as it came out, on the exuberant recommendation of a family member. As someone who struggled from a young age with reconciling science and faith, the book felt like a Godsend. What made The Language of God so impactful was the way it unmasked the pettiness and short-sightedness of contemporary debates over faith and science, and cast a fresh vision of how Christians can rejoice in scientific discovery without fear or defensiveness.
There are few books I’ve read since then that have approached The Language of God in clarity and insight. Particles of Faith is one of them. Written by Stacy Trasancos, Particles of Faith (Ave Maria Press, 2016) overflows with deep insight borne of devout faith and expansive knowledge. Particles of Faith lays out a comprehensive and compelling vision for transcending (and even transforming) the cultural conflicts over science and faith, rather than simply engaging them.
Trasancos is an accomplished former research chemist who returned to the Christian faith through the Roman Catholic tradition after years of being agnostic. She has a clear passion for helping Christians (especially Catholics) understand science in the light of faith. Her first book, published in 2014, covered the work of Fr. Stanley Jaki, a historian who made a strong case for the connection between Christianity and the birth of modern science.
The subtitle of Particles of Faith is A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science, and Trasancos stays focused on the Catholic conversation throughout. Protestants will inevitably feel at points like they are eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. However, as the book clearly shows, Catholics have a deep well of intellectual and spiritual resources as it relates to science and faith, and they have much to teach Protestants about how to handle these stormy cultural seas with grace and conviction.
Read this book with several highlighters handy, because the first one will probably run out of ink. It’s that good. And if you’re not convinced yet, please read on. The conversation below with Trasancos is an excellent sample of the wisdom that bubbles out of every page of her book.
BioLogos: Your book is “meant as a guide for fellow Catholics…seek[ing] to show how a Catholic person works through…questions of science and faith” (1, emphasis in original). What motivated you to write this book specifically for Catholics? People often think of Catholics as being far more accommodating of science than conservative Protestants. Is this true in your experience? And if so, what deficiencies in the Catholic response to science are you trying to address with your book?
Stacy Trasancos: Thank you so much for interviewing me about the book! It is an honor to interact with your organization. There are some impressive editors, writers, moderators, and commenters here. I hope this is the beginning of a fruitful relationship.
I wrote the book to a Catholic audience because I am Catholic and I talk to young Catholics a lot. I study Catholic theology. The publisher, Ave Maria Press, is Catholic. What motivated me to write specifically for Catholics was a matter of writing to a defined audience, but the points made in the book apply to any Christian navigating science.
You asked about conservative Protestants and science. In my experience, they are quite accommodating of science. I grew up as a southern Baptist, and my love for science was born of the idea that God made everything, just as my mother and my Sunday School teacher told me. I was never discouraged from a passion for science. I left religion behind when I got to college because, frankly, I was tired of it. There is a lot more to my story than science.
Anyway, within Catholic circles, there remains some confusion about how to navigate science. It is born out of good will, though. While people seem initially open to evolutionary theory, cosmology, or quantum mechanics, the pronouncements by populists in the media—that there is no God, no soul, no everlasting life—breeds a mistrust of science, which is unfortunate. People do not want to put their faith at risk, so they are understandably hesitant to trust strange claims from scientists. Like you at BioLogos, I am trying to clear that air.
BioLogos: A major sub-theme of the book is Motherhood. Your children helped influence your decision to leave the professional scientific world, and you frequently give anecdotes of conversations you have with your kids to support your main points. In several places, you also offer a vigorous defense of traditional Catholic doctrines related to marriage, family, reproduction, and defense of the unborn. What motivated this focus, in a book about science and faith? How has your role as a mother shaped how you view the two subjects?
Trasancos: When I look out at the universe or even at my own life, I see everything in “the totality to which it belongs,” to borrow the words of Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity (p. 25). We see the landscape as sun-bathed; we see the universe as God-bathed (also Sheed); I see myself immersed in motherhood right now. I work 100% from home surrounded by children between the ages of 5 to 13. It affects how I process information.
Before I converted, I was so afflicted with materialism that I looked at even my children as inorganic-organic highly complex composite systems, and I did not know how to think more broadly. Learning to unite philosophy, theology, history, and literature with my love for science was an expansion of my outlook, like someone turned the lights on. I understand now that all the different disciplines are connected yet different manifestations of the same total reality. Faith, however, must be the light of everything for a Christian.
As for the defense of human life and marriage, I wrote about my experiences because I learned that an openness to life meant dealing with death. I had five more children after I converted, but I also had five miscarriages. I dealt with the losses as both a scientist and a woman of faith. Sure, biology informs me that an embryo is a human, but it takes more than embryology to declare that the embryo is your child worthy of unconditional love. Such an acceptance logically commits you to grief, and grief hurts. It would have been easier to shrug the losses off as a clump of cells just doing their thing. But I am committed to the view that children are gifts, all of them, which is why I have come to believe that human life cannot be defended by science alone. Saying that life begins at conception is a beautiful unity of faith and science, an affirmation that changes everything about how a person views marriage and motherhood and how society views the family.
BioLogos: Scientism—“the belief that only knowledge obtained by scientific research is valid”—is analogized as a battleship in your book (36). Rather than telling Christians how to sink it, you advise that “we do not need to chase after the battleship…[Instead], we need to be ready to guide science in the light of faith” (36). You allege that an obsessive focus on sinking this “battleship” has led to many Christians “unwittingly succumbing to the rampant scientism of today” (38). It’s a striking insight. Has the Church’s reaction to scientism caused us to unconsciously reflect the very thing we are fighting against? How so?
Trasancos: Yes, I think so, and there is no easy way to say it. It seems like (some) Christians are so focused on proving atheists wrong that they forget the awe and wonder they experienced as children marveling at nature. With the battleship analogy, I tried to allay fears about science and at the same time validate the fears to the reader. It is not acceptable to speak of creation or anything spiritual in scientific discourse, so almost all the dialogue ends up sounding atheistic, even if the scientists themselves are not atheists. It is confusing if you do not understand how scientists speak.
In addition, there are very real attacks on religion. That is why I say we need a big perspective. We need to stand back and consider the history of science before the rise of so-called scientism. The Battleship of Scientism, as I call it in the book, is like a bully. What do bullies do? They want you to fight back, and when you do, you let them dictate your behavior. To the extent that Christians let atheists be the aggressor, we let them do harm.
We need to reject atheistic conclusions, and then we need to speak the truth in confidence to the people who want to hear it. If all we do is focus on one-upping the bully, we choose defense-mode. I think young people need more Christian leaders to speak about science, real science, not the kind of apologetics that tries to sink battleships. They need role models and leaders. Christians have every reason to love science because we see it as the study of the handiwork of God. Our logic is full.
BioLogos: In giving advice to those interested in engaging the science and faith conversation, you offer the following: “Do not try to find some insight about how science proves an aspect of faith because that is not the role of science. In my opinion, the dialogue is about more than reconciliation; it is about elevation. We are not trying to fit faith into science or vice versa, nor are we only trying to restore unity. The dialogue is meant to raise human insight, like wings raise an eagle” (56). How do we engage the sciences, as Christians, in a way that elevates science, rather than just carving a niche for faith?
Trasancos: We need to get the bird off the ground. Both wings must flap. That means that if Christians are going to engage in the faith and science dialogue, then we should use both faith and reason, which means we should know about both theology and science as well as philosophy and history to bridge those two disciplines. Tall order, I know, but carving out a niche implies that we are focusing on the terrain and digging downward to find a safe place. As Christians, confident in the truth, we must both reach out to fellow humans and fix our gaze outward and upward. We need to do more than engage. As I said, we need to lead.
BioLogos: You have strong words of criticism for the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, saying it encourages people to be “judges of God’s intelligence” and takes away from an equal appreciation of all things as God’s handiwork. This echoes a persistent theme of your book, that “It makes no sense to view some findings of science as evidence for God and some findings as random information unworthy of much appreciation” (72). While I personally agree, ID followers would counter that if God’s design can only be seen through the eyes of faith, it is relegated (in their opinion) to a subjective experience, rather than an objective reality. How would you respond? Aren’t we surrendering, then, to the atheists who say that faith is only good for warm fuzzies, but science doesn’t give evidence of divine design?
Trasancos: I would respond that it is not surrendering to be confident in your faith, and that the contrary is true. To hide your faith because you think you can make a better argument is the real surrender. How are we supposed to evangelize if we interact with atheists and pretend that we do not see the whole universe as the handiwork of God? I prefer a bolder stance:
“Hi, yes I’m a Christian. Can we just get that out the open and put it on the table? I love science because it is the study of the handiwork of God. You love it for your own reasons. Let’s talk.”
As for design, I do not know how anyone escapes that conclusion. A chemist, physicist, or biologist, more than anyone, knows the superhuman, crazy precisions of natural order. Even high school students learn that the periodic table lines up elements one after the other by increasing number of protons, that the electron configurations are quantum mechanical probabilities describing orbitals where electrons might exist, and that chemical and nuclear reactions are all understood in such precise language. When scientists conduct experiments, they wrestle with the laws of nature, trying as hard as is humanly possible to figure out what is going on so they can manipulate matter and energy for their purposes. But all of science is predicated on the starting assumption that such order exists in the first place, and that is an objective fact. Christians have an answer for where the order comes from. Atheists do not. I think the most important question we can ask atheists about science is this: Why do you not ask the biggest question of all, about where nature comes from?
BioLogos: Your chapter on evolutionary science highlights, I think, the difference between Catholic and (specifically conservative) Protestant reactions to the subject. You acknowledge that evolution—and specifically human evolution—is challenging to fully reconcile with Catholic doctrine on Genesis and origins. But rather than rejecting evolution, you counsel patience as the scientific investigation and theological conversation continues. Many Evangelicals will take this as a reticence to take a stand for orthodox doctrine, born out of an excessive respect for the findings of mainstream science. How would you respond to this criticism?
Trasancos: A true respect for science demands a respect for its limits. Any evolutionary scientist will tell you that what is known is far, far less than what is not known. It is a fact that evolution occurs, and evolutionary theory is robust, but there is still much to discover. I grew up learning about evolution, so I was already comfortable with the idea that humans evolved from nonhumans, and ultimately atoms, before I converted. Working as a scientist engrained in my mind that science is always provisional and incomplete. I came to faith doing cartwheels because I finally understood why we even care about science and origins, and it was frustrating to meet Christians who then asked me to toss out the science books and accept their scientific and theological opinions. It came across like those people had unadmitted doubts, and they needed to coerce me to agree with them to bolster their own faith.
As for Adam and Eve, evolutionary biology and anthropology cannot find them. Those methods depend on comparison and dating methods based on thousands of years at a time. Nor can genetics point to a single human pair, but that does not mean that two first humans never existed by a miraculous creation. How did the first parents come to exist? We do not know. What happened in the first generations after they lived? We do not know. What other animals were roaming with them? We do not know. And I do not see how we would ever know those answers. There is an impropriety in reducing faith to such questions.
The story of the Fall and Original Sin could have happened in an afternoon, an interval of time completely hidden from evolutionary theory more so than the exact location of a pair of electrons is hidden from quantum theory. If you untangle evolutionary biology from the obligation to prove something it cannot, then you free yourself to both believe in the story of Adam and Eve and explore evolutionary science with patience and confidence. It all comes down to confidence. Science can deepen our knowledge and love for Christ, but a confident Christian does not need science to shore up his or her faith.
BioLogos: Protestants who read your book will certainly feel like outsiders to portions of your book, because of your focus on the Catholic conversation. What do you hope Protestants will take away from your book? What can we learn from Catholics? Also, in what ways can Catholics and Protestants collaborate more effectively in our faithful response to science?
Trasancos: I am excited that Protestants are interested in what I can add to the conversation. I hope Protestants who read the book find a friend in me.
When I worked as a scientist, I collaborated with people in labs around the world, many of whom I never met face to face and most of whom were people of other faiths or no faith. That’s the beautiful thing about science. It can unite us like a good meal can unite diverse people around a table. Catholics and Protestants share the same prayer of thanks to God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and love for Jesus Christ his only Son who was crucified, died, buried, and who rose again. That prayer and love form a united fundamental response to our study of the atoms, molecules, proteins, and physics of Creation.