Note: On May 24, 2014, BioLogos president Deb Haarsma gave the commencement address at her alma mater, Bethel University. Today and tomorrow, we’re reposting the content of her speech, which discusses her calling to the sciences and how to talk and think productively about science and faith, here on the BioLogos blog.
President Barnes, members of the Board and faculty, honored graduates, dear family and friends. It is great to be back at Bethel! I can’t believe it’s already been 23 years since I was the graduate. Today I want to tell you about four memories I have, one from my time at Bethel and three from after that. All are related to seeing and seeking God in everyday work.
How I discovered my calling to be a scientist
Bethel was where I fell in love with physics. Now, I know physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. There we were, a group of students in the physics lab, trying to put an experiment together and figure out what to measure in this messy real world. Then we did the mathematical calculations following the textbook. We compared the math to the real world data and it matched! I was amazed!
The reason and logic of mathematics actually describes the real world. Physicist Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner, called this the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” And in it I could see God. God crafting a universe of such order and regularity that we can describe it with logic and mathematics. And God creating us in his image, with the ability to understand something of how he governs the world – “thinking God’s thoughts after him,” as Kepler described it.
Bethel was where I learned that the science that I loved could be a Christian calling. Before that I had a vague notion that truly serving God meant being a pastor or missionary. Here I learned that in every profession you can love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, studying God’s world with your mind and caring for it with your hands. And in every line of work, you can love your neighbor as yourself, sharing the gospel with those who haven’t heard and placing a priority on people rather than busy-ness. I hope that you also have been inspired in your time at Bethel to seek and serve God every day, in whatever work you do.
How I worked out my scientific calling in the world
So off I went to grad school, to a large international research university. I felt so alone after experiencing the close-knit Christian learning community at Bethel. Even the food was different. I’m a Midwest girl and I grew up on casseroles and church potluck dinners; back then Chinese food felt like an exotic adventure. Now I had a roommate from China!
Beyond the cultural adjustment, I started to wonder: exactly how should faith be making a difference in my scientific work? In my research lab, I worked alongside some agnostics, a non-practicing Jew, a Mormon, and two Christians (although they didn’t talk about their faith much). We used the same equipment, the same computer analysis methods, and the same types of scientific reasoning. I got the impression that scientists had to be “neutral” when analyzing data and not consider religion or God in the lab.
Yet I was firmly committed as Christ’s disciple that faith should be integral to all I do. Does that mean I should get different answers than everyone else?
I finally worked it out. I realized that scientists do agree in a lot of areas, despite religious differences, and that’s ok. Scientists agree that the natural world has regular repeatable patterns that can be understood. The difference is whywe believe that. To me as a Christian, those orderly laws that I fell in love with at Bethel are a display of God’s faithful governance. In Jeremiah, God points to the fixed laws of heaven and earth as a testimony that he will faithfully keep his covenant with Israel (Jer. 33:19-26). Now an agnostic scientist will believe there are regular patterns for other reasons. But when I sit down at the computer to analyze data, in no way am I setting aside my faith. In fact, my faith calls me to study those natural laws as a way of celebrating the faithfulness of God.
Similarly, scientists share a motivation to do science. Most scientists are motivated by the joy of discovery and a desire to serve. Believing scientists are too, but we have an added, deeper joy: the joy of knowing that there is a Person behind this universe, it was created by a master Craftsman. And we have the even deeper joy of knowing that this Creator is our own Savior and Lord.
You’re not all scientists, but many of you will face similar questions, whether you work as an accountant, a teacher, a social worker, run a business, or practice law. You’ll be following the best practices, ethics, and professional standards of your field. That means your work will look a lot like everyone else’s.
My hope for you is that you never set aside faith to do your work. Don’t compartmentalize. Seek God. Look for him in the underlying practices of your profession. Where they align with your faith, celebrate your work every day as service to God.
Come back tomorrow for part 2 of Dr. Haarsma’s speech.