I grew up in a non-denominational church in Southern California steeped in the Pentecostal tradition. Church services and events often lasted late into the night, so I became well acquainted with the wooden pews on which I sat. It was in those pews where my creative imagination was formed, a quality that later evolved into a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world.
Anything I witnessed in church was fair game for my childhood playtime—whether that be my sister and I baptizing each other in the bathtub or me imagining that it was the Last Supper as I ate my mom’s homemade tortillas. While the gospels are silent as to the type of bread Jesus fed his disciples during the last supper, I imagined that it was of a flat and unleavened variety, and tortillas met those criteria.
When I wasn’t administering one of the sacraments, I was singing gospel songs, directing a one member choir and writing music with my younger sister. I remember when I was in grade school my sister wrote a song celebrating her recovery from a surgery she had to remove a benign, yet painful tumor from her abdomen. I sang back-up vocals and accompanied her on the harmonica and a makeshift drum (a wire hanger and a plastic clipboard). The song contained lyrics like “he sanctified me and healed me,” common themes in the Pentecostal tradition of faith.
When I was young, I saw the world through a spiritual and supernatural lens, not a scientific one. This was not because science was demonized or illegitimized by my faith tradition. The church of my childhood was silent on the topic of science. Yet my Pentecostal upbringing was rooted in an evidence-based praxis, which, in retrospect, is not much different from the study of science. In science, experiments are repeated a countless number of times—a necessity to account for variability. Results that are reproducible build the researcher’s confidence in the truth of their hypothesis.
Such was the faith of my upbringing, where evidence of God’s spirit was tangibly seen and heard through the gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, healing and tongues). These gifts were, much like the results of an experiment, the external sign or evidence of what could not be seen. Growing up, these sources of evidence often yielded results that were consistent and repeatable (like my sister’s recovery from surgery) and, therefore, built my confidence in their truth.
However, as a child of no more than 8 or 9 years old, my ability to understand spiritual truth was immature—limited by my adolescence. My child-like faith was a blind spot; it was sincere yet susceptible, unassuming and uninhibited. The words of the Apostle Paul in one of his letters to the Corinthians rings true: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; (but) when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, when I was taking my introductory Biology class, that my faith was first challenged. I had an incredible professor for this class, and loved learning about different life forms and life processes. My professor was an ecologist by training, and so he brought a unique and broad perspective of science that really kept me interested. He was also a person of faith (Mennonite, to be exact). At the time, I had a very literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, and this was my first encounter with a person of faith who saw no conflict between evolution and their Christian faith—to him, evolution was a God-directed process. I was caught off guard by this new blend of evolution and creation, which I then regarded as heretical. However, as my class began to explore population genetics, it was as though scales had fallen off my eyes – for the first time, I understood the evidence for evolution. It was easy to reject something I didn’t understand, but now that I understood, I could not do so in good conscience.
I can’t explain the emotions I felt at the time that I was having all of these realizations, but one day they were so strong that I began to cry. I felt as if I didn’t know what to believe. The foundation of my faith felt threatened, and I didn’t know what to do.
In my quest to reconcile evolution with my faith, I read books like Francis Collins’ The Language of God, Greg Graffin’s Anarchy Evolution: Faith Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God and Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct. However, while I learned a great deal from these readings, I often felt as though I was seeking without a compass. While I no longer held to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account, I didn’t quite have the proper “toolkit” yet to synthesize my diverse sources of information.
It wasn’t until graduate school when I stumbled upon the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS) and attended one of their conferences that I found exactly what I needed to help me begin to integrate science and faith into one worldview. Here, I discovered an interdisciplinary community of scholars—scientists and theologians—who were seeking the same thing I had been seeking. Their dialogue was both scientifically and theologically sound, which I found refreshing. They were exploring questions like: What does it mean for humans to have been made in the image of God? Why humans and not another organism? Is there something unique about humans that makes them different from other organisms? If so, how does this fit within the context of a biological world marked by more similarity than difference at the DNA level (we are not much different genetically from other organisms—that’s what allows scientists to use model organisms like fruit flies, worms and frogs to study human diseases and processes)?
By this time, I had distanced myself from my Pentecostal background. I was ashamed of it. A faith so centered on supernatural experience was hard for me to reconcile with a scientific view of the world. I wanted an intellectual faith, which in my mind was one that wasn’t afraid to engage with scientific facts, even if there was an apparent contradiction. One that was open to discussion and didn’t need to have all of the answers.
I had reached a point where the theology of my childhood no longer yielded results that were consistent and repeatable. I became skeptical of things of the Spirit, but couldn’t reconcile the consistent and repeatable evidence-based praxis of my childhood with the inconsistent and sporadic experiences of my adulthood. What had changed? Had anything really changed? Or was I only beginning to really see what always was: the supernatural and spiritual were only coincidences and chance occurrences?
In science, reproducibility does not render results infallible. Consistently repeating an error, could consistently yield the same inaccurate result. Could it be possible that I had erred all along and was only now beginning to realize it? Yet there are also moments in science when reproducibility fails, not because of an error in experimentation, but rather an error in approach. This is usually when it calls for a reevaluation of methodology or a revision to the original hypothesis.
So, here I was—my Pentecostal worldview sufficiently shattered. But yet, in a twist of fate, I now find myself back where I started, sitting in the pews of a non-denominational Pentecostal church. Only this time the pews are cushioned. How did I find my way back? By learning that Pentecostalism doesn’t require being anti-intellectual. Ironically, it was science that taught me this! While the scientific world is often skeptical of the spiritual and supernatural, it welcomes mystery and wonder. This, in a roundabout type of way, makes room for the spiritual and supernatural.
As Carl Sagan once wrote,
“Science involves a seemingly self-contradictory mix of attitudes: On the one hand, it requires an almost complete openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre and weird they sound, a propensity to wonder. But at the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way you can distinguish the right from the wrong, the wheat from the chaff, is by critical experiment and analysis. A judicious mix is what we need.”
When it comes to reconciling Pentecostalism with science, my judicious mixture continues to be a work in progress—open to experiencing what I don’t understand (all things spiritual and supernatural, God and even parts of science), while conscientiously acknowledging, accepting, reaffirming and holding on to what I do understand. This enables me to sing songs about a supernatural God that heals, while still wondering how exactly healing happens. I can understand the biological basis of a disease, how medicine works to treat and ultimately cure the disease, and still wonder how God heals within that context. I can wonder why some people get healed or recover, and others do not.
And in the moments when I find myself too weak to wonder, when wondering is too great a burden, when it feels like I’m wondering myself into an abyss with no satisfying answer in sight, I find myself clinging to the songs of my childhood, and unexpectedly find hope. Awareness of my limited and constrained perspective allows me to approach these mysteries with a renewed sense of motivation, hope, and wonder.