My college pastor once asked me, “What does Christ have to do with chemistry?” He was challenging me to see how my faith might inform my intention to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, and also how my understanding of chemistry might enrich my faith. I did not have an answer for him, so the question lingered in my thoughts for several years.
When I was an undergraduate, I kept my scientific pursuits and my faith separate. Not because it had to be that way, but because I did not know how to integrate them. I had not read deeply into issues at the intersection of science and faith, but I was uncomfortable with the perspectives that I had heard. Generally these views were either suspicious of science or dismissive of biblical faith. Neither resonated with me, so I tried to ignore both perspectives. As I had only recently claimed my faith in Jesus as my own, I was protective of it and sought to avoid areas of potential conflict.
Such avoidance could easily have led me to give up my love for science or to abandon my faith. Indeed, I likely would have followed one of those paths, at least for a time, if I had felt alone. But I had a group of close friends—other students—with whom I felt a common identity and purpose. We talked, played, and prayed together. They rejoiced with me, consoled me, and forgave me. Through them I felt God’s wonderful love and grace, which sustained me. I thank God for that.
Perhaps I benefited from being a chemist, rather than a biologist, geologist, or physicist—those fields seemed to have more direct points of conflict with traditional Christian faith. Evolution, the fossil record, and an unimaginably old earth and universe were all issues of vigorous contention in some Christian circles. Were all Christians who embraced these scientific ideas untrustworthy? I was not ready to answer that yet, and avoided such controversial topics in my day-to-day life.
I only began engaging these controversial issues after I decided to do postdoctoral research in chemical biology. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I had been constructing complex molecules. My target molecules were typically natural products made by plants, fungi, or bacteria. Often these compounds had interesting biological properties: to react with a protein or kill cancerous cells. But what I found most compelling was the intricate chemical structure of these molecules. It often took me and my colleagues years to devise an effective strategy to synthesize our target molecules. How then did the bacteria (or other producing organisms) make the natural products so rapidly and seemingly effortlessly? I became fascinated with biosynthetic mechanisms.
Those biosynthetic mechanisms involve proteins, leading me to ask scientific questions about the evolutionary relationships between the proteins and their ancestors: How did these proteins come to be? Why do they make the natural products? I was going to need to learn about evolution. Furthermore, I would be working with biologists in my postdoctoral laboratory, and I absolutely wanted to have intellectual credibility with my coworkers. Yet my faith was central to my identity. It seemed that I could no longer hide in the safe haven of organic chemistry. I would have to confront some of the controversial issues around the origins of life and the Bible.
But why was I so afraid of doing this? Does the Bible really discourage the honest pursuit of truth? Is it in any way laudable to dismiss uncomfortable evidence? Actually, no. Some passages that came to mind were:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:2)
These Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
I believed that God created the universe and that he inspired the writers of the Bible. So if both creation and scripture were from God, could I not trust both? It seemed to me that science and Christianity ought to be compatible, since both sought truth. Hesitant though I was, I looked more intently for reliable resources. I saw Francis Collins give three lectures on science and faith at Harvard and found several helpful books that sought to reconcile biblical and scientific perspectives on origins.
For me, wrestling with the ideas presented in these talks and books was slow and emotionally challenging. I faced many hard questions: What was I resisting, and why? Did I fear a spiritually precarious compromise with secular ideas? Where did I get the idea that science is secular, anyway? How do the most respected scientist-Christians and theologians reconcile faith and science? How might my views of scripture and of God change? What would other Christians think about me?
Thankfully, I was able to explore these questions in community—a community that extends back over 1500 years. I was surprised and encouraged by what St. Augustine and Galileo had written in the 5th and 17th centuries, respectively. Both cautioned against holding too rigidly to particular biblical interpretations in the face of apparently contradictory evidence.
In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (ca. 415), St. Augustine of Hippo writes:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
Galileo Galilei echoes this thought in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615):
In St. Augustine we read: “If anyone shall set the authority of [the Bible] against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.” This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of wise expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.
Augustine and Galileo showed me that there was great precedent in trying to reconcile Christian faith with reason and scientific exploration. To hear this from such prominent voices in theology and science was immensely helpful to me as I reexamined the creation accounts in Genesis.
The more that I read Genesis 1-3, the more I became convinced that those chapters are actually more concerned with Who created and Why we were created than a precise description of When the universe began and How living things appeared. I came to realize that Genesis was not written to 21st century Americans, but to the ancient Hebrews, and through them to the rest of the world. So as a truth-seeking reader of the Bible, I needed to be cognizant not only of the original language and genre of the text, but also of the intentions of the author interpreted through the conceptual framework of the culture of that time.
I now believe the apparent conflict arises not from nature and the Bible, but from flawed interpretations of scientific data and from misunderstandings of scripture. For example, some people claim that evolution proves there is no God, even though the existence of God is not a scientific question. Others regard Genesis 1 and 2 as modern scientific or journalistic accounts, despite the fact that Genesis far predates our modes of historical and scientific writing. The conflict does not come from God or nature—we have created the conflict ourselves. Intentionally or not, we often extend science past its natural bounds and use the Bible for questions it does not intend to answer.
But if there seems to be a satisfactory scientific explanation for something, does that mean that God is not involved in it? Absolutely not! The spiritual reality of prayer is not diminished by our observation of concurrent electrochemical processes in the brain. Likewise, a kiss is not fully explained by a scientific description. Scientifically, a kiss is a puckering of the lips, a transfer of saliva, carbon dioxide, and some bacteria. If you’ve ever given or received a kiss before, that’s probably not what you were thinking of when it happened. When I kiss my wife, there is definitely more going on there than a puckering of the lips, a transfer of saliva, carbon dioxide, and some bacteria. If there weren’t, she wouldn’t let me kiss her, nor would she kiss me back!
So I believe we can be freed from the myth of intrinsic conflict. We can embrace both faith and science.
I can now answer my college pastor’s question: What does Christ have to do with chemistry? Jesus has everything to do with chemistry, since “all things were created through him and for him,” and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16,17). My response is to love God and to embrace science as a joyful form of worship, discovery, and awe, delightfully learning about God’s thoughts and designs at a molecular level.
As a synthetic chemist or molecule maker, I especially resonate with J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation: human creation that reflects God’s image as creator. Sub-creation is illustrated in Tolkien’s creation story of Middle-earth:
Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without any thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.
My ability to create comes from God’s own creativity. Tolkien’s concept of rejoicing in this gift of creativity reflects the joy and inspiration I experience as a synthetic chemist.
Molecules are beautiful. Making new ones is a privilege and a cause for joy and worship. I delight in them, and I believe God does, too. He is the first and greatest chemist, and he has entrusted me with one small corner of his laboratory.
A traditional way to express joy and worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition is in song, as in the book of Psalms. Inspired by Psalm 148, I wrote this chemistry-themed psalm:
Praise the LORD.