The Necessity for Both
Written by James Dahlvang
As the son of two Lutheran pastors, I literally grew up in churches. I remember antagonizing my brother one Sunday, resulting in him slapping me in the middle of my mom’s sermon. Yet, the ladies in our congregation still gave us pie that Sunday afternoon. In that moment, I learned that God’s abundant mercy and grace can be seen in people, too.
In all seriousness, the church has been a constant force in my 21 years of life. After coming to college, one of my first conversations was with Pastor Kate. She told me all about LCM—the events they were holding during welcome week, plans for the future, and what Pause was like. I tried a couple of different church groups right away, but LCM was home. In the last two and a half years, I’ve learned so much about my faith through this community. The conversations stretch beyond basic theology. We ask questions, talk about how we see God working in the world, and share where we see our roles in the future of the church.
I’ve also been fascinated by science throughout my life. First grade James thought he was so smart that he could write a science textbook (I did write one page, in fairness). The experiences I’ve had at the University of Minnesota have led me to aim for a career as a physician-scientist. So this summer, amidst working in my lab, I started questioning how my faith and my passion for science connected. Did they connect? What does vocation in science mean as a Christian? How do I handle the fact that I believe in God when I’ve been trained not to believe anything without non-refutable evidence?
Since that time, I’ve had a box on my Google Calendar to-do list: “Start blog?” I hoped to explore the connection between my faith and science with a private blog—a space to record my thoughts. However, as a master procrastinator, I look at that box daily, only to leave it unchecked. So when Pastor Kate told us that Dr. Lawrence Rudnick—Distinguished Teaching Professor of Astrophysics and explorer of the faith-and-science intersection—was coming to have a conversation with us, I was ecstatic. Finally, a place to explore thoughts that had been running through my head for months. Last Wednesday, about 25 of my fellow college students, Pastor Kate, and Dr. Rudnick gathered to discuss the (dis)connection with faith and science. It was fruitful, civil, and enlightening, and I’m so glad to have been a part of it.
Our first topic of discussion was the limitations of science as a result of faith. Science is the pursuit of all earthly knowledge. Dr. Rudnick said that if he believed there was some untouchable knowledge that he couldn’t pursue, he’d be done as a researcher. I’ve seen this in my short time in research, too. Ethical issues, such as the use of CRISPR/cas9 are one thing, but whether or not we should explore the beginnings of our universe because of our faith is not up for debate in science. One question that arose from this discussion was: does a better understanding of our world take away from the mystery of faith? For example, Dr. Rudnick said he could explain how rainbows appear. Does that take away from the beauty and awe we get when we see them? I don’t think so. God works using the earth, and just because we better understand the tools God’s using does not mean we can’t appreciate and praise God for the beauty of our universe. In my opinion, science and faith don’t have to disagree here.
Our discussion then swiveled to another set of questions: how do we pick between science and faith? And why do we feel forced to pick between one or the other? We discussed where this pressure came from. People said that both scientists and religious figures in their life had tried to pull them from one side to the other. Dr. Rudnick mentioned that, when you are fully immersed in one camp, it’s often difficult to see the other camp’s side. Conversations in which one side refuses to accept the viewpoint of the other go nowhere and we far too often see this from both science and faith backgrounds. I think that, as Christians, we’re called to love all, no matter what. This means loving the skeptic who asks, “If God is real, can God create a rock so big that God can’t lift it?” As scientists, all we have is our data. If someone doesn’t accept it because of their religious beliefs, that’s that—we can still act kindly toward them. And for those of us who identify as both (which, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a larger proportion than you think), we don’t have to pick. We may struggle with where each component fits within our lives. This is normal and even encouraged. Both as Christians and scientists, we’re called to question and explore. There are some truths in my faith life that seem unexplained by science and some in my science life that seem unexplained by God. But maybe, just maybe, continuing to search for that connection will reveal truths I would have never found in either camp individually.
Our conversation was incredible. When Pastor Kate said time was up, 25 voices immediately pleaded for the talk to continue. I still have so many questions. How does God call people to be scientists? Where do we see God in science? What if we figure out everything there is to figure out on the earth? While these may be unanswerable, they’re certainly questions I’ll be thinking about as a result of our discussion. Maybe, just maybe, that box will finally get checked off of my Google calendar.
I hope the rest of you who were there came away with as much as I did. And for those of you who couldn’t make it, Pastor Kate mentioned we may have another conversation next semester. I encourage everyone—scientists and non-scientists alike—to join us and explore how two seemingly polar opposites may not be as disconnected as we think. God works in mysterious ways, even within fields that may seem to be anti-God. While it can be challenging to see, perhaps that connection will reveal something about the power and love God has for us. Something that neither faith nor science can uncover alone—something that shows the necessity for both.