For two years I have been working closely with some of the scientists at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, IA, as part of the Scientists in Congregations project, funded by the Templeton Foundation. The purpose of this project was to engage clergy and scientists in the ongoing conversation about science and faith.
Here's what I've learned so far:
A strong humility governs the professional lives of scientists. They have the degrees, the positions, the successes, the accolades, and the grants that are reasons for pride, but they also have a deep and abiding sense of how little they know, of how much remains to be discovered, and of the mystery that surrounds us and in which we live. They have a sense of wonder that is basic to both science and faith.
Because of this, they are able embrace both a scientific outlook and a faith perspective in their lives. At our first gathering I asked these scientists to talk about their experiences of conflict in their lives as scientists and Christians. I was met with blank faces. Yes, some of their colleagues do see a conflict between religion and science. But it quickly became apparent that the "war" between science and religion was being waged someplace else.
These scientists readily admit that doubt and skepticism are important to their work. They work against the very human inclination to think that we already know what the answer is. Scientists doubt.
Doubt means that scientific work often moves slowly. Scientists understand the slow ways in which knowledge grows. This came as a surprise to me because scientific discoveries are often portrayed in the media as developing almost overnight. It can take a great deal of time simply to set up an experiment properly, and actual experiments can take months or years to complete. And when the work of scientists does bring success, it is often only a small step forward. The gains achieved are incremental. As a result, scientists are often reluctant to speak with great certainty about their work.
Scientists do their work with a kind of faith as well: faith in the scientific method, faith in the orderliness of the universe, faith even in their colleagues. Science, as every enterprise, requires a measure of trust, a "conviction of things not seen," as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews described faith. Faith in the scientific enterprise is different from religious belief, but for many it is also a practice that does not exclude participation in a religious tradition.
They are able to embrace something beyond scientific materialism, sensing a Power that sustains the universe, a Power that is the ground of life and love. They are not strangers to all the difficulty, tragedy, and what we call, for want of a better word, sin of life. They are not ready to jump to conclusions either in their lives as scientists or in their lives of faith. Even their religious life is open to questions, to new discoveries, to new thinking that replaces outworn dogma. They recognize that it is important to question what we know (and what we think we know), because both scientific knowledge and the life of faith grow out of doubt and uncertainty.
Guest Post: Bill Lovin
Congregational UCC, Iowa City, IA