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Finding God in science

When approached with wonder and awe, science is full of divine fingerprints.

As a child I was blessed with insatiable curiosity. I wanted to know why things worked the way they did, how everything fitted together and to make sense of it all.

I was awed by seeing the first human being walk on the moon in an age that seemed to be pregnant with the possibilities of scientific discovery. I also wanted my life to make a difference, like those pioneers, for the global good. Inspired by my Botany teacher at high school in Oxford, I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. But, unexpectedly, just as my scientific knowledge was starting to enlarge, so too my faith was changing too, and I experienced some powerful experiences of the presence of God whom I felt, almost for the first time, wanted to build a personal relationship with me.

The awesome thought that God could actually be interested in me as a human being meant that I was particularly keen to find out what he might be asking of me in my life’s work—what I chose to do. As a young researcher in plant physiology, and as someone whose faith was renewed, I sought to bring both together in an active way, not out of the theoretical desire to relate theology and science, but in order to believe that the work that I did was also aligned with the heart of God.

I had no hesitation, then, about praying for inspiration as to what might be the next scientific experiment or idea in my fields of the natural sciences and plant physiology. For example, on an early research project, as I prayed for new ideas, I came across an obscure article that talked about chlorate being an analog for nitrate. That sparked an idea—a little too complex to explain here—that ultimately led to a fascinating experiment. It’s not like I heard a “voice” telling me what to do, but that in prayer all the things I needed to find out and the people who I needed to help me just seemed to show up at the right time. Indeed, as I prayed, it was as if ideas were given to me from beyond myself—and it was only then that came the risky business of designing experiments to try these ideas out.

I always had a strong feeling that I could well be wrong, so I remained open to what came to the surface after following the experimental protocol, or even designing new ones. When these experiments worked, that experience was one of awe and wonder and somehow a God given gift. When it didn’t work out, I was left with a sense of mystery, a puzzle yet to be solved, so the awe was there too.

My fellow scientists sometimes told me, “You have a Midas touch,” because the experiments I did worked far more often than they did not. I found that exhilarating, but I also pressed harder when there were challenges. My own sense was that I had to develop a kind of tuning into God’s knowledge of the world—even though nothing of that experience of faith ever went into scientific journals. It was like a double awe, awe of the world and awe in God, both at once. When eventually I turned to study theology, what I missed most of all was the practical aspects of experimental science.

Beauty in the ugly

I often mused on what it might have been like to make those discoveries without a sense of God’s accompaniment. I figured I might feel the kind of wonder that was more like a taste for beauty, a powerful sense of pleasure in discovery that is of a special intellectual kind. Beauty, though, is not necessarily identical to aesthetics, as there is a kind of beauty in what is ugly. Parasites, for example, have intricate life cycles that are remarkable and often constructed in a beautiful way if examined under a microscope. I still remember being awestruck by some scanning electron microscope images of some roots that were infected with disease.

From a philosophical perspective, wonder is closely related to awe, and both theologians and philosophers have used wonder as a starting point for their reflection. Wonder is like a hinge that opens up rather than closes down to the unknown, a breaking open of what was previously mysterious and undiscovered (Jerome Miller, In the Throe of Wonder: Intimations of the Sacred in a Post-Modern World, 1992). Rather like the early explorers of unknown lands, the wonder of the intellectual journey can draw one into further desire for more discoveries and can become what is close to a mild form of addiction.

Theology also has a strong place for wonder, and its close relative beauty. But the difference compared with scientific discovery is that it is self-conscious about its relationship with goodness and truth. Scientific truth is sought after even amidst the experiences of wonder, but it is always qualified by the thought that there might be other experiments that supersede or replace it.

Theology reminds those in different sciences to consider the wisdom from experience and practical wisdom. This kind of religious wisdom is self-consciously oriented toward goodness, truth and beauty. So, just as wonder and awe can be elicited either by delving into the scientific unknown or through a self-conscious experience of prayer, in the practice of science, there is a single consciousness, so what is of God or science can’t readily be distinguished—unless one knows God.

Wonder and wisdom

Wisdom, too, can similarly be sought through practical experience of scientific work. The difference between wonder and wisdom is that wisdom has a more strongly ethical dimension toward the moral virtues in a way that wonder does not (Celia Deane-Drummond, Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality and Theology, 2006). Wisdom can certainly be discovered through scientific exploration, just as the writers of the Hebrew wisdom tradition asserted (Norman Habel, Discerning Wisdom in God’s Creation: Following the Way of Ancient Scientists, 2016), but the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. A child may experience awe and wonder, and retaining that curiosity is essential, but wisdom is important too, as without wisdom we can’t see easily where we are going and what it all means—or even if what we do is right, just, and promotes the common good.

Lisa Sideris argues that in some science cases, wonder is actually a negative emotion as it celebrates human ingenuity and elevates human power inappropriately, without taking proper account of issues of justice, hence pitching science against religion (Sideris, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge and the Natural World, 2017). Of course, it can do that, and the temptation is always present that the form of wonder will be hubristic.

My own experience of wonder is that it is a truly humbling experience rather than an occasion for pride. But I think we need to be fully aware of the risk of hubris, but that is what wisdom is all about. Wonder detached from wisdom amounts to what Augustine called curiositas, a vice, leading toward elevating self, rather than praise of God.

I also concur that there may be occasions when religious wisdom is in tension with what scientific, innovative wisdom puts forward. Wisdom, like wonder, cannot only be developed through experience, but comes as a gift. Whether those who are not religious believers have a sense of wonder, I cannot say. But it is never enough. It needs wisdom too, that is at the service of other virtues including justice. Working out what that justice means in science practice is another puzzle to be thought through. (These are some of the questions that have been an aspect of a project led by Celia Deane-Drummond, Darcia Narvaez and Tom Stapleford, University of Notre Dame, entitled “Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science,” generously funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.)

But what I can say is that it is important to welcome wonder wherever it may be found. Because, when accompanied by humility, a door can be opened to understand both who we are in the world and our relationship with God.

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