Believing Scientists Respond: Why Are You a Christian?
July 31, 2017 | By Jeff Hardin and Keith Miller (guest author) and Stephen Barr (guest author) and Ian Hutchinson (guest author) and Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, OP (guest author) and S. Joshua Swamidass (guest author) and Robin Pals Rylaarsdam (guest author) and Kristine Johnson (guest author) and Roseanne Sension (guest author) and Sarah Bodbyl Roels (guest author)
EDITOR’S NOTE: BioLogos was founded by a world-class scientist, Francis Collins, who not only proclaimed but embodied the harmony between science and faith. In the spirit of our founding mission, we asked a number of scientists and engineers of Christian faith about how they encountered Christ and how their faith inspires their scientific work. The first entry reveals the rich diversity of faith traditions represented by believing scientists today, but also their common love of Christ.
Jeff Hardin, chair of the department of zoology, University of Wisconsin (BioLogos Board Chair)
I’m a Christian because the Christian story of the world – and of myself – makes sense of reality. The Gospel – an old English word for “Good News” – is a Big Story that involves each one of us, but it’s also one of cosmic proportions. When I began to grasp the personal and cosmic dimensions of this Big Story, I began to catch a tiny glimmer of how it makes sense of everything else. First, it made sense of my own life. When I was first presented with the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth, I saw that the Gospel story ran right through my own life. It explained why I, if I was really honest, could be capable of acts of love, goodness, and kindness, but why I could be simultaneously petty, mean, and disingenuous. It was why, when this truth about myself came crashing down on me as a middle schooler, I gratefully accepted, by God’s grace through Christ, something I could not do for myself. Second, the Big Story of the Scriptures is consilient with all that we know. It makes sense of the moral nature of reality that we all perceive, the “unreasonable reasonableness” (to borrow from physicist Eugene Wigner) of the universe, and of our own ability to perceive the moral and rational fabric of reality.
Robin Pals Rylaarsdam, acting dean of the College of Science and professor of biological sciences, Benedictine University
I’m a Christian because of the gracious offering of love that God extends to me. As the old hymn says “my heart would still refuse you, had you not chosen me.” That gift, along with the countless gifts of believing parents and a community of believers around me throughout my life, is something I accept with thankfulness. In my daily life, especially during times when I was working full-time in a research lab with all the inevitable failure that goes along with that work, it was a comfort to be regularly reminded that life is more than my work, and that God is bigger and older and “more than” everything.
Both my parents were committed Christians whose lives demonstrated what it means to live out their faith. There was no sacred/secular dichotomy demonstrated in their lives. Everything that they did—from their professional work, to their work with youth in scouting and in church fellowships, to hosting international missionaries, or sponsoring refugee families, to making themselves and their home available in the service of others—was a reflection of their faith.
But why am I a Christian? In addition to the example of my parents, I was involved in the Christian youth movement of the ’70’s where I experienced my first sense of real Christian community. This was followed by active involvement in college and graduate school in the ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and then in the Graduate and Faculty Ministry of IVCF. When pursuing my doctorate, I was part of a diverse and dynamic Bible study group of PhD students that challenged and stretched me. This continued with my involvement and writing for the American Scientific Affiliation, an association of Christians in the sciences. That challenge continues to this day as I seek to be faithful to the calling of Christ to serve others.
The above may not sound like a basis for my personal Christian faith—no discussion of a conversion experience or a deep theological revelation. But through all these steps in my life. my understanding of God and what it means to follow Christ has been continually challenged and stretched through the community of other believers. The claims of scripture have grown stronger, not weaker in the process. Nothing else makes sense of all that I know of the world and humanity, including all its pain and suffering.
I am a Christian by the grace of God, beginning with the grace I received when I was baptized as an infant. And since then I have “received grace upon grace,” to use a phrase from St. John. The seeds of faith were planted in me as a small child by my parents and the good Sisters who taught me in parochial school, and (thanks be to God) I have never lost that faith. I had many questions and some intellectual difficulties when I was young, though I never doubted the existence of God (which always seemed luminously self-evident to me), the divinity of Christ, or the divine origin and authority of the Church.
As I wrestled with difficult theological, philosophical, and historical questions raised in my mind by the teachings of the Church, God gave me the patience and (over time) the insights that allowed me to work through them. Some of these insights I derived from the works of authors I was fortunate enough to encounter when I was young, such as Chesterton and Lonergan. My persistent study and reflection gave me a growing conviction of the coherence and solidity of the Church’s teachings. All this I attribute to God’s grace.
I am convinced that the purposelessness of a purely natural/materialistic outlook is missing something significant. There is a purpose to our existence that goes beyond chemistry, physics and biology. Of course, Christianity is not the only possible solution to this problem. I am a Christian because the overarching story of purpose and redemption and the ethical vision for love, service, justice is compelling.
I became a Christian, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, because of the person of Jesus. He was, to me, an exceedingly attractive figure for what he taught and what his life and death was said to represent. But it was only then that I heard clearly and came to accept that the evidence for his Resurrection is strong, and gives good reason to believe it is true. I also heard clearly the call to repentance and discipleship, and I accepted it. My subsequent decades of experience in the Christian faith have confirmed to me the reality of God’s presence, and my intellectual exploration has strengthened my conviction that the Gospel is supported by compelling evidence and logical arguments.
Initially I became a Christian when my parents introduced me to Jesus as a child. As I matured, I wondered about the truthfulness of Christianity and the Bible. I investigated the reliability of scripture and the truthfulness of its claims. Many people from other religions have claimed to have peace with God, mountaintop experiences, and other emotional and spiritual reasons for their belief. I have found that Christianity is more than spiritual experiences and that the Christian faith is based on factual claims that are well supported by the evidence. Today I am a Christian because Christianity is true and because Jesus died and rose from the dead to pay the penalty for my sin.
medicine, Washington University in St Louis (member of BioLogos Voices)
I follow Jesus because he bodily rose from the dead, demonstrating to the whole world that God exists, is good, and wants to be known. I find that Jesus is beautiful and compelling. I have searched all over and find nothing greater than him. Nothing threatens him, not even science. Nothing here diminishes him. There is evidence, but coming to Jesus, for me, was more like falling in love than solving a math problem.
Sarah Bodbyl Roels, research associate/senior scientist specializing in evolutionary biology and education, Michigan State University (member of BioLogos Voices)
Drawing from the title of a mid-20th century U.S. radio series, Christianity is “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The Biblical story is infinitely relatable, full of promise and pain, ultimate suffering and salvation, but overall, the pages are bound together with intense love. The gospel message is radical and countercultural, and gives both meaning and purpose to life. There is a reality to Christianity that I struggle to grasp as a scientist, since the field doesn’t inform this area of reality, but that I nevertheless know to be true.
Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, associate professor of biology and instructor in theology, Providence College
I am a Christian because I was baptized when I was an infant. The grace of that sacrament moved me to encounter my Savior while I was a graduate student at MIT. Since then, the Lord has become an intimate friend who has called me to his holy priesthood to serve him and his Holy Church. I am a Christian because the Christian life is an adventure, a romance, and a mystery, all at the same time. Christ makes it all worthwhile.
About the Authors
Jeff Hardin is Professor and Chair of the Department of Zoology and Faculty Director of the Biology Core Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on basic mechanisms of early embryonic development. He is a member of the Board of Directors of BioLogos.
Keith Miller recently retired as a research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University. He was the editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003), an anthology of essays by prominent evangelical Christian scientists who accept theistic evolution. He is also a past member of the executive committee of the American Scientific Affiliation (an association of Christians in the sciences), and a past board member of Kansas Citizens for Science (a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes a better understanding of science). He has written and spoken extensively on topics at the intersection of Christian theology and faith with paleontology and climate science.
Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and Director of its Bartol Research Institute. Barr’s areas of specialty are theoretical particle physics and cosmology, and in 2011 he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society. He is also author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student’s Guide to Natural Science, as well as The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion.
Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson’s book Monopolizing Knowledge.
Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., currently serves as an Associate Professor of Biology and an Instructor of Theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his Ph.D. in Biology from M.I.T. and his Pontifical License in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. At the present time, Fr. Austriaco is completing a Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. His NIH-funded laboratory at Providence College is investigating the genetic regulation of programmed cell death using the yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Candida albicans, as model organisms. His first book, Biomedicine and Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics, was published by the Catholic University of America Press.
Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass MD PhD is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University (http://swami.wustl.edu/). His research group designs computational methods to solve problems in medicine and drug discovery. In addition to his scientific work, Dr. Swamidass is often involved as an advisor and speaker role for religious groups working to understand how to better integrate faith and science. This includes partnerships with churches and campus ministries (with Cru, Veritas and Intervarsity, see https://vimeo.com/36846157), and also includes articles in the Wall Street Journal and Nature on Christian Faith and Evolution. More recently, he is working with the AAAS as an advisor to the Science for Seminaries program. In all these activities, he helps lay Christians and congregations come to grips with science in the context of their faith commitments.
Robin Pals Rylaarsdam earned her B.A. in Biology from Northwestern College in 1992, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Genetics from Northwestern University in 1997. Following postdoctoral appointments at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, she began work teaching in undergraduate settings, serving at Azusa Pacific University, Trinity Christian College, and currently at Benedictine University. She is currently Professor of Biological Science and Acting Dean of the College of Science at Benedictine University. Robin’s research interests have focused on rational drug design for the rare genetic disease McCune-Albright Syndrome. Her laboratory is in the final stages of screening molecules in cell-based assays, with the goal of moving some drug candidates on to animal-based studies in the coming years.
Kristine is currently a senior systems engineer at Honeywell Aerospace working on the first and only FAA certified (SDA) precision landing system which has been installed at many airports around the world. She holds a bachelors degree in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, Kristine enjoys spending time with her husband and children, studying the Bible, scrapbooking, cooking, volunteering in her community, and exercising. She leads a small group study, gives presentations at churches and schools, and mentors area youth pastors on various apologetic topics including the integration of God’s world and God’s word. Kristine is also a professional face painter.
Roseanne J. Sension is a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in chemistry in 1986 from the University of California, Berkeley, and after post-doctoral positions at the Universities of Oregon and Pennsylvania, has been a professor at Michigan since 1992. Her research focuses on the interaction of light with matter, with emphasis on applications in photobiology. She has co-authored over seventy articles in scientific journals and conference proceedings and is a fellow of the American Physical Society.
Sarah Bodbyl Roels is an evolutionary biologist specializing in plant evolutionary biology, scientific communication and outreach, K-12 teacher education and professional development, and K-12 science literacy. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and currently resides in the Teacher Education department at Michigan State University. Aside from academia, she is an avid birder, equestrian, runner, photographer, and traveler. She is also a member of BioLogos Voices.
Hey Robo: Why can’t God just let people go free? Why does there have to be a cross? Why does receiving forgiveness have a cost?
These are brilliant questions, my friend. It is costly both to give and receive forgiveness. You may have questions like: Let me build up to an answer. Go with me on this , please, the process is just so important.
THE COST OF A DECISION
There is a cost to every decision we make. I love thinking about plans for the future. So many great options, it is exciting to consider them all and weigh them all and imagine the outcomes. But then reality strikes. We can’t do them all, only some, maybe only one. Oh dear, the cost of this decision is that I must let go of all those wonderful ‘possible but impossible’ ideas about the future. I can conceive of much but in time and space reality is different. I have to face what works in reality. To decide anything is an act of letting go of the other options. That loss is part of I mean by the cost.
COST OF CHANGE
There is an even greater cost to see change happen. Have you been involved in making significant change happen? Have you tried and given up in frustration ? All who establish a new business or a new community organisation know this cost. The planning may be fun. The outcomes inspiring, but it’s hard slog doing things day after day with little or no help at first! Then the ones who come along and want the credit without the cost, and the ones who get tired easily and want to close the whole thig down, and the set-backs that seem to discourage you time and time again. Often, the recipients are not even grateful. Yes, there is a cost to make change happen. There is a cost of no change, and there is a cost of change.
THE COST OF RAISING A GENERATION
Consider now the sacrifices that parent makes for their beloved children – the time spent, the exhaustion, anxiety, protection, nurture, working to feed and house and educate them. Multiply that by ten for those who migrate (for whatever reason) to give an opportunity to their children – the sacrifice of migration. Not just the loss of home, friendships and extended family of the parents, but the loss of language, change of authority, loss of culture, loss of respect, and the ongoing difficulty of raising children in a foreign land. In their millions, parents do this. Such extreme acts of self-sacrifice are normal for love and for life.
Consider the cost of a society to raise that generation – employment growth, education, training teachers, apprenticeships, child-protection, sporting codes, music schools and orchestras, maintaining playing fields and schools, libraries, and so on. Now let’s add in the soldiers who sacrifice themselves, and their families who let them go, to defend our culture in times of extremity, war, danger and natural disaster. In their millions they have gone. It is worthy of the greatest honour but it is actually another ‘extreme normal’. Without the extensive costs of all such nurture, our society will cop the costs that come from the damage by feral teenagers, the costs of ignorance, cost of complacency and the erosion of our culture. Growing and nurturing new life normally costs at a sacrificial level.
COST OF FORGIVING
Forgiveness also costs somebody something. If I forgive you for hitting me, I do the work of paying the doctor and letting it all go. If I forgive someone who has broken my window, I still pay for the window, they don’t. If I forgive someone for hating or offending me, I have to do emotional work to let it go and find a basis for establishing a new trust. Forgiveness costs us physically and emotionally.
It is also costly to receive forgiveness from another person. It requires acceptance of our own frailty, taking on genuine humility. Sometimes the loss of egotism can be felt like an humiliation, but it is just us admitting we are merely human. Receiving forgiveness is to be transparent and authentic. It means an ability to give an apology. Pretending we have made no error, expressing the need to be right all the time, are destructive of relationships, families and groups. An ability to absorb the freedom that comes from being forgiven is an essential art of life.
THE COST OF FOLLOWING JESUS.
All these costs above are borne by any who are considering whether or not to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus called it very clearly: ‘If anyone would follow me let them take up the cross and follow me.’ It is a call to change, to love, to be generous, to the way of forgiveness and peace-making and change-making.
All persons need to count the cost of discipleship –decision, nurture, change, forgiveness. Perhaps they need to grieve the losses from going forward with Jesus. Is it pride? Hyper-rationality? Secrets? Autonomy? Sometimes a sexual relationship or money habit is threatened so the idea of living by faith feels at that moment like being sentenced to impossible loneliness and insecurity. The grief and anger is real and it is not helpful to simply dismiss them as unbelief. Empathise first but also encourage them to go forward. God can be trusted. How do we find such a life-threatening confidence in God?
HOW CAN IT BE?
This next section goes briefly into HOW the cost is paid on earth in historical time by Jesus. This may be not relevant to some of you, but bear with me.
All these costs above can be felt as extreme. So an extreme and sacrificial understanding grew to explain them. In the chaos of medieval Europe, they crafted a “moral law” doctrine that made sense of the “debt of cooperation” that we owe to society and to God. To sin was to dishonour God and shame our family. So, to be forgiven meant a penalty must be borne to set things right again. So what is the price that the Jesus has paid that secures our forgiveness? He died upon the cross, one for all, by paying the penalty of obedience that we would normally owe. The injustice of it all – he pays for us – is the very nature of forgiveness as we have seen above. But it breaks the vicious cycle of sin and violence and injustice and re-established true justice for all. That is, everyone can access this relationship with God.
More recently, some do not relate to that sort of structure very well, but there are other ways to understand the cost paid by Christ to make us one with God (Atonement). These are:
· As a Ransom and Role-model from slavery to sin,
· As the proof and promise of friendship with God (New Covenant),
· As the healing salve from the deadness and default-mechanism that come from our rebellious independence (Salvation).
Any of these will do. They all bear witness to the example and the achievement by Jesu s upon the cross, authenticated by his resurrection from the dead and brought to us by the Holy Spirit sent upon all who say ‘yes’ to following Jesus and let go of the costs..
As a consequence the freedom of forgiveness is made open, the promise is delivered, the healing begins, the debt is paid. That is what Christians call salvation – it is a great joy!
In Christian discipleship, I have found that ‘the cost’ is the pattern. It is not just a once-off but a lifestyle of letting go and letting God, trusting in hope, confident because of the promise displayed and achieved at the Cross. In my role as a minister of the church I used to complain that I have to ‘let go’ again and again , time after time. I felt like I had been run over by a road roller. Then I got it. Then the Spirit of God works with me. Without my ego in the way, joy has room to spring up in more fertile ground. That is my life. That is why I am having a wonderful life. Get into it.