By the Reverend Canon Martha Tatarnic
I sat down with Owen and David, members of my parish, on a Tuesday night. I needed to hear from two scientists about their thoughts on a statement that my ten-year-old son had brought home from school. “My friends believe in science not God,” he informed me.
Owen is thirteen and a self-described science geek. David is his grandfather and a retired professional engineer with a degree in Applied Science. Both are extremely faithful members of our congregation, among other things — Owen sings in our youth choir and David sings in our senior choir.
“You are both people of faith, and you are both people with a great passion for the teachings of science. How do you work it out?” I asked.
Can both exist? Or is one wrong?
Owen was the most talkative of the two of them, but they were both eager to share their thoughts. Interestingly, both were around my son’s age when they found themselves on a precipice of belief. “I didn’t really think about it before then,” they both explained as they each told me their story. Growing up, they simply compartmentalized the things that they were being taught in different aspects of their lives. When they were in Sunday School, they accepted those teachings. When they were reading a scientific book or watching a scientific documentary, they accepted those teachings. “Then I was listening to a program on a Sunday afternoon after church,” Owen told me, “And it just occurred to me: Wait! That’s not what the Bible says. Can both exist? Or is one wrong?”
Instead of rejecting his faith, Owen thought carefully about how these various pieces of learning might be related. He described to me that basic starting point of insight that no matter how much we would come to understand about the physical universe, there were always more questions than science could answer. “How did it all get started?” he asked. And what seemed to be even more of an important point to him, “why have human beings even got a thought about God unless God gave us that thought?”
His grandfather chimed in with insight to offer about Genesis 1, the Bible’s seven day creation story. “They are writing about things that occurred before earth existed. And they aren’t writing a science textbook. But as long as you understand that a day didn’t mean 24 hours, Genesis 1 is right? It’s the Big Bang theory and the evolution of the universe written out in poetry. It’s almost spooky the level of insight. How could people understand that so early in time, except that it was revealed to them?”
Their religious passion for delving into the mysteries of the universe came out at every turn.
Our conversation from there was exciting and wide-ranging. We talked about the discernible and mysterious order that can be observed in the universe, from the Fibonacci series to the number Pi, which is a transcendental number with an infinite series of non-repeating decimals that tries in vain to pin down the mathematical formula for all circular objects. We marveled that the circle shape would universally contain this mysterious number when the circle has also so long been associated with the Divine, because it has no beginning or ending. They told me of the puzzle between micro and macro physics. That is, the ways in which subatomic particles behave make no sense in terms of what we know about the physics of the universe. “Scientists keep looking for a unifying theory, but what if that unifying theory is God?” Their religious passion for delving into the mysteries of the universe came out at every turn.
Woven into this conversation, they told me about a few brushes with the apparently supernatural that they had in their lives. They know that, throughout the world, across our congregations, and down through time, the conclusion that they have reached — that there is no conflict in loving scientific principles and believing in God — is a conclusion that is widely shared.
“We now know what happened a nanosecond after the big bang,” David told me. “But what happened before that and why? Why do these physical laws exist at all?”
We enjoyed our conversation so much that we were all almost late for our Tuesday night church programs.
As one who serves in ministry in our church, I get to experience the blessings of our faith tradition, and to feel grateful for the resources of our church, on a daily basis. In response to my son’s questions from school, I am profoundly glad for being part of a faith that has abundant resources for dismantling the either/or nature of the faith and science question, making it clear that Christians can pursue knowledge of both spiritual and scientific kinds without being conflicted in doing so.
Here is the amazing thing, though, and maybe the thing that we haven’t been clear enough to name and claim: no resource is as compelling as our very own people. All across our churches are scientists, doctors, researchers, teachers, philosophers, plumbers, stay-at-home parents, poets, artists, contractors and mechanics, who understand intimately how human relationships, car engines, toilets, subatomic particles, computers, or the human body work and who also believe, know, experience, the fingerprints of God all across their lives and all across our world. Thanks be to God!