Scientists can also be people of faith

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

As I write these lines, I look forward to Ohio Wesleyan’s annual commencement. On that day, we send our students off into the world at large to pursue whatever dreams they have created for themselves.

This is not the best time to be doing so. We live in a nation deeply divided by race, by class, by political affiliation, and by religious belief.

Over my 40 years of teaching, I have been mostly concerned about the divide between science and religion. I have lived at the crack between reason and spirituality most of my adult life, and I have watched it widen to a chasm. As it expanded, I have found myself hanging precariously to one side and then the other, somewhat imprudently yelling the virtues of the opposing side to anyone who would listen.

My arms have gotten tired at times from clawing at the rim, but claw I must. The chasm is wide, but it is also deep. Some people of faith dogmatically reject the notion that certain natural laws, notably the Big Bang and evolution, have determined the course of the universe. Some scientists think, just as dogmatically, that those laws have eliminated the need for a creator of that universe.

We seem divided between those who have their feet firmly planted on the Earth and others who look with wonder at the stars. Yet the two worlds meet at the thinnest of cracks, which humans of all philosophical and religious beliefs have come to call the horizon.

So lets look there for inspiration. Rising above the southeastern horizon just after complete dark right now is the constellation Virgo. With her comes the promise of springtime — new birth and burgeoning life.

Virgo, the Virgin (or “Maiden,” if you prefer) was called Persephone by the ancient Greeks. Her story begins in a mythic time of continuous peace and plenty, when the gods lived openly among humans, and we lived in peace with one another.

Persephone was the young daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest and by extension goddess of life, fertility and growth.

One tragic day, Hades, the god who ruled the realm of the dead, kidnapped the maiden and carried her down to his underworld lair. There she was to become queen to the dark god.

Persephone knew that her chances of escape were small, but she had one hope. She would be trapped in Hades forever if she in any way partook of the hospitality of the dark lord. She must not eat a single bite of food and hope that her mother could somehow find her and rescue her from Hades’ cold embrace.

As Persephone lay weak and hungry, Demeter was so filled with grief that she left Earth to search the universe for her daughter.

Demeter’s presence on the planet made the crops grow. In her absence, not a single seed sprouted, and an unending winter encompassed Earth.

Humans were desperate and starving, but that didn’t bother Zeus very much. He kind of enjoyed watching humans suffer. He was more upset by the lack of agricultural tribute. Humans had no food to sacrifice at his temples.

Zeus thus undertook Persephone’s rescue, but the attempt was doomed. In a moment of weakness, she had eaten four tiny pomegranate seeds and was now yoked to Hades forever.

So Zeus arranged a compromise. For four months out of every year, one month for each seed, Persephone must remain with Hades in unholy wedlock.

During those months, Virgo remains below the horizon. Because Demeter is paralyzed by grief during that time, winter spreads over the land. As Virgo rises in the spring and rejoins her mother, Demeter is filled with joy and allows the dormant plant life to awaken.

For the ancients, the golden age of innocence was over. The virgin had been ravished. The long, long age of winter was upon us. The gods now lived among the cold stars of heaven.

But spring still comes in fits and starts as the sad pain of the goddess Demeter is replaced by unspeakable joy.

I have come to love such old stories. Sadly, to some of the science-types I hang around with, I have eaten the pomegranate seeds and yielded to the easy temptation of the pleasurable emotions that the sky produces.

Some Christians think I have eaten the seeds for a different reason. The basic laws of science seem to come into contradiction with the dictates of the Bible. There is some truth in that claim. In fact, I tell the old tales because they tell us something about the way humans have attempted to explain the vagaries of the harsh and beautiful natural world around them.

When we didn’t understand the rules that govern nature, we assumed that the seeming chaos around us was the result of intervention by gods who were much like us. They were sometimes cruel and sometimes kind. As their moods changed, so did the state of human affairs.

The laws of nature thus seem to eliminate the need for gods to rule over nature and determine its course. However, among the greatest scientists who ever lived are men and women of abiding faith. Like Virgo, they manage to live in both worlds. For half a century, I have striven to do the same.

Thus, to those of you who champion scientific rationality, I say: The rules that guide natural selection have led to humans. Of all the parts of the vast cosmos we have studied, humans are the only part that has come to a partial understanding of those laws.

We, in effect, are the part of the universe that has come to understand itself. By evolution or design, we have become the mind of the universe as it awakens to its own existence.

Scientists exist at the point of that spear. They must proceed with a deep sense of that awful and awesome responsibility.

And to people of faith, I say: Fear not those laws of nature. Science does not explain away the miraculous. That the laws function so well and that they have led to these miracles we call people are themselves the greatest miracles of all.

Humans have been chosen to understand those laws. If God created the universe, the Creator also created those laws. When we study them, we begin to see into the mind of God.

Virgo must live in both worlds. I watch her rise majestically over the eastern horizon, the crack between the heavens and the Earth. I know that she will rise again, the harbinger of spring and rebirth, in exactly the same place next year. In that rising, I regain the hope that we all, to some lesser or greater degree, can live in the majesty of both worlds.

The sky seems so different than the earth beneath our feet. The sky may not seem to be part of the earth. But, as the very wise John Dobson once noted, “The Earth is part of the sky.”

To some people of faith, God is transcendent, above and beyond us. But the Creator is also immanent, present in all things large and small. We may see Him/ Her/ It in the beautiful order of nature: in the laws that govern the flow of water in stream, in the intricate structure of the human eye, or in the glorious rising of the stars of Virgo.

We must each build a bridge to cross the great chasm between scientific knowledge and deeply held faith. We will find the materials and tools to do so in the careful study of the laws of nature and in the genuine search for the presence of our Creator.

However, those efforts will come to naught if we do not recognize with tolerant goodwill the sincerity of those who struggle on the other side of the chasm. They also strive with the same earnestness to find meaning and purpose in the universe.

You will find that love of your seemingly distant neighbor where it perhaps lies most hidden. You will find it where immense chasms find their bridges, where austere knowledge finds wisdom, where undogmatic belief finds exaltation, and where sincere and abiding love finds serenity. You will find it deep within the capacious confines of the human heart.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.