Science in Christian Perspective


A View from the Crossroads of Science and Faith

Michele Roth

Eastern Mennonite University, 
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (March 2000): 4-5.

Nearly three years ago, I found myself on a student panel introducing the college I attend to some visiting guidance counselors. Each of us introduced ourselves--I was a biochemistry major, and had chosen to come to Eastern Mennonite University because of its small size, cross-cultural learning opportunities, and reputable science department. One reason that I did not mention was my Mennonite religious and ethnic identity that was deeply changed by four years at a Washington, D.C. area magnet high school. I needed answers. What was all this God stuff really about? Guilt? Social control? The opiate of the masses? What did these big existential questions that I needed to ask say about my abilities? Why were most Mennonites farmers, anyway?

About halfway through the session, an inquisitive guidance counselor leaned back in his chair and asked how I saw cutting-edge science research as congruent with my faith in God. Frankly, I had no idea. Two years into my college career, I still had not found out why Mennonites were farmers. What did this guy think I knew about God? I managed to spout out some drivel about being better stewards of God's creation by seeking to understand it. For that particular audience, my answer seemed satisfactory enough. Over the last three years, however, that question has seldom left me. My attempts to find an answer have sent me paging through my own history, wondering how and why I am drawn to both science and faith.

My insatiable curiosity is perhaps the one part of me that has not changed significantly since I was very young. Much to the consternation of my parents, I habitually awoke early Saturday mornings when I was two or three. Immediately upon getting out of bed, I vividly remember climbing through our study to find a choice remnant of my mother's college years--an old human anatomy and physiology textbook. I would page through until I found some tantalizing detail that I had to understand. Sitting on my hands for as long as humanly possible and trying in vain to decipher the text usually gained my mother an extra five minutes of sleep.

"Mommy," I would say, shaking her. "Teach me a-nat-o-my and phys-i-ol-o-gy." I could never seem to comprehend why my mother did not want to get out of bed at five or six in the morning and teach me how the ears worked, or why the baby in the picture had a hole where his nose and upper lip were supposed to be. "But Mommy," I would ask, "where's his nose? I have a nose."

Church was the place that I typically had a few friends that were my age. I have very good memories of playing happily at potluck suppers, church retreats, and youth events. My church was very small, with about fifty people present on a given Sunday morning. At the time, it was an active, mainstream-to-liberal Mennonite fellowship where a hefty minority of the members did not grow up as Mennonites. We had families that were core members, and, perhaps because of the transient nature of living in northern Virginia, we had many regular visitors.

A notable event that took place during my intermediate school years was my decision to become a member of the church. I remember being surprised that it warranted such a big event--God had always been real to me. I had seen him in the natural world around me and through the eyes and voices of others in my congregation and my family. It only seemed natural that I would accept his summons. Most of my extended family came to church for the Sunday of my baptism, and I received many wonderfully affirming cards and letters. My mother and I planned the worship service, down to the last hymn. By my request, the pastor's sermon was about mistakes; our pastor spoke as Peter that day.

I have never regretted my decision. Church has provided a sense of family and community in my life that have been invaluable to me. A large part of my identity, both social and religious, has been with the Mennonite Church. I am very grateful for what I continue to learn from my Mennonite kindred about the importance of faith, family, hospitality, and social justice. The sense of history and rootedness that comes from close family and communal ties among Mennonites has also given me a sense of security and relatedness that is extremely valuable and perhaps unusual in postmodern society. Like all family and community relationships, however, some aspects of my relationship with the church have not been as helpful.

Since many things in my childhood seemed serious and worrisome to me, perhaps it is only natural that correctly discerning the Word of God seemed an utterly overwhelming, and often terrifying, task. I tried fervently to be a model human being: gentle, responsible, and unselfish. But Sunday after Sunday, I sat in church and silently recounted my sins. I realized all the ways I had fallen short of someone whom I thought would really have Jesus in his or her heart. I also had this troublesome tendency to worry, and would get myself into these cycles of worry, guilt about worrying, and worrying more. I knew that I was supposed to be giving my burdens to Jesus, but I just could not let go of them. The additional implicit message that worrying was a good way of caring for my community did not help my conundrum.

I was able to cope with such mixed messages until early adolescence, when the beloved pastor of my childhood left and another took his place a year later. The new pastor's theology carried a variety of negative messages with it that, for me, made church a place of little hope and less comfort. Simultaneously, other events in my life sharply called into question most of my basic assumptions about the nature of God as I understood him.

So I came to college with a lot on my mind. My anxiety and guilt about having such persistent questions about spiritual issues had not abated--the questions had simply become more complex. I also realized that, through my experiences, my views of God and faith had become rather intractably enmeshed with my feelings about the negative experiences of those years. To have any kind of healthy relationship with God, I knew I had to start over. Early in my first year, I jettisoned my old understandings of God and began the long process of rebuilding from ground zero.

I quickly found, however, that one cannot truly start over with such issues. Traces of the old paradigm were manifest everywhere, despite my best efforts to eradicate them. I started by questioning the fundamentals--the existence and nature of God. What was too complex to sort via emotion became an examination primarily by logical faculties. Why do people have faith? Is it love or fear or conditioning? I did not feel God. Why did I not if everyone else around me could? Why are we so literal about some parts of the Bible and more or less ignore other areas? Is faith really something other than accumulated tradition? My church nearly always characterizes God as male. Does that mean that my gifts as a female are less valuable? Mostly to protect myself, I became an expert at pointing out the holes, the hypocrisies, and the inconsistencies in Christianity as I saw it.

Puritanism bothers me. It makes Christianity into a big yardstick, next to which we stack up an aspect of someone's life (sexuality, or perhaps correct beliefs, or maybe abusive behavior) and start pointing fingers about who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God. In other words, we marginalize those who have issues that make us uncomfortable. Jesus ate with the most despised of his society. Women, prostitutes, and tax collectors were among his followers. He repeatedly rebuked religious leaders for their attention to Levitical purity codes, wealth, and pretentiousness, while they did nothing about weightier matters such as easing the burden of the poor. Why, then, do Christians maintain partisan attachments to these very same outward attributes? I am certainly not advocating that wrongdoing should be ignored. I just think the Church must relinquish its judgmentalism about the issues involved. All of us are unconditionally children of God. In my opinion, it is long past time to stop pointing fingers and start talking about how to love and nurture those whom we would rather forget.

In truth, I am still seeking. My hope is that this journey will not end. Maybe I am attached to both faith and science because their intersection lies in the unending search for knowledge and truth. However, the reality of living as a Christian and as a scientist is more formidable to me. I wonder if one can strive for achievement and definition by the standards of the scientific community and still maintain primary allegiance to God. Will publications, grants, prestige, and my curriculum vitae define my life? Will I even admit to my own idolatry? Am I so intent upon doing my Christian duties that I arrogantly fail to listen to the inconsistencies in my own faith?

It is probably quite evident by now that I have many more questions than answers. However, I like to think that I have begun the process of learning what I need to learn. Thus, I offer some of my musings as closing thoughts. First, I need not attempt to hold the future with an ironclad grip, nor need I worry that what I have accomplished in the past is not enough. I have been where I needed to be then. Secondly, God is the only legitimate judge of humanity, and given support, I believe we can all hear God's voice and be changed accordingly. My mandate is to live by befriending my "enemies"--those with whom I fundamentally disagree. If the friendship is real, my opinions will be solicited (and heard) eventually. Finally, at the point that I become comfortable with God, the mystery ends; the doubt ends; my faith ends. Where there is certainty in my life there is no place for faith; it becomes meaningless. To have true faith, I must also have doubts.