How were you able to study science in school and allow room for your faith to grow?
— Joshua Riley, Cleveland, Ohio
My first sense of a conflict between faith and science occurred as a 9-year-old. It didn’t start in school or at church. It started at home.
I know my age because it happened on Nov. 7, 1977, the date on a particular Time magazine. It was when, for me, evolution got personal.
The magazine appeared in our mailbox and ended up in my hands. On the cover was a fellow named Richard Leakey, kneeling beside what was to me a hideous-looking creature.
It was apelike but also vaguely human in appearance. It had a giant head, broad high cheekbones, strangely long arms, and small dark beady eyes looking straight at the camera.
It was a model of Homo habilis, a species that lived in East Africa several million years ago. Above the image were the words, “How Man Became Man.”
It didn’t take me long to figure out what Mr. Leakey and Time were telling me: This brute was my ancestor.
Today the connection between Homo habilis and Homo sapiens is contested, but the scientific details hardly matter. What matters is that I was horrified by the thought of my family and friends and me being related to any such creature.
It bothered me that Mr. Leakey seemed to be OK with this. He seemed like a nice man. It seemed wrong, and made me sad. Homo habilis hurt my feelings.
The problem got theological when, a year or so later, Dad showed me a timeline in a natural history book that presented, in great detail, the 3.5-billion-year story of life on earth. Single-celled life, ancient plants, trilobites, dinosaurs and lots of other extinct oddities showed up in the timeline — but nowhere could I find Adam and Eve.
Meanwhile, the Bible I carried to church every week was silent on trilobites and T. rex. The situation was acute.
Several months before meeting Homo habilis and in the language of the moment, I had accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I was a newly baptized Christian, still wet behind the ears, and the cosmos was shaking me up already.
During my high school years faith and science lived in uneasy tension inside of me. I couldn’t really see how the two fit together, but I never seriously questioned science.
Science was always delivered to me — by my dad, who was a scientist, and by my teachers — in such a calm, direct way that it never once struck me as unbelievable. It was always religion, which seemed so emotionally driven, that lost ground.
And by the time I reached college and began studying physics my faith had simply faded away. I wasn’t angry; Christianity just seemed, on balance, unlikely and insufficient and irrational in the light of the cosmos I was learning about. So I just dropped it.
But later I picked it up again, and I didn’t have to drop science in order to do so.
In fact, I returned to faith while I was working on my Ph.D. in physics and there was never a question of compromising science. I just began to understand religion, faith and the Bible differently.
If I had to choose a single word to describe this change, it would be enlargement.
The rather conventional Protestantism with which I grew up, like so many local expressions of faith, was pretty limited from an intellectual point of view. Historically, culturally and theologically, my church upbringing was narrow. This is not a criticism but an observation.
I loved the church of my youth and was truly loved by people there. But as I entered adulthood I needed something more; I needed a larger faith.
Over time I got it. I can’t say how exactly, but my years in a Catholic high school might have laid some of the groundwork.
I began to see Christianity as a far larger and more complex and diverse and interesting tradition than I had ever known. In particular, I saw beyond the clichés about the conflict between science and religion and with God’s help began to rebuild a faith that works.
My change in perspective can be explained in terms of two simple Venn diagrams. In my earlier view, Christianity and science basically stood apart from one another and had equal standing, as in the first diagram.
The point is that, while I was in high school and college, I viewed Christianity and science as competing ways of knowing. In my mind, each had no real need of the other and it was not possible to stand in any place that was covered by both.
It was one or the other, either/or. So there was conflict.
In my current view, Christianity and science are not opposed. I see science as contained within Christianity, as in the second diagram.
Conflict arises only when you remove science from its context and try to set it up as its own independent worldview. Science is not sufficient to stand on its own in this way.
There are too many normal human questions — about meaning, value and purpose — that science simply does not address. The facts and theories of science need a context, and for me Christianity provides that context.
However, my faith needed to be enlarged for this to occur. It had to grow in order to contain science. That’s what happened as I entered adulthood.
You ask: How did I leave room for my faith to grow? How did I get to where my faith could grow large enough to encompass science and the cosmos it has shown us?
My answer, and it may seem paradoxical, is: I dropped it. I let my faith go.
Let’s rewind to my later high school years. That was when I began to sense my faith constricting around me. It did not help with questions I had about life, including scientific questions, because its answers suddenly seemed small and irrational and beside the point.
As a senior I played the role of pastor on Youth Sunday. I don’t recall what I said from the pulpit but remember the uncomfortable feeling of selling something I didn’t believe. I felt disconnected from the faith that at one time comforted, inspired and challenged me.
But what I felt wasn’t my faith constricting; it was my growing. I was leaving behind a faith that no longer worked. It was starting to pinch and chafe and to do little else.
So, within a few months, after moving away from home for the first time, I no longer went to church, no longer prayed, and simply dropped the tradition of my youth. Why should I keep holding onto something that served no good purpose?
The language is important: I didn’t push my faith away. I just let it go because it did not seem to square with what I was learning about the world, including science.
I never became an atheist, militant or otherwise. I suppose it is because my mind and heart never turned against God in any rigid or absolute way that enabled me to return to Christianity after a few years away.
For me it was essential to let the beliefs of my childhood go in order to discover a faith that worked in adult life and in the world of science.
Once this happened, my faith began to expand, and today it is roomy enough for science, trilobites, T. rex, Homo habilis, and the whole wild and woolly cosmos we call home. NFJ
By Paul Wallace
Paul Wallace is a Baptist minister with a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and post-doctoral work in gamma ray astronomy, along with a theology degree from Emory University. He teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Faith-science questions for consideration may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org