This is an amazing book. And the author, Elaine Howard Ecklund, has chosen a very unusual and creative way of showing why science and faith need each other.
Ecklund (PhD, Cornell University), a well known and high ranking professor of sociology at Rice University, where she holds the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, has founded a Religion and Public Life Program there.
Sociology and Social Science are definitely under-represented in the dialogue between Theology and Science. But in this book it becomes clear how much these disciplines can add and bring in new and helpful points of view.
First of all Ecklund’s research as a sociologist does not start from scientific results and research in Theology and Science but sheds light on the views of scientists and people of faith. And this handy book brings together her scholarly insights and personal stories. In this she is trying to show how Science and Christianity intersect in constructive, even beautiful ways. In fact she is also writing what I would call an “apology for people of faith becoming passionate about science”. And on purpose she therefore, already in the book title, uses the word “faith” and not “religion” or “theology”. And step by step develops a convincing plea that faith and science are not opposing forces.
The book, made possible through the support of a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, has three parts on “Building Blocks”, “Process” and “Redemption”. Very helpful are the suggestions for further reading, listed chapter by chapter from page 159 onwards.
Let me start with chapter 9, “Awe”: “Many scientists talk about how seeing the beauty of the natural world through their work fills them with a sense of wonder and awe, which they hold in high value” (p. 123). Ecklund refers to Christian, agnostic and atheist scientists who nevertheless all share a deep curiosity, often bringing in deep awe as well. Richard Dawkins for example writes of a “deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver” (p. 124 – Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Boston: Mariner, 2000)
Ecklund suggests, to bring scientific awe to church and to discuss with scientists in churches, how their exploration of the natural world deepens their understanding of creation.
As in all the 11 chapters Ecklund here suggests a few themes and questions for further consideration, and, very practically, for discussion in groups.
“The first three chapters of this book tell us about building blocks of virtues –how virtues are born in our communities and are part of what it means to be human. Starting with chapter 4, this book explores eight key virtues of Christianity –curiosity, doubt, humility, creativity, healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude – and how these virtues are practised in the scientific community. The virtues of curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity are crucial to the scientific process and, I argue, ought to be a core part of Christian communities. The virtues of healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude reveal how science and faith come together in redemptive practices.
“This book aims to show Christians the values they share with scientists, how Christian scientists see religious values in their scientific work, and how Christian communities might draw on virtues they share with the scientific community to better connect with science and scientists” (p21).
Part 1: Building Blocks:
In the first chapter of this block, “From Fear to Understanding” Ecklund looks back on the last 15 years of her studies. In total, she has surveyed nearly 41,000 religious believers and scientists (believers and non-believers). She makes it very clear from the beginning, that this book also deals with her personal lifelong question and that she thinks science and faith do address the biggest and most important questions of life. Ecklund is proposing a new approach for discussing the relationship between science and faith in that she sees science and faith not just as sets of ideas but as groups of people. She is further convinced, that scientists and Christians share common virtues, which will lead to common ground once brought to light.
In chapter two, “Overlapping Communities” we learn that many Christian scientists practice a “secret science” and do not talk about their work and research at church and with other Christians. In the US – and this might well be the case in not a few European countries as well – there are still quite a number of Christians, especially of Evangelical Christians, who view science and religion as in conflict. On the other hand the clear majority of Christians and especially of Christian scientists think that science and religion can support each other and collaborate – for example in that science and faith could fill gaps the other may leave or provide solutions for questions the other cannot answer. Communities play an important role since humans tend to judge people they perceive as similar to themselves as more moral and trustworthy. But, Ecklund concludes, we have to engage groups we think of as “the other” in a genuine way in order to have a real chance of crossing boundaries and changing minds.
Chapter 3 on “Creative Evolution: Moving Past the Origins Debate” is about the questions of origin, of ourselves and of the world around us. Instead of just asking whether a person believes in creationism or evolution, Ecklund invited her interview partners to choose from six explanations (narratives) for the origin and development of life on earth. The results showed that many scientists accept evolution while also maintaining that a creator God played some role. And while young-earth-creationism was the most popular narrative among evangelicals, nevertheless almost 40 percent of them were not willing to commit to any single perspective. Some argue that the final origin is a mystery and not infrequently hold contradictory views on human origins. Some would accept evolution with a divine first cause, some think God can continue to be involved in the process of evolution. On the other hand some scientists see orderliness in evolution and believe it displays the fingerprints of God.
For Ecklund, Christians take the concept of evolution in that it shows that humans are special (as is the case in the concept of imago Dei). And evolutionary scientists and Christians can join together in recognizing the importance of curiosity and creativity for humanness.
Part 2: Process
Of the eight key virtues of Christianity already mentioned, in this part curiosity, doubt, humility, creativity are taken up and the attempt is made to show how these virtues are practised and even are crucial in the scientific community and ought to be a core part of Christian communities.
Ecklund writes: “It is time we honoured curiosity about science in church. Interpreted from a Christian perspective, science can be seen as a tool to pursue knowledge and truth about creation and to better understand the words and works of God and how we can live better lives” (p. 62).
With Mario Livio she differentiates between “epistemic curiosity”, a desire to learn new knowledge, and “perceptual curiosity”, as the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or does not agree with what we know or think we know. Many Christians are indeed curious about the relationship between their faith and science and how to integrate one with the other. This can be painful and stressful but to satisfy it can also feel like receiving a reward.
As to doubt, conventional thinking is that science relies on reason and evidence and religion on faith. In the scientific community indeed doubt is not only useful but essential. In quoting Merton, a sociologist from Columbia, Ecklund introduces what he called “organized scepticism”. But doubt also can be seen as possibly leading to more robust faith as for example in Anselm of Canterbury’s dictum fides quaerens intellectum, a theological method stressed earlier by Augustine. As a devoted Christian herself and coming from a Baptist family, Ecklund through her personal history and life with scoliosis has experienced doubt as to faith and science. But she has also been moving past conflict and become what she calls a “boundary pioneer”.
“I think we need to show how science can bolster faith (which is not the same thing as certainty). The boundary pioneers – scientists who are committed Christians and who break down the boundary between science and religion, those who live in both worlds –are our models. They show us that scientific evidence has actually opened up their faith to mystery and awe”(p.72).
On the other hand those scientists often also see faith as adding meaning to their discoveries.
Practising doubt as a virtue can lead to humility. Scientists who practise humility hold their findings as preliminary, recognizing that they might be wrong. They know that the kinds of truth underlying nature transcend the most powerful minds – as Nobel-Prize winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar pointed out. As Ecklund puts it: “From my own studies and experiences in science, I have seen that intellectual humility and hospitality as well as relational humility – embodying kindness and respect for the ideas of others no matter their status – go hand in hand” (pp. 85f). Therefore Ecklund strongly suggests that Christians should model humility themselves, a virtue at the core of their faith. Christians should recognize that all humans are imperfect in their knowledge, and embrace a recognition that there is much to learn from beliefs different from their own and that there is much science can offer faith and their understanding of the world without under- mining it. “By taking a humble approach, we can begin to build bridges be- tween science and faith” (p. 91).
Many of the Christian scientists Ecklund has interviewed think that science itself is evidence of God’s creativity. Others would say that creativity is the key way that humans are made in God’s image. Very concretely, this leads Ecklund exemplarily and out of personal experience to a strong plea for assisted reproductive technologies and gene-editing technologies: “Sometimes we have to wrestle with our technologies ... to make hard choices between theological ideals and competing values. We have to think about what the limits of scientific creativity should be...One part of exercising responsibility with our God-given creative power is using it for redemptive healing” (p. 106).
Part 3: Redemption
For Ecklund, as we have already seen, the virtues of healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude reveal how science and faith come together in redemptive practices. And redemption is what part 3 deals with.
We started this review with the chapter on “Awe”, i.e. chapter 9.
However the first chapter of part 3, chapter 8, is about “Healing”. It starts very personally again, with Ecklund’s daughter telling her parents that some kids called her mother’s hands really weird-looking – a result, Ecklund explains, of joint degeneration from rheumatoid arthritis not only giving her pain for thirty years but also often leading her to hide her hands at school or even on her wedding day. She then goes on to her research, writing: “My research shows that members of both scientific communities and religious communities place high value on alleviating the suffering of others” (p. 112).
What follows in this chapter is a discussion of how humans should offer healing and when they should prioritize alleviating suffering above other core commitments and values – let me add, this being a very pertinent discussion in times of crisis and indeed pandemic.
Reducing suffering is a shared hope and value of both faith/religion and science, but scientists as well as religious persons know that there are also moral risks in alleviating suffering. Some might say that there is opportunity in both crisis and suffering. Others might argue that one’s own suffering opens one’s heart to the suffering of the world. There is no way to live a life completely free of risk. And of course there are scientists, believers and non-believers, who want to do scientific work that improves the common good, though none of them believes that science can fix all the problems of the world.
Chapter 10 is about Shalom. And although one would wish to have a deeper explanation why Ecklund is using this rich term so typical for Jewish faith and spirituality and why she is using it to explain her habit of regularly trying to “become still”, this chapter nevertheless is very worthwhile reading: “As a sociologist, the twin virtues of shalom and stewardship and their related virtue of justice are ones that I have pondered a lot” (p. 135).
Taking shalom as a virtue Ecklund, sees a clear analogy with compassion as in Jesus’ solidarity with the marginal ones, and that this is not to be seen as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism. As she sees it, this critical awareness of what might be wrong in the social context is to be found all over the world in different religions and in scientists from different religious and cultural backgrounds. This may be expressed in their battle for peace and justice but also in stewarding the environment. “Those who have been and are most marginalized in our society are often deeply compelled to fight against structures that marginalize others. One of the best ways to encourage Christians to enter science might be to frame science as a calling that provides an avenue for stewardship” (p. 143).
Christian and non-Christian scientists and followers of Christian and other faith(s) then might build up wholeness through diversity.
The last and final chapter of this book is on Gratitude. Ecklund calls this the “parent of all virtues”, referring to Psalm 145.3. She finds this conviction in Greek Philosophy, in Christianity, in religion in general and not the least in science as well. Gratitude helps resilience to grow. It allows some scientists to feel that they are having a positive impact on God’s creation. And it helps Christians to become grateful for science and scientists as well.
Let me end with Ecklund’s last two sentences: “Indeed, my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavour to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship” (p. 156).
Pn. Dr. Sybille C. Fritsch-Oppermann
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 30:3 (September 2020), pp. 20-25.