Environmental scientists as Christians

It’s the weekend again…and time for weekend thoughts. As I start this post, the coffee is brewing, and I’ve just finished reading an interesting guest post on Judith Curry’s most absorbing blog, Climate Etc. Today’s author? Ken Wilson, an evangelical pastor. His question? Is there any good news for the environment among evangelicals? A great read. I hope you’ll take a look.

There’s similar material out there. But this post on Judith’s blog on this weekend morning have brought me to something of a tipping point. And my blogging experience has shown me that blogging is a great way to marshal thoughts, especially thoughts that are emerging, or in transition.

I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now. But I’ve been a Christian for a little over 35 years. There’s quite a story behind this but that story is not for today. Instead we’re going to explore just one small piece of the experience of those three decades.

For all of that time, my innermost thought process has been an integrated one. By that I mean that I don’t shuttle back and forth between thinking like a scientist and thinking like a Christian. But my words and my actions – as opposed to my thoughts – have been a different story. I “religiously” kept my Christian viewpoint to myself in the workplace and have been pretty much silent about my science at church.

This is essentially the path I’m still on today. I could possibly have chosen a different one. But when I became a Christian I was already running a group of scientists in a federal laboratory, and the rules about not letting religion intrude in the federal workplace are strict – and wholly appropriate as far as I’m concerned. I’m comfortable with that. I’d say that people close to me in the workplace knew/know I was a Christian, but it mostly stops there. And although my church friends knew/know I’m a scientist, the subject matter, the focus, of the conversation is usually different there.

So my innermost thought process has been unified, but I’ve lived my life in two worlds. And I’ve become bilingual in the process (that’s an important aspect…there’s more congruence between the two worlds than you might expect; a lot of the distinction is in the vocabulary).

Here is my experience in a nutshell. Much of the time, I wish my scientist friends would be more serious about their faith, and that my Christian friends would be more serious about their science.  

Today I’ll open up the first side of this; tomorrow we’ll look at the flip side. Here’s a starting point that’s as good as any: Billy Graham. In his post, Ken Wilson quotes Graham:

“I don’t think there’s any conflict at all between Science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say. I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man….whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” (Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, by David Frost and Fred Bauer)

I want to provide a second quote from Graham. This second quote comes from short remarks he made in the Capitol Rotunda, to members of the House and Senate, when he and his wife Ruth were receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest honor, in 1996. Before the assembled crowd, which included Al Gore and Newt Gingrich sitting side by side (the lion lying down with the lamb? I won’t venture which was which), here is what he said.

“There are four reasons we need Jesus…four questions we can’t answer without Him.

1.       Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

2.       How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

3.       How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential. [!! I was especially struck by this, coming from him.]

4.       What happens to me after I die?”

[I’ve put this material in quotes…but the “quotation” is from memory and by no means exact. And Graham expanded a bit on each of these. But as I found out later from reading his autobiography, Billy Graham, throughout his career as an evangelist, returned to these four questions again and again.]

The equations of physics – Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, the Navier-Stokes equations – seem to be largely silent on these questions. If we were to write correctly the Hamiltonian of the universe, these thoughts would be in there…but that doesn’t somehow seem particularly helpful, at least not with today’s science.

It’s also possible to live life shoving these questions, or questions similar to these, aside. But that seems somehow wrongheaded. To do so takes us to Socrates’ “unexamined life that isn’t worth living.” It does our spouses and our children and those close to us few favors.

So to my scientist friends, I’m suggesting that we ought to be as disciplined in our approach to matters of faith as we are in our approach to our science.

To do less, it seems to me, is no different from being dismissive of the science of climate change without really looking into it.

Tomorrow – why and how my Christian friends might do well to be a little more serious about science.

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7 Responses to Environmental scientists as Christians

  1. Pingback: Christians as environmental scientists | Living on the Real World

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