A house divided
College cafeterias don’t typically have the best reputations. Trying to feed tens of thousands of students several meals a day sometimes degrades into nothing more than palatable calories that are relatively free of E. coli. Our school cafeteria, however, is more like a hotel restaurant. The food is fresh and often locally grown; there are lots of options for eating healthy or indulging; and it tastes as good as or better than restaurant food. We’re pretty lucky.
My wife, Ann, and I used to bring our three kids, Sydney, Ryan, and Josh, to the university caf for family meals when they were younger. Think about it: no cooking, no cleaning, lots of options for picky eaters. And as a proud husband and dad I enjoyed showing off my family to my students.
One particular dinner at the caf, I was carrying my tray full of food, mostly for the kids, back from the buffet area into the dining room when a student stopped me. “Hello Dr. Cummings” he said nervously. For some reason, students, especially freshmen, get nervous around their professors. “I saw a really bright star last night just down and to the left of the moon and I was wondering if you could tell me what it was.” Now, to put this in perspective you have to understand that I am a microbiologist. I specialize in things like bacteria and DNA. I do have a secondary specialty in ecosystems, but we’ll talk about that later. In either case, I don’t know any more about the stars than my kids. Seriously.
Students have this idea that their professors have all the answers, that we know without any uncertainty every answer to every question. Even outside of our expertise. Maybe the big gap between their limited understanding of something like science coming out of high school compared to the depth of knowledge a professor has acquired over the decades he’s been studying and learning and pondering these things makes it seem like the professor knows everything by comparison. I’m sure our attitudes when we teach only feed the misconception. There is the temptation we all face to try to answer every question in class, to try to appear to be in control and know more than the students could ever ask. Combined, these things give the false impression that there is nothing we don’t know.
The same can be true when we’re out in society. Though away from the college campus there is a second and completely opposite possibility: complete distrust. It seems like when it comes out that I am a college professor, and a science professor at that, people either think I am Albert Einstein or a charlatan, a snake oil salesman. I can assure you that I am neither.
My friend Mark Flanagan and I attended a steak dinner put on by our church’s men’s ministry a couple weeks back. They brought in an NFL player from the San Diego Chargers as the guest speaker and grilled up a couple hundred top sirloins. It was quite a night. About half way through the event the young man sitting next to me leaned in and quietly said, “I hear Jonas’ dad is a genius. But you’re a genius too, right?” Uh, not quite. Can you pass the A1 sauce?
A very different kind of conversation, equally misguided, took place after Sunday service with the dad of a student at my university. “There’s so much junk they teach in college. So many theories and so much speculation. You have to teach your kids to think for themselves or they’re going to get duped.” The implication was that we were all just taking shots in the dark and proposing our best guesses as if they were true. That conversation was just dripping with distrust.
When things get really dicey is when people in the church want to talk about controversial issues of faith and science: creation and evolution, climate change, stem cells and cloning. What makes these conversations so difficult is that they usually already have their minds made up on the topic, and they just want to know what side you’re on, whether they can trust you. The problem is that these sorts of exchanges often divide us rather than bring us together. They take the body of Christ and divide it into camps pitted against one another. Dividing the church is the work of the enemy, not the work of the Father.
Being both a dedicated Christian and a scientist, there is no pleasing anyone. Non-believers in the scientific community are suspicious of my faith: How can you be a man of science yet put your trust in something so unscientific as the Christian faith? Equally distrusting are the non-scientist Christians: How can you be part of a profession that approaches life without a single thought of God?
One Sunday morning while my wife and I were working security in the halls of the children’s church, a new couple struck up a conversation with us. How long have you been coming to this church? How many kids do you have? What do you do for a living? they asked. OK, I thought, here we go. “I’m a biology professor” “What?!” Neither of them made any attempt to hide their disbelief. The husband even took a half step back as if I might be dangerous. “I didn’t know it was possible to be a Christian and a biologist,” he said with a tone of sarcasm, a sure relationship killer. Within minutes of meeting one another, they had divided us into camps, and I was marginalized into the camp with the lepers and hypocrites.
I’ve learned over the years that my role is neither to defend science nor to pretend to have all the answers. I have come to value unity in the church far too much to take either posture. Instead, I have developed a set of guiding principles that I am more than happy to share with any who want to engage in battle over the controversial issues facing the church and scientific communities. And since you have chosen to read this blog, I think it is only fair that you have some insight into how I approach such issues. So, for the next couple of weeks, we will consider these guiding principles – where they come from and how they are applied in my life, and particularly how they impact my thinking about God and nature.
Questions for thought
As you begin the journey of reading this blog and considering God from the perspective of a scientist and naturalist (defined later), what preconceptions do you bring to the table? What comes to mind when you hear the word scientist? Or the word nature?
How do you feel about a Christian being a scientist? What about a Christian being a naturalist?
Are you willing to set aside some of your biases and simply consider the arguments and opinions presented at face value?
Lord Jesus, you are the author and creator of all that exists in this universe of ours. We want to honor you as Lord and Savior as we explore your creation. Reveal yourself to us as we study your word and your world. May all we do be glorifying to you. In your name we pray. Amen.