Volume 3, Number 7

July 15, 2012

Theme: Faithful Scientists


Hypothesizing Faith

by Dr. John Coroneus

The Evidence of Things Unseen 

by Mr. William Kopcha

Approaching Science with the Mind of the Fathers

by Dr. Gayle Woloschak

Become Like Children

by Matushka Manna Whitfield

In Wisdom He Has Made Them All

by Dr. Demetra Perlegas

More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.

Hypothesizing Faith

July 15, 2012

By Dr. John Coroneus

The Strength of Science

A key aspect of scientific thinking is the close tie that it has to observation.  This close tie cannot be emphasized sufficiently, especially when science and the scientific method are discussed with non-scientists.  Science begins and grows only with observations.  However, when people consider science and faith, they rarely have observations in mind.  Instead, people contrast faith with theories from the physical and life sciences.  Science makes the connection between observation and theory through the scientific method.  It is so important that I’ll take a few lines to describe it – please bear with me, it is worth the trouble!

1. An observation: The sky is blue

2. A question: Why is the sky blue?

3. A hypothesis: The sky is blue because the sun makes us squint

(Note: a hypothesis is an educated guess)

4. A prediction: If we stand in the shade, we won’t squint and the sky will not be blue

5. Test/experiment: Go out and stand in the shade

6. Conclusion: Well, the sky is still blue, even without squinting. Maybe we need more tests or there is a mistake in our hypothesis

In fact, you can be stuck in steps five and six for a while as you perform different experiments and continue analysis.  In the end, however, you will likely find that the sky is not blue and that you need a different hypothesis.  Once a hypothesis has been borne out by a very large number of experiments it becomes the basis of an overarching theory that is capable of making new predictions.  Challenging a theory is not simply a matter of philosophical argumentation.  Instead, theories are challenged by experiments.  For example, a study last year proposed that certain bacteria are capable of using the poisonous element arsenic in their DNA in place of the well established element phosphorus.  This paper challenged current understanding of DNA.  However, one experiment is not sufficient to overthrow our understanding of DNA composition.  The paper challenging the status quo has had numerous technical comments arguing for and against the authors’ conclusions.  Now, independent experiments have been performed that refute the findings completely.  Perhaps bacteria can live on arsenic or perhaps not, we will only know as more evidence is accumulated.  As you can see, there is a deep link between scientific theories and experiment.

The Revealed God

Scientists, with their regard for observable data; however, are sometimes confused by people of faith.  The notion that knowledge is revealed instead of concluded is exactly at odds with the scientific method.  Take a look at our Orthodox Christian Faith: we see a revealed Trinitarian God.  An examination of the scriptures, in fact, depicts human efforts to know God as leading to misunderstanding of God.  Instead, God is shown as working to find a way to communicate with (mostly) ignorant followers.  Whether it is the Judeans’ thinking that God could never leave the temple (and allow Jerusalem to fall) in Ezekiel or that the Christ could appear to be such a failure on the Cross (that is, a non-military leader Christ), there is a consistent effort on God’s part to be God and not fit into human beings’ conception of Him.  From this perspective, there is little difference between an idol made of stone and one made of human ideas: both fail to properly represent the transcendent God whose, “ways are not [human] ways.” (Is 55:8)

Any useful and honest attempt to reconcile science and faith does well to take into account science’s foundation in observation and the scientific method, as well as the faith’s grounding in the revelation of God.  As soon as we confuse or forget these ideas we start to get into a lot of trouble.

Christ revealed in the breaking of Bread

The Problem with Religion

Religion attacked science at least as far back as Galileo’s time, when the Roman Catholic Church arrested him for his statements about a heliocentric solar system.  In effect, the church leaders at that time and place “derived” their ideas from philosophical assumptions, while Galileo constructed his ideas from direct observations.  Each side had different, fundamental assumptions that led to serious problems, first for Galileo and later for the Roman church when Galileo’s ideas were found to be correct.

Think back to my example of the scientific method.  I postulated a testable hypothesis that was pretty easy to disprove by observation.  That’s the framework under which Galileo and other scientists work.  Asking a scientist to accept an explanation in opposition to observation is in effect asking them to be intellectually dishonest.  That’s not a position that anyone would appreciate!  In effect, scientists accept observation and testability as the means to verify an idea, a hypothesis or a theory.  Einstein famously said of his own theory, which had had great success, that, “no amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Owing to the success of science to explain natural phenomena, some some Christians thought they could use the scientific method and give evidence for faith.  This approach actually worked in reverse, opening faith to scientific inquiry: where is the observation of God, where are the repeatable experiments, what is the test we can perform to determine the existence of God?  The evidence given to answer such questions has difficulty standing up to scientific scrutiny.  Sometimes, people submit their personal experience.  For example, an individual might claim that they were delayed by a red light while late to a meeting, only to observe an accident occur had they made the light.  The interpretation is that God acted and delayed the driver, and this salvation proves God’s existence.  However, can this God-as-actor hypothesis be put to the test?  Isn’t such a test exactly what Jesus refused to do in the desert when tempted by the devil?

Alternately, one might claim that since the tomb of Caiphas was found, this verifies the Bible.  If that is the case, then we’d have to accept that the French Revolution verifies Les Miserables.  The point here is not that the Bible is a work of historical fiction, just that the evidence given does not establish it as historical fact.  Even worse, Orthodox theology tells us that God is ultimately free, so there is an expectation that any test we make for the existence of God will fail.  ‘If we do not stand by faith, we will not stand at all.’

Such approaches, to establish the faith on scientific grounds, however well intentioned, leave the faith in worse shape than before.  In an attempt to convince people to believe in God, God becomes subject to logic and scientific inquiry.  When logic and scientific inquiry instead show that God cannot be verified by experiment, we are left with the conclusion that God does not exist.  Disaster.

“Intelligent” Design?

A not so new idea, of some god (which one, I don’t know) as a designer has become popular.  The basic idea is to say that there are phenomena science cannot explain, so we need “god the explainer” to fill in the gaps of our knowledge.  Of course, what happens when scientific knowledge increases and we start explaining things that used to be explained by the explainer god?  In that case, god becomes unnecessary, unneeded.  So, off we go, droping that old, archaic God like we did medieval superstitions, Greek gods and the earth-centered view of the solar system.

Earth-Centered Universe

The explainer god does not sound anything like the eternal, revealed, creator God of the scripture.  The explainer god has no need to send his son into the world to die.  This is the greatest difficulty of all “intelligent design” arguments. At the end of the day, the arguments are a lot of work, don’t make an impact for most scientists (at least they don’t to me or any scientist I know), and the only real conclusion of them is that there is some creative power who may or may not be the Father of Jesus Christ.  The inability to focus on Christ is a complete loss, we may as well, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (I Cor 15:32)

Hanging on a Word

So, where does all this leave us?  I’ve given some idea how science does a poor job of helping us know God.  In that case, how do we come to know God?  Do we need evidence?  A quick look at Thomas in John’s Gospel helps (Jn 20).  The Risen Jesus appears to the disciples, who tell Thomas about the appearance.  Thomas refuses to believe without evidence.  The Risen Lord appears again and Thomas gets his evidence proclaiming, “my Lord and my God.”  What we forget is Jesus’ response to this proclamation, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Those who hear about the Risen Christ and believe are blessed, not those that get evidence!

The Belief of Thomas

St. Paul speaks similarly in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you…of the good news that I proclaimed to you…that Christ died for our sins…and that he was raised on the third day…”  We are given a proclamation, and we are left to accept or reject it.  In my own estimation, it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the proclamation, the word about God speaks to us.  I can’t prove that, but I do try to believe as best I can.  If I do believe, I even give God the credit for giving me the ability to believe!  In the end, faith is an action of the free God of the scripture and falls far outside the purview of the scientific method.  Until we start taking the Scripture more seriously than our philosophical assumptions, difficulties between science and faith will never end.  Science, instead of leading us toward a greater appreciation of nature and of the God who we believe created, will instead expose our idols leaving us with no god at all.

The Evidence of Things Unseen

July 15, 2012

by William Kopcha

I have passed the point of no return.  They warned me this would happen when I started grad school, but I didn’t believe them.  The signs, however, are unmistakable:  Advertising infuriates me.  Newspapers make me cringe.  The general population’s assessment of science, whose main tenets are apparently the big bang, evolution, aliens, global warming, and, if you’re a Keanu Reaves fan, cold fusion, makes me smile.  Yes, it’s true – I am a scientist.  When I’m not enjoying my favorite hobby of walking around in a white lab coat with a clipboard, I can spend some time pondering questions like, “What is science?”  Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that I have solved this riddle.  Surprisingly, the most apt definition that I have yet to hear has come from not only pop culture, but a sitcom.  It is definitely possible to carry the following through to a blasphemous extreme reminiscent of the tower of Babel; however, taken with a grain of salt, I would summarize my occupation with the following response from Dr. Sheldon Cooper when asked, “So what are you doing tonight?”

“…tearing the mask off of nature and staring at the face of God.”

Extreme?  Maybe.  But consider the following:

Fall 2007, Storrs, Connecticut.  A young William Kopcha sets forth from his dorm room at the farthest edge of the campus of the University of Connecticut one day during the crisp New England autumn.  His gaze alights upon a distant copse of trees that has turned a brilliant shade of scarlet.  Struck by their beauty, he immediately begins to contemplate all of the factors that not only underlie this magnificent change of color from green to red, but also all of the factors that enable the light to be transmitted from the tree to his eye, his eye to receive and detect light, his brain to process this information, for light and color and matter and energy to even exist in the first place.  And the factors are many:  the structure of the red carotene molecules in the leaves (in which the wavelength of red light doesn’t “fit” so is reflected) versus the structure of the green chlorophyll, the delicate cascade of reactions in an inanimate tree, where thousands of chemicals set one another off like dominoes to respond to a change in the weather, the nature of the parts of atoms (protons, neutrons, electrons) that allows us to have elements so that those chemicals can exist, the interaction of light which is at once electricity and magnetism and both a wave and a particle with the matter in the leaves and in my eye, the physical change in shape that that light induces in molecules in my eye which then sets off another cascade of reactions like more dominoes to bring that signal to my brain…

University of Connecticut in the Fall

And the kicker?  At the tail end of my 4-year college degree in chemistry, I could just barely identify all of the factors involved in the process.  I could give you a rough sketch of a grand total of three of the chemicals involved and a fuzzy overview of the physics.  Essentially, it took four years for me to learn what I would need to look up in order to learn about this process.  That’s it.

That’s it, and it’s a beautiful thing.  It’s beautiful to realize that even the simplest thing that we take for granted has an underlying, mind-blowing complexity to it if you take the time to really look at it in the depth that it deserves.  Once you realize this about all of creation, what must that then say about the Creator?  The words of Psalm 104 take on a whole new dimension:  “How glorious are Thy works, O Lord!”

This is all very well and good from an intellectual standpoint.  Science is the study of God’s creation, which can reveal the glory of the Creator in ways that little else can.  The stresses of the daily grind, though, can make this seem like a distant daydream.  Scientists are, by and large, practical people, after all – so what happens when the world doesn’t seem so glorious or when things seem to contradict all that I have come to know and love about God and the way things are “supposed” to work?  In times of frustration, I have demanded of God, “You promised that I would ‘have life and have it more abundantly’ … so where is it?”  Suffering, in particular, is very easy to explain in the general and very difficult in the specific.  It’s simple to regurgitate the “right” answers, like “suffering brings growth” and “suffering brings opportunity to do good,” but then if God loves me, why have I had times where I have suffered and not grown?  Where I have been utterly crushed, defeated, changed for the worse?  Where I have not overcome, not resurrected, not been strengthened?  A plus B does not equal C.  My data contradicts my model of the universe as led by God…  so how can God still exist?

Most people don’t realize that scientific research is 99% failure.  Experiments never work the first time around, and even if they do, you have to repeat them to make sure they weren’t a “fluke,” after which you will most likely get contradictory results that raise more questions than they answer.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  When I first started my own journey down this particular yellow brick road, I couldn’t understand why my colleagues would spend so much time playing “Spider Solitaire” while waiting for experiments to finish.  Finally, it hit me:  both were an exercise in futility.

Spider Solitaire

The silver lining, for those persistent and resilient enough to find it, is that failure is a good thing.  News flash:  science always works.  If, for whatever reason, science “isn’t working this week” and you are encountering a string of setbacks and frustrations, science isn’t the problem.  You are the problem.  Your hypothesis was wrong.  You were working with incomplete data.  You let your biases overrule your judgment.  Your experimental methods were faulty and introduced unaccounted-for variables.  You simply weren’t prepared and need to hit the library for a few days until you can come at it again, armed with an arsenal of new information.  Your failures in the lab and the doubts stemming from them are therefore sometimes the only way to know what is really going on with your study, your setup, your model, your methods – in short, failure and doubt are the only avenue to the truth.  Likewise, when we fail in life – and we all do – and God and the universe seem to be illogical and self-contradictory, God is not the problem – We are the problem.  Our hypothesis was wrong.  We were working with incomplete data.  We let our biases overrule your judgment.  We did not take a particular course of action or opportunity that was presented to us.  Did my feeling that I did not “have life and have it more abundantly” mean that God had broken His promise?  I would wager not, and that the problem was at my end rather than His, but I would never have been driven to even think about that had I not seen what appeared to be a glaring contradiction in the empirical evidence.

Really, arriving at a scientific belief and belief in God is the same process.  Science is just a lot easier to measure.  A lot of science we can’t see: oxygen molecules that you breathe, the chemical breakdown of glucose from food in your mitochondria, and the existence of atoms, to name a few. You can, however, set up two different situations where you know only one variable is changed, examine the results, and apply previous knowledge and statistics to help interpret them.  The results are confusing, so you do some more investigation and revise your hypothesis.  God’s lab, life, is confusing, but we often don’t go back and revise our hypotheses – we just give up.  The evidence doesn’t fit our preconceived conclusions, so we dump them wholesale rather than bothering to fix them.  In 1911, Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford discovered that some of the particles of radiation expected to pass through gold foil were reflected back, remarking that it was “as if you fired a 15-inch shell into a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”  He didn’t dump the idea of the atom; he merely revised it to include a dense nucleus that could deflect the incoming particles.  Why should we dump God or the Church, the foundations of our understanding of our spirituality built up and attested to by countless generations of humanity’s best souls and minds, simply because we don’t understand what’s happening to us?  Reality is reality regardless of what we perceive it to be; faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” is how we hold on as we reconcile our own flawed hypotheses with the often-contradictory data from God and His created reality – a reality that is at once painfully confusing, beautifully complex, and breathtakingly glorious.

Approaching Science with the Mind of the Fathers

July 15, 2012

by Dr. Gayle Woloschak

I am currently a Professor of Radiation Oncology and Radiology at Northwestern University School of Medicine where I have an active research lab focused on questions of radiation effects and studies of nanotechnology.  For many years now I have been involved in the science-religion dialogue in the broad academic community having served as Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago and now as Associate Director of the institution.  I recently received my Doctor of Ministry in Eastern Christian Studies from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in a program designed by the Antiochian Orthodox Church; this is a fabulous program that I highly recommend.  In addition to my scientific interests, I am also interested in the religion-science interface at several levels.  Issues like evolution, ecology, consciousness, the physics of time and other similar areas are clearly at the forefront of the science-religion discussion and of academic and practical interest to me.  There are additional issues that belong more to the area of bioethics, such as the application of stem cell and beginning of life technologies, appropriate uses of end of life technologies, genetic counseling, etc. that are defining what procedures are ethically appropriate and which ones are not.

I strongly support the concept of science-religion dialogue for a number of reasons.  First of all, I believe that people use science as their excuse for disregarding religion.  This is especially evident when one reads the works of many modern scientists who make inappropriate claims about religion based on what they have discovered scientifically.  It is predominantly in dialogue that these sorts of apparent conflicts can be resolved.  Through dialogue, it will be possible for scientists to better understand the limitations of empirical observations and at the same time help people of faith to understand the scientific basis of facts and acts of nature.  Secondly, I believe the dialogue is important in interfaith discussions because science provides a topic outside of religion that can be unifying.  Often when Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. gather together to discuss their beliefs, the differences become apparent.  When these same groups come together to discuss environmental issues, bioethical concerns, and other similar topics, a unity emerges showing underlying common concepts and beliefs.  This can become a doorway to openness to a better understanding of each other.  Finally, it is clear that science and technology are becoming a more and more important influence in our world.  A better understanding of how this science impacts us as human beings is expressed significantly in concerns about religious views.  It is through dialogue between science and religion that we can learn to deal with problematic ethical issues that are raised by the development of these new technologies.

I think for Orthodox Christians the distinction between science and religion is not as distinct nor as problematic as it is for many other religious traditions. During recent years, as scientists and theologians alike have attempted to develop models for the relationship of science and religion, many people have adopted the “two books” model.  Most modern scholars accept that the idea that the book of nature as a “book of God” was first introduced by Augustine when he argued that (fallen) creation is essentially good when fighting the Manichaean claim that the material world is intrinsically evil.[1] This model was perhaps first defined by Sir Francis Bacon who wrote:  “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.  Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture.  But he has written a second book called creation… ……Let no man… maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works.”[2] This idea was also picked up by Luther and Calvin who claimed that the physical-scientific interpretation of the book of nature (which can be defined as humanity’s experience in the realms of physical and biological reality) should be coupled directly with a hermeneutical understanding of the Book of the Bible.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

I’m not sure the Orthodox perspective is accurately reflected by this view, and I am excited by the work of St. Maximus Confessor who has much to add to this thinking.  He addressed this issue in several ways examining the question of whether this distinction between the “two books” was appropriate or not.  At present it is unclear if St. Maximus was aware of Augustine’s work specifically, or if he was just responding to various theological issues of the time.  Several authors note common references between Augustine and St. Maximus suggesting that the latter was aware of at least some of Augustine’s writings.[3]

Regardless of whether St. Maximus had read the “two books” idea in Augustine or not, he addressed the issue in several texts where he talked about the relationship between Natural and Biblical Law[4] in the context and with an approach quite different from those of Augustine.  Maximus in his own writing propounded not two laws or books, but three—the law of nature, the written law (the Scripture), and the law of grace. For the law of nature, which is the study of science, he said: “The first (law) is engraved in nature—not simply in the human soul, but in the whole cosmos and in every one of its parts.  Through the contemplation of nature, the wise person acquires a natural knowledge of God, of His righteousness, wisdom, and goodness, and this knowledge is in the true sense a kind of “vision”, a “contemplation”.[5]  This meaning of the law of nature is much deeper than the one defined by Augustine and other scholars noted earlier.  While it does include an understanding of the physical world around us, it also includes the history of humanity and a deeper understanding of the physical nature of humanity and nature extending even into the psychological dimensions of human behavior, human choices, etc.  This more wholistic approach to studies of nature and religion is perhaps more consonant with Orthodox thinking, viewing the different “laws” more as a “deep understanding” that leads to contemplation.  While the contemplation of the different topics maybe somewhat different, it all leads to the same Truth, a closer relationship with God.  St. Maximus’ writings have been newly translated into English during the last several decades, and this has lead to a new appreciation for the depth of his understanding of numerous science-religion issues including ecology, environment, defining the human person, and many others.

Saint Maximus the Confessor

Often when we Orthodox Christians are looking for answers to questions about science-religion, particularly topics related to ethics, it is not possible to pick up a book from the shelf of the Church Fathers library and find the direct answer.  They did not write about stem cells, in vitro fertilization, genetics, etc.  Nevertheless, one of our goals as Orthodox Christians is to acquire the “Mind of the Fathers” of the Church and thereby apply what we learn from them to modern questions.  This is difficult and requires study, discernment, and discussion.

In my opinion, the richness of the Orthodox teachings has so much to contribute to modern thinking about science and religion, but it is missing unless Orthodox Christians are at the discussion tables prepared to bring Church Fathers like St. Maximus the Confessor and so many others into the discussion.

[1] (a)Peter Harrison. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge University Press, 2001

(b) Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaean (Against Faustus the Manichean). c.400 A.D. Section 32.20

[2] Sir Francis Bacon quoted at the website: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/twobooks2.htm

[3] (a) Thunberg, Lars.  Microcosm and Mediator:  The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, Chicago and LaSalle:  Open Court, 1995, p. 50, 73, 256

(b) Sherwood, P. St. Maximus the Confessor:  The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity, New York:  The Newman Press, 1955, No. 21 in Ancient Christian Writers series, p. 230.

[4] Maximus’ Questiones ad Thalassium32, 63; Mystagogia 7

[5] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs.  Cosmic Liturgy:  The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1988, pp. 291-314.

Become Like Children

July 15, 2012

By Matushka Manna Whitfield

Since my earliest memories, I have been fascinated with science.  Nurtured in large part by my father, who is a geochemist and astrobiologist, making sense of the natural world has been one of my greatest passions.  Before becoming a science teacher, I was able to immerse myself in the laboratory experience as a graduate student.  It was there that I was able to hone my skills in the scientific method, within the context of lab science.  As a science teacher I have had the privilege of nurturing the wonder and honing the scientific prowess of the next generation.

Our intellect, our thirst for understanding and our insatiable curiosity are part of the traits that make us so uniquely human.  We are constantly striving for a greater understanding, a greater communion with one another and with the world around us.  I have never seen this as the desire to “conquer”, but rather the desire to be in communion with.  As we gain a deeper understanding of the natural world, it increases, not diminishes, our awe of creation.  The stars and the universe are no less beautiful since we have come to accept the heliocentric model of our solar system.  That we can predict the weather, track hurricanes, and seed clouds to make them rain makes a sunset no less glorious, nor the much needed rain any less miraculous.  We can tailor chemotherapies for the specific genetic profile of a cancer, but this does not make the journey of the sick and suffering less grueling, and it certainly does not eliminate the need for human love and support. Knowledge, when it is available, complements prayer and human contact.  Knowing the biochemical and physiological details of the process of conception, gestation and birth makes the eventual entry of a newborn into the world no less wondrous and glorious, and mysterious.

My greatest joy as a teacher comes when a student exclaims that they cannot stop thinking about science.  The student typically says something such as, “I find myself seeing science everywhere.  I’m at the grocery store and I’m thinking about fruiting strategies, or we’re driving down the road and I’m thinking about the coefficient of kinetic friction and whether or not we have enough braking distance…”  This usually elicits nods of sympathy from others, or exclamations like, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!”  Helping my students become more engaged, more curious and more interested in learning about the world around them is part of what will help them remain inquisitive and confident learners.

Knowing that I am married to a priest has also opened another door to conversations that I treasure.  Students excitedly share their own religious milestones such as bas mitzvahs and confirmations, and ask questions about faiths and their differences.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked, “How is it that you can be a believer, and a science teacher?” And almost each time, the question has been asked by an adult.  The students that I have taught do not seem to have difficulty understanding that our quest to make sense of the world around us  —  to be able to make predictions and provide explanations  —  is not opposed to having faith in a personal God who loves and lives with us.  In fact, students usually feel a sense of relief that they do not have to choose one over the other.  Confidence in a weather forecast, a medical diagnosis, an understanding of genetics and the ability to predict the next visit by Halley’s comet does not diminish our belief in God as a loving Creator.  Neither do they have trouble both placing their faith in a God who cares for them and placing their confidence in the theories of natural selection, epigenetics and quantum physics to help us gain a deeper appreciation of the way this marvelous world works.  Children are not simple, but they can see with a purity that somehow we lose along the journey into adulthood.  This something which our Lord encourages us to regain:  “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).”

Christ with the Children from Christ the Savior Church in Harrisburg, PA

In Wisdom He Has Made Them All

July 15, 2012

by Dr. Demetra Perlegas

At almost every hiking trip with my good friends in the last few years, we have held fast to a tradition of chanting a most beautiful Akathist Hymn, Glory to God for All Things . On a recent camping trip in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah National Park, my friends and I were chanting this prayer on the top of Loft Mountain on our day hike, and this particular part inspired me for this essay (Ikos 7):

The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man! Glory to Thee, showing Thine unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe! Glory to Thee, for all nature is filled with Thy laws! Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy! Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom! Glory to Thee for the inventiveness of the human mind! Glory to Thee for the dignity of man’s labor! Glory to Thee for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration! Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age!

From several years of studying biology in college, graduate school, and now in my early career as a college instructor, I have personally seen and experienced that science is a detailed and concrete description of God’s creation.  It is even more than that—science is a means by which man glorifies God.  According to the prayer above, God reveals Himself in the laws of nature, which are discovered by people whose professions are full of creativity and wonder—it is no surprise that they are inspired by the breath of the Holy Spirit with the brain power and skills to reveal God in their work.  They are called even ‘prophets and interpreters’ of God’s laws, strongly suggesting that they have been endowed with these special gifts or χαρίσματα (charismata) from God Himself and we see how great He is when humanity uses these gifts rightly to glorify Him.  This concept of the proper use of scientific and creative knowledge is later referred to in the verse “Glory to Thee for the dignity of man’s labor”.

Praying the Akathist on the Hike

This Ikos of the Akathist shows us that a faithful scientist is one who truly sees that God speaks to us and shows Himself to us within the laws that are discovered through scientific observation and inquiry.  This is in stark contrast to the answer that scientist and devout atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins gave to Ben Stein’s question, “What would you say to God if you encountered Him upon your death one day?”  Dr. Dawkins said “I would ask this:  ‘why did you take such pains to hide yourself?’” in the movie, Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed.

Coming back to the verse from the Akathist verses: “Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy / Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom”—we give glory to God for revealing certain things to us in His mercy, but also, we glorify Him for hiding certain things from us in His wisdom.  This is referring in one way to the level of great complexity found within nature.  This complexity will never be totally unraveled and understood by the human mind, and we need to be at peace with that, it’s good for our humility to not know everything.  However, God has revealed and continues to reveal to us so many beautiful things in science that speak of his presence.  In my studies as a PhD student in physiology, I had many frustrating and exhausting experiences, but even in the midst of those challenging times, I have tasted a bit of the presence of God. He was present in the long, tedious hours I spent in the lab, huddled over a microscope, studying the really beautiful anatomical structures of developing blood vessels and the complexity of gene combinations and pathways that help direct their growth and cellular specialization.  I truly realized that my challenges in my research studies were themselves concrete evidence showing the vast complexity of the created world that could never be totally elucidated and explained within a the few years of a graduate program, and not even in a lifetime career.  Further, I have been completely convinced that nothing in this world came about by a series of accidents over millennia of time.

Christ at the Creation of the Animals

It is not the purpose of this article to fully address the concept of evolution in great depth; however, you are probably wondering what a “faithful scientist” thinks about it.  The term “evolution” in science is defined as a process of change in the genetic composition of a species over successive generations.  These changes or mutations in a species’ genes often come about from adaptation of the species to changes in the environment.  The individuals with the strongest genetic traits that promote survival are more likely to reproduce and so, these traits remain in the succeeding generations.  It is often thought that mutations could result in stronger genetic traits, and that has been shown in some cases (such as the mutation for sickle cell anemia that is advantageous for malaria-resistance) but more often, mutations in genes actually cause major problems that usually lead to not very “fit” traits.  Evolution simply means that changes and adaptation of a species occur to promote its survival.  This scientific definition must be distinguished from the view that is highly prevalent today among the atheist persuasion that evolution essentially replaces God because it is the process that occurred over time to explain the origin of all species.  Here is where the controversy takes a stronghold on our culture and can easily persuade young people, and here is where we are all encouraged to ask questions and to view this very critically.

As faithful Orthodox Christians, we state in the Creed that we believe “in One God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”  And so, for us, there should be no question that God created everything Science can explain some things about changes in the genetic make-up of species over time (i.e. evolution) and it is useful knowledge.  However, evolution is not the answer to our questions about the origins of life, nor does it completely address the complexity and precise design seen in the physiology and structures of all living things that makes scientific inquiry so challenging.  It is actually a very simplistic attempt to explain things that have not been revealed to us in God’s mercy and wisdom.  Because I am still an inexperienced scientist, here is a quote from a Nobel Prize winning scientist, who explains this topic infinitely better:

To postulate that the development and survival of the fittest is entirely a consequence of chance mutations seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts.  These classical evolutionary theories are a gross oversimplification of an immensely complex and intricate mass of facts, and it amazes me that they are swallowed as uncritically and readily, and for such a long time, by so many scientists without a murmur of protest.

~Professor Sir Ernst Chain, 1945 Nobel Prize Laureate for Medicine or Physiology.

And, because I continue to be a struggling-to-be-faithful Orthodox Christian, may these verses (30-31) and the entire Psalm 104 (103), chanted at Vespers, give you some food for thought about how the Lord is solely responsible for all of creation and how He even renews it Himself, and not by accident:

 “You send forth Your spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth / May the glory of the Lord endure forever; The Lord shall rejoice in His works.”

The Author with Her Hiking Group

Volume 3, Number 7, Authors and Contributors

July 15, 2012

Dr. John Coroneus received his PhD in Molecular Biology and Biochemisty working on bionanotechnology. He also holds an M.Div from Holy Cross and and MS in Physics. He teaches physics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

William Kopcha is a psychics and chemistry teacher at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. He grew up in Connecticut and Vermont. He attends Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Southbury, CT. William holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and a Master’s Degree in Chemistry and Materials Science from the University of Connecticut. He is a past member and former president of the University of Connecticut Orthodox Christian Fellowship.  He is a frequent contributor to this blog.

Dr. Gayle Woloschak is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and a prominent scientist. She holds a PhD in Medical Sciences (Microbiology) from the Medical College of Ohio. She is a professor of Radiation Oncology, Radiology, and Cell/Molecular Biology at the Feinberg School of Medicine (Northwestern University) in Chicago, IL. She also serves as the Associate Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Chicago Luthern School of Theology. Her very extensive CV may be accessed here

Matushka Manna Whitfield is a science and math teacher at the Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, MA. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from Princeton University and a Master’s in  Cell and Developmental Biology from Rutger’s University. She has been married for 19 years to Fr. Theophan Whitfield, presently the rector of St. Nicholas Church in Salem, MA. They have three daughters; Ayame, Miya, and Emi. 

Dr. Demetra Perlegas received a PhD in Physiology from UVA and works in Charlottesville, Virginia, teaching college anatomy/physiology and working for a start-up company. She is the youth coordinator at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a mentor to the current students of the UVA OCF and authors a blog entitled The Quiet Revolution