Teaching Our Faith — Faith-full Scientists

This series of teaching editorials focuses on the relationship between faith and science.

Imagine that someone tells you “basketball players hate classical music.” Imagine further that this notion is widely accepted as fact. Finally, imagine that you later learn that Lebron James and Larry Bird both regularly attend orchestra concerts and generously contribute to the support of classical music. 

All that might be imaginary, but you likely have heard or read declarations that “scientists are not religious.” After all, why would a scientist be a person of faith? Indeed, the idea that scientists are not people of faith — that faith and science do not mix — is widely accepted.

Yet Isaac Newton, arguably the science world’s equivalent of Lebron James and Michael Jordan combined, actually wrote more about religion than about science. He did not publish most of his religious writings, and for hundreds of years after his death, those writings sat in a private collection in an English manor, unavailable for study. But recently the Oxford University “Newton Project” has made Newton’s unpublished work available on-line. In a new book entitled “Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton,” Robert Iliffe of Oxford writes:

“Ultimately, Newton’s early life (to say nothing of his last three decades) was suffused with an overriding religious purpose. Convinced that he had been created in the Image of God, his scholarly life was in part an exercise in examining how he measured up to his maker … focused both on perfecting himself and on understanding the works of God. Accordingly, he strove to make his life that of a godly man … [and] nurtured his understanding so that he could dedicate himself to studying the divine truths of Scripture and Nature …”

“This labor,” says Iliffe, “is what yielded Newton’s monumental works in theology, science and mathematics that survive today.”

Unlike Newton, the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s religious views have always been well-known. Kepler linked his breakthrough ideas about the orbits of planets to his views of God and creation, and he even wrote statements of praise directly into his scientific writings. In the middle of a book on planetary motions, for example, Kepler pauses to prayerfully invoke those harmonious motions as a model for harmony and unity in the Church:

“Holy Father, keep us safe in the concord of our love for one another, that we may be one, just as Thou art one with Thy Son, Our Lord, and with the Holy Ghost, and just as through the sweetest bonds of harmonies Thou hast made all Thy works one; and that from the bringing of Thy people into concord the body of Thy Church may be rebuilt up in the Earth, as Thou didst erect the heavens themselves out of harmonies.”

Kepler even ends the book with a prayer: “To Him be praise, honour, and glory, world without end. Amen.”

I edit the Faith and Science website of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory, so I regularly encounter the religious writings of scientists. Faith-full scientists are common — Archbishop Kurtz listed a small sampling of Catholic scientists in his editorial last week. Faith-full scientists are not just a thing of the past — Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of pulsars and recipient of the 2018 $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, is an active Quaker who recently published a book on astronomy and religion. Such scientists tend to describe science as an effort to understand the works of God and thus to grow closer to God. Quite a few describe their work in science almost as a duty they have to seek to improve the lives of their fellow human beings through greater understanding of the world around them. 

Scientists tend to be creative, independent-minded and confident of their ideas. Faith-full scientists can be prone to conflict: Newton disagreed with his fellow Anglicans over matters of Trinitarian theology; Kepler squabbled with his fellow Lutherans over fine points of doctrine; Galileo is the most well-known case. Newton and Galileo were famous for all sorts of squabbles. Faith-full scientists are not always of saintly demeanor.

But Newton, Kepler and many others illustrate the extent to which faith and science mix, to the benefit of science. Faith-full scientists, studying the world around them in order to understand the works of God and to serve their fellow human beings, have made and continue to make great contributions to science. May the Archdiocese of Louisville bless science with more Newtons, Keplers, Galileos and Bell Burnells!

Chris Graney is an astronomer and historian of science, and a professor at Jefferson Community & Technical College.

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