Lab Girl (2016) by Hope Jahren

I found Lab Girl (by Hope Jahren) helpful for understanding the experience of academics in the sciences, both graduate students and faculty, especially those involved in labs. I wasn’t sure, though, what to make of the interspersed chapters on plant biology, as fascinating as they were. They did provide a metaphor for understanding the rest of the book: “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” (18)

At times, though, these interspersed chapters on biology felt like they got in the way of the story I wanted to hear more about, even as much as Jahren’s telling us of the biology of trees is as much a part of her story as all the (mis)adventures that she had. Her story was unique: “there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.” (20) Nor can she speak fully of all the non-successes that obviously don’t make it into journals. Instead she notes that “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on a real person.” (20)

The book was also helpful in providing insights into some of the unseen challenges of academic, especially that of science professors (and those who direct labs). She notes how, while we might expect knowledge and research to be the hardest questions that scientists face, funding is actually the biggest stress:

“Next time you meet a science professor, ask her if she ever worries that her findings might be wrong. If she worries that she chose an impossible problem to study, or that she overlooked some important evidence along the way. If she worries that one of the many roads not taken was perhaps the road to the right answer that she’s still looking for. Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.” ” (124-5)

She also talks about the challenges and loneliness that she experienced, particularly as a female in her profession. Despite being someone who won some prominent awards (and was on the tenure track at 26 already!), funding was a significant problem for at least ten years. She also speaks about being taken advantage of by another lab in the building, of being yelled at a conference presentation, of being ignored socially at conferences by the senior scientists in her field. She also notes about how hard when her life went against a lot of societal norms, especially what is expected of females:

“I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother – or because I felt like nobody’s daughter – or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout. I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known. In the years to come, I would create a new sort of normal for myself within my own laboratory. I would have a brother close than any of my siblings, someone I could call any hour of the day or night. . . I would nurture a new generation of students, some of whom were just hungry for attention, and a very few who would live up to the potential that I saw in them.” (71-2)

Despite all the challenges, there is a lot of hope in the book: the community that she builds, the grace and acceptance that she presents, and the quiet presence of God:

“My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. . . My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. . . . My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. . . And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.” (19)

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

Creation or evolution: what Christians can agree on

A somewhat recent article in Christianity Today highlighted some of the things that Christians can agree on in terms of how the world came into being, irrelevant of their position on whether God formed the world more through creation or evolution. Todd Wilson provides “ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm.” The following are a few of those theses:

  • the doctrine of creation “addresses some of the fundamentals of our faith—the reason for and nature of the world God has made, as well as the reason for and nature of the creatures God has made, not least those creatures made in God’s image.”
  • “Whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicated using the cultural conventions of their time.”
  • Genesis 1-2 is “historical in nature, rich in literary artistry, and theological in purpose.”
  • “There is no final conflict between the Bible rightly understood and the facts of science rightly understood. God’s “two books,” Scripture and nature, ultimately agree. Therefore Christians should approach the claims of contemporary science with both interest and discernment, confident that all truth is God’s truth.

Last of all, Wilson argues that “The Christian faith is compatible with different scientific theories of origins, from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, but it is incompatible with any view that rejects God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Christians can (and do) differ on their assessment of the merits of various scientific theories of origins,” even moving to the point where more Christians are now okay with saying that God used evolution to form the world as noted by another recent Christianity Today article.

Because there are so many differing views on origins, Wilson argues that Christians should be humble about how they approach their own understanding of the formation of the world (and how they dialogue with others about it). As a pastor, I wish this last point was something all Christians would be willing to acknowledge, especially as I think too many people have been hurt by not doing so.

Leaving the church over (bad views of) science?

America recently published an article about why teens are leaving the church. In that article, Dinges highlights that, according to two recent reports looking at young people’s church relationship to church, one of the reasons young people give for leaving the church is related to science (or reason). Yet, Dinges, points out that it might not be science (or reason) causing young people to leave so much as it is a misunderstanding of reason (and its relationship to faith).

Dinges notes:

A related disaffiliation rationale that both reports suggest is in need of deeper exploration concerns the role of science. Significant numbers of teens indicated that their beliefs were now predicated on “factual evidence.” In one fashion or the other, they attributed their departure from religion to their ideas of what is required by a belief in science. These assertions, like knowledge of the content of their faith, raise the question of scientific literacy: How much do most respondents—especially young ones—actually know and understand about both scientific facts and scientific epistemology? Data on American scientific literacy in general is not encouraging in this regard. Nor is it apparent why Catholicism, a tradition that extols a positive relationship between faith and reason, apparently falls so short here.

Dinges’s question about how well people actually understand science is helpful for encouraging a healthier understanding of the relationship of faith and science. As a pastor, I’d also say that a better understanding of faith and the role of certainty in faith would also be helpful.

Science and Faith need not compete

NPR recently published an article about a Bible study that focused on science, highlighting that science and faith do not have to compete.

The article notes the following:

Science and Christianity often seem at odds in the public imagination. But some churches have made part of their mission to lessen that tension by bringing science into Bible study.

“You can’t have a seat at the table if you don’t speak science,” said Matthew Groves, 24, an adult Bible study teacher at Nashville’s First Baptist Church. He lists climate change, artificial intelligence and bioethics as just a few of the substantive issues people of all faiths are struggling with in today’s world. In order for churches to be relevant cultural institutions, he said, they have to engage with these things.

As important as it is for the church to engage with science, there are still significant challenges, as Sociologist Elaine Ecklund highlights: “When you get to scientific research that seems to challenge conceptions that religious people have about who God is, or who human beings are, then you see some tensions arising.”

At Campus Edge we do our best to be honest about the challenges while also asking how the tension might help us understand the world and God better.

Evolution and Flourishing

A recent tweet by Tim Keller illustrates how a lot of people see evolution as being about the strong overcoming the weak. Keller asks:

Andy Walsh, however, argues that this is a misunderstanding of evolution. Instead, as Walsh puts it:

Evolutionary biology is not a last-organism-standing proposition. Look at the vast diversity among living species. There’s not a single, most fit species on its way to domination at the expense of all others. A wide assortment of resources means there are numerous niches that can be occupied fruitfully. Thus I don’t see where evolutionary biology necessarily mandates cutthroat behavior; to the contrary, it strikes me as a call to maximize flourishing.

Most of the scientists I know who understand evolution as being the means by which God formed the world see science (and evolution) as helping them to be more in awe of God and how God works. Thinking about evolution as leading to a maximization of flourishing seems to me one of the ways in which we can be filled with wonder about how creation and God work.

 

Science and faith redefining altruism

Steve, one of the board members of Campus Edge, wrote a fascinating article about how science and faith can help us understand altruism. He notes that, “For a given behavior, if the degree of relatedness times the benefit is greater than the cost this behavior should be favored by natural selection.” Through Jesus the degree of relatedness, both to other human beings and to the whole creation, increases significantly. Steve concludes by noting that “It is only this spiritual kinship that can empower the kind of altruism necessary in a broken world desperate for beings who put others ahead of themselves.”

I encourage you to read the article and appreciate how his understanding of science and faith helps us understand the good we do (and ought to do) for the whole world.

How does evolution affect the image of God as Creator?

Steve, one of Campus Edge’s board members, has spent a lot of time pondering how evolution affects our understanding of God. Two pieces of work that he has written explore how evolution can point to God’s power and awe-inspiring work.

He put together a blend of the words of David (Psalm 8 and 104) and Darwin, which is titled “Psalm 1859” (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published that year). This was published by BioLogos as part of a two-part blog post about his trip to an evolutionary biology conference in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. Part 2, which includes Psalm 1859 at the end, is here: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/evolution-and-faith-in-latin-america-part-2. He borrowed directly from Psalm 8, Psalm 104, and The Origin with my point being that Darwin expressed the same wonderment at creation as did the Psalmist.

A more original piece that he wrote considers the past, present, and future of God’s creative work and our role in it: http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-new-plant-and-animal-kingdoms-by-steve-roels.html.

Integrating one’s faith and one’s discipline

It delights me to hear from the wisdom of those participating in Campus Edge. And last week’s conversation about how to integrate one’s faith and one’s discipline did not disappoint.

Graduate school is about being formed deeper in one’s discipline. The deeper one gets involved in one’s discipline, the more one is shaped by that discipline: you could say that each discipline disciples a person into a certain way of being and thinking. This then affects one’s faith, as these ways of being and thinking affect one’s relationship with others and God. Scientists, who are taught to question everything and accept as true only things that can be proven, often question the validity of their faith and Christian beliefs – because how can one prove that it is true? Musicians (and artists), who are taught the validity of each person’s experience, also question the validity of their faith but for a very different reason: how can we accept that Christian beliefs and my faith is more true than someone else’s faith or beliefs? For professional students, one’s questions about faith and beliefs are less likely to be intellectual and instead are often very practical: what does faith and belief look like in the presence of suffering and death and the ugly side of human beings?

Knowing the tendencies of one’s discipline helps one to recognize and understand one’s faith questions better. It also helps those of us supporting (other) graduate and professional students, as we recognize the crises of faith that are likely to happen. We can trust that God will be present in the midst of the questions and can thus be hopeful that people will grow in their understanding of God and their own discipline.

We can also rejoice in how growing to love one’s discipline can help one grow to love God more. Many doctors and veterinarians can delight in how the discoveries of medical science allows them to help others. Many scientists appreciate God better on account of the wonders they discover in creation. Many musicians become closer to God through music. Many academics understand their own assumptions about the world, God, and others through being forced to identify the assumptions that those in their own discipline make about the same things.