The physical and the spiritual

I consider myself a scientist, and by extension a person who strives to infer reality-based explanations for observations. For example, if I see a moving light in the sky, I would first think “airplane” or “satellite” or “meteor” rather than “extraterrestrial intelligent life flying around in a saucer-shaped craft that is being covered up by the government.”  I don’t automatically dismiss that long-winded possibility, but I do file it in a probability bin within spitting distance of spontaneous combustion or a meteorite wiping out all human life.

I also consider myself a Christian, and thus a person who believes Jesus Christ is a manifestation of God on earth. As a result, I strive to follow his example and spread God’s love for all people by my actions. I do this while pursuing my passions and trying to contribute toward a legacy of leaving the world in a better state than how I found it.

In general, I don’t find much conflict between these two facets that make up “me.”  In addition to scientist and Christian, I would also call myself an Episcopalian, an environmentalist, a musician, a liberal, a cat owner, and a Star Trek fan.  So why is it that reality-based thinking and religious belief get so tangled up with one another in our society, yet these other identities of mine are content to coexist?

I have been encountering more and more resistance to the harmonic co-existence of reality and religion everywhere I look. I read science blogs that tout atheism as the only sensible choice one minute and deliver the most profoundly simple explanation of quantum mechanics the next, and I participate in discussions with other Christians who express their disbelief that anybody can truly be atheistic in the same breath as they proclaim their calling to help the poor.

There I sit, knowing full well that Christianity can make sense and that some people are definitively atheists. I also have a decently complete understanding of quantum mechanics that jives with what the blog in question has to say, and I couldn’t agree more with social justice causes that help the least among us.

I find it challenging to engage these important and incongruous edges, because invariably I’m either in a scientific setting (“Why are you talking about religion? All good scientists are atheists”) or a religious setting (“Oh, I never was any good at math, all that science-y stuff is so beyond me”). As a Christian scientist who believes in the interconnectedness of our universe to a degree beyond our comprehension and as a liberal Episcopalian who does not interpret the Bible literally, but rather metaphorically – another translation for “virgin” in the Christmas story is “pure,” for instance – I often feel like I am in the minority among both scientists and Christians.

I feel equally challenged when confronted with certain aspects of the environmental movement. I think it is hugely important to take better care of ourselves and of our planet so that future generations will have something to inherit. This makes sense to me on both a practical level (my descendants will be able to exist) and a spiritual level (we are called to be stewards of the earth).

There is a growing movement to abandon man-made things and live in harmony with nature. Such a movement can be a powerful and good catalyst for change in our consumerist society. The trouble creeps in when individuals, as an example, denounce science-based medicine. They abandon things like vaccines or antibiotics in favor of some “natural” remedy that has no scientific basis for efficacy whatsoever, like homeopathy or prayer. It would be bad enough if these people were only harming themselves, but I once again fall back on the interconnectedness of everything. In one particular example, refusing vaccinations lowers the “herd immunity” and can cause individuals who are unable to receive a vaccination, due to infancy or some medical condition, to catch a life-threatening disease.

In the end, I think it it boils down to seeing the bigger picture. God as viewed through a Christian lens helps me take a step back and see some level of the interconnectedness that is all around us. Science helps me understand what I see. Christianity forces me to be less selfish and to consider what is best for the world, for humanity, for the universe. It’s not infallible, and neither is science, because human beings are inextricably linked with both practices. Yet it strikes me as shameful that so few people have a grasp of what I mean when I say “science,” simply because the practice of figuring things out about how reality works has never been presented to them in an accessible way.

I have no solution or answer to offer up to these conundrums. But I hope I have encouraged at least one other person to think deeply about these things, and perhaps to consider an alternative viewpoint from their own.

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2 thoughts on “The physical and the spiritual

  1. It’s a tough situation right now. It’s not helped by the fact that many of the leading Christian scientists, instead of spending their gifts advancing science and using it to bring about social justice, get in heated debates with many of the leading atheist scientists about whether or not they can prove the existence of God, or whether the earth was created in six days.

    That, together with the fact that one of the most vocal Christian movements in America right now is the out-of-touch fundamentalist Tea Partiers, makes people approach religion with an /extremely/ skeptical eye — and frankly, I don’t blame them.

    I think one of the most important things that we can be doing in this day and age is to be acknowledging to our colleagues — “Yes, I am a Christian. No, I’m not a crazy wacko. No, my beliefs don’t conflict with science, and here’s why.” If we can show scientists that it’s possible to be rational and religious, perhaps we can cut through some of the hatred present on both sides…

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