What is Franciscan about Faith and Science?

Joachim Ostermann, OFM

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To start off my blog in the new year, here are some words on my favorite topic, faith and science. As I have labored hard to understand both, I ought to have something to say about their relationship. However, when I do, I often get a follow-up question that I dread to hear: “You seem to be smart; how come you are not a Jesuit?” Most of the time, I smile politely, and I say that maybe I could have made a decent Dominican, but becoming a Jesuit was clearly beyond my reach. Seriously, though, I like being a Franciscan. Franciscan spirituality is quite important for faith and science.

God or the Big Bang?

Once in a while, I get invited to speak to students in a Catholic school. They want to know how one can reconcile science with the idea that the world is God’s creation. They ask whether the world was created by God or by the Big Bang. Getting all philosophical and answering “both” does not help. They are likely to conclude that in this case, maybe we should leave God out of the picture altogether. What can be said about the world with any degree of certainty is in the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. And of what we cannot speak, we must remain silent. It is almost as if they read Wittgenstein.

The real question is whether the world is made by a personal creator or an impersonal mathematical principle, and whether we see evidence for the former. Clearly, evidence for the latter is abundant, and it is rarely questioned by anyone. However, if we put science first and let it stand in isolation, then we cannot understand the human person as a real biological being, and we end up standing in separation from all creation. If biology is just very complicated physics, then biology fails to explain what it means to be a person. What about self awareness, conscious choices, moral judgments, pursuit of the values of truth, goodness and beauty? Physics has nothing to say there. Yet, this is what makes life interesting, and this is where we define who we are.

Beginning Understanding with the Human Person

The trouble with science is that it is so successful in making predictions about impersonal processes. It makes us forget its blatant failure to explain the personal experience of our own lives, as personal beings with all the aches and pains and limitations that come with our animal lives. It makes us forget that science is an abstraction from life, teaching us about the circumstances in which our lives are lived, rather than life itself.

We cannot make sense of our lives if we start with science. When we do science, we have already excluded what makes life most interesting—knowing oneself, making decisions, acting morally, seeking ultimate values. To make sense of science in the context of our lives, we must start at what is closest to us, and what we ought to know best: ourselves and the people who surround us. Only when the human person is understood in the centre of the world, only then can we make sense of the world.

Francis washing the leper, Santuario di Rivotorto.

The Challenge of Faith and Science

The big questions of faith and science remain to be answered. Why is it that the universe has features that seem to deny what I just said: that understanding the human person is central to understanding it all. Why is the universe so large, so old? Why does physical reality have the strange features of space and time that Einstein discovered? Why is there this lower limit for making predictions that is set by quantum mechanics? Why do our bodily  existence is burdened by the consequences of trial and error in an evolutionary process? Answering such questions will remain a work-in-progress for me, in all likelihood, for the rest of my days.

Whatever the answer is, the starting point must be understanding human life, as we experience it. And this brings me back to being a Franciscan. Putting people at the centre as he seeks to understand God’s creation is the vision of St. Francis. It is best exemplified by his encounter with the leper, the one who needed his mercy and to whom he showed mercy. What faith and science must accomplish is a view of science and its results that puts the human person in the centre, as the reason why all of it together makes sense, why creation is not only good, but very good.

Happy New Year!

If we want to make progress in our understanding, then we have to keep our focus on the people we serve. This is how we understand ourselves, other people, and all of God’s creation. Here is a picture of some wonderful people from the Spanish speaking community in Victoria. They regularly come to our friary chapel to pray and worship God. We are always happy to see them, and we took this picture on December 31st, after the last mass of the year.

Spanish speaking community at the Victoria friary.

 

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About the author

His intellectual formation includes a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Munich, but now most of his writing is about faith and science. After a career in universities and biotechnology companies in the US and Canada, he changed course. He became a Franciscan Friar in 2008 and was ordained a priest in 2014. His scientific research interests were the mechanism of intracellular protein transport and the use of proteomics to understand disease mechanisms. Now they are the relationships between modern science, the Franciscan view of nature, and Christian faith. His ministry is in Montreal, with an emphasis on outreach to young adults and all others who try to understand their faith in a scientific-technological culture.

Last updated: November 22, 2021

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