Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

Why Science Matters for People of Faith.

Why Science Matters for People of Faith.


I have a new hobby. Our friary in Duncan needs a lot of gardening, and I decided to try my hand at it. Watch out, weeds; your reign over our yard is about to end! A friendly neighbor is a blueberry farmer (and a retired professor with a deep interest in philosophy), and he reminded me of the value of gardening when pondering deep thoughts. Wittgenstein would agree.

What needs some clarity in my head is how to best speak of the relationship between faith and science. My retreat preaching for the Secular Franciscans this summer was about the encounter with God in creation, from the perspective of a modern scientist. This is really about a very old question: “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” What should we do with the knowledge of the world when we have the knowledge of faith? Certainly not making a mess of science. Even in the days of St. Augustine, Christians knew better than talk nonsense about science. It leads to nothing but ridicule. When wishful thinking confronts science, science will win. One can be in denial of this—and a great many people are—but they risk ridicule and isolation. So, it is an important topic: how can we make sense of science in such a way that it also makes deeper sense of our faith?

When I started my studies as a Franciscan friar, I thought it to be an advantage that I was a scientist. I still do. However, there were errors that I had to leave behind, and this took me several years to understand. I thought that science was true, more or less, and that it made sense by itself. I still believe that science is true, more or less, but I no longer believe that it makes sense by itself. Science, to make sense, must be embedded in a broader understanding of life and being a person.

What science contributes to the understanding of my faith is, first, the rational order that is seen in the world, and the perfect unity of this order. Cosmology is the best example: the physical world that we observe through light that is unimaginably old and reaches us from unimaginable distances is governed by the same laws as our world here, today.

Then there is the simple fact that we can grasp this knowledge with our minds. At least if we are willing to do the work. I am not a cosmologist, but I get the basic structure of this science. All it takes to understand the rest is a three-credit course in theoretical physics. Our rationality corresponds to the rationality of the world, not only on our scale in time and space, but throughout the cosmos. This is why we can grasp it all, as if we could look at the universe from the outside.

Third, science tells me that understanding is universal and shared among all people. The universal success of modern science is unquestionable. There is nothing equal to it out there, no alternative that is comparable in its predictive success. This is a stark reminder that truth is discovered, not made, and close, not distant.

However, science is not self-sufficient. It cannot explain the human person who asks the questions and seeks understanding. And this is important to see. Science gives us a comprehensive worldview in which everything is dependent on everything else. Its comprehensive unity leaves no room at all for individual persons, each a distinct center of unity and an independent agent in the world. One of these activities is seeking truth and understanding, and finding it, and telling it apart from wishful thinking.

I must have faith in myself, and in my ability to know, before I try to do science. I know myself to be in the world, part of the world that I understand by science. Yet, I am also outside of it, in my ability to look at it as a whole as I begin to understand. This results in faith that the world is comprehensible, and faith that the source of it all is also comprehensible.

We must admit that science is only an abstraction and that persons are more real than the abstractions that we make. Abstractions are never complete. But abstractions express the experience of truth, and even when my faith was the weakest, my knowledge of the sciences always reminded me of this.

When we take our own existence as persons to be true—and one ends up in the silliest contradictions when one tries to argue the opposite—then we know that the fullness of truth must be revealed in the exchange between persons. And we know that the origin of the world, God, must be a person. And that the only way to know him is in the personal encounter, in God becoming one of us.

Embedding science in the understanding of what it means to be a person is a way to understand the truth of science, without falling into the error of believing that science is all there that we can know. And this is much better than trying to supplement science with some kind of wishful thinking.

Well, I hope that my gardening will be successful. Not only in controlling the weeds, but also to help me make sense of this and to find better ways of explaining not only what science means for our faith, but also what our faith means for science.