Anglicans and Scientific Frontiers

Dr. Melanie Alexis O’Neill was not an Anglican, but was a deeply spiritual person who was also an explorer on the frontiers of scientific research. Dr. O’Neill’s life was tragically cut short last month and her colleagues at Simon Fraser University will miss not only stimulating conversation about her cutting-edge biomolecular research into the evolution of human consciousness, but her intense way of living life. It was my honour to conduct a memorial celebration of Melanie’s life attended by her colleagues, friends and family held at the Diamond University Centre at SFU. I came away from that occasion with a renewed appreciation for the women and men whose scientific investigations and discoveries are literally world-changing.

Attending that memorial celebration was Dr. Rebecca Goyan, a parishioner at St. Timothy’s in Burnaby. Dr. Goyan is a faculty member of the Department of Chemistry at SFU and one of the faithful coordinators of the Lutheran-Anglican Mountaintop Ministry – now to include the chaplaincy of the United Church as well. Since getting to know Dr. Goyan over the past couple of years through my own humble association with the Lutheran-Anglican SFU campus ministry, I’ve been encouraged in my own belief that science and faith are not cast in oppositional roles as ‘ways-of-knowing’ but at their best, complementary blessings to one another.

The best of Anglican thought and the best of scientific thought have gone together since the days of Francis Bacon. Indeed the relationship between faith and science is reflected in the work of an organization that quietly goes about its mandate of mutual support through prayer and fellowship – The Society of Ordained Scientists – which was founded by Anglicans and now includes members of various faith commitment backgrounds. I like their collect:

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, Source and Foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness; Grant to all who study the mysteries of your creation, Grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

No frustrating conflict between science and faith there.

Commenting on the misconceived and destructive conflict some have set up between science and the Bible, unfortunately enhanced by the popular media, the Society’s  mission statement observes that, “both some non-believers and some conservative Christians promote this conflict approach. The former group claims that the universe is all there is and therefore the concept of God is outdated and irrelevant. Some conservative Christians perceive modern scientific theories to be hostile to their Christian faith and reject them as contrary to their beliefs about the Bible. There is a middle way, which some call a complementary approach. Its supporters say that while they are separate fields of study with different sources of knowledge, science and Christian theology can complement one another in the quest for truth and understanding. Together they can create a more complete understanding of and give greater meaning to our world.”

This kind of statement reflects the best of Anglican thought and the best of scientific thought that Bacon and his Anglican scientific inheritors have consistently practiced. Indeed, as the mission statement goes on to say, “theology does not depend upon science to verify its doctrines, just as science does not depend upon theology to verify its theories. However, science can inspire theology to think new thoughts about the relationship between God and the creation, as Big Bang cosmology and evolution have done.”

One of my colleagues at Trinity Western University, biologist Dr. Dennis Venema, is a senior fellow at BioLogos Foundation, a group of scholars who work to reconcile faith and science. As both Christian and scientist, Venema is a Christian scholar who wants to centre his life in a vital Christian faith that complements and enhances his scientific vocation. Although some conservative Christian scholars cling, for example, to the literal interpretation of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, Venema pointed out in a National Public Radio discussion (2011/08/09) that there is no way we can be traced back to a single couple. With the mapping of the human genome, it’s clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population – long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. “And given the genetic variation of people today, scientists can’t get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.” To get down to two ancestors, “you would have to postulate that there’s been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence.”

The Society of Ordained Scientists holds a similar position. “The God of evolution is the biblical God, subtle and gracious, who interacts with and rejoices in the enormous variety, diversity, and beauty of this evolving creation. When we contemplate the tremendous gift of freedom God has bestowed upon the creation, and how the Holy Spirit preserves in covenantal faithfulness the physical laws, powers and processes that enable such variety and beauty, these thoughts may move our hearts to a deeper admiration, awe and gratitude for God’s works. They may inspire a curiosity to know God’s creation more deeply, celebrate it with thanksgiving, and devote ourselves to caring for it.”

You can read the entire mission statement of the Society of Ordained Scientists on the Episcopal Church website under the link “Catechism of Creation”.

And so we celebrate Anglican scientists, past and present – women and men who have played a major part in deepening our understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of a creator who has been revealed to us in word and in Word. Here are a few of the more well-known:

Charles Babbage, mathematician whose theories were instrumental in the development of computer technology; Robert Boyle, law of gases; William Bragg – Nobel Prize winning physicist; Edward Jenner, smallpox vaccine; Robert Hooke, the law of elasticity; William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, thermodynamic physicist; Joseph Thomson, Nobel Prize winning physicist and discoverer of the electron; John Polkinghorne, physicist and Anglican priest; William Whewell, 19th century scientist, historian of science, and Anglican priest; Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist; Isaac Newton, physicist, mathematician, astronomer; Jeannette Picard, Scientist, teacher, Anglican priest and aeronaut – among the first women to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church in 1974 when she as 79 years of age; Donald Douglas Sr. Aeronautics pioneer and founder of Douglas Aircraft, now Boeing; David Panerai, biologist and geneticist; Glynn Harrison, Professor of Psychiatry; John Morton, New Zealand zoologist and member of of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Please add to this list by way of making a comment. Who in our own diocese is engaged in enlarging the frontiers of scientific investigation? Let’s celebrate them. And I give thanks again for people like Melanie O’Neill and Rebecca Goyan whose work indeed complements our spiritual journey as Anglicans.

Steve Bailey is deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and an administrator of nwanglicanblog. Your comments and thoughts are always welcome. If you wish to submit an article for blog publication, please contact Steve at steve_bailey@telus.net.

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