I recently got a note from a young man who is a physics major at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His name is Nathaniel Strandquist, a self-described “burgeoning Catholic physicist.” Mr. Strandquist wanted to thank me for writing about faith and science from a personal perspective, but I was struck by a simple declaration he made in his note.
“I find that the most attractive parts of the faith to me have very little to do with rationality, and almost everything to do with those intangibles such as love, forgiveness, and human nature.”
How do you like that? The intangibles are the most appealing for him. Perhaps you wonder if Mr. Strandquist is saying that faith requires us to be irrational. No, not at all. The point is that if a person is (to borrow his word) steeped in the scientific method, he gets ample doses of reason when he learns the language of modern physics. White-knuckling pencils through the mathematics of, for example, the mixed partial derivatives of the Maxwell relations, instills in you a great discipline. It also instills a certain apprehension for the fragility of the way matter and energy all around you just obey the laws of physics as if carefully planned out that way. During these exercises—especially when it clicks in your mind how the mathematics describe physical reality and underlie modern technology—the most rational desire in the world is to want to know more, to go beyond, to look up and ask bigger questions about the origin, purpose, and meaning of our existence. Scientists are trained to inquire and investigate. It is not one iota irrational to ask where nature came from. It is irrational turn away from that question because you fear the answer.
Think of it like this: How strange it would be for a father to tell his son that he is nothing but a list of physical details.
“Father, who am I?”
“Well, son, you were born on August 16, 2001 at 5:02 p.m., and your eyes were blue, your head bald. You were 21 inches long and you weighed 7 lbs. 2 oz. Your blood type is B+ and your APGAR score one minute after birth was nearly a 10. We named you James.”
Those quantities and descriptors are good tangible information, but everyone knows that data are not the complete story. James was mostly asking about the “intangibles,” the greater truth that he belongs to his family, that he is loved unconditionally, that people are happy he was born, that even when he does something wrong or falls short in his best efforts, his father will forgive him and still believe in him. Both the data and the love are manifestations of the same reality in the celebration of James’ life. We get that right? Well, it is fundamentally no different for a Catholic who tries to understand the complexity and implications of E=mc2 and who prays the Creed at Mass before he receives the Body and Blood of Christ during the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Science and faith are different, but they fit together wonderfully.
Catholics are familiar with the opening line of Pope St. John Paul the Great’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et ratio. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Faith and reason together lift our vision to a fuller vantage. This is not an either/or decision, as if one must be chosen over another. It is a both/and assent. Can an eagle fly with only one wing?
So, as Mr. Strandquist, Fr. Jaki (in his books), our fellow Catholic scientists and I will tell you: There is no conflict between faith and science, something this aspiring young Catholic physicist no doubt has learned from a group of other people including his family, mentors, and the professors in the physics department at Benedictine College. The problem is that some famous scientists in the past and some popular voices in the present make it seem like a person has to choose one or the other, faith or science, but that is because those people do not themselves understand both kinds of revelations. If you get past the celebrities and the antagonists, there are a lot of Catholics out here who have studied science, and we are literally living testaments to the unity of a Christian and a scientific worldview. I hear from these people all the time, and I think the public needs to hear more from them too.
Be assured, be confident, be joyed by the ease with which Mr. Strandquist tells us he thrives on a unified philosophy of faith and science, and applaud him for it. “Physics,” he says, “satisfies my drive to organize and explain the world around me, but Catholicism is what gives the world any meaning.”
Because it really is that simple and exciting.