God made me a scientist long before He made me a Catholic.
Too many people today see science as an alternative to God, as though if we just work hard enough and long enough and are smart enough we can figure everything out with no need for a Creator or Redeemer. Too many scientists have made the mistake themselves, making science their religion, forgetting that it is the fact of God that makes science possible. Too many subscribe to the notion that the world is governed only by random processes, even while their very livelihood depends on figuring out the rules that make the world work. Too many think that because we can explain a physical world in part in physical terms, it means that nothing other than the physical exists, even as they go through their lives thinking, feeling, responding to things far beyond. It’s a disconnect I never understood.
Science has taught me very different lessons. It has taught me that the incredible complexity of life really can be explained, has order and meaning and direction, and hence, Someone directing it. It has taught me the limits of my own knowledge, and not to be too attached to things I cannot know because I do not have the right data, and thus, the need to be open to teaching. It’s taught me the need for my faith to apply in all human situations not just mine, and brought me into the mystery of suffering. It’s taught me the reality of mystery amid the order.
I can recall driving down a deserted road in northern New Mexico one summer afternoon, listening to the radio and enjoying the landscape. The high desert is one of those places that bullies me into attention to the world beyond my senses, into thinking, in spite of myself, about God.
The radio commentator started telling a story about a mathematician who had finally derived the equation that, when the multiple variables were properly replaced, would describe in mathematical terms the sounds of every different musical instrument. I was so struck by the beauty of it that I had to pull over the car to absorb the meaning of it all.
It seemed fitting that I would get lost in the thought just as I had been lost in the surroundings. This was a huge idea, almost as limitless as seemed the desert at that spot. The very sounds of music had been reduced to symbols on a page and that could, re-translated by another set of symbols, create works of great complexity and grandeur. I sat there for a long time thinking to myself that this, surely, would convince anyone that there is a God, and that His hand is in every detail.
Some years later, I’d have a similar epiphany about light, that essence without which nothing lives for before life must come light. I had listened to the Trinity Sunday sermon, in which priests regularly try to explain the inexplicable. I’d heard the usual descriptions of the Trinity as a tree with roots, trunk and fruit, or water that can be ice, gas or liquid, when the thought stuck me that, as a scientist, this was a mystery with which I ought to be very comfortable. We were, after all, talking about the Light of the World.
Even high school students these days learn the multiple nature of light, that it acts as particle or as wave and always carries heat, yet is one, indivisible reality. One life giving reality with three natures, and a mystery we accept on a daily basis. One life giving God, with three natures.
From there it wasn’t difficult to enter into the religious mysteries that shape my spiritual life as much as scientific ones shape my physical life. I don’t understand, can’t explain and daily experience gravity, and light, and the forces that bond molecules and repel like-charged ions. They’ve been described—as though description means understanding or ownership—but they are as mysterious as the Real Presence and the Communion of Saints. I know something about the chemical reactions that occur in brains, but they only reflect and describe—they do not explain—my fears, hopes, love, and faith. They are but physical reflections of spiritual realities.
Some people are gifted with mystical visions, and thanks be to God. But some of the rest of us are gifted with understanding the mysterious through the physical. God speaks as much through the test tube as through the apparition, and the human family needs those who can translate both reliably. Then we need to talk, and listen, to each other.