The Creativity of Wonder

The Creativity of Wonder

“Wonder” is one of the easiest ways we can enhance the conversation between religion and science. There’s the wonder of nature, certainly, but there also “wondering” questions — “I wonder why…” “I wonder if…” Those questions spark curiosity, engagement, and allow both science and religion can better our lives.

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Stefanie Leacock and Derek Nelson talk about the role of wonder, creativity and curiosity when approaching religion and science.

Stefanie Leacock received her PhD in Genetics from Yale University in 2006, and has studied genetics in several model organisms. The power of using model organisms to dissect relationships between genotypes and phenotypes is what inspired her as a graduate student. She grew up attending church, primarily in the Lutheran tradition, and is married to an Episcopal priest.

Here, she talks about how her day job as a geneticist and her Sunday morning job teaching Sunday school are both informed by “wondering” questions:

Derek Nelson is a theologian and historian of Christianity. He teaches courses in both of those fields, as well as religion and culture (such as literature and film), social ethics, and whatever else students are interested in studying with him. He is the author or editor of ten books, including The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, on which he is working with a team of international experts. He lives in the Sugar Creek watershed, Agricultural zone 5b for plant hardiness and sunlight, and the Indiana-Kentucky synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He brews beer and makes furniture, though never at the same time.

Here, he talks about how he approaches the questions of religion and science — yes, they are “opposed,” but only in the way that the thumb and the forefinger are opposed. They both can enhance our lives.


Stefanie Leacock

Hi, I’m Stefanie Leacock here to tell you about my perspective on science and religion. I feel like my perspective is pretty unique, because, first, I’m a trained scientists with a Ph.D. in genetics, but I’m also married to an Episcopal priest, which often shocks people. Second, my Monday through Friday job is teaching undergraduate biology here in Texas, but on Sunday mornings, you’ll find me in a 4- and 5-year-old Sunday school class telling stories about the Bible.

And I love both of these jobs, and having been trained in a program called “Godly Play” over the past year or so to teach in Sunday school, I’ve actually come to realize even more the similarities between the  worlds of science and religion.

To give you a quick example, one of my favorite Sunday school stories that I tell the children is of the great family, the story of Abraham and Sarah. And in that story, I tell the children that Isaac and Rebecca had children, and their children had children, and their children had children, and this continued for thousands of years until their grandmothers and grandfathers had children.

I love that this story places all of us rooted in generations of religious peoples. It tells us that this is part of our identity, that is part of who we are. Much like I can’t choose to be from a different place, or have different parents, that’s just a part of who I am, and that’s the way Christian identity feels to me, and that it’s always been a part of my person.

However, because I’m a geneticist, I also know that that’s true on a biological level. My genes have been passed on for thousands of years before me, and that links me, biologically, to generations of the past. So that’s one similarity that I have found.

The second is that in our Sunday school program, we try not to tell the children what to think about the story. We use “wondering” questions: “I wonder what part of the story was most important.” “I wonder what part of the story was your favorite.” “I wonder which part of the story is about you.”

And similarly, in my other job, in my biological job, I ask my students to think about what it means. So often, science has been taught to many of our students as a collection of facts in some of the biggest textbooks out there. Textbooks that may have 60 chapters about all different topics in biology, and they’re presented as hard and fast truths.

But several semesters ago, I said to my students one day, “When we say something is ‘true’ in science, it’s because someone did an experiment to show that it was true.” And to me, that feels a lot like a “wondering” question. Designing an experiment says, “I wonder what would happen if I manipulate this variable.” “I wonder if this process depends upon this gene.” “I wonder how I could manipulate this system.”

Those are all variations on wondering, and when I have been realizing this over the last several months and years, and that’s that what our brains do as humans — we strive to wonder. And this is a feature, I think, that is shared between science and religion. And I hope that you enjoy thinking about that along with me.

Thank you.

Derek Nelson

Hello, my name is Derek Nelson, and I’m an associate professor of Religion at Wabash College. I’m also an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church.

Science and religion are two huge systems. Because they’re systems, we sometimes think that if we are going to get these areas of life to come together somehow, we have to be systematic. There’s a time and a place for that kind of big-picture theorizing about science and religion, but I think it’s not the place where most people should start. And even though I have taught classes in college on science and religion, it really plays a quite small role in my own life.

I think a better place to start is to expect both science and religion to enrich your life. An appreciation of science will make a religious person’s life more interesting, more complex, more full of wonder. An appreciation of religion will make a scientific person more open-ended, more aware of their limitations and possibilities for growth.

So instead of having a “theory” about science or religion and how they fit together, I think it’s wise to find lots of little ways that these spheres can inform each other and take root in your life. It’s not just theories, but also stories, poems, arts, leisure reading and even your hobbies that the interplay between science and religion can take shape.

For example, there’s a really interesting novel by John Updike called Roger’s Version. It’s about a graduate student who is trying to prove the existence of God by harnessing the power of supercomputing to make calculations about the world. There are books of poetry by scientist-priests like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The illuminations, or illustrations, of the St. John’s Bible are full of scientific imagery, like hand-drawn pictures of the double-helix of DNA.

Religion and science are both habits of mind, and habits have to be practiced in order to make them permanent. The word “habit” means “permanent” so that when a nun, for instance, donned a “habit” it meant that she was committed for life to that vow. I don’t have a lot of training in science, but I do try to practice it. For instance, I like to make furniture in my spare time. I keep a lab notebook of everything that I make. It’s made of graph paper so I have an easy way to sketch designs. I write down the size of every piece, note how long it took me to make it, record whether it was varnished or oiled, and how many coats. It’s a simple thing, but I like to think it keeps the habit of scientific inquiry at the front of my mind.

The English physicist William Bragg said that “Religion and science are opposed, but only in the same way that my thumb and forefinger are opposed, and between them, I can grasp everything.” I like that image a lot and find it to be a really fun, life-enriching task to go about the world like this, trying to grasp what I can grasp between these fingers. I hope you will, too. Thanks.

(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, “How Science Influences Religious Language).


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