Is it possible to grow up taking the Bible seriously and then go on to have a balanced, critical perspective on both religion and science? How do people coming from a very conservative background find friends and allies as they venture out into academia’s intellectually broad range? And most importantly, how can we look at people from different backgrounds more compassionately, and communicate with them better?
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Arvin Gouw and colleague Ted Peters discuss how they have integrated the faith they grew up with into a practice of rigorous intellectual inquiry, without losing sight of everything it means to them.
Arvin Gouw is the vice president for research and development overseeing the BeHEARD (Help Empower & Accelerate Research Discoveries) and RGTF (Rare Genomics Task Force) divisions of Rare Genomics Institute, where he leads crowdfunding efforts for rare disease personalized medicine research, predominantly for children, and develops novel online and mobile platforms to connect patients to medical experts. Arvin is currently a fellow at Stanford and Berkeley studying the role of metabolism in cancer and stem cells, where his work is under the entrepreneurship program of SPARK at Stanford, while leading the entrepreneurship program, BPEP (Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneur Program) at Berkeley. He is also an affiliate faculty at Harvard, given his interest in the intersection between science, policy and religion regarding genomics ethics. Prior to Stanford, he served as associate pastor in Philadelphia, during which he did his fellowship on science and theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Arvin received his Ph.D. in pathobiology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, M.Phil in philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary’s Seminary & University, M.A. in endocrinology and B.A. in molecular biology, both from UC Berkeley.Read Transcript
I was born in Indonesia, growing up in a very conservative Christian family that has to be seven days creation, seven days, 24 hours and – definitely no evolution, every species is created according to its own kind in Genesis 1. So that’s what I grew up with, and that was definitely a challenge as I went through high school. I had to debate with my A.P. Biology teacher frequently and I also had to struggle in university, where, OK, fine, evolution is a theory, it might not be real, it’s OK, the Bible is still the scientific text.
And with that spirit, I went to Graduate Theological Union, because they have the Center for Theology and Science – which [I thought] is perfect, right, this is where I would see science, you know, theologians showing all the scientific proofs that creation is actually in seven days, and so on. But boy, was I wrong. Meeting Ted Peters and Bob Russell – these are the giants in the field – and they basically showed that it is probably an issue of Biblical hermeneutics, depending on how you read Scripture. Does it have to be literal? Does it have to be allegorical? What was the context of the writing of Genesis 1? Why was it necessary for them to have a science text of creation if they were under some kind of captivity, under slavery or something?
So these all challenged my faith. These all challenged my science as well. And it was never a dramatic change; I think I had to read and reread whenever they posed an interpretation of “this is how you should read the text,” then I raised another question – “well, if there was not a historical Adam, then what was Paul saying about the old Adam and the new Adam, how do you account for that?” “If it is not seven day creationism, then how could you for something else in the Bible?” “How do you believe the Bible if it is not inherent?”
So I think every answer that I receive comes up with more questions, and I think being a Christian is this constant struggle, not of having the easy absolute truth and literalism, but the openness to have moments of crisis of faith. I think if our faith is really about the ultimate concern of who we are, and that if we are wrong, we missed the whole thing – then we always have to keep double-, triple-checking as we go, depending on the scientific discoveries, depending on the Biblical hermeneutics at the time.
And I think this is a constant struggle and I don’t think I have all the answers, right. I don’t think anybody does. I don’t think any theologian has all the answers on understanding Genesis, and I don’t think all the scientists have figured out everything about evolutionary theory. Looking at the history of science and the history of exegesis, they both evolve over time, and as I said, I think the openness to be able to see the different ways of thinking through learning and unlearning is what is most important, at least for me, to be able to be a functioning scientist and a coherent believer.
I don’t think conservative Christianity is necessarily in contradiction with science. I think there are many different ways of reading science, there are many different gradients of conservatism, and I think me, being an immigrant from Indonesia, and coming here – the first mistake that I think liberals assume are that conservative Christians are fundamentalists, and very close minded, or even racist, anti-intellectual.
And I think that cannot be more wrong. Because I know them, I grew up with them, they helped me survive in this country by providing me with everything that I needed. So they’re definitely not mean, not uncaring, not unhelpful. It’s not like they don’t care for social justice. I’m a living testimony they do care about the poor.
But I think it’s always a matter of different ways of dealing with it, right. Just as we liberals don’t like to be told “we don’t care about life,” no, we do care about life, we just are not necessarily “pro-life.” And so you can have certain values that are perfectly identical between conservatives and liberals, but they just go around it differently, whether the liberal Democrats, so to speak, would go about it through social justice concerns, the Republicans, conservatives, maybe would go about that by protecting life.
But the main idea of protecting life is still the same, just going about it is slightly different. And when it comes to protecting religion, their issue about protecting the Scripture as being inherent – and it’s not that they’re anti-intellectual, they just read different sets of science texts.
Now, the science texts that they read might be debated as being outdated or no longer scientific, but it doesn’t mean that they’re anti-intellectual, right, because they’re still trying their best in terms of reading what they believe is true. So I don’t think ad hominem arguments will help us get anywhere. If anything, we need to either be on the same page on the science arm, and/or be on the same page on the hermeneutics side. Then we can start communicating. Because there is a disconnect here, instead of which Biblical hermeneutics you pick, and which scientific body of literatures you pick, and that’s where the conflict arises. So it’s not within science and religion per se, but under subcategories within science, within religion, that then crisscross.
I think what is also interesting within American context that Americans may not realize is that the view of conservatism and theology and their view of science is very deeply connected to the political views as well, whether you’re Republican or Democrat. And it doesn’t have to be like that.
So I grew up in Indonesia, where it was under the dictatorship –who’s now called a dictator; when I was there I considered him as the father of my country – President Suharto. A dictator who lived for very long, governed for very long, and and you know, I did not – we did not – have a political identity. There is no choice. There’s only one political party, there’s only one way of thinking. And there’s a certain nationalism.
And so religion and science doesn’t have to be tied up with politics. And I think that is something that Americans probably should take in more, otherwise you’re too polarized to the left or the right, as if there is no other option. And I don’t blame you, because the context is always portrayed that way in the media, but as an outsider, as a non-American, we always see that there are other ways to go around all these different issues.
Ted F. Peters is an author, professor, and pastor. He is Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California. He offers a theological analysis of culture, analyzing especially the role of science in culture. He co-edits the journal Theology and Science.Read Transcript
Well, I grew up in a conservative Christian family, Lutheran family, in the Detroit area. My dad was an automotive engineer. And he was, I guess, your classic Bible-thumping six-day creationist. And he would tell these stories about how those godless evolutionists were all wrong, and he worried about what would “happen” to me when I go off to the university. So I went off to Michigan State University and sure enough, I got into biology class. And the subject of evolution came up, and that sounded really interesting to me, and one day the professor got up on the desk and folded his legs and he said “Now, I know a lot of you students come from religious families, but what you’re learning in this class, about the science of evolution, has absolutely nothing to do with your faith.”
And I thought “Oh, something’s not right here….” I wonder if it’s kind of like Shakespeare “methinks not doth not protest too much,” but I got really kind of interested. What is the connection then? Over time, I started studying philosophy, and then eventually got into the natural sciences. And, you know, there’s only one world here, it’s the world created by God, and I’ve discovered that scientists are the prophets who tell us what God’s creation looks like. So I no longer believe it like my dad did. And at the same time have a genuine appreciation for the marvels of creation, and I’m thanking God that He gave us the scientist to help us understand it.
The really live issue that concerns me most of these days has to do with the ethics of space exploration. Well, right behind that, of course, is the question of “how big is God’s creation?” Is it really 13.2 billion years long in time and 95 billion light years across, and the whole cosmos? So that’s a big question for me. But most of the scientists who are doing the engineering to get us to Cassini or Titan or to the outer planets, they’re all concerned about the technical issues. And I love the Promethean aspiration of the scientists who want to take us elsewhere within the solar system, and even to make connection with intelligent creatures on exoplanets. And what I find important, as a public policy issue, as a cultural issue, is that there’s not much thought given to the long-range impact for the peoples and the atmosphere here on earth. These scientists are extremely conscientious, to be sure, but it would be nice if they could formulate the ethical and moral issues in order to anticipate how we on earth are actually going to experience what, we hope, will be rather dramatic changes our place in the universe that are going to discover.
So I spend a lot of time on that, and today happens to be the day in which a book that we’ve been working on in Berkeley for six or seven years now called “Astrotheology” was just published, and basically it’s a long list of problems somebody needs to solve.
It’s a big mistake to automatically assume that there is a conflict between faith and natural science. And it may look like there’s one, because whether you’re a Jew or a Christian or even a member of one of these long religious traditions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, where your fundamental worldview was formulated in a pre-modern age, and now we live in a modern age that is so imbued with scientific understandings, we tend to just disregard everything that was pre-modern. Well, God isn’t either modern or pre-modern. He belongs in both, as far as I can tell, and at the very heart of scientific research and discovery is a curiosity that is generated by wonder, and in some ways, I think, God just put that little element of curiosity and wonder in the human soul so that we would want this search for a wonderful beautiful thing. So I genuinely see science as today’s continuation of the great inquiries that began with our ancestors a couple millennia ago now. And it’s really been in continuity, this curiosity about the world, the curiosity about God beyond the world all along, and I don’t think that should change in the near future.