The problem with being a Catholic (or other form of Christian) and a scientist is not what our atheist colleagues imagine. They wonder how we deal with all the contradictions that they imagine must plague us, but in fact the problem is the opposite. The findings of the natural sciences and the dogmas of faith don’t clash because they deal with different things: different answers to different questions. But this itself is a problem: every Catholic knows that the reason God made him is to know, love, and serve the Lord. How does pure science do this? There’s a story that the great physicist (and nonpracticing Jew) I. I. Rabi used to ask graduate students choosing a thesis project if they thought that project would lead them closer to God. Could any of us answer “yes”?
If it’s hard for Catholic scientists to see a relationship between these two central parts of their lives, outspokenly atheist scientists don’t seem to have this problem. They see their scientific research on one hand, and their political/philosophical commitments on the other, as parts of a single effort, the struggle of “reason” against “ignorance” or “superstition”. It’s easy for us to make fun of their dumb Manicheism, but let’s acknowledge the admirable unity they have brought to their lives. It may do a great deal to explain the attraction of atheism in scientific circles.
The trouble is that it’s not clear how improved knowledge of the natural world brings one closer to God. No doubt creation shines forth the glory of the Lord, each creature in its own way, and contemplating the signature of God in these finite things can be a spiritually fruitful activity. But isn’t this an activity for poets and theologians? How does science help? Do the atoms of quantum mechanics show God more clearly than the atoms of Dalton or Democritus? Does His presence seem stronger now that we know that neutrinos have mass?
I think we must admit that knowledge of the natural world doesn’t bring one closer to God. Fortunately, knowing about the natural world isn’t what scientists do; it’s just a product of what scientists do. Scientists investigate the natural world, and I think that the investigation of nature is something that can reinforce the Christian spiritual life. Scientific investigation–experimental, observational, or theoretical–is at its most basic an opening of oneself to the intelligibility of Being. We start with ideas about how some natural phenomenon works, and then we confront these ideas with nature itself, allow it to “speak”, and then struggle to reform our ideas, conforming them to the truth. Science is ultimately passive in the sense that it does not aim to impose an order on the world, but aims to bring a preexisting order into the mind. On the other hand, it is not passive in the sense of effortless passivity. The process of getting the order of the universe into one’s head requires intense effort of formulating, testing, and reformulating theories. In the end, one finds a model with confirmed predictive power. In my experience, most physicists experience at one point or other in their career a sense of awe when they see an experiment agree with predictions. “How can these electrons really care about these equations in my notebook?”, they are tempted to exclaim. By looking intently at one aspect of it, they have been led to appreciate a shocking fact: the intelligibility, the Logos, present in the world. A thing ordinarily too all-encompassing to be appreciated, one comes to appreciate intelligibility by “communicating” with it intensively over one of its manifestations.
We Christians know that the intelligibility seen by the scientist is a glimpse of the Logos that created the world and that is revealed in Jesus Christ. The point of the Christian life is to open oneself to Christ, to allow oneself to be reformed in His image. It is another, higher form of openness to God; like science, it is passive (because the goal is for an outside form to be imprinted on oneself) and arduous (because the new form must be subjectively and creatively appropriated). Of course, the two activities are not interchangeable–research is not a substitute for prayer–but they have an analogy that allows Christian scientists, like their atheist counterparts, to see the two activities of their lives as parts of a single project. The Christian is struck by the realization that it is the same Christ speaking to him in his conscience, in scripture, and in his experiments.
I admit the above is pretty vague, as I think it must be. The particular insight into the Logos that scientific discipline brings is not something that can be abstracted and detached from the investigation that produces it. It would be much easier if Catholic scientists had a community to support us, with its own patron saints, prayers, gatherings, and rituals. How valuable it would be for young researchers if we had role models–men both holy and professionally distinguished–to show us how such a life is to be led. That’s the shame: not enough of us to create the sort of environment that would attract more of us.