In All Things

The intersections of science and faith at Loyola

By Bo Schwerin  |  Illustration by Daniel Chang
Illustration with a dove and roses

What does the engineer feel when looking up at the night sky? The mathematician? The theologian? The philosopher, the metallurgist, the physicist?

What, for example, does Suzanne Keilson, Ph.D., feel when she peers into the seemingly infinite starfield?

Show her an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope—perhaps a snapshot of the Carina Nebula, a fiery region 7,500 light-years distant, rife with towering gas pillars, a birthplace of stars. In response, Keilson, associate dean of Loyola College, the University’s school of arts and sciences, and assistant professor of engineering, first recalls her experience as a quality control engineer for the Hubble telescope before it was carried into orbit. She describes the telescope’s main optical assembly, the care involved with keeping its massive primary mirror clean.

Soon, though, her focus changes from the scientific to the introspective. She talks about the swarms of galaxies Hubble has revealed in what before had seemed an empty expanse of space. She speaks of dualities, spaces beyond us and spaces within us, apparent opposites that are actually points along the micro and macroscopic scales.

The feelings of awe and wonder the Hubble image evokes, she says, “are religious and spiritual ones.”

Ask the student, the teacher, the administrator. At Loyola, an age-old discussion continues.

The topic is the relationship between two pillars—sometimes perceived as poles—of human activity and experience: science and religion. Often portrayed as antagonistic, even incompatible, the relationship between the two could be called a rocky one.

But at Loyola, a very different picture emerges, one informed both by the University’s Jesuit foundation and its tradition of scientific excellence. Through means both formal and informal, Loyola explores the interactions of faith and science through dialogue that draws participants from well beyond the Evergreen campus—indeed, from around the world.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.” —Galileo Galilei

The standard notion of antagonism between the sciences and religion represents a broad, often inaccurate generalization. Ask anyone, for example, about the topic of science and religion, and almost inevitably Galileo Galilei will be trotted out as an illustration of how the two simply do not mix.

An Italian scientist and philosopher, Galileo believed, in opposition to Catholic Church doctrine at the time, that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. While the Church investigated Galileo for heresy in 1633 and put him under house arrest for the duration of his life, the situation was hardly one of religion putting science on trial.

As Richard Blum, Ph.D.—the Higgins Chair in Philosophy—notes, “If you look closer, you see there are quite a number of top-tier scientists involved in the case.” Among these was Cardinal Bellarmine, a Jesuit scholar who Blum says “was well aware of how to reconcile scientific thought with religion.”

Blum says that the 17th century featured a number of Catholic scholars, particularly Jesuits, who studied nature and were able to see science “within the framework of Christian revelation.” For them, Blum says, “it was a complementing approach to God’s creation.”

Harmony between faith and science has been evident within the Society of Jesus since its founding nearly 500 years ago, explains Rev. James J. Miracky, S.J., dean of Loyola College. Jesuit scholars pursued knowledge across the sciences, producing a long history of significant contribution to astronomy, physics, mathematics, and more. That pursuit, Fr. Miracky says, is a key component of the Jesuit mission.

“Central to our mission is the phrase ‘Finding God in all things’,” he says. “We believe that any area of knowledge is a potential place to encounter the Divine.”

Science has been centrally important at Loyola since the University’s establishment. Taught as “natural philosophy” in those early years, science flourished beyond the curriculum.

Student organizations such as the Mendel Club and the Secchi Scientific Society—founded in 1894 and named after the Jesuit astronomer and pioneer of star classification Angelo Secchi—promoted scientific awareness through lectures and other activities. In 1897, Loyola hosted a demonstration of X-rays, discovered only two years prior.

Keeping pace with the cutting-edge technologies and discoveries of the day, the University cosponsored in 1953 the largest and most comprehensive exhibit on atomic energy at the time. By 1978, Loyola had opened the Donnelly Science Center, built because existing facilities could no longer accommodate demand. There were too many natural science majors.

Today, says Fr. Miracky, the sciences are integral to Loyola’s efforts to foster graduates who are not only accomplished students, but well-rounded citizens.

“We want all of our students who are going to be citizens in a global society to think about and understand not only the contributions of the sciences, but also some of the challenges they offer,” he says.

“Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
—Pope John Paul II, on science and religion

Those challenges take forms practical, ethical, and spiritual.

Just as Loyola has a long tradition of exploring the natural world through the lens of the scientific disciplines, the University also has a history of examining the issues that accompany that exploration, among them the relationship between scientific and religious thought, how each can enhance or potentially undermine the other.

Given the centrality of this subject to the understanding of human nature and existence, passions flare from multiple perspectives even today, and topics such as creationism versus evolution, genetic predisposition to belief in the Divine, and the concept of intelligent design set the stage for vehement arguments that play out in schools, communities, politics, and the media.

At Loyola, says Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., a more useful approach is taken. “Our discussions are more reasonable, more modern, and don’t harken back to the conflict model that has become quite popular again only recently,” says Snyder, an expert in applied and computational mathematics.

“To consider possible relations between science and religion is quite consistent with our Jesuit and Catholic mission. In the interest of the academic freedom we enjoy, we welcome any and all investigations and opinions related to how science and religion relate to one another.”

Which is why those who know the University are not surprised to find that it has played host for nearly 30 years to one of the nation’s premier conferences on the topic. Cosmos & Creation was founded in 1982 by Rev. James Salmon, S.J., a professor in the chemistry and theology departments at Loyola. The goal was to bring scientists together to “discuss and share their vision of God and the world, based on their scientific training, reading, and working experience.”

The annual event welcomes a distinguished speaker to present two lectures, open to the public, on topics that explore the interactions of science and faith. Additionally, conference members from around the world—some who have attended every Cosmos & Creation conference since the beginning—engage in formal and informal discussions to share their individual cosmologies as “scientists working in God’s world.”

Cosmos & Creation, explains Rob Pond, Ph.D., is not a forum for reconciling differences between science and religion, but rather a “faith-based approach to looking at the world in general in a light that encompasses both.” A metallurgist, associate professor of engineering, and associate dean for the natural sciences, Pond co-directs the conference along with Blum.

Recently, the conference received the support of a $1 million gift from the estate of former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, brother of Rev. Frank Haig, S.J., professor emeritus of physics, ensuring its tradition will continue. The gift also supports Loyola’s Hauber Fellows program. Established in 1988 to honor the late Rev. Edward Hauber, S.J., an influential scientist and former chair of Loyola’s chemistry department, the fellowship provides top science students with a stipend and housing during a 10-week research period each summer.

The Haig gift will also allow Cosmos & Creation to invite the Hauber fellows to the lectures and discussions starting next year.

“Loyola is the perfect location for Cosmos & Creation, with our prowess in the sciences and with a number of scientists here who are keen on these issues of religion and science,” says Pond. Blum notes that interest in questions of science and faith is not limited to the University’s scientific community.

“Faculty at Loyola who deal with religion and theology have an understanding that our Christian revelation is a revelation for working in the world,” he says. “As a Christian, you know that you are working in a seamless, gradual transition between the nitty-gritty and the mysterious.”

Greg Derry, Ph.D., spends a great deal of time thinking about that gray area between the nitty gritty and the mysterious. A professor of physics, Derry is curious about the differences between scientific and spiritual approaches to the world.

“When you study the sciences, you discover how powerful a method of thinking that is. But you also discover that it has clear limitations, that there are topics that are not really appropriate to investigate with that way of thinking,” he says. “What basis do you have to make truth claims about spiritual nature and how does that compare to the scientific, empirical methodology for making truth claims?”

To explore these issues, Derry secured grant funding from the Metanexus Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to science and religion and to thinking across disciplinary boundaries. This has enabled Derry to form a group of interested people, bring in outside speakers, and organize discussions to enrich the academic climate at Loyola by investigating questions of science and faith. Derry’s own philosophy on the topic is one of “complementarity.”

“Complementarity is basically a way of approaching things that are apparently contradictory but, because they are two areas of discourse that are not overlapping, that contradiction is not really a contradiction at all,” he says. “Under the proper logical conditions, there are simply two things that are both true.”

Derry’s approach is one in practice throughout Loyola. Keilson discusses with students how the mechanisms and evidences of evolution can be used to inform the ideas behind design and the work of engineers. Snyder, Derry, and Blum engage junior Michael Cardy and sophomore Katherine Murray on the subject of truths both scientific and spiritual during one of the University’s LCAST podcasts, a series devoted to tips for academic success. They talk about truth as a journey or process—one that is lifelong.

James Buckley, Ph.D., professor of theology and former dean of Loyola College, notes that, in Latin, scientia means “knowledge” in general, a goal common to both scientific and spiritual thought.

“We are not God, but that does not mean we should not continually try to understand God,” Buckley says.

In the sacramental worldview of the Catholic Church, God’s presence is in the created world, in nature. Searching for truth in nature or in God—the difference may only be an arrangement of letters.

“By means of all created things, without exception, the Divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit geologist, paleontologist, and philosopher

Take that image of the Carina Nebula and show it to the mathematician. He expresses gratitude for being born in a time that allows for the contemplation of “our creation and evolution—which we do in a constant state of awe.” Show the dean, and he speaks of finding in such breathtaking examples of nature real proofs of God’s existence. Show the theologian, and he responds with a quote from the Catholic scientist Blaise Pascal: “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. It is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought.”

Put the image in your pocket and take a walk across the smaller cosmos of Loyola’s campus.

A fresh wave of young minds have entered the discussion, seeking the truth in new, individual ways. The chill of coming winter hangs over the footpaths. A rainfall so light it seems to disappear before it wets you. Stop in front of the Donnelly Science Center, which recently opened its newly expanded and updated facilities, set to serve future generations of Loyola scientists. Look up at the words of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, inscribed across the center’s bright new façade:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

It hardly seems debatable.

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  • Posted by Greg B | December 18, 2011

    As a Loyola Graduate (Class of 2005) with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and conducting research, I find articles of this nature embarrassing, both to myself and my education.

    Having driven past Loyola a few months ago and seeing the construction, I was pleased to note the science center was being improved. That is, until I saw the ‘grandeur of God’ quote on the side of the building. This worried me, mostly because I felt that a better and more accurate phrase would have read ‘the world is charged with ions’. It is the science building, after all.

    However, quotes like -Rev. James J. Miracky- “Central to our mission is the phrase ‘Finding God in all things’,” he says. “We believe that any area of knowledge is a potential place to encounter the Divine.” – smack of intelligent design, and are a stain upon any scientific institution. Discussion of the grandeur of any deity is fine on a personal level, but when institutionalized and highlighted along with scientific pursuit, the belief in the output of that science is degraded.

    If Loyola university expects to compete in the coming century for top young minds with scientific aptitude, comments like these and associated philosophy will have to be dissociated. Science and Theology independent topics, but they simply do not mix.

  • Posted by Marcella | January 29, 2015

    Great delivery. Sound arguments. Keep up the amazing spirit.

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