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The Scientific Vocation and Christian Discipleship Faculty Seminar

Calvin University faculty members consider what it means to do excellent scientific work as Christians.

Julie Wildschut

In his decades of teaching geology at Calvin University, Ralph Stearley noticed that many people assume that there is some kind of deep conflict between faith and science, an attitude that plays out in different ways. In graduate programs in the natural sciences, there are Christian professors who are sympathetic to their Christian students, professors who don’t care or worry about relating faith to science, and even some professors who are overtly hostile towards practicing Christians. “It really varies by institution and within institutions, by department,” said Stearley.  

The hostility might sometimes be a unique combination of personalities and situations. It could present itself in response to the belief that some scientific content is incompatible with faith, as surveys show that believers in STEM fields such as physics and math don’t experience as much hostility as biology and astronomy, for example. And it could even be subtle discomfort, such as the expectation that graduate students will work on Sundays.  

Tragically, antagonism towards Christian scientists is found in faith communities as well as scientific ones. Stearley has noted that “these graduate students and young professionals often receive the same message of ‘warfare’ at their local congregations. I know a geologist who felt he had to leave his church because the pastor preached a young Earth while looking directly at him, in multiple sermons.” Faithful scientists are caught in the middle of suspicion and hostility from both sides.  

For Stearley, who retired from full-time teaching in 2019 but remains actively engaged in research and teaching, the key to addressing this challenge begins with Calvin faculty members and equipping them with key resources in Reformed theology. When attempting to bridge divides between faith and science communities, the Reformed tradition “is robust against both avenues of attack. . . [Reformed] theology can deal with that kind of stuff -- the theological foundation is ‘muscular’ enough to address those creational issues. Calvin [University] has something to offer people.”  

Stearley planned a year-long seminar called "The Scientific Vocation and Christian Discipleship" for faculty members mainly in the natural sciences at Calvin University. A grant from the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical University helped to fund the planning of the program, and the de Vries Institute for Global Faculty Development at Calvin is funding the seminar itself. 

Meeting throughout the 2021-22 academic year, participants will work through a series of rigorous books and articles on the doctrine of creation, eschatology, and the history and philosophy of science as it relates to religion. The goal is to give these participants a deep grounding in Reformed Christian theology in connection to research and teaching in the various natural sciences and related disciplines such as math and computer science. 

De Vries Institute director Matt Lundberg expressed enthusiasm for this project: “An opportunity to take a deep dive like this will be invaluable for these faculty members. They are on the front lines with Calvin’s students and have the opportunity to equip students with the confidence to see how bold faith and scientific rigor complement one another.” Chemistry professor Laura Westrate, a participant in the seminar, said that “having an opportunity to sit down with other scientists at Calvin on a regular basis to talk vocation and integration of science and faith has been extremely rewarding. Not only for my own personal development but also in the way that I can use these interdisciplinary discussions to enrich the way I tackle science and faith in my classroom.” 

In addition to exploring theological questions and wide-ranging historical work that refutes the idea that science and faith are naturally "at war" with one another, meetings of the group are working through Eugene Peterson's book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. On the book’s role of encouraging discipleship, Stearley said, “The book is centered on the Psalms of Ascents, Psalms 120 through 134.  These were probably sung by the people of Israel as they travelled to Jerusalem three times yearly for the regular holy festivals. They are particularly suited for people who are pilgrims and disciples, which Peterson stresses right away and emphasizes throughout the volume. So the book is eminently designed to encourage Jesus's disciples (that is, us) to persevere over the ‘long game’. And to rejoice along the way.” 

Through the whole experience, these faculty members will have the opportunity to grow in their faith and develop stamina for these challenging aspects of their profession, their vocation as science professors, and their service to the church. They will be better equipped to help their students understand that top-notch scientific work and strong faith commitments are not only compatible, but in elegant harmony with one another. As Stearley puts it, “That is true for Christians teaching anywhere, but is very relevant to us here at Calvin, because we are heavily invested in a Kingdom-vision, long-game approach. In fact, we are in this for the longest game possible, which will stretch into the new heavens and the new Earth.” 


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