By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I recently read a great book about Catholicism and science, “Particles of Faith” by Stacy A. Trasancos. It seems suited for anyone interested in the topic, and especially for undergraduates and precocious high-school students, or science-minded Catholics looking for excitement as they nourish their faith in a secular culture. Trasancos also wrote “Science Was Born of Christianity,” which examines the research done by physicist-philosopher-theologian Stanley Jaki, and thereby helps to explain why a particularly Christian intellectual culture gave birth to modern science — a historical fact that ought to interest anyone considering the relationship between Catholicism and science.
“Particles of Faith” exudes enthusiasm for both faith and science. Trasancos has a doctorate in chemistry and she enjoyed a significant career as a chemist before leaving her profession to become a full-time mother of eventually seven children. She is also a convert. She began as an agnostic. If I understand her story correctly, two big insights helped her to question her religious indifference and eventually find her way to the Church: one involved her contemplative discovery of the marvelous order in our natural world (concretely, she was awestruck over photosynthesis in plant leaves); and the other insight involved her discovery of her children as gifts. Both insights, I think, have in common the humility and wonder that could characterize our entire existence, if only we had eyes to see.
When she describes her life as an agnostic, she writes about her growing insight into how intelligent and beautiful nature is. But she says it was frustrating to recognize an intelligence in nature greater than our own, and to see how poor are our attempts to mimic mechanically what a little leaf does. The experience of failure can be healthy for the thoughtful scientist, or for one willing to ask about the presuppositions behind her work. Trasancos says, “You see, a chemist is privileged to wrestle with the laws of nature, but that privilege delivers a blow of humility. […] The […] failure rate is not what burdens scientists, because scientists learn from failures; the burden comes from the knowledge that all of your research demands that you reach into a darkness hoping for the slightest glimmer of light. You know the truth is there beyond your reach, awaiting discovery, and you want so desperately to know what it is. For a scientist who does not believe in God or creation, there is an additional, monumental burden: you do not even know why the truths you are striving to discover are there; you have no fundamental explanation for why you care about science.” (22-23).
She had the wisdom to face questions that would rise for all of us, if we would only slow down and practice the patient modes of thought that lead to them. Why is the cosmos rational? Where does this beautiful intelligence come from? Every scientist expects there to be a reason behind the phenomenon she investigates and therefore takes this intelligence for granted, for if she does not expect there to be a reason behind what she researches, she simply will not seek it, let alone be able to write a convincing grant application!
Trasancos’ willingness to dive into such questions appears to have been nourished by her insight into children as models of wisdom. Of course, we want children to mature and grow into adults, but we must also recognize the truths children understand more easily precisely because they, in their simplicity, are less burdened by the habits we can pick up as adults. Unlike children, we are tempted to take things for granted, to move too fast to be able to savor life, and to close ourselves off to new things because of bad experiences. Trasancos says that one truth more easily apprehended by children is the expectation that reality should make sense — it should be one, good and intelligent. “Children start out assuming there is a unifying logic to it all. To a child, faith and science go hand in hand.” (10). Too often we all, scientists included, can, as Trasancos says, take a “vertical spike” and “know very much about very little” (23). We can, to borrow her image, try to obsess over each individual note in a symphony (an obsession which is actually impossible for the human brain) and ignore the majesty of the unified whole. Essential to her conversion, and to her deeper love for science, was when she decided “to put the small questions aside and deal with the big questions. I have rediscovered my childhood sense of wonder.” (28-29). Once she started to ask about a unifying logic, she began to see the reality of God everywhere around her, in her lab and on every leaf.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.