On science and spirituality

Earlier this week a piece I had written on discovering my creativity in a chemistry laboratory appeared on dotmagis. (You can find it here). A friend of mine commented that she didn’t understand why there was a conflict between being a chemist and being a spiritual director. (My own particular version of the science/spirituality debate). I thought I would take the opportunity to write at greater length about the challenge I face.

There are two different layers to this question – how do ‘people’ do this? and what is my personal challenge.

Spirituality and science use entirely different epistemologies. Epistemology is a theory of knowledge. Science knowledge requires some kind of verifiable evidence. What we put forward as ‘facts’ are pieces of information which consistently emerge from the same experiments and which fit into a broader theory. ‘Knowledge’ in a spiritual sense is entirely subjective. It is not verifiable in any way which is scientifically acceptable.

There is no problem with holding these two different paradigms in a single human person. And hence in this sense my friend is correct. There is no necessary conflict, provided we don’t blur the lines.

In a strange way I do believe I have been called to hold these two worlds together (at least for the moment). And herein lies my particular challenge – what exactly does it mean to ‘hold these two worlds together’? The two have peacefully coexisted in my psyche for many years. And I am pretty well educated in both worlds, and I contribute intellectually to both worlds. (I have a PhD in chemistry and I have authored a book on Ignatian spirituality).

Nonetheless, up until now, these two worlds have not really intersected much. Rather they run as parallel tracks. Close companions, but never connecting.

Because spirituality takes account of my whole being, the fact that I am a chemist is not trivial to my faith life. But my faith life is not dependent on my identity as chemist (I know this because I have lived as a full time spiritual director). Conversely, being a spiritual director does not seem to impact me in my work as a chemist in any meaningful way. My faith doesn’t make me more dedicated, more studious, more ethical, or more anything than any of my colleagues.

When people ask me how my spirituality affects my chemistry or vice versa, my only answer is that I don’t really know. Chemistry and spirituality happen to intersect in my being, but I do not know how that affects my work in either field. I cannot see any causal effect.

A question I am beginning to ask myself is whether there is a space where these two might interact more consciously. I suspect that will be the exploration of some years to come. I am not even sure that I will find an answer, but it seems important to ask the question.

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