Faith and Science: An Interview

JLE conducted an internet interview with James Houck, a participant in a consultation held by the ELCA January 25-26, 2002 on faith and science. Houck, an active Lutheran, has been instrumental in the ELCA in bringing resolutions concerning faith and science to synod assemblies and ELCA Church Council.

[1] JLE: Tell us about your backgrounds as a Lutheran and as a scientist.

[2] Houck: I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church. As a family, we attended Sunday school and worship regularly and were active in other church activities. I, however, was full of questions and did not receive many answers. I became very bitter and frustrated. Consequently, when I arrived at college I started looking for answers elsewhere. Ultimately, it was my physics professor who was able to speak to me. He believed that God created the Universe in the way in which God wanted us to discover it. Today I attend the church of my youth and I feel very lucky that the church into which I was born is also the church of my choice.

[3] I became a scientist at age 12 when I learned about the Big Bang theory of the Universe. Since then I have always been interested in how seemingly unrelated aspects of nature interconnect in a fundamental way. The story of creation is the story of this interconnectedness. During graduate school, my focus was on atomic physics. How do electrons behave within the atoms and how does this behavior affect matter? Today my research remains focused on the boundary between everyday life and the world of the atom.

[4] JLE: Do you find that your faith and your science support each other or clash-or both? How does one influence the other?

[5] Houck: For me, faith and science interrelate across a full spectrum from integration to tension. At those rare moments when I am able to open my mind to the possibilities of the Universe, faith and science are indistinguishable. On most days, though, faith and science complement each other. Science grounds me in reality and faith inspires me to act. However, always lurking in the background is this tension embodied by the life and death of Jesus. How could the resurrection happen and what does it mean?

[6] JLE: Is there anything about being a Lutheran that you find particularly helpful or inspiring as a scientist?

[7] Houck: Yes. Lutheran theology does not carry around a lot of superfluous baggage. The message of salvation by grace is one that resonates with me. There is room for doubt. It is through this doubting and seeking that I grow in faith and knowledge.

[8] JLE: Do you think the church has a different relationship with science than it did, for example, in the time of Copernicus? If it does, what makes that possible?

[9] Houck: Yes, the relationship has changed dramatically. At the time of Copernicus, the church was the reviewer and publisher of scientific knowledge. This tended to have a stifling effect on science. Today, the scientists themselves review and publish scientific research. The result is a more open and diverse atmosphere in which science can flourish. The down side is that the church has little contact with this great body of knowledge that is having profound effects on society today.

[10] JLE: What does the presence of faithful scientists contribute to the work of the Church?

[11] Houck: Faithful scientists encourage the child who is interested in nature. They give comfort and support to those who struggle with faith and science issues. They provide accurate information to those trying to make ethical decisions. They teach others how to appreciate and care for creation. They help the poor obtain food and shelter in a sustainable way. They develop tools to improve the quality of life for all people. They serve to meet the needs of people at the places where science and technology interact with the everyday lives of people.

[12] JLE: How can the church contribute to the faith life of scientists? Does the scientist have special faith needs?

[13] Houck: I can only speak for myself here. I struggle with what it means to be Christian. How could the resurrection happen and what does it mean? I struggle with how the scriptures are presented. Where do we draw the line between truth and myth? I often feel that I do not have a place in the church. I need to church to talk to me instead of at me.

[14] JLE: You chose the theme “The Skeptical Disciple” when asked about faith and science. How does this theme take shape in your life?

[15] Houck: As a scientist, I discover the Universe with an open-minded skepticism: a curious disposition, an objective mentality, and a sense of adventure. I approach faith with the same open-minded skepticism.