Kerry Magruder, The Integration of Faith and Science (part 2)

Kerry Magruder is Curator of the History of Science Collections, Associate Professor of Bibliography, and Associate Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma. He has a PhD in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma, 2000. In this episode of You’re Included, Dr. Magruder highlights the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to our studies. He digs deeper into resolving the perceived divide between faith and science.

Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: Kerry, once again, it’s good to have you with us for this segment of You’re Included.

Kerry Magruder: Thank you, Gary.

GD: Being a curator and a faculty member interested in the history of science, I’m sure you’ve had to be aware of the ongoing debate that often affects the church and even individual congregations – the faith/science debate, the faith/reason debate. You touched on that, but can you tell us a little about your story of how you negotiated that, have you come to resolve it? Is there a way? I still think it’s affecting the church at large.

KM: I taught high school in the St. Louis area for four years, and over the course of my career I’ve taught chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, and science education at the university or college level. During that time, I felt that I didn’t have the resources to think through the questions about science and faith that would be satisfying. I didn’t know what to do and eventually, instead of continuing my doctoral studies toward a biochemistry degree, as I expected to do, I turned to history of science as a way to begin to do that more rigorously.

I was astonished at how rapidly many of those issues were resolved for me as soon as I could gain access to the scholarly literature in the history of science. So, when I’m engaging the public, undergraduate students, public groups who come for tours, public writing in any form such as exhibitions, I constantly find that students or the public laypersons are surprised to discover that four different areas of conflict appear to dissolve once one gets closer to them in historical context:

  • That medievals didn’t believe in a flat earth
  • That the Galileo affair wasn’t an inevitable conflict between science and religion
  • That the age of the earth in the development of early geology was not so contentious after all
  • And that Darwin and evolution were not the controversial topic essentially that we’re led to believe.

Voices from every faith tradition, especially the evangelical faith traditions, were present in those debates in a way that helps us see that those apparent conflicts can be resolved. So, to me historical study offers a tremendous opportunity for the church and also for the broader public to set aside some of these caricatures about a conflict between science and religion.

GD: So, you would say then something like the debate or the antithesis between faith and reason, faith and science has been somehow greatly exaggerated, so they appear to a lot of people unresolvable.

KM: Yes. If we don’t address these issues within the church, then our young people and our members of our communities who are interested or pursuing occupations in the sciences, they will become alienated from us just because we live in our mythologies, our own private realities without relating our faith to science. These questions are not the most important questions facing the church, but they are essential.

GD: Yes, I think they kind of trip some people up or they are kind of inhibitory so people are reticent, they hold back. There’s a little fearfulness or anxiety that they don’t know there’s any way to resolve, and unfortunately there are some who still believe or think this is an unresolvable conflict. They think you have to choose one side or the other, and on one you’ll be on the Christian side and on other side, you’ll be outside the Christian sphere.

KM: Exactly. Then there’s an unfortunate reflexive activity of just appropriating what someone labels Christian science and viewing it as an apologetic tool. And when it’s a superficial understanding of science, we need to resolve these issues in a more profound level.

GD: Say more about that, especially the apologetic angle. Say more what you were getting at there.

KM: If I’m bringing to a current debate any club that happens to appear useful, then I may not be thinking through the issues on their own merits. To take one example would be the opening sentence of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, where he says: “The cosmos is all there ever was, is, or shall be.”

How many viewers of the original Cosmos series, or its recent revised edition, could ever tell from those programs or the accompanying books of the tremendous discussion of life on other worlds in the Christian tradition? Starting from the 1300s, when the bishop of Paris condemned Aristotle’s arguments that it would be impossible for God to create life on other worlds – up through the statesman of the Free Church of Scotland in the 1830s, Thomas Chalmers, writing a book in favor of extraterrestrial life. If we are carrying out our thinking in terms of popular culture – whether it’s Star Wars or Cosmos, without being informed of our own tradition, we’re walking blindly in our own culture.

GD: It becomes a random picking of sides [KM: That’s right.] without being well informed, and maybe those sides aren’t so clearly drawn, and maybe not so recent.

KM: In recent years – the last several years – a number of celebrities (including rappers and basketball players) have begun to affirm a flat earth. There are annual conventions now for belief in the flat earth. The modern belief in the flat earth, to some degree, is a response to the idea that it’s only a modern belief that the earth is round, and we should go back to what was common sense in pre-modern times.

But that’s a needless development when one realizes that the early church never taught the earth is flat. Columbus did not have to argue that the earth was round. Everyone already knew it was round, and knew how large it was, roughly speaking.

The whole idea of a medieval belief in the flat earth is mainly a 19th-century invention. But it’s still part of our broader popular culture to the extent that we even have people feeling that to hold on to ancient traditions, perhaps evangelical Christianity, they need to feel shame about the issue of the latter – the shape of the earth. Similar points could be made about the Galileo affair or about Darwin and evolution, or the age of the earth.

GD: In certain circles, if you study and read, these are not hidden secrets. For some, they think “Well, what you’re saying is like what — are you the only one that knows this?” But that’s not actually the case, is it?

KM: If you walk into any medieval cathedral, you can look around and find the earth portrayed as a globe with a cross on it. It’s the sign of someone with civic authority. Even the illiterate could read the sculptures and know that the earth was round. But if one enters the professional academic literature of the history of science, it’s just like an illiterate person and a medieval cathedral. It’s clear that the conflicts between science and religion resolve into local affairs, not something inevitable or perennial; they are always very complex and situational. Those times and places of conflicts can become instructive for us as we try to navigate similar pressure points – cultural pressure points today.

GD: If someone wanted to pursue this and say, “Kerry, that sounds interesting, I’d like to sort that out somewhere,” where would someone start? If they say, “That sounds good, but what can I do, where can I go, what can I read?,” what would you say?

KM: Unfortunately, the history of science is not a field that is taught in very many universities or colleges. I don’t understand that, but I’m biased, of course. It’s a professional specialty with a professional specialized literature. It’s not very easily accessible or widely known. And yet there are great books one can read in the field. That’s part of what my own interest is in – in making that literature, that understanding, that scholarship available to the public and more widely disseminated.

GD: So, would some of these resources be listed on your website, Kerry’s Loft?

KM: Yes, some on Kerry’s Loft, but mainly on https://lynx-open-ed.org/ is a website that I’ve created along with a colleague, Brent Purkaple, another historian of science – specifically for outreach and education using history of science materials that are available free. So, it’s “lynx” as a cat, “open ed.” For example, one can find there more than a thousand pages about the world of Galileo that introduces the complexity and a richer, more human story for Galileo, far more interesting than the conflict thesis would lead us to believe.

GD: [The conflict] just used him to beat somebody over the head or to shame somebody.

Now, also, I know you’ve done a lot of reading of Torrance especially in this connection as well as his theology. How would someone who had an interest in the writings of Thomas Torrance, how does what he present trying to bring together theology, theological science and natural science, what might be useful there? What does he have to say that kind of helps?

KM: Torrance’s writings are a tremendous help because our tendency is to take an encyclopedic approach where we compare the results of science with the results of what we think might be the results of biblical interpretation (or whatever folk tradition we are familiar with).

Torrance challenges us to repent intellectually and to go deeper, that any kind of interdisciplinary relation should be on a more profound level than the merely encyclopedic. That can be challenging and difficult, so Torrance is not always easy to read. But there are collections of his works, essays that are more accessible, but I would recommend starting anywhere, perhaps with Space, Time and Resurrection – a work that combines biblical studies and theology with his theology of nature. Whatever you pick up from Torrance, read it and find people to talk about it with. Don’t let any obscure passages slow you down.

GD: For me it’s been a steep climb, but very worth the effort. It does take a bit of energy to get to the top of the hill so you can kind of coast down the backside a little bit – but worthwhile. Some of these issues can’t be resolved just by a thought in your mind or one fact or something like that, or one truth or even one Bible verse takes care of it all. It does take research, reading, becoming aware, interdisciplinary kind of things and so it’s a challenge but worthwhile.

KM: It requires attentiveness to others. We need to respect those in our congregations, in our communities who are involved in the sciences. Get to know them and listen to them, to their stories – to understand why they are so passionate about their science. Hear their point of view—not from the standpoint of trying to use science to bring them closer to theological understanding, but just to understand them. I think that’s one of the arts that we have lost that is important to recover. Only when we can put a human face on the different sciences are we in a position to work through the issues patiently with enough care and attention that they deserve.

GD: I’ll be interested in hearing a little bit… You’re in a secular university – University of Oklahoma, and you’ve been there now for how many years?

KM: I began work as an assistant to the curator in June 2000. So, 19 years.

GD: Yes. That’s an interesting world, it seems to me. Are there some stories or some kind of…? I know you’ve done some seminars for other curators and such. What’s that been like?

KM: It’s a remarkable adventure intellectually in every way. I’m constantly learning more, more than I expect through the graduate students that we have.

The history of science program at the University of Oklahoma offers PhDs, masters and undergraduate degrees in the history of science. It’s not history, it’s not science, it’s actually a formal department and (on any given semester) we have about 600 students enrolled in the undergraduate courses. So there’s a lively culture of discussion, and the students always keep me abreast of issues that I would not have thought of on my own. I very much appreciate the stimulation of that kind of environment.

It might be interesting to note that of the 11 faculty (including myself) I’m not aware of the faith traditions of any of the other faculty, however, I can say that I do not believe that any one of them would subscribe to the idea that there’s an inevitable conflict between science and religion. The professional approach assumes that there’s a much more interesting interrelationship and that we approach that through historical study, expecting it to be profound.

That’s the point of convergence with Torrance’s views, which were very much historically informed. The interactions that I have with graduate students who are not in the program, perhaps in the sciences, are also important to me. And through the years, I’ve known a number of students who have been very grateful because historical study has helped them in their own quest to explore these tensions in their own work. It’s a very stimulating environment to be in.

GD: Yeah, your interaction with other curators… that’s an interesting angle itself. You’ve travelled around the world for collections and things like that, what’s that…

KM: Oh, yes. It’s a remarkable privilege to work with others who devote their lives to preserving these cultural treasures that we have. The history of science collections hold approximately a hundred thousand volumes. To get a sense of why that’s so important to me and worthy of time and attention over a scholarly career, I’d encourage anyone to go back this past summer. PBS aired a one-hour program called “Galileo’s Moons” and it describes a recent forgery of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius – “the starry messenger” – the first published report of observations with a telescope. That episode will show you, in a nutshell, why curators do what they do to preserve these works and make them available. I might mention that the Oklahoma copy of the Sidereus Nuncius is the only extant version to contain Galileo’s handwriting. It’s remarkable, but all these treasures are.

As a curator, one of the aspects of that work that I value greatly is our commitment to open access. So, as we are digitizing them, we’re not trying to make money by licensing them, but high-resolution images of hundreds of our most interesting, rarest books are available online for, not just scholars, but a high school student in a small town – in Oklahoma or in China – can download these images. For example, Johann Schreck, a friend of Galileo who was with him during his early telescopic discoveries, went to China, wrote a book on engineering in Chinese with Chinese collaborators. That’s just one of the hundreds of books that we distribute in the public domain. We don’t even track the use of these works.

So we are committed to open access as a way of lowering the bar so that accurate information about the historical development of science can become accessible to anyone, not just elite scholars. That’s I think a passion of many of those who are curators in this profession.

Maybe a third area would be also reaching the public through exhibitions. I think I mentioned earlier a Galileo exhibit that we performed in 2015 and 16, and that was an opportunity to try to substitute a different, more lively, more enthralling portrait of Galileo in his life and work than the caricatures would allow.

GD: That was the last question I had. Do you have some personal projects that you’re involved in as well?

KM: Oh, thank you. Some of my chief professional priorities right now are the https://lynx-open-ed.org/ website – which is an educational website that I mentioned earlier. A spin-off of that is https://skytonight.org/ which is devoted to making the experience of the night sky, the stars and constellations, not only today but in various times and places over history and geographically across cultures, to providing a sense of those resources to people. Not just to astronomers or amateur astronomers but to others. That’s a project I’m investing a lot of time in.

I’m very excited about work in preserving the materials that would throw light on the world of Thomas and James Torrance and so in conjunction with the Thomas Torrance Theological Fellowship, [I’m involved in] a collaborative project to establish bibliographies, calls for materials, an oral history project to make his world more accessible and more widely known. That’s part of the heart of my professional commitment at the moment. So that’s at tftorrance.org/.

GD: Kerry, it’s been great speaking with you.

KM: Thanks.

Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2022, 7:35 PM