Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating the Sciences
by Stacy A. Trasancos.
Ave Maria Press, 2016.
Paper, 192 pages, $15.95.
Ever since the Scientific Revolution, religious faith has withstood a steady assault of scientific discoveries that seem to undermine long-held teachings of Christianity. From the positioning of the Earth within the solar system (and, later, the galaxy), to hypotheses on the origins of life and the evolution of human beings from animals, Christianity has been forced to restate, reconsider, and, on occasion, reinterpret teachings about the creation of the world and of human beings that predate even the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Within the academy, theology has fallen from its former place as the “queen of the sciences” to become one marginal subject among many, while science has risen to become the most vaunted—and most funded—subject within the research university. Today, many see little use for Christian doctrine and theology. In places where “scientism,” the belief that science has the answer to all of life’s questions, has not been espoused, the reigning belief is that of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: science and religion form two “non-overlapping magisteria,” so neither should meddle in the other’s business.
Into this climate comes Stacy A. Trasancos’s bold, compelling, and challenging Particles of Faith. Trasancos holds a doctorate in chemistry and worked for a decade as a nonreligious scientific researcher before converting to Roman Catholicism and studying theology. She uses her unique experiences to present a reshaping of Gould’s image into one of concentric circles: science is indeed its own enterprise with its own internal standards, but “modern science emanates from, and is sustained by, the light of faith.” In fact, “[f]aith in an ordered world is the reason we do science,” which “was born in a Christian culture on purpose.” The title of her third chapter, “Navigating science in the light of faith,” succinctly summarizes the book’s goal.
To understand the relationship between faith and science, Trasancos proposes a metaphor: the blessing of meals. Meals are “scientific feats” of atoms that are manipulated through chemical reactions. Yet believers also “see a meal as a gift from God,” even as atheists see only the food in front of them. People of faith have a broader view, but they, too, ought not to overstate theircase: “We do not point to pizza and say, ‘See there! That is proof that God exists.’ When we bless our meals, we start with firm belief and it should be the same when we learn about or conduct science.”
Trasancos devotes extended space to explain the basics of Catholic theology as well as multiple fields of science, from basic chemistry, to quantum mechanics, to human genetics, and she does so through accessible, and sometimes humorous, images that non-specialists can readily understand. Though the book is primarily intended “to show how a Catholic person works through these questions of faith and science,” anyone, including Christians of any denomination, who has an interest in the faith-science relationship will profit mightily from Trasancos’s clear explanations and candid style.
Transancos is resolute that “science needs to be respected within its own legitimate limits.” She rightly trumpets the importance of science and the respect owed the scientific method; she is also refreshingly cognizant and forthright about science’s limitations. For a decade, the so-called “new atheists” have published best-sellers promising that science will, sooner or later, figure out the whole world, leaving religious faith in the dustbin of history. Harvard professor Steven Pinker, for example, has written that science, not religion, properly illuminates “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.”
By contrast, Trasancos acknowledges that “science is provisional” and its “theories and models supply temporary explanations until better ones are discovered with more research, so science is never complete.” Science measures quantifiable data and therefore it is “limited to questions about the material realm.” Questions that “deal with meaning, purpose, and destiny” are “broader endeavors than physical or biological science” and they require “faith as well as reason” for answers. At the same time, she issues two cautions for believers: reading a few books of science does not make one a scientist, and holding a theological opinion does not mean that one holds an immutable dogma.
Trasancos is equally resolute that “there is no scientific conclusion in any place or time that could shake our faith.” This is because “[f]aith and science are two different manifestations of the same reality.” Any perceived conflicts between the two only exist “because our knowledge is not complete.” Hence Trasancos insists that believers ought not to fear that science can undermine what they hold in faith. By the same token, believers should not point to specific scientific discoveries as proofs of God’s existence or of other faith-claims:the findings of science are too shifting, for one; and, more importantly in Trasancos’s view, “I already believe God exists before I ever get to science.” Seeing the whole of creation, from the complexities of an atom, to the mundanity of a dandelion, to the beauty of a sunset, as coming from God is “an act of faith.” Yet the order and symmetry of creation should be “enough to inspire a person to kneel down and weep for joy.… Without faith, science class is a rather meaningless exercise.” For Trasancos personally, “doing science without acknowledging God felt like turning my back to a chasm.”
The second half of the book discusses several pressing scientific theories in light of religious faith, such as whether the Big Bang theory proves God’s existence (“it does, but only in the way a sunset does”), and whether quantum theory negates free will (it does not). Trasancos devotes the final four chapters to questions concerning human origins. There are many worthwhile points to note in these pages, many of which exceed the confines of this review. She is thoroughly orthodox in her theology, yet her forthrightness in addressing certain scientific questions (such as whether human beings interbred with Neanderthals) may make some believers squirm; she is equally forthright in identifying questions that do not yet—and may never—have scientific answers (such as whether the first man and woman could be discovered through research).
The complementarity of faith and science advocated by Trasancos leads her “to show that a Catholic can both explore what evolutionary science has to reveal and, simultaneously, believe in the existence of Adam and Eve.” She defends evolution as the best scientific explanation available for the physical and genetic evidence we have; though it is an unfortunate omission that she does not mention any scientific arguments that are customarily used against evolution (such as the dearth of fossils of intermediate species). When assessing evolution as a theory, we need only reject “the materialist interpretation of evolution, the idea that everything including the soul (or mind) of humans emerges from physical material.” Science, she explains, cannot “ever prove that man was not created by God. As Catholics, we hold this truth in faith, not just for humans but for all creatures, all things.” Trasancos suggests some answers, while raising even more questions that we may never be able to answer, concerning theological and scientific approaches to monogenism, the belief that all human beings descended from one original couple, even though a couple of her suggestions may raise the eyebrows of trained theologians. She also provides her scientific rationale for rejecting young-Earth creationism and intelligent design as explanations for the world’s origins. In an intense personal appeal, she directly challenges advocates of the former position for their ad hominem attacks on her and other believers who support evolution and the scientific method: “I would ask them one question: Do you care about the harm you do to fellow Catholics and Christians when you wage these accusations?”
Trasancos’s thoughtful and provocative book is a welcome attempt at healing the divisions between faith and science that have hardened in recent decades. She reminds us that we ought to see the relationship of faith and science in light of its full history, which is “more than a friendship”—it is “a unity.” Believers say in faith “that God Almighty created everything, and science is the study of his handiwork.” Faith, therefore, comes first. Trasancos reminds us to “[n]ever, ever upend that order.”
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.