Ruth Bancewicz, senior research associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, communicates about science and faith to the church. She spoke to Abi Jarvis about her passion for Christians displaying leadership through science.
When I asked Ruth what qualities are most important for scientists, her answer is not what I expected. “Creativity is a huge thing. The periodic table is a great example of creative thinking. You need to be able to come up with ideas, solve problems, think laterally – some of the most exciting discoveries have been made when someone is nice and relaxed and thinks, ‘That thing I just read, it probably applies to that completely different other thing.’” Other key qualities include humility, love for people, hard work, integrity and mentoring the next generation: “I’ve benefited hugely from people investing in me.”
Ruth describes her career as “quite a wiggly journey”. The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion was setup by two Fellows of St Edmund’s College in Cambridge. “I managed to dig my way in and then not get out yet! I help churches engage with science in a positive way that will feed into their lives in the world. I encourage and give a platform to scientists as well”.
“Doing science helps us to praise God even more because we understand it.”
I asked Ruth why Christians should consider a career in the sciences. “Psalm 111v2 says, ‘Great are the works of the Lord, they are pondered by all who delight in them’. Some people have called that the scientists Psalm. It’s saying, ‘Here is the stuff that God made and we will study it’. We were asked to tend and keep the earth and if we don’t understand it and we haven’t explored it how are we supposed to do that? Science is absolutely vital. All creation worships God, it has an intrinsic value, and studying it is valuable because we’re learning about the things that God has made.”
She noted that Christians often pigeonhole the idea of scientific engagement into debates on “difficult issues and philosophical or theological conundrums”. While these are important questions with difficult answers, “Some of what I want to do is divert them to positive thinking. Ecologists are saying ‘we need to talk to people of faith because they have theological reasons for valuing creation’. We have a real voice in the discussion. If we are Christians and we’re to do science and engage in science, how do we distinctively do that? What interesting questions does that raise for our faith? And people aren’t used to thinking like that.”
While many people see science and faith as diametrically opposed, Ruth points out that Western science developed within Christian culture and many of the most famous scientists in history were Christians, such as Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle and Michael Faraday. “And we’re able to provide theological reasons for why science works. Other people just assume that science works, but I believe that science works because we have a powerful God who sustains the universe in regular ways and chooses to continue to do so day-to-day. That means we can fly planes and do experiments.”
Ruth gave some examples of Christian role models in the sciences today. Sir John Houghton was co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientific assessment working group. “That was back when people were still questioning whether climate change is happening. He is an amazing guy, very humble, but very forthright about his science.”
Katherine Blundell, a professor at Oxford University, uses telescopes to keep a 24-hour watch for jets emitted from black holes. “She decided to place them in the grounds of schools – including girls’ schools in developing countries – so that pupils could join in with the research and be excited by it. She is shoehorning public leadership into a very busy career.”
“Being an academic can take over your life!”
Like many Christians in secular workplaces, scientists can sometimes feel isolated and are reassured by stories of older scientists serving God in their field. “One girl said to me, ‘I wasn’t sure about going to university and doing biochemistry, and now I know it’s something I can really do to serve God’.” The Faraday Institute has an annual networking event for Christians who identify as scientists in Cambridge. “You see people meeting people in their department and realising, ‘look, that Professor in my department is a Christian!’”
While scientists, like many Christians in the workplace, may fear the reaction of colleagues if they ‘out’ themselves as Christians, Ruth says that the main reaction she hears about is “indifference, even in the States where it’s more sensitive. A friend of mine joined a university physics department and decided just to go in as ‘the Christian’, to be quite up front about herself and not worry about what people would think. And her colleagues were fine, nobody seemed to mind. She was just being herself and she had some interesting conversations.”
Many public leaders have told us that they also feel disconnected to their local churches, and I asked Ruth how churches can better support Christians in science. She said it is important to have an atmosphere where people’s whole lives are valued and there is no unconscious impression that some professions are more holy or more valuable than others. “That reinforces our own lack of confidence. There are loads of imaginative ways where you could give a little bit of profile to people who do different stuff, so it’s not always the teachers who help in Sunday school or the medics who help when someone falls over.”
Church communities can also encourage scientists – and other public leaders – by valuing their time. “At the end of a week-long conference, I went to a church event and someone really encouraged me by noting that I’d turned up despite my tiredness. Saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re here, I know it’s exam marking time and things are stressful’, or affirming people when they’re exhausted and can’t make a church event by saying ‘great, have a good rest’. That’s quite a minor but important thing to do.”
And this support isn’t one-sided; Christians are able to serve their church through their area of expertise. Ruth recounts a story of a busy high-powered architect in her own church who often travels and is not able to attend church on a regular basis. “But when we had plans for the new building, it went out for tender with all the architects in the church.” And giving public leaders the opportunity to teach on their subject benefits the church with their insights, as well as showing support to the public leader. “I’ve done stuff about science with the kids and the youth, the elderly as well as in the main service… I’ve served them with my knowledge. It’s a great way of making sure that people know who you are and what you do so they can ask you again, and also it’s a chance to try yourself out.”
“Forget what other people think, I am serving God today.”
Public leadership is being a voice for God – explaining to people how and why your faith impacts your leadership, and being a voice for good – serving the people around you. Ruth is clear that having Christians in science enriches the field. “Without Christians, science would carry on, it would be creative and take risks. But I believe that God guides people and I certainly have spoken with scientists who have felt that their work is successful because they’ve seen it as an uncovering of God’s creation and that God is part of that, helping them.”
And in a sector where publishing and academic prizes are of paramount importance, many Christians are motivated to be unselfish in sharing. “People should be glad that they’re in the lab because they should be good colleagues with good reputations.” People pleasing “is toxic. Christians must have a single mindedness of serving God.”
Perfectionism is an easy temptation for scientists to fall into and can be crippling, Ruth continues. “God’s standards for what I do with my time are less high than my ridiculous overblown perfectionism. If we could chill out, leave work earlier than we think we should, have a bit of a laugh and get a good night’s sleep and when you come in the next morning you will do a much better day’s work. Smarter not harder!”
I asked Ruth if she had any final message for leaders in science. “Be yourself; don’t be afraid of being known as a Christian in your workplace. You might get some backlash but you probably won’t. People are generally pretty polite and respectful, even if they secretly think you’re crazy! They’re polite about people’s views. Be informed about how your faith and your science interact.
“Be informed, be out there, be doing your thing, support younger people.”