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Science and Faith in Strange Times

Physicist Gerald Gabrielse, a person of faith, reacts to the assaults on both science and faith that he perceives.

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Gerald GabrielseImage: Shane Collins

By Gerald Gabrielse
Winter 2021
9 Responses

A great mystery of modern physics is that the fundamental mathematical description of physical reality (the Standard Model of particle physics) accurately predicts the results of all laboratory measurements and yet is unable to explain basic features of our universe — for example, how a universe made of matter survived annihilation after the Big Bang.

It has been my privilege to work with 50 Harvard and Northwestern doctoral students investigating this mystery. We measure an electron’s magnetism — by suspending a single electron for months using batteries and magnets — to test the most stringent prediction of the Standard Model. We also use lasers to produce molecules within which we probe for lumpiness in the electron charge that would indicate new physics beyond the standard description.

I’m a person of faith, and the Bible gives me a glimpse into what is beyond my science, introducing me to a God who is intensely proud of the reality he wills into being. I believe that there is delight in heaven as my students and I peel back the layers of God’s “onion.” This motivates me and frees me to do curiosity-driven science well before I perceive how the insights to be gained will profit a modern society.

My God — a God worth having — is far beyond description using the language of human experience and the methods of science. There can be no contradiction between what science reveals about the physical reality that such a God sustains, and the peek beyond that reality that God provides in the Bible.

Physicists and Christians seem like natural allies to me. Awed by the vast and intricate universe, both celebrate a reality that is infinitely larger than we are and acknowledge our small place as temporary caretakers of planet Earth. Verification of what is true is intrinsic to the scientific process. My Christian faith also requires truthfulness. I must honestly acknowledge my place in God’s universe, that I am unable to live up to God’s standards, that I need forgiveness, and that I must accept the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.

“Physicists and Christians seem like natural allies to me.”

A troubling feature of our strange times is that oft-repeated false statements are increasingly accepted as alternatives to reality-based findings. False statements about the COVID-19 threat, the number of deaths, the efficacy of face masks, the need and role for testing, bogus therapies, and the timeline for creating and injecting safe vaccines continue to result in much needless death. False claims that our greenhouse gases are not substantial contributions to climate change keep us from preserving the fragile atmosphere and minimizing weather extremes of the planet in our temporary care. The clear correlation between gun availability and homicides, both of which are enormously higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries, is denied. Reality-based truth is ignored as new “rights” to infect or to carry battlefield weapons are promoted.

I feel special pain that evangelical Christians quoted by the news media often espouse “alternative facts.” Identifying with this group is now hard for me. How can those who proclaim the value of life be in denial about COVID-19 deaths or campaign for open access to assault weapons? How can those who realize that we live on God’s Earth deny what the greenhouse gases we could limit are doing to the atmosphere provided for our protection? Is it right or effective to obtain short-term political power to enforce moral standards if the cost is empowering those who egregiously deceive and violate these standards?

To this scientist and person of faith, it seems urgent to reverse the acceptance of “alternative facts” that propagate so rapidly in our strange times. Scientists, people of faith and Northwestern alumni need to speak up. Silence is complicity.

Gerald Gabrielse, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a Board of Trustees Professor in Physics and director of Northwestern’s Center for Fundamental Physics.

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Reader Responses

  • Gerald Gabrielse, director of Northwestern’s Center for Fundamental Physics, interjected his religion into the public voices of Northwestern. There is never an appropriate time to interject one’s personal faith in the public sphere. Personal faith is personal, not public. Faith is a part of one’s family and personal religious rituals; that is where it should remain. The Northwestern alumni magazine is not a Christian publication and does not solicit personal religious testimonials. It is offensive to be involuntarily and unwillingly subjected to someone else’s religious proselytizing when innocently reading an alumni magazine.

    Gabrielse states that “God wills” reality “into being” and that his god has “delight in heaven." Yet, Gabrielse provides no basis for such knowledge of the will and feelings of his god.

    If Gabrielse says “God sustains” “physical reality,” the reader clearly can ask for him to provide rational justification for such a statement.

    How does Gabrielse know that “[his] God” sustains reality? I know that it is Atlas.

    Gabrielse states his “Christian faith also requires truthfulness.” This is contradictory to the definition of faith: belief without evidence. Believing something without evidence is the opposite of being full of truth.

    Gabrielse said “we live on God’s Earth.” No, Gabrielse, we live on Zeus’.

    Gabrielse could have made his point of publicly denouncing right-wing lies without interjecting his personal beliefs. I, too, denounce the deliberate falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories perpetuated by Republican congressional leaders, right-wing cable networks, deplorable voters-, and delusional social media forums. Personal beliefs should be kept to oneself. Gabrielse should have stayed on his topic of public lies and not spread his gospel.

    Sarah Maxwell ’81 MMus, Archbold, Ohio, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Gerald Gabrielse’s opinion piece in the winter 2021 edition or northwestern Northwestern magazine was beautifully written, and I felt he expressed my frustration so well. He shines a huge spotlight on the lies evangelical Christians (among other groups) propagate: denying climate change, gun violence and basic science about the pandemic.

    What he touches upon briefly in the last few sentences — you almost miss it if you aren’t paying attention — is that this is all done in the interest of political POWER.

    Innocent people caught in the middle of this propaganda firestorm so often don’t understand (or refuse to see) that they’re bring manipulated emotionally via their religious beliefs. For example, the Republicans KNOW it’s possible to drastically reduce abortions with policies that encourage sex education and make contraception available and that improve the economic conditions that drive desperate people to consider terminating a pregnancy. But if they were to do that, they would lose one of the top playing cards in the deck for bringing more supporters into their fold. Politicians talk about the value of human life, yet turn a blind eye to the lives lost to mass shootings, police brutality and the pandemic.

    Let’s just quit beating around the bush and asking “HOW can they do this? WHY do they do this?” We already know the answers to these questions. People gain power by manipulating others. And that’s something especially detestable when the manipulators claim to be “people of God.”

    McKenna Rowe ’93 Los Angeles, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Kudos to you for publishing the recent article by Gerald Gabrielse, "Science and Faith in Strange Times." You deserve the gratitude of many of us for continuing to represent Christian faith as a part of the diversity of Northwestern University. It was a strong, timely and courageous article. Many thanks.

    John C. Wakefield ’91 MMus, Johnson City, Tenn., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I join the others who have posted so eloquently in thanking Dr. Gabrielse for writing an important piece and thanking Northwestern Magazine for prominently publishing it.

    At this time, more than ever, it is incredibly encouraging to hear a measured, reasoned voice professing truth and faith in God. Amen and God bless!

    Victoria Wright ’78 Raleigh, N.C., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thanks for your words, Dr. Gabrielse, and thanks to Northwestern Magazine for running this very interesting column.

    Brett Thomasson ’86 Pawhuska, Okla., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I applaud what Professor Gabrielse wrote about the universe of "truth" in 2020–21. I retired as a professor of physics in 2015 — the world was quite different then —but I regret that I did not then make more effort then to clearly state that physics and my Christian faith were allies.

    I might slightly diverge from the seeming (to me) separation Gabrielse made of his faith and his physics (peaceful coexistence?), but I applaud his courage to claim, again, that truth and faith, and hope and love, matter more than anything. I might have emphasized more that the same pursuit of truth in both physics and in the pursuit of God are central to understanding and doing right — "To know Him better."

    Tom Nordlund Birmingham, Ala., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thanks for posting this and to the professor for "professing" his faith. It is refreshing to read about how faith can go hand in hand with arriving at the answers to the question of why and how exactly did we get here, even if those explorations are separated from supernatural considerations.

    I appreciate so much that mankind is able to create vaccines and discover unimaginable things to prolong our lives here. On one hand, mankind is quite amazing and genius; on the other we also must realize how frail we are.

    The Bible does say man's life is a handbreadth, and life without God is vanity of vanities. In our seeking the answers, let us not forget that God is also seeking for us like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep. Inwardly we feel thirsty for satisfaction, and thus we seek answers.

    A lot of the inconsistencies we witness in society today, in what people profess to be true, should not shake our faith.

    Christianity may be of this world, but Jesus is not. Thanks again to NU for representing a genuine Christian in your magazine.

    Priscilla Barton Dublin, Calif., via Northwestern Magazine

  • A special thank you for Professor Gerald Gabrielse's article on "Science and Faith in Strange Times" presented in the winter 2021 issue of the Northwestern Magazine. It was refreshing and a joy to hear Professor Gabrielse share about his personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and how science and faith interact with his beliefs and his studies. In these times of crisis, unrest and pandemic, Dr. Gabrielse reminds us that what matters most is our personal relationship with God: His holy righteous, His truth found in the Bible and forgiveness and redemption found through His Son, Jesus.

    Robin Wieber ’81 MMus, Round Rock, Texas, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thank you for running Dr. Gerald Gabrielse’s essay “Science and Faith in Strange Times” in the Winter 2021 issue. I am a small-o orthodox Christian who was raised evangelical but no longer likes that label, for reasons similar to those he describes. Gabrielse’s perspective is especially relevant and timely in light of the appalling white Christian nationalism, fueled by conspiracy theories and misinformation, that was on display during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

    I hope all members of the Northwestern community, regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs, will heed his call to pursue and promote truth, as our University motto (from Philippians 4:8) encourages us to do.

    Cathy Guiles ’08 MS, Arlington, Va., via Northwestern Magazine

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