A simple Google search for ‘mental health in academia’ will take you to an extensive series of articles published by journals, universities, and scientific societies on how the challenges of research can negatively impact individual wellbeing. How did we get to this point? The scientific aim to explain and to understand the natural world is both a noble and exciting endeavour. The dissonance between this and the ‘publish or perish' culture of academia often brings to question what the modern purpose of science is. Inscribed over the main doors of the Cavendish Laboratory, home to the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, is Psalm 111:2, ‘Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.’ The role of God, however, has faded over time from being the focal point from which all scientific purposes flow, to being a Sunday activity kept distinguished from work.
Can a Christian really be a scientist?
There can be many challenges that face being a Christian in science. I can no longer count the number of times people have been surprised to learn that I go to church. I am now confident that there can be no conflict in the belief of both science and God , but this was not always the case. Indeed, for many scientific friends and colleagues, the contradiction between faith and science will force many into a worldview with science as the crux of life and meaning (possibly concluding that life is without meaning).
This is unsurprising. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes that ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:22-23). Perhaps the scientific community might remind us of the Greeks who extolled knowledge, philosophy, and human reasoning. Indeed, the Enlightenment era of 17th and 18th century Europe, which championed these ideals of reason and philosophy, is evidence of this. However, the revelation of Christ’s power through weakness on the cross extraordinarily shows that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. This bears great implications for how the Christian should relate to science, and towards one another. Here, we will not only explore how the scientific pursuit might have deviated from its godly course, but also how a Christ-centred worldview compels us to extend kindness — which at times is viewed as weakness — in a community which often values competence over character.
‘For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7)
The competitive-collaborative dichotomy of science
The scientific pursuit is plagued with an incessant striving. A bottleneck selection process occurs at every stage of the academic career ladder — from competitive PhD programmes, to postdoctoral fellowships, to faculty posts, to obtaining grants. Soon, success in science becomes dependent on a mastery of the system, and an ability to play according to its rules – publishing a certain number of papers per year, publishing in a certain type of journal, picking up a state-of-the-art technique, framing your research topic around a certain popular area to increase chances of funding. It is only natural that the driving factor in science gradually becomes the sense of recognition and prestige associated with every success. When self-identity and self-worth start to become intermingled with work, a pursuit of scientific excellence silently transforms itself into a pursuit of personal reputation and fulfilment. Temptations arise, and thus opportunities for greed, selfishness, and self-preservation can sometimes seem necessary for survival. But as Christians first, and scientists second, we are reminded to always look unto Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). A competitive yet collaborative scientific environment can provide many opportunities for us to demonstrate Christ’s kindness in countercultural ways.
So, what can kindness in science look like?
First, we are to see ourselves and others as humans made in the image of God and belonging to Him. This means seeing past our colleagues’ scientific achievements and ranks, and caring for them as individuals created for fellowship with God. For example, being willing to help even when it does not benefit ourselves. This could be mentoring a junior scientist, helping someone out with an experiment without the expectation of an authorship, or cleaning up after ourselves after using shared spaces or equipment. In daily conversations, at meetings, or at conferences, we can be generous with the sharing of knowledge and resources, knowing that all we have is given by our Heavenly Father who provides every good and perfect gift (1 Cor 4:7, James 1:17).
A scientist’s identity is often tied to intelligence, and this pursuit of intelligence can lead to a desire for verbosity and complexity in presentations or in the writing of papers. Even Paul acknowledges the aggrandisation of self through verbal eloquence (1 Cor 2:1-5). However, as we have most likely learnt through our personal relationships – being clear is being kind. Clarity in scientific communication, therefore, is a display of kindness by putting the understanding of your audience before a need to come across as intellectual. Finally, we do all this with the understanding that not only are we called to demonstrate kindness and to bear His light, but that the scientific goal to explore and understand God’s natural world is non-competitive in its primitive purpose.
It will be unjust to say that the scientific community as it currently exists is unkind. There have been emerging efforts especially in recent years to identify and rectify harmful practices in science, with the hope of creating more inclusive environments, better mentorship and support systems, healthier work-life balance, and so on. However, human failings mean that even the best efforts to better our system will be riddled with sin and imperfection. Christ, on the other hand, gives us concrete reasons to pursue kindness, and provides us the strength to offer kindness even when it opposes scientific productivity and ambition.
As we use our scientific work to point people to Christ, kindness in our character becomes intertwined with our evangelism. For Christians, this is not a recommendation but a command. Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-4, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.’ And, in Mark 12:31, to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Questions to think about:
1. In what ways might kindness seem like a weakness in science?
2. Putting others first might sometimes seem unnecessary in a scientific workplace. Can you think of any scenarios which might require you to proactively choose kindness over the cultural norm?
For further reading:
 John Lennox (2019). Can Science Explain Everything?
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