Science as Vocation for Christian Students
Rebecca and Jacob, high school seniors from good Christian families, are confronted by their friends at school. “Where are you going to school next fall? John is going to OSU of course. They gave him a nice scholarship from his dad’s company. Hannah is staying at home to go to the community college. Nathan’s visited Vanderbilt and can go anywhere he wants with those grades. Paul and his folks want him to go to Bible school and eventually to become a pastor. So, where for you two?”
Does this small drama seem exciting or a burden to you? In the USA, commonly depending on someone’s social background, they are drawn after high school into one of a few general options for the next step in life. A few will join the military. For some, it will be a sort of pre-professional training: auto repair, law enforcement, culinary arts, carpentry, hair styling and cosmetics, graphic art, or perhaps, Bible school for some Christians wanting to serve God’s Kingdom more directly. Even more typically for the middle- to upper-class students, academic pursuits are assumed via comprehensive colleges and universities. Looking back on this time in life, long ago, it was just what most of us did, regardless of our motivation or enthusiasm.
A large percentage of students entering college, choose a system of course-work packages that we call a major. Some of these new majors are motivated and excited about their chosen direction. Many are really not, including those who are tired of the secondary-school routine. Majors are chosen according to certain mind sets:
A) You are reluctantly going back to school and expect the same periods of boring time wasting. You choose a major that at least seems entertaining, based on your own interests.
B) You and your parents are keen on a major that will get you employed, with job- security and good money as first priorities.
C) You are looking forward to getting away into a new, freer world, and you really want to feast at the table of social connections and lots of extra-curricular activities. Pick a major that is reputed to be easy. Besides, you’ve got a family that can pay for it all and assure you support in the future.
D) You are idealistic and want to change the World. Your social conscience has grown to become the greater motivation. Certain altruistic majors are on your radar. Christians in particular should cultivate this inclination from their faith, and family, and congregation, and maybe their school.
Rebecca makes the rather odd declaration that she is going to study chemistry in college, because she wants to understand about and then to practice cleaning up all the polluted water that plagues millions around the globe. Her family, congregation, and friends have many different reactions to her plan. Some are encouraging. Jacob then “drops a bomb” and tells everyone that he wants to be a planetary scientist, investigating the differences in our solar system’s natural satellites, just because he is in awe of that part of Creation. Imagine the concerns and questions thrown at the two. “So who’s going to hire you to do that?” “What kind of salary could you get?” “Won’t you need to keep going into graduate school for that?” “Why do something so secular like that? Scientists are mostly atheists and will completely disrespect your faith.” “That all is so nerdy and probably takes math too.” And so, Rebecca chooses science as a vehicle to serve the needs of people and Creation; while Jacob chooses science to further develop his love of God through the wonder and majesty of Creation.
THE TEAM LEADER’S STORY
In 1969, I was discussing the future schooling directions with peers in my Chem 2, College-level lab class. With my sloppy calculating skills, it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to be a lab chemist! Dropping a couple of decimal points in measuring reagents could get someone killed. One of my more-accomplished friends had a full scholarship to Princeton in Biomechanical-Physics. Another person was going into the new field of Computer Science at Stanford. A female classmate was off to begin the MD adventure, pre-med, at The University of Florida. In my rather high-powered high-school environment, I mentioned that I was probably going to Western Carolina University. “Where?” “Whats that?” “Can’t you do better?” The reactions from the top achievers didn’t bother me. I just said that I am unsure about my direction but know that I love the Smokey Mountains, where we often vacationed. I was not a Christ follower in those days and had little altruistic motivation. Upon arrival at WCU, in the tiny, hickville of Cullowhee, NC, I was forced to choose a major, at least until I decided to change. “OK, there’s History and Psychology that attract me somewhat, but I really am intrigued by detective forensic work, because Sherlock Holmes was so cool.” WCU had no detective major.
I held off on my major declaration form longer than required. Someone said something about Geology at WCU, and I only knew that this was a science done outside mostly. I was strongly drawn to WCU because of its spectacular natural setting, and so, that beauty also selected my first and only major, GEOLOGY. I confess to many nerdy tendencies, even though I am not a very proficient mathematician. This geoscience thing had everything I could ask for, including lots of field trips and small research studies that were like detective work. That broad field of science only grew more fascinating and attractive for me.
After transferring to get in-state tuition at Florida State University, I finished my B.Sc. degree in Geoscience. I went on to get a Master’s in Geology-Geophysics at the University of Kentucky and finally a PhD in Geochemistry from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It was at the end of my dissertation writing, moving to work in Wisconsin, and adopting our first child, that I encountered the person of Jesus and had my life rearranged. My almost nine years in Madison, WI was the beginning of my faith life with the molding of career into true calling, my vocation from the Master. It became increasingly important to me that my research, public service, and infrequent teaching duties would have lasting purpose. I had thoroughly enjoyed the sense of adventure and discovery in academic research. Mineral deposits in Egyptian granite bodies, the tectonic history of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and the stages of continental-crust development in the Lake Superior region were just some of the investigations that fascinated my mind. Even so, I was moved to a desire for greater teaching responsibilities and research more applied to the common good. I am a “people person” and wanted more social interaction. This vocational change sent me on to Evangelical Wheaton College. Classroom and outdoor instruction have since dominated my vocation, but focused, scholarship-research have also taken on the character of ministry.
My greatest joy and fulfillment in God’s calling to Wheaton, has been in mentoring undergraduate Geology students. The role of mentor has frequently involved traveling to various global localities where our knowledge of the created world is used and shared with local communities. The students gain beyond measure from the experience of combining scholarship with service. My student colleagues have been both men and women, from many different denominational and “non-“ backgrounds all over the USA and in foreign mission fields. The majority of our geoscience majors were recruited from general education courses. Most were inclined toward Business/Economics, History, Art, Anthropology, International Relations, and Biblical Studies. However, their encounter with the Lord’s amazing Creation and understanding how crucial this type of study is in service, gathered them in for a wonderful, unexpected journey. Our missions-oriented research is a very real and effective form of evangelism. We go because Christ sends us with our educational and material wealth, to share the Whole Gospel. Water resources, effective sanitation services, land-use mapping and planning, soil and agricultural improvements, are just a few of the objectives we bring in cooperation with the local people. Those we serve with on site, know why we are there. Students realize quickly that Science is the tool that the Lord uses in working through us.
My passion and that of our many contributors to this book, is to tell our stories and thereby attract holy attention to this underappreciated ministry for Christian young people. The grand realm of study of and practice in God’s Good Creation, is there for so many who might never consider themselves, scientists. In the context of vocation, science is not just for “scientists” but an extremely broad super-discipline with multitudes of careers, locations, and experiences. Our hope as a team of contributors in this project, is that you will either be encouraged in your decision to major in science, or to perhaps consider it seriously for the first time.