The ‘And’ of God
In a world that too often tries to keep the church out of the laboratory (and vice versa), Dr. Andrew Gall is showing his students how to say yes to both science and faith.
On September 12, 2021, the Rev. Ross Dieleman ’04 opened a sermon series at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, with an interactive call-and-response: “Macaroni and — .” The congregation responded: “Cheese.”
Dieleman continued: “Lost and — . Rise and — . Forgive and — . Grace and — . Naked and — .” From the congregation: Found, shine, forget, peace, and an uncomfortably awkward silence. (The answer to the last is “unashamed,” from Genesis 2:25.)
Each of these served as introductory examples to a sermon series titled “And,” which focused on things that appear contradictory but are actually complementary. On that particular Sunday, Dieleman preached about God’s massive transcendence and his particular immanence: God is big and God is close.
As he worshiped with the congregation, Dr. Andrew Gall, associate professor of psychology and director of the neuroscience program at Hope College, immediately thought of another “and” pairing: Faith and science.
This pairing was inspired in part by a video that played during the service. It showed the beautiful cacophony of God’s creative work: the brilliance of light rising over the dark curve of Earth’s horizon, the sweep of the Milky Way turning through the night sky, schools of fish and soaring birds, elephants and sheep, a rabbit washing her face. Over it all was a reading of the creation account from Genesis 1: “And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31).
“As that creation video was shown, I was struck by all of God’s creatures and the beauty of the world around us,” Gall said. “From my perspective as a scientist and as a scholar, it’s hard to ignore all the beautiful mechanisms. As a neuroscientist, I think a lot about what’s going on in their brains, and what’s happening with the cells and the neurons, and how they communicate to produce that behavior. But that’s a very scientific, almost one-sided view without also thinking about how those organisms were created and why they were created in the first place.
“Although faith and science wasn’t explicitly brought up, it’s what kept running through my mind in the service that day,” Gall said. “Just thinking about how those creatures were created by God requires you to have faith, but to understand how they’re capable of behaving or thinking in the ways that they do, you need science.”
Joining faith and science in the classroom
“Faith and science are two things that are often discussed separately, but, in my opinion, we should think about ways in which they complement each other more,” Gall said.
Inspired by Dieleman’s sermon and by their conversation after the service, Gall invited his pastor to visit his classroom for a discussion — about faith and science, of course, but also God and brain and other “and” parings that the students were encouraged to come up with on their own, like confidence and humility.
“It’s very refreshing to have the opportunity to think in terms of both faith and science,” said Parker Friend, a sophomore who took Gall’s Introduction to Neuroscience course last fall. “It is very easy to be coerced into thinking that one can exist without the other, when in reality they can work off of one another. I think Dr. Gall did a wonderful job of providing views of both sides and how much they truly do overlap. He made a point that it is not a question of faith or science but rather a question of faith and science.”
“When I was in the lab, I was able to be a scientist, and when I went to church, I was able to be faithful, but I could never bring those ideas together until I came to Hope — and that was liberating.”
Senior Canaan Teague was also in the course. “I found Dr. Gall’s passion for uncovering, exploring and engaging with the intersection between faith and science at such a deep level to be incredibly inspiring and stirring,” Teague said.
Dieleman later returned for a second neuroscience class, where he and Gall both presented on the concepts of free will and determinism.
“He asked me simply to look at it from a strictly pastoral, theological standpoint, which I was grateful for, because I’m not a neuroscientist,” Dieleman said. “We dovetailed on each other, but we each stayed in our own camps, if you will.”
“Free will and determinism are pretty philosophical ideas that in some ways start to stray away from strict neuroscience, so once again, students were challenged by thinking about philosophy rather than some of the basic underlying mechanisms of the nervous system,” Gall said.
Students were challenged, yes, but, according to senior Matt Severino, that was a highlight of the class: “I think the best part about Dr. Gall’s course was how he allowed students to discuss and interact with the less scientific side of neuroscience. He fostered an environment that allowed students to think freely and open-mindedly about deep philosophical questions, relating them all back to neuroscience.”
“Or” is a false dichotomy
“In science classes we talk about science, and in church we talk about God, but those two things don’t come together often,” Gall said. “Unfortunately, that leads students to believe that those two things are separate.”
Like Gall, Dieleman insists that the two shouldn’t be kept apart: “I come from the RCA, and we call it the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Both reveal who God is to us, so you’re missing out if you’re skipping one of the two books,” he said.
When asked why he thought these things were so often separated, Gall pointed to two things: On the one hand, many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of evolution, believing that creation and evolution can’t co-exist. (“I don’t believe those things are at odds,” Gall said.) And, on the other hand, many scientists are unwilling to talk about believing in something that can’t be scientifically proven.
“Believe it or not, there are many people in the church who don’t want to talk about science. And in a science class, there are many students who don’t want to talk about faith,” Gall said. “I’ve lived with the tension all of my life, because I’ve been doing neuroscience for so many years and going to church for so many years.”
“It’s an overly simplistic approach on both sides,” Dieleman said. “It’s usually easier to put things in the categories of either/or, but life is much more complicated than that.”
Gall has recently started to embrace how those two things could come together. As someone who is both a faithful Christian and a scientist-scholar, he’s learning to see through the false faith-science dichotomy to an underlying unity — it’s just another example of God’s big “and.”
A liberating opportunity at Hope
When he was going through graduate school, Gall felt like he had to put on two different faces. “When I was in the lab, I was able to be a scientist, and when I went to church, I was able to be faithful, but I could never bring those ideas together until I came to Hope — and that was liberating,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, I’m free to talk about how faith has formed the way that I see the world. For so long, I had to keep those two things separate.”
At Hope, with its core commitments to both the Christian faith and to academic excellence, students are used to an environment in which the two things comfortably coexist.
“The more that we talk about how faith and science coexist, the more likely students will be able to understand how those two things could belong together,” Gall said. “If I’m the first person they’ve ever encountered talking about how those two things go together, that could be pretty shocking for them.”
During their discussions, Dieleman and Gall were careful to maintain an environment of respect so students who aren’t Christian wouldn’t be excluded.
“Yes, Hope is a school in the Christian tradition, but not everybody there is a professing Christian, so it was important to me to honor and dignify everybody there regardless of whether they have a church background or whether they think this is all hocus-pocus,” Dieleman said. “I wanted to honor them, but also help people realize that you don’t have to dismiss either faith or science, whichever side you’re coming from. Both are enriched when they’re viewed together.”
Canaan Teague agreed: “Each student was given the freedom to engage the topic in their own way, get their own answers, and express their own thoughts and feelings toward the idea of science and faith, bringing each of their unique perspectives on the topic to the table, because of the classroom environment that Dr. Gall created,” he said. “He wanted us to have our own experiences with the content rather than simply adopting his experience as our own.”
At its best, a classroom in which both faith and science are presented can create an experience similar to Gall’s viewing of the creation video at Fellowship Reformed: A light-bulb moment when two things that seem so different click together in the sudden, joyful unity of the “and” of God. Faith and science. Worship and understanding. Study and praise.