Inside Voices: “Science and Faith,” with Bruce Congdon
Bruce Congdon uses his 35 years of higher education experience to help explain his views on the intersection of science and faith.
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.
Kyle: Hi, Kyle.
Amanda: This episode, we sat down with retiring professor Bruce Congdon, most recently serving as interim provost, before that, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Blakely Island Field Station, and chair of the Department of Biology. Over a period of 35 years, he has taught courses in ecology, zoology, introduction to biology, and faith and science. His love of plants and animals has always been closely tied to his Christian faith, and the intersection of that Christian faith and science has always figured prominently into his courses throughout his entire tenure here at SPU. Bruce, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bruce Congdon: Thank you, Amanda. It’s great to be here.
Amanda: Well, anyone who has spent 35 years teaching students has a gift, I believe. So, let’s start with just the obvious question of why you chose higher ed. Why be a professor?
Bruce: Well, I’ve been fascinated by living things for as long as I can remember. I know this is true of many children, but I never grew out of it. Then, I was excited to learn what the practice of science was able to reveal about living things at every scale from genetic material to ecosystems. So, it was natural that I would continue studying and discovering for as long as I could. And this is a fundamental aspect of being a professor, that enthusiasm about, and desire for, discovery.
But, the other half of being a professor, maybe the other part of it, is an interest in teaching. And I guess my interest in teaching also began early. I trace it, actually, to one day in a fifth-grade math class that was frankly not going very well when I thought to myself, “I would explain this a different way.”
But, I think my desire to be a college professor was probably galvanized when I taught as a graduate teaching assistant during my master’s and doctoral programs. I loved the subject material. Both of those degrees were in entomology, the study of insects. And I watched with satisfaction as students gained their own understanding, were equipped intellectually, and develop their own enthusiasm for knowing. There were a lot of “aha” moments that I got to be part of during those graduate study years. So by the time I was ready to graduate with my doctorate, I knew that I wanted to learn and teach about the natural world, God’s creation. I actually came in to SPU sort of with that as my saying, my motto: learning and teaching about God’s creation.
“By the time I was ready to graduate with my doctorate, I knew that I wanted to learn and teach about the natural world, God’s creation.”
Amanda: Well, I could tell you, struggling in a fifth- grade math class resonates with me, as I also struggled with fifth-grade math class. I’m not sure I had any better ways to explain it, but I absolutely resonate with that idea of thinking if you could explain it differently, this might just work. And I think all of my favorite teachers and professors throughout my entire school career were the ones who realized that maybe if you’re not getting it, it’s not that you don’t understand this subject, it’s that I’m not explaining it in a way that works for you, which means I’ll keep trying to find new ways. I think I always found those to be my favorite teachers, the ones that kept trying to find a way that would work for all of their students.
Bruce: Yeah, mine too.
Amanda: So, we appreciate that a teacher such as yourself has been around SPU for so long. So, let’s dig into this intersection of faith and science. It’s something that in our modern world is kind of at the heart of who we are as human beings. I know this is a subject that books have been written about, doctorates have been entered into, so it’s hard to answer in one question. But, let’s talk about these two seemingly separate and yet very combined areas. How do you begin to teach about how these two things intersect?
Bruce: Well, I can talk for days and weeks about this intersection and would be barely scratching the surface, but we’ll try to capture some high points here. I guess the three points that I would sort of start with as an outline, being the professor that I am, would be that if you’re talking about an intersection, really, you’re looking at how at least two different things relate to each other. I would spend a little bit of time saying what is science, what’s my perspective on science, and then spend a little bit of time talking about what is my perspective on faith. Then, I would feel ready to dive in a little bit more deeply into what happens at the intersection of those two.
Amanda: Can I pause one second?
Amanda: I know I’m interrupting your, I’m sure, glorious response here. But when my brain thinks, “Okay, explain what faith is,” that makes sense to me. Because I think if you asked 100 people to define faith, you might get 97 different definitions. But when you say define science, that seems more cut and dry. So when you’re saying define what science is in this scenario, what does that mean?
Bruce: You would get some different answers to that question, too, if you asked a 100 scientists.
Bruce: But, you’d be able to recognize that there were common elements, though. I guess my approach to that would be to talk about the science that I was trained in. Because there are different scientific fields, right? There’s physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and different kinds of biology. The kind of biology that I’ve been most interested in and that I have tried to seek, let’s see, some understanding of in terms of the intersection between that science and faith, is the study of the related fields of ecology and evolution. That would be my starting point in describing science from my perspective. So, do you think it’d be OK if I took a couple of minutes and described ecology and evolution, little science lesson here?
“The kind of biology that I’ve been most interested in and that I have tried to seek some understanding of in terms of the intersection between that science and faith, is the study of the related fields of ecology and evolution.”
Amanda: I think that would be fabulous, Bruce.
Bruce: Good. Ecology, from my perspective, is the study of three different sort of levels of things. Level number one is populations of living things. Level two is the study of how all the populations, like different plants and different animals, fungi, bacteria, and so forth, in a location form richly interacting communities. And the third level in ecology is the study of how communities, all the living things working together, interact with the air, the water, sediments in aquatic systems, soils, and the climate to form functioning ecosystems.
Outward ecosystem is familiar, I think, pretty much to everybody. I think most people understand that it’s all the living things and all of the physical elements and the complicated way that they interact. Those are the sort of the three levels of ecology, and those are the windows into science that I would be talking about if you ask me for my definition.
Let me … give an example or two, though, just to illustrate. Interactions between a predator population, like, I don’t know, leopards or lions, you would think of first. But since I’m an entomologist, I would think of ambush bugs or predatory mites and the prey populations they feed on. Another example would be, say, for example, most plant species and some fungi have adapted to each other so closely that they have a partnership on which both depend for survival. I would love to describe the details of that. We don’t really have time. But, another one, I think, that everybody who looks around in the springtime sees is a relationship between pollinators, bumblebees, and hummingbirds, and flowering plants are another really visible example.
So, life on earth consists of this vast network of interactions among millions of species. And if you take a look at that through time, not just as it exists at the moment, but look at it through time, you see that all those mechanisms and all those interactions and relationships have been shaped and formed by the process of evolution. That’s why ecology and evolution go so much hand in hand and why sort of my take on science involves both of those areas of study.
Amanda: Well, I find it fascinating that you can’t get too far into ecology, in any of the systems that you’re talking about, without talking about relationship. Each thing exists in relationship with other things, which is why it’s so easy for us as human beings to disrupt a system because we don’t understand what all those little micro relationships are. And when you start talking about science in those terms, suddenly bringing faith into the conversation doesn’t seem so foreign because … I don’t know about you, but when I talk about faith, I think about relationship, humans’ relationship with God.
Bruce: That’s right.
Amanda: Humans’ relationship with each other.
Bruce: That’s what I think about, too. In fact, faith to me is, in fact, a journey into a relationship with God, the very God whose creative power stands behind all of the worlds, including our living planet, the sun and the moon, distant galaxies, atoms and molecules. This same creative power underlies our capacity for reason, discovery, understanding, language, music, empathy, prayer, and all of those things that are so characteristic of us as humans.
But to me, also, faith is initiated by God. It’s not made up by people. It’s initiated by God who not only created a world that could be understood, but also created us with the ability to think about this world, comprehend the order and beauty of it, and experience this strong sense that God exists over, under, within, and beyond the world we experience with our senses.
From a Christian perspective, this God also has pursued human beings in love by sending Jesus, by becoming a human being who lived a life like ours, who taught and healed, who died that terrible death, who rose again to eternal life. Also, we could know God’s love for us in the context of that faith relationship. So, Christian faith involves accepting the gifts of forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and a union with God that Jesus described as a vine’s connection to its branches, an intimate, living, life-giving union.
So now we’ve talked sort of about science, and we’ve talked about faith. We might have reached a point where we could actually start talking about your original question. What happens at the intersection of ecology and evolution and this relationship with God?
“So, Christian faith involves accepting the gifts of forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and a union with God that Jesus described as a vine’s connection to its branches, an intimate, living, life-giving union.”
Amanda: How do you start that conversation with your students in class? I’m sure some have spent a lot of time thinking about it and others had probably never considered this until they sat down in your classroom.
Bruce: Well, you know, you’re right. I used to start my class by saying, “The relationship between evolution and the Bible may be something that causes you a great deal of concern and worry, and we’re going to talk about that. I’m going to share with you about that not only scientifically, but from the perspective of my own journey of faith.” I would say, “There are others of you who’ve never given it a second thought.” I would say, “I’m a little more worried about you because I want you to be engaged in significant important questions, whether they’re faith in science or in other areas. So, I’m hoping that our discussion of this will encourage you to really engage in the way your faith intersects with and guides you in the important things that are going on in your life.”
Amanda: I had a colleague once say to me that when it comes to climate change or any issues with taking care of the earth and ecology, that it is first foremost and only a humanitarian issue. When he first said it, I’m telling you, something rose up in me. I was saying no. Because I thought what he was saying was, really, humans are the only thing that matter, and we don’t have to worry about the world around us. But as we got into an hour plus of back and forth, it turns out what he was really saying is everything is God’s creation, and God created the world to support humans and created humans to support the world. And when we get that out of balance, we will all suffer. And that is not what God asked us to do. So by the end of that conversation, I think we agreed completely. I just love the fact that these conversations are going on across campus all the time, and I thank you for that.
Bruce: Well, it’s important that we be seeking and trying to understand, trying to even find the words to put around it so that we can somehow help each other to a better understanding and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing. There’s been some conflicts in that intersection area between faith and science, but I don’t want to go immediately to the conflicts or the differences of understanding. Because in my early years, well, and really even now, I see these two as feeding and illuminating each other.
For example, knowing more about how life on earth works has increased my sense of wonder and my adoration for the one who creates. I’m capable of taking in the claims of Jesus about himself. And the gospel message that gone through Christ is taking us on a journey towards wholeness fills me with gratitude. That’s because I have a mind that can read, that can understand, that can make sense of things.
So, I see these two, science, which is based on reason, and faith, which has a very strong component of reason, as being connected. The gratitude that I feel in both cases really feel similar to what I would feel on a mountain top, or at the base of a great waterfall, or in a lab looking into a microscope. At the intersection of faith and science, in other words, there is worship and celebration. There is discovery and understanding.
I wanted to say that because a lot of times a conversation about faith and science really is depicted as a problem of conflict to be solved. But in my experience, it’s not always so. In my experience, they really do support, and energize, and illuminate one another. But, I also realized that there are problems, that there are troubles and conflicts, and I don’t want to ignore those.
“Knowing more about how life on earth works has increased my sense of wonder and my adoration for the one who creates.”
Amanda: Sure. And yet, your approach of holding the two things in conjunction and finding the overlap has helped, I’m sure, many, many students. But, I know you have a couple stories of students who have taken that concept, if you will, and really built a life’s work around it. The first one that comes to mind … If you are a loyal listener to our podcast, you have probably listened to Jamie Shattenberg’s podcast where he talks about the work he’s doing in Madagascar. I know, Bruce, you were a professor and mentor of Jamie’s. Do you want to talk a little bit about that relationship and then maybe another student story of a student who’s gone on to do amazing things while holding these two things at the same time?
Bruce: Well, I’d love to talk about Jamie. I think about him a lot because his life and work really encapsulate in so many different ways what my greatest hopes were for the outcome of being a professor. His work has been a good example of honoring God using ecology to rebuild a community and doing so in a way that communicates the love of Christ.
You mentioned he’s in Madagascar. He and Alissa have the Red Island Restoration organization. His particular work has included restoring mangrove forests, which have been destroyed. Now, mangroves grow in shallow seawater, and they’re very important. With the roots that go down and the kind of habitat it creates, it’s very important to sea life. But in Madagascar, people have been hired to cut the mangroves and then turn them into charcoal and sell them. That’s how many of the people in the area of where Jamie and Alissa lives have been able to make a living.
Red Island Restoration has collected support from people like me, and I’m sure others who are listening to this, and they have trained and paid workers rather than cutting the mangroves to grow new mangroves and transplant them, restoring those mangrove forests. And just recently, I received their May newsletter. And if you don’t mind, I would like to read just a little bit from that newsletter.
Amanda: I would love it. Thanks, Bruce.
Bruce: “Earlier this month …” This is Alissa writing, so you’ll be able to tell that. “Earlier this month, a woman came to our gate selling fresh shrimp. In talking with her, Jamie discovered that the shrimp were caught in the mangrove channels within our city’s limits. She proceeded to tell Jamie how shrimp haven’t been caught in this area for many years, but the fishermen are seeing the shrimp returning. Jamie proceeded to ask her if anyone was planting mangroves in the area, and she replied yes. Jamie and the seller continued to talk about the connection between restored mangrove forests and the return of the oceanic ecosystem. Little did she know that she was selling shrimp to the international director of Eden Projects, the organization replanting these mangroves.” Alissa concludes by saying, “We’re celebrating the victory of habitat being restored, men and women being employed, and shrimp returning to an area once destroyed.”
Amanda: I almost can’t respond to that because how often in this modern world do we look at a problem of how humans have done so much damage that we just can’t even begin to see the answer? And yet, the work that they’re doing in Madagascar, exactly like you said, there is real change happening in real time, change to ecology, change to humanity, change to culture that is just literally making the world a better place. It just makes me so happy. Fills me with hope.
Bruce: Yeah. And that goes back to the comment you made earlier about ecological restoration really being a humanitarian effort. Because this community depends on the fish, and the shrimp, and so forth that they catch. This restoration is in restoration of a natural ecosystem. And Jamie actually is doing work in some upland tropical forests and other areas, too, that’s restoring groundwater and the ability to do agriculture and so forth. It definitely is needed to lift these people out of poverty, but it definitely is serving an ecosystem. And you just can’t separate those two from each other, like you said before.
Amanda: And as fabulous as the story of the Shattenbergs is, I know you have over 35 years of teaching. I know you have many, many stories like that. I also know that as you are retiring, you were cleaning out your office. You mentioned to me you found some cards and letters from students over the years. You were kind enough to share a couple of those with me. Would you mind picking out one or two and sharing those with all of us?
Bruce: I would not mind at all. In particular, these struck me as I was nostalgically going through my files as I was preparing my office for my successor. The one I’m about to read I really love because it’s very clear that this isn’t just about me. It’s about the experiences that this student had and the importance of the entire, really, the entire SPU community in creating the kind of place that would make this letter possible. I’ll read it.
“Dear Dr. Congdon, it’s been a while since the conclusion of spring quarter, but I wanted to say what a privilege it was to be taught by you. My summer has been fairly low-key, and I’ve had lots of time to think about and mull over the ideas brought up in class.” By the way, for a professor to hear that a student has gone on thinking about the things that were presented in class after the end of the term is a huge encouragement to anyone who teaches. So, that was wonderful for me to read there.
“Though I’ve never been at a point of fully questioning God or my faith, I feel like I am searching for meaning in a sense. For so long, I believed my parents and popular Christian messages without questioning them at all. Now, though, I feel a sense of responsibility to engage my intellect and embrace the complexities of integrating science and faith. The danger of this approach, I am realizing, is that I’m tempted to disengage my heart. And more than anything else, it is in these moments that I’m grateful for the example of you, Dr. MacDonald, and my other SPU professors.
“For a professor to hear that a student has gone on thinking about the things that were presented in class after the end of the term is a huge encouragement to anyone who teaches.”
“I remember one morning in class you talked about reading your Bible on your way to work. You challenged us to read the Bible, too. And in that challenge, you spoke about your faith with such hope. I think that hope coupled with humility and servanthood to God keeps your heart soft. As I consider a career in academics, I’m encouraged and inspired by you, Dr. Congdon, together with the other amazing SPU professors I’ve had. Though, I’m still in the process of owning my faith, I have excellent models to whom I can look. Thanks again.!
Amanda: Well, that makes me smile. And I’m sure, as it’s addressed to you, that makes you smile twice as much. Can I just say a sidenote? And at a time when things are a little bit difficult when we’re all stuck at home and that maybe we all take a minute to write a letter to a teacher, professor, or mentor that made a big change in our life. I know I’ll only speak for myself and say I don’t think to do that enough.
Bruce: It is enormously encouraging. There’s not a date on this letter, so I don’t know how many years ago it was written, but several. Could have been 10. Just finding this and rereading it, it has a way of bringing, I don’t know, bringing things into focus. What was important to this student? What was important to us in that teaching learning relationship? And it does. It does actually bring hope that the class that I helped to teach was an encouragement to a student. These letters to our former mentors can be very powerful.
Amanda: Can I ask? There was a sentence within that letter about your heart remaining soft. When I think about someone teaching for 35 years, I think how easily it would be for your heart to become hard. Because I’m sure you have many, many of those success stories of those lives changed of those out there helping to change the world and change lives. But, I’m sure you have plenty the other way, of students that you didn’t feel like you could reach or students that wouldn’t be writing you a letter. How do you go through decades of mentoring and doing your best to feed into others, some responding, some not? How do you keep your heart soft through all of that?
Bruce: That’s a good question. For sure, I think the first place my mind goes to try to grasp on an answer to that question is that I’m not sure I’m capable of keeping my own heart soft. But as I celebrate God’s creation, this beautiful, wonderful world that comes to my senses from the outside, and then as I celebrate with gratitude what God has done for me and all of us in Christ, the degree to which I keep myself, my vine, if you want to think of it, intimately connected to that branch … I got those turned around. Sorry. The more I can keep my branch connected to that vine, as Jesus said in the Gospel of John, I think that’s what keeps our hearts soft to the extent that they are.
It’s not trying to be something myself. It’s just looking beyond myself into the eyes of Jesus and into this beautiful world that he has made, into the eyes of people who are hurt or needy, crying for help, vulnerable, lonely, old, sick. We all encounter people who need a soft word and a bit of encouragement, but we also are surrounded by the grandeur and glory of God’s plan of reconciliation and God’s incredible creation.
“The more I can keep my branch connected to that vine, as Jesus said in the Gospel of John, I think that’s what keeps our hearts soft to the extent that they are.”
So, I really think that my close connection with creation through science has really helped me with that. I think my habit of listening to what’s in the gospel has helped with that. I think that perhaps has softened me to be a better listener. Not making any great claims there, but a better listener to people. And as you hear other people’s experiences, and their troubles, and their challenges, I think that also helps us to keep our hearts soft, and to remain humble, and to realize that we’re just one small part of God expressing God’s love in this world.
Amanda: One small part of that giant cycle that you have spent your life studying, right?
Amanda: Bruce, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. Thank you for your 35 years of amazing service to SPU, to all of your students. Let me end our time together with the same question I ask all of our guests. If all of us in the Seattle area could do one small thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?
Bruce: Thank you for that question. I know that the answers that a lot of other people would give would be powerful, and strong, and good answers to that. I’ve spent my life not in activism, but in seeking knowledge and trying to relay it to students. So in some ways, I feel like I’ve been a little isolated from a lot of the problems and troubles that are surrounding us today. But, I think I still have an answer to your question, something we could all do tomorrow that would make this world a better place. In brief, my answer to that question is this, ask questions.
I have found in teaching the questions are very powerful agents of learning, and I think they’re powerful agents of change. Knowledge and action are both needed, and they need to work together. I think questions are important tools for all of us to use. This really, in some ways, contrasts with what I hear a lot of in the public rhetoric, which is people making demands, and being defensive, and stating their perspectives in very strong and sometimes polarizing ways. I’m contrasting that habit of communication that surrounds us with something like asking a question. Because a question, to me, kind of opens a door, and it opens us to possibly considering things in new ways. And I’ve just found as teaching that if I started with a question and the students could say, “Oh, yeah. I wonder what the answer to that question is,” as soon as those two words, I wonder, came out of their mouth, I knew that they were on their path to a better understanding.
There’s a few questions that I think that we might ask as appropriate today to actually answer your question about something we can do in the here and now, today, tomorrow. I thought about this a little bit, since you told me you were going to ask me this question. I’m not sure these are the very best ones, but here’s four questions that I would ask and when the appropriate moments came up. Question number one is this. Is this the best we can do? The next question, what would it look like to be guided by reason and compassion? The next question, what does the love of Christ look like in the 21st century? And finally, how can I offer reason, compassion, or love to the people I touch today?
Amanda: Wow. I think we could do an entire show with each of those questions. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like I need to go outside and spend some time with those questions. Bruce, thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks for all you’ve done for our community. I hope you will come back and visit us again.
Bruce: Well, you’re welcome. It’s been wonderful sharing with you during this program. I hope that we’ll be together again.