The Wellsprings of Conflict

St. Peter’s Basilica.
Image from Wikipedia

I am currently reading Christof Koch’s memoir Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Christof Koch is a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at CalTech. Raised in a Roman Catholic family, son of a German diplomat, born in Missouri, growing up in Amsterdam, Bonn, Ottawa, and Rabat. In the second chapter of the book he writes, among other things “about the wellsprings of [his] inner conflict between religion and reason” and “why [he] grew up wanting to be a scientist.” In the last chapter he comes back and muses about the relationship between science and religion and the existence of God. Between the two chapters he wanders through the experience of some 32 years  studying consciousness, neuroscience, and will; 26 of them as a professor at CalTech.

There are several aspects of this book that should be of interest, the story of Koch’s walk away from the church, his experiences and reasons, as well as his musings on consciousness and humanness – a topic of growing interest and a topic where the intersection of science and faith remains to be explored in sufficient depth.

I will start this post with an extended quote from the intro to Ch. 2 where Koch begins:

Mother church was an erudite, globe-spanning, culturally fecund, and morally unassailable institution with unbroken lineage extending across two millenia to Rome and Jerusalem. Its catechism offered a  time-honored and reassuring account of life that made sense to me. So strong was the comfort religion provided that I passed it on. My wife and I raised our children in the faith, baptizing them, saying grace before meals, attending church on Sundays, and taking them through the rite of First Communion. (p. 11-12)

Yet over the years, I began to reject more and more of the church’s teachings. The traditional answers I was given were incompatible with a scientific world view. I was taught one set of values by my parents and by my Jesuit and Oblate teachers, but I heard the beat of a different drummer in books, lectures, and the laboratory. This tension left me with a split view of reality. Outside of mass, I didn’t give much thought to questions of sin, sacrifice, salvation, and the hereafter. I reasoned about the world, the people in it, and myself in entirely natural terms. These two frameworks, one divine and one secular, one for Sunday and one for the rest of the week, did not intersect. The church provided meaning by placing my puny life in the context of the vastness of God’s creation and his Son’s sacrifice for humankind. Science explained facts about the actual universe I found myself in and how it came to be. (p. 12)

In what ways are we taught two sets of values?

Is this a problem you have experienced, either personally or in conversation with others?

The issues here are deeply ingrained in world view. Koch wasn’t raised in an environment that rejected science or evolution, but a Catholic intellectual environment that accepted evolution (for example) and integrated it into the faith. Koch alludes to or quotes Teilhard de Chardin on several occasions. But still, there was a conflict. The tension of two frameworks, Koch found, was “not a serious intellectual stance” and “the resultant clash was [his] constant companion for decades.”

It is only in recent years that I have managed to resolve this conflict. I slowly but surely lost my faith in a personal God. I stopped believing that somebody watches over me, intervenes on my behalf in the world, and will resurrect my soul beyond history, in the eschaton. I lost my childhood faith, yet I’ve never lost my abiding faith that everything is as it should be! I feel deep in my bones that the universe has meaning that we can realize. (p. 12)

Toward the end of the chapter Koch describes his interactions with Francis Crick, who with James Watson first described the structure of The Double Helix. Crick was a brilliant scientist, a staunch atheist, and an outspoken critic of religion. Crick was also Koch’s collaborator and mentor.

According to Koch:

In a lifetime of teaching, working, and debating with some of the smartest people on the planet, I’ve encountered brilliance and high achievement, but rarely true genius. Francis was an intellectual giant, with the clearest and deepest mind I have ever met. (p. 20)

and then:

Francis was a reductionist writ large. He fiercely opposed any explanation that smacked even remotely of religion or woolly-headed thinking, and expression he was fond of using.  Yet neither my metaphysical sentiments nor our forty-year age difference prevented us from developing a deep and abiding mentor-student relationship. (p. 22)

In the last chapter (more of this later):

By the time I knew Francis, his strident opposition to any sort of religious thinking had become muted. At dinner with him and Odile in their hilltop home, we occasionally discussed the Roman Catholic Church and its position on evolution, celibacy, and so on. He knew that I was raised as a Catholic and continued sporadically to attend mass. He never delved into the basis of my faith, as he was a kind man and wanted to spare me the embarrassment of groping for an explanation – particularly as my faith did not interfere with our quest to understand consciousness within a strictly empirical framework. (p. 153)

So what lessons can we find here? I’ve quoted these excerpts from Koch’s book to raise some issues and start a conversation. I would make several observations based on Koch’s story, and that of others I know. This may not apply to a broad swathe of people, but it definitely applies to academic and intellectual environments. The following points stuck out to me:

1. Koch did not flee the church, he wandered away as they drifted apart.

2. Values played a significant role – deep-seated values rooted in issues like the nature on man and his purpose.

3. Mentors and peers have a profound influence.

4. Inability to explain one’s faith is devastating. Finding an ability to explain and take ownership of faith requires a body of peers with interaction as equals, even if some are mentors and others students.

The Only Path? It is interesting to compare Koch’s story with Darrel Falk as described in the CT article by Stafford. We could look at a number of points. Koch and Falk both searched for meaning and desired to stay in the church and faith of their youth. One element strikes me here as especially important – the issue of community. Falk searched for a church where he could be part of a community – and looked for community at work as well.

Falk also worked hard to build a Christian fellowship among faculty and grad students at Syracuse. Working on the genetics of the fruit fly, Falk gained tenure. He loved teaching. Gradually, though, he began to long to work at a Christian community.

I don’t know the history behind this longing of Falk’s, but I can speculate a little. It is hard week after week, year after year, to be embedded in an environment where most colleagues feel that religion is, in the words of Crick “woolly-headed thinking” unworthy of serious consideration or interaction. Tolerated, but not respected or understood.

Koch wrestled with the conflict, and the pressure of community, and eventually lost his faith. And Catholics in this environment are moderately respectable, unlike evangelicals.

Where is a Christian scholar to turn?

Is the only option the Christian academy?

What role can pastors and church leaders play?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you wish to comment on this post please see The Wellsprings of Conflict on Jesus Creed.

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