I can distinctly remember the day I realized that my belief in Scripture and my belief in science might be in conflict. I was eleven or twelve, and one day it occurred to me—with something of a shock—that I believed in both the Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s creation, and in the modern scientific account of the formation of the universe. Somehow I had held both accounts in my mind for years without wondering if they could be true at the same time.
Fortunately, this revelation did not cause a crisis of faith. But several more years would pass before I received any formal guidance on questions of faith and science. In college, I was blessed to have several professors who loved both the beauty of science and the tradition of the Church, and who helped me navigate these debates. Nevertheless, I wish I had had a course in high school that taught the position of the Church on topics such as the Big Bang theory, evolution, and the origin of the human soul, among other issues.
Particles of Faith is one author’s attempt to bring the proper integration of faith and science to high school students. Stacy A. Trasancos is a trained research chemist who converted to Catholicism as an adult. In her introduction, she explains how her first steps towards God actually came through science: her research on photosynthesis led her to wonder who could have designed plants to be more energy-efficient than any artificial solar panel. For Trasancos, science did not allow her to dismiss God from her understanding of reality. Quite the opposite: she came to realize that without a sound theology and philosophy, the pursuit of the physical sciences was an exercise in futility. After her conversion, Trasancos went on to pursue a master’s degree in theology. She wrote her thesis on the work of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, a physicist and theologian who insisted that Christianity and science are not at war, but are naturally complementary—because truth cannot contradict truth. Trasancos writes Particles of Faith in order to bring Fr. Jaki’s integrated vision to a new generation of students.
Trasancos divides her book into three main units. In the first unit, she addresses the false dichotomy of faith and science. Believers sometimes view the discoveries of modern science as a threat to Church teaching about the existence of God and the dignity of humanity. Likewise, non-believers often try to use science to “disprove” the truth of Christianity. But as Trasancos explains, this apparent conflict isn’t real. In truth, science and faith are different ways of knowing that illuminate different levels of reality.
Trasancos is careful to emphasize that Catholics always need to evaluate new scientific discoveries in the light of Church teaching. Certain fundamental dogmas cannot change, while other theological teachings have developed over time as we have learned more about our physical universe. Trasancos urges students to become familiar with the teachings of the Magisterium and to rely only on legitimate sources when studying Church doctrine.
With this anchor of faith firmly established, Trasancos then explains how students should navigate scientific questions. As a research scientist herself, she fully appreciates the painstaking work it takes to discover the physical universe. She encourages her readers to “respect the real scientists and scientific sources. …[I]f you have not conducted experiments, wrestled with the instrumentation, agonized over the data, discerned the analysis, and been ready to place your reputation behind the reporting of conclusions, it is hard to understand what it takes to add new knowledge to scientific disciplines.” It is refreshing to encounter an author who insists so strongly on respect for Church teaching and legitimate science alike.
In the first unit, Trasancos also describes the “system of wills”—the integration of God’s law, the physical laws of nature, and the free will of living creatures. Here, relying on the arguments of Thomas Aquinas, she addresses questions such as how rational beings can act freely in a world that is governed by strict physical laws, and how miracles can occur. Her argument is a wonderful integration of Thomistic philosophy with contemporary science. However, her writing may be difficult to follow for students who are not already familiar with classical Aristotelian terms such as “rationality,” “intellect,” and “mover.” Depending on the classroom in which this book is being used, this section might have to be supplemented by a more detailed explanation of the philosophy.
For the remainder of the book, Trasancos shows how the integrated approach to faith and science can be applied to particular questions about physical reality. In Unit Two, she focuses on inanimate matter—the origin of the universe, the structure of atoms, and quantum mechanics—while in Unit Three, she addresses biological questions—the theory of evolution, the existence an individual Adam and Eve, and the beginning of human life in the womb. Although the number of questions she considers is fairly limited, she manages to touch on all the major faith-and-science debates. Also, her method of argument provides a good example for students who may want to explore other scientific questions.
However, these two sections also showcase the weaknesses of the book. When writing about specific scientific disciplines, Trasancos sometimes goes into more detail than is necessary or helpful. For example, in her review of atomic structure, she gives an extensive list of the subatomic particles that scientists have discovered in recent decades. Although I was excited to read this section—particle physics intrigues me, though I’ve never studied it formally—I found myself lost as she sped through explanations of fermions, bosons, hadrons, and quarks. Although the text includes sidebars with definitions of the new terms, most of these definitions use scientific language that only a physicist would understand, so they do little to clarify the section. Trasancos does not expect students to memorize the details here—she only wants to showcase the wondrous complexity of creation—but her writing will likely confuse anyone who is not already familiar with subatomic physics. In a classroom setting, this part of the book would have to be supplemented with a thorough review of atomic structure, in order to appreciate the beauty that the author is trying to show.
On the other hand, Trasancos does a commendable job of approaching faith-and-science questions that do not yet have a firm answer. For instance, she takes up the ongoing debate of how the doctrine of Original Sin fits with our current scientific understanding of the origin of the human race. To summarize the debate: the Church’s traditional understanding of Original Sin seems to require the historical existence of an individual Adam and Eve who were the source of the entire human race. Yet the most advanced research on evolution and biological populations seems to indicate that there has never been a species that has arisen from only two individuals. Rather than dismissing either the Church teaching or the scientific evidence, Trasancos encourages students to remain committed to discerning the truth in both disciplines. She urges her readers to remain faithful to the Church, to continue gathering scientific data, and to keep looking for ways to harmonize faith and science, even if those ways are not immediately obvious. This mature, balanced response to an ongoing question is a refreshing alternative to both the theologically unsound arguments of secular science and the scientifically incoherent explanations of Christian creationists.
Particles of Faith fills a gap in the typical Catholic high school curriculum: a straightforward explanation of how science and faith are not at odds, but are in fact beautifully integrated. The author, a trained scientist and a devout Catholic, presents her arguments with a compelling personal conviction. The only weakness of the book is that some sections do not provide enough information on complex topics, while other chapters give more detail than is helpful. This book is best suited for students who already have a basic knowledge of atomic structure, chemistry, biology, and some familiarity with Thomistic philosophy and theology.
What I most appreciated about Stacy Trasancos’ book was her mature and confident approach to a controversial area of study. As one of my science professors in college told me once, Catholics need not be afraid of any scientific truth—because God made the whole universe, after all. I believe Trasancos would agree. Catholic students of science can be fearless in their research, knowing that it cannot contradict the ultimate truths of the faith. The physical universe can only give glory to God.
Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Student Edition)
by Stacy A. Trasancos
Ave Maria Press, 2019
Paperback, 256 pages
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