Scientists and Faith: Vocation, Calling, and Faith

“Scientists are essentially grown-ups who are still very much in touch with their inner two year-old. They refuse to stop asking questions, even when finding an answer becomes decidedly more awkward than opening a textbook …   Christians, of all people, should be investigating what goes on around them and asking questions that respect the integrity and complexity of the things they find.”   Dr. Ruth Bancewicz (“A Bucket of Frogs: Curiosity, Wonder, and the Theology of Science”)

As noted in the Brief History pages, there is a long tradition of scientists who have had a strong Christian faith.  Their scientific passion grew from their Christian faith. Science teacher, David Hutchings, and Professor of Physics, Tom McLeish, argue that as we look at Christians in the sciences through he centuries, “Each one feels no need to separate their faith from their science.  In fact, they see them as thoroughly interrelated” (Let there be Science, p. 45).

At the same time, scientific investigation has been an encouragement for many people to know God in deeper ways.  Hutchings and McLeish conclude their book, Let there be Science“The Bible sees science as a gift from God, and he invites us to pursue it.  By doing so, we discover new wisdom about nature, about ourselves, and – if we are prepared to look deeply – even about him” (p. 188).

In this section we will look briefly at how many scientists see their work as a calling and vocation, symbiotic with their Christian faith.

Called to Jesus, Called to Vocation

“What is God calling me to do?  Where is God calling me to go?  Where do I belong?” asks Henri Nouwen as he talks about his own search for vocation.  He muses, “What I tell others who ask these questions and remind myself with surprising conviction, is this: ‘God has a very special role for you to fulfill.  God wants you to stay close to his heart and to let him guide you.  You will know what you are called to do when you have to know it” (Discernment:  Reading the Signs of Daily Life, pp. 97, 99).  This is as true of those who feel called to work in the sciences as those who, like Nouwen, are called to live in a L’Arche community.

In  his book, Courage and Calling, Gordon T. Smith develops a biblical theology of vocation on the foundation that we are all called of God in three distinct ways:

  1. the invitation to follow Jesus, to be Christian,
  2. a vocation that is unique to a person, that individual’s mission in the world, and
  3.  those tasks or duties God calls us to today (pp. 9-11).

As he expands on this theology of vocation and life, Smith challenges the deeply embedded assumption among Christians that “religious” work is inherently more sacred than all other activities.  Our vocation, whatever it is, is a calling from God and a gift of God – none is more special than any other.  God calls us to the work we do, and thus our work becomes something we do as an offering to God” (p.43).  We are all called to be responsible stewards of and to do good work using our God-given capacities and opportunities, in whatever occupation or vocation God leads us to.  “The language of vocation,” Smith comments, “is a reminder that our work is given to us by another, by the God who is our Creator” (p.47).

Being faithful to our God-given calling and vocation, then, means knowing our unique talents, gifts, abilities, personalities, passions, and temperaments.  We then have to make those blessings available to God.  “On some simple but fundamental level …  we (have to) come to terms with our own hearts – with what we individually believe is happening in the core or our being.  Each of us has something that we feel is the very reason for which we have been designed, created, and redeemed.  In the end we embrace this call, this purpose, because this, so help us God, is who we are.  In the end there is something to which we say, ‘This I must do.’  And we will do it, regardless of whether we have parental approval, regardless of whether we get praise or financial return.  At this point we understand that we must give up our lives for the sake of others, for only then will we find our lives (Mt 16:25).  We do it because we must.  And we accept this as of God – as that which God has placed on our hearts. What drives us is the very conviction that God has placed it there.  This is vocational integrity and personal congruence” (pp. 76-77).

Most of the scientists I interviewed were this passionate about their research.  They really, sincerely felt called by God to be doing the vocation – scientific research, teaching, engineering, medicine – in which they are engaged.  The calling to science, in its many forms and manifestations, is just as much a gift to God to the church and to the world as business and commerce, the arts, education, religious leadership, or pastoral ministry.  In any and all of these vocations, including science, people are called to work “as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23-24, Ephesians 6:7).   This mean working with a commitment to excellence, truth, diligence, generosity, courage, wisdom, integrity, gratitude, humility, patience, compassion, justice, and a desire to serve the Lord, people, and His creation.

As an example of this, a medical doctor recently visited an open house at his local agricultural research station.   “The scientists were SO excited to talk about their projects,” he said with astonishment.  “The couldn’t stop talking about all the little bugs on the stalks of wheat and how the went up to the top during the heat of the day and went down to the roots at night.  They obviously loved what they were doing so much.”  These scientists had found their true vocation!

Aren’t “real” vocations religious ones?

Unfortunately, the idea of vocation has often been limited to  a divine call to a specifically religious role.  I remember one speaker at IVCF in my university days emphatically stating that if we are really listening to God, most of us should hear a call to be missionaries overseas.  In fact, unless we were explicitly called to stay in Canada (possibly as a pastor), we should all plan on doing overseas missions as our default vocation:  this is what “real Christians” are expected to do.  The speaker could not honestly imagine anyone working in Canada in a secular job; that was selling out.

Many Christian traditions or individual believers still have this kid of a sacred-secular split.  Ideally “real” Christians should be in full-time explicitly religious work (preferably as missionaries).  Those who are working in non-religious vocations in Canada are second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.  After all, that whole world of daily work, family, friends is  “Earthly,” “fleshly,” even “carnal.”  As Smith helps us understand, this is NOT a biblical theology of vocation, but a bizarre, culturally twisted shadow of something far more profound and expansive.

There has always been a broader sense to the concept of Christian vocation which, as Smith explores, includes using our passion, gifts, abilities, and skills in a variety of professions, family life, civic and church commitments, for the sake of the church and the world.   This was was explicitly emphasized in the writings of Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.  They insisted that vocations, or divine callings, included many things in life – marriage, singleness, being a parent, being a child, being a friend – and could also include most non-religious occupations and professions.  In their thinking the cobbler was just as called as the cleric, and the boatswain no less spiritual than the bishop.  Luther wrote, “What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well pleasing to him.”

Luther is credited with saying, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays – not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.  The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

In the same way, we might say that the scientist who is studying changes in the global climate is doing the will of God just as much as the pastor who preaches – not because she may sing a worship song as she studies changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, but because God loves His Creation, including the Earth’s atmosphere and cares passionately about the organisms affected by climate change.  The biochemist does his Christian duty not by putting a Scripture reference on his submission to an academic journal, but by doing good research into new compounds, because God is interested in good research and those new pharmaceuticals may make a difference in the life of millions of His people.

Luther does comment that, “we must distinguish between an occupation and the man who holds it, between a work and the man who does it.  An occupation or work can be good and right in itself and yet be bad and wrong if the man who does the work is evil or wrong or does not do his work properly.”  Being a scientist, then, has the potential to be a blessing if done with integrity, honesty, with a desire to do good, and to express love for one’s neighbour.

Puritan scholar William Perkins (1558-1602) writes, “The author of every calling is God himself:  and therefore Paul says: ‘As God has called every man, let him walk (1 Cor 7:7).  And for this cause, the order and manner of living in the is world is called a ‘vocation’; because every man is to live as he is called b God …  First, God ordains the calling itself.  And secondly, he imposes it on the man called, and therefore I say, vocation is a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed by God” (“A Treatise on Vocations” in W.C. Placher, Callings, p. 263).  A scientists, studying God’s creation, is living a life ordained by God.

William Law (1686-1761) argues that we are all called to a life in which we devote “our labour and employment, our time and fortunes, unto God.  As a good Christian should consider every place as holy because God is there, so he should look upon every part of his life as a matter of holiness because it is offered unto God” (“A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life” in W.C. Placher, Callings, p. 304).  Whatever we do, we are called to do it “offering to God the daily sacrifice of a reasonable life, wise actions, purity of heart, and heavenly affections.” Scientific research can be a holy vocation, if offered to God.

More recently, Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) writes, “The older conception of religion viewed as religious only what ministered to the souls of men or what served the Church …  A few professions we marked off as holy, just as in past stages of religion certain groves and temples were marked out as holy ground where God could be sought and served.  If now we could have faith enough to believe that all human life can be with divine purpose; tat God saves not only the soul, but the whole of human life; that anything which serves to make men healthy, intelligent, happy, and good is a service to the Father of men; that the kingdom of God is not bounded by the Church, but includes all human relations – then all professions would be hallowed and receive religious dignity” (“Christianity and the Social Crisis” in W.C. Placher, Callings, p. 383-384).  As scientists contribute to knowledge and care for God’s creation, they are serving God.

“Each one of us has some kind of vocation,” argues Thomas Merton (1915-1968), one of Henri Nouwen’s mentors.  “We are all called by God to share in His life and in His Kingdom.  Each one of us is called to a special place in the Kingdom.  If we find that place we will be happy.  If we do not find it, we can never be completely happy” (“No Man is an Island” in W.C. Placher, Callings, p. 421).    For Merton, by knowing God, knowing ourselves, and in community with other people we can find that vocational calling.  Science is one very viable option.

Talk to a scientist who loves their work.  Get them talking about their research.  Listen to their passion.  And celebrate their sense of vocation and call.  Many are as excited – or more excited – than most pastors I know!  And many are making really significant contributions to the world.

Called for a purpose

In Luther on Vocation, Gustaf Wingren comments that Martin Luther believed all vocations are intended to serve others, expressing the biblical maxim to love your neighbour as yourself.  One’s vocations – in a particular occupation, and/or role in the community, and/or role in one’s relationships (as spouse, parent, child, friend) – are not simply to benefit one’s self, but for the good of the Kingdom of God

John Calvin emphasizes that “to benefit one’s neighbour” ought to be one’s highest vocational goal, whatever one’s occupation.

The Puritan scholar, William Perkins contends, “The final cause or end of every calling … ‘for the common good,’ that is, for the benefit and good estate of mankind.”

William Law argues our goal is to “do all for the glory of God” (citing 1 Corinthians 10:31).  Specifically Law talks of people who know “it is agreeable to the will of God” for him to engage inactivities that benefit society at large, especially those in need.   “But if, instead of this, he trades only with regard to himself … if it be his chief aim to grow rich … his trade loses all its innocence, and is so far from being an acceptable service to God ….” (p. 308).

Walter Rauschenbusch beleives that people who have a sense of their profession as a divine calling would “be compelled” to see how their work can “be a maximum service to humanity” to transform society completely through “a quiet industrial revolution.”  Using a scientific metaphor, he suggests, “The multiplication of socially enlightened Christians will serve the body of society much as a physical organism would be served if a complete and effective system of ganglia should be distributed where few of them existed.  The social body needs moral innervation; and the spread of men who combine religious faith, moral enthusiasm, and economic information, and apply the combined result to public morality, promises to create a moral sensitiveness never yet known” (pp.384-385).

“All vocations are intended by God to manifest his love in the world,” says Thomas Merton, who sees every vocation as profoundly influential.  “For each special calling gives a man some particular place in the Mystery of Christ, gives him something to do for the salvation of all mankind.  The difference between the various vocations lies in the different ways in which each one enables men to discovers God’s love, appreciate it, respond to it, and share it with other men.  Each vocation has for its aim the propagation of divine life in the world” (p.426).

Similarly, Gordon Smith emphasizes that God gifts us with abilities, skills, and passions so we can benefit other people, the church, and the world.

Nouwen comments, “We seldom fully realize that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks.  We act as if we have to choose how, where, and with whom to live.  We act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die.  But we were sent in to world by God, just as Jesus was.  Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.  These tasks may be very specialized, or they may be the general task of loving one another in everyday life” (p.99).

The scientists I interviewed all had a sense of doing what they did out of a sense of call and passion from God, AND with a desire to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.  They want to make a difference.  They understood God had called them to a task – to know His world and to make a difference for His world.

Typical of many scientists, biochemist and ordained Anglican pastor, Victoria Johnson comments about her scientific research: “I was looking at the way cells develop and grow, and how sometimes those processes become compromised and may lead to mutations and ultimately cancer. I went into science because I felt I had the vocation to help people and to do something positive. Also, when you’re in a lab and you’re lucky enough to see some of these minute processes that are going on in our body all the time, you can’t help but have some wonder and awe for what is going on every second of every day in our bodies. Having a tiny insight into some of those processes was also an inspiration for me. So I certainly saw God in the lab …  It wasn’t as if the laboratory was a completely sterile environment for faith” (“Celebrating Science in Sacred Spaces“).


“‘What does God want from me?’ is a question we all should ask, not once and for all but throughout our lives.  Should I get a job or go back to school, get ordained or do lay ministry, teach or preach, work in another country or closer to home, get married or stay single, have a family or join a community?  (We might add, work in a lab or get a job in industry, focus on research or do something more applied?)  There are many facets to a life fully committed to God’s will and way … Each of us has a mission in life” (Nouwen, Discernment, p.98).  This is a continuous challenge – and privilege – for all of us who love Jesus.