A World From Dust: Q & A with Biochemist Ben McFarland

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We’re taking a break from our usual newsletter format to interview a Christian leader in the sciences. Ben McFarland is Professor of Biochemistry at Seattle Pacific University, where he studies structural aspects of protein biochemistry and design. Ben wrote A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford, 2016). 

I will be interviewing Ben online April 29 at noon Central on the topic, “Science and Faith in Times of Crisis: A Conversation.” Before that conversation, I caught up with Ben and posed few questions about his role as a scientist in the church, as well as the coronavirus outbreak. 

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did your interest in science and faith in Christ come from?

I grew up in Central Florida on what’s called the “Space Coast,” in the same county as the Kennedy Space Center, and so I grew up with space science all around me. My father was an engineer and my family went to church, and these were just two normal parts of my life. In 1986, our teachers took us out into the schoolyard to watch the space shuttle Challenger launch. When it exploded, it sent our economy into a tailspin for years, including my dad losing his job. In that time, it felt like my church community provided more of what I really needed in life, through music and the stories from scripture. Church was ultimately more important than science, and yet I’ve always had this sense that the scientific world was created and given to us as a gift, rather than having “just happened.”

Q: What got you interested in science and particularly biochemistry?

Through my first three years at college I was more interested in words than experiments. I only had one biochem class and no bio classes! I wanted to be a writer and tried to put together a science writing degree. I just kept taking the chemistry courses because there was something about the field that just clicked with me. I liked the chemical structures, with their weird shapes and bonds. I liked the idea that you could click atoms together like little LEGOs and make a pharmaceutical that would heal a disease. I wasn’t a lab rat, more someone who liked thinking chemically.

Q: What is your experience of being a scientist in the church?

I’ve always been confident in my conviction that it must all fit together in God’s view, even if I don’t know how. In high school, my conservative church environment educated me in its view of science as well as scripture. I was a young-earth creationist trying to find the “real science” that would prove the Bible true to all the misguided skeptics. In college, the young-earth arguments seemed less important and I moved to Intelligent Design, which got me interested in evolutionary mechanisms in order to debunk them. As I did this, I found out that evolution uses the same mechanisms using the same shiny atoms that so interested me in biochemistry in the first place, and that some of what I loved about chemistry showed up in evolution. Then it became fun for me to think about chemistry in evolution, and once that happened, I realized that evolution and the periodic table are both God’s creation. I later found out that this understanding of God’s power and presence in nature’s processes and continuities goes back to Aquinas, Augustine, and even Jesus in the sense of the parables about nature.

When I was a young-earth creationist I thought I was adhering to the old-time religion, but I now, as I ascribe it all to God, I’m really getting back to the roots. For the past two decades, I’ve been attending a “big-tent” church (on these issues) in Seattle. In the past decade, my pastor has turned to BioLogos for help navigating these issues, and he’s made my church an environment where I can talk about evolution, although I’m always a little careful given misconceptions and stereotypes on both sides.

Q: Is there one particular message you have for the church and its scientists?

God made it all—that comes first—and we figure out the details. Science can teach the church about how those details work, in the sense that biologists can teach about bios in the Greek, and chemists about atoms. But the church can also teach scientists, in the sense that it’s called to make disciples of all by opening a space for God’s spiritual life, zoe in Greek.

By the church I don’t mean anything beyond those who follow Jesus and are his Body. By spiritual life I don’t mean anything beyond the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and the life of Jesus: which is all summed up in the cross. You can’t take up your cross without depending radically on the Spirit. This is just to say that we need God and we need each other to live the fully human life, and that “we” includes everyone with every kind of calling.

Scientific disciplines are related like different human languages, all translated by the Spirit like at Pentecost (this image comes from Amos Yong). This intuition inspired my book, A World from Dust, which I wrote for a general audience and that shifts between biology, chemistry, and geology because one God created them all.

  • Ben follows in the footsteps of several chemists who have done pioneering work in theology and science, such as Arthur Peacocke and Alister McGrath.
  • He is not alone in serving the church while pursuing his love of biochemistry.
  • A guide for Christians wanting to study chemistry.

Q: You live near Seattle, one of the first areas hit by the coronavirus. What can you tell us about where we are today with the outbreak?

There’s still so much that’s uncertain. One of the complexities is that the infection’s spread is playing out differently in different places, for reasons we don’t entirely understand yet. I have been relieved to see that in Seattle we’re not in a worst-case scenario. I think we’re more than halfway through the first wave here. We may even be in a position to send help to other harder-hit areas like New York City. But this is also a stubborn virus, and it puts people in the hospital for a long time. Because of that, this first wave is lingering longer than I initially expected. Now we have to figure out how to relax restrictions without letting the remaining sparks of disease fan into uncontrollable flame.

Q: As a Christian in science, what’s the good news the church can offer in this time of COVID-19?

The church has hope to offer. Hope is different from a false optimism that assumes God will quickly lead us away from any suffering and that, for example, the first drug we’ll try will cure this virus. It just takes a glance at the Bible to see God doesn’t do things that way. Rather, hope is that, even in a path that leads to suffering and death, God is there with us and has walked this path before us.

Our Bible may have psalms of lament in the middle, but it ends with the New Jerusalem descending to earth like a boxed-up gift. There are many reasons to despair right now, because even being part way through the first wave, we don’t know how many waves there will be or how best to avoid them. But it’s knowing that those voices of despair do not have the final say, and that we have ways we can use science to participate in countering this virus.

I’m praying that, for all the bad surprises we’ve had lately, that God has some good surprises in store for us soon. And that prayer itself is a consolation and evidence that God is indeed right here in the middle of this pandemic.

Thanks to Ben for joining us for this interview. Once again, we encourage you to tune in Wednesday, April 29 for our online conversation.



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