by Jacquelyne Read
In a sermon a few weeks ago at Forefront Manhattan, Ryan discussed embracing uncertainty in faith and how important that is in both your personal faith journey and in building healthy churches (listen here if you missed it). What Ryan said has stuck with me for weeks, and I began to see a parallel of this in my academic research. In particular, I have been thinking about the importance of embracing uncertainty, not only in practicing a healthy faith, but also in conducting healthy science.
I am a couple years into my doctoral research in chemistry, and this past week I got some unexpected results that threw both me and my thesis advisor for a loop. It told us that the underlying assumption (one that has been widely-held in the field for almost 60 years) on which we have built our rationale to explain my data thus far is…well, not explaining my data anymore. I repeated the experiments, dismissing the idea that it could be a fluke. All of a sudden, we were faced with the necessary conclusion: Our understanding of these systems have been wrong.
My immediate reaction was to throw a fit, internally. I was upset, discouraged, and when I had to present my findings in a research meeting, I did so in a cynical way that displayed my frustration for the death of the model we had developed. My advisor and I had already agreed upon an outline for a publication, describing my findings within the (now) false paradigm. I had finally felt competent and on top of things for the first time since I began graduate school three years ago, but then it came crashing down because of an experiment I could easily have not run.
After he got over the shock, my thesis advisor spoke some very wise words. He kindly chastised me for trying to make the data fit the theory I want––that is the opposite of good science. If the data doesn't agree, you need to dispose of your theory and come up with an explanation that makes sense of all the data. He then stated, "The objective of your Ph.D. is to leave with more questions than answers. If you leave with everything tied up nice and tidy, that is not a good thing. Your data is creating more questions than answers, and that's a good thing…that's called longevity. We try, but we don't really understand Nature."
As I sit in my lab, trying to make sense of the uncertainty that has been flooding my mind for the past week, I can't help but see the parallel to faith here. I am reminded of one of Forefront's mottos: "We are more concerned with asking good questions than having all the answers." This is incredible to me because I am learning that this is what science is like too! Good research will open up new territory for exploration and should create more questions than answers. My reaction to new questions being opened up, making my research more complicated, was an immature one; similarly, I sometimes react to questions of faith immaturely, holding on too tight to what I can understand and want to believe. This only ends up hurting me! When I don’t let myself question, when I don’t let myself embrace the uncertainty, I am stunting my spiritual growth and cutting myself off from the richness that lies within being honest with myself and with others.
I pray that we may all allow ourselves to open up to the complex and beyond-comprehensible reality of our great God, however uncertain our view from here may be.