The Wellsprings of Conflict (RJS)

St. Peter’s Basilica.
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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]

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  • Alan K

    As long as Christians conflate Word of God with weltanschauung, faith will be in conflict with the way they learn the world. The Word does not require worldview. It simply inhabits whatever worldview exists at any time. The Word inhabiteds the ANE worldview in the creation narratives up to the point where the worldview was exhausted and then inhabited the worldview that replaced it. The person of faith (including the Christian scholar) needs to know that worldviews by their very nature are provisional. The Word is the same yesterday, today and forever.

  • James Rednour

    It sounds to me like Koch gave up his faith reluctantly, largely in part to peer pressure as you implied. I suspect he’ll return at some point when he finds that knowledge, while important, is never completely fulfilling.

  • RJS


    I can’t speak for others, so I don’t know what Koch will do, but I rather expect you are wrong.

    It isn’t just “peer pressure” – it is this kind of challenge accompanied by a deep cognitive dissonance and a church that wanders on in its own muddled fog, unwilling and unable to understand the challenge.

    Koch was RCC – and that is a little different. Within evangelical communities – there are serious questions and “the church” gives idiotic answers, and won’t take the questions seriously.

  • Great post; great questions raised at the end.

    Like you, RJS, my sense is that Koch observed the social dynamics of his day, and, of course, some of the content of the movement between values and different ways of thinking. To his credit, Koch remained aware of the dynamics and allowed it to remain present for him; that awareness suggests he has an on-going faith in God along with all of the messy questions. There’s nothing “woolly-headed” about that kind of reflection: he has a remarkable clarity.

    I suppose that we’ve observed others in the academy for whom the dynamics were too emotionally-heavy and the perceived social risks were too great: so, faculty dismissed thoughtful reflection or avoided further engagement with others, even when “the others” may have meant a journey in Christian community with peers.

  • Norman

    Many faithful people quit asking the probing questions about science and faith because it does bring us to unanswerable questions. However the agonistic and the atheist also quit following their questions to conclusions as well and settle in with unanswered questions like the faithful sometimes do. All of us have questions that can never be answered if we realize the ultimate incomprehension of the universe lies beyond any of our capacities. We can only glimpse through a dark glass as created products of this perplexity, in fact why should the created product of creation be capable of fully grasping the Creator or even Creation fully?

    Part of the faith journey is to untangle the mess of thinking that has arisen concerning the creator; that is what is being pursued here on Jesus Creed, IMO. If you give up then you very likely (IMHO) have given up prematurely while there are still answers out there that are robust enough to make better sense of what is at stake. Most often it’s what you don’t know and understand that causes a faith crisis and often that can be worked thru. I’ve seen people give up the pursuit but it almost always seems they just quit searching for better answers thinking they have climaxed in their knowledge bank. I think the answers are there for faith in the revealed God of the Bible but it may take years of peeling back the layers of culture to recognize the simplicity of the answers.

  • Scott Gay

    I can’t see romanticism related to peers. Romantics don’t hold up a mirror to nature, they invent. They strive not to imitate but create. The demands of any external- church, state, public opinion, family, friends, arbitrars of taste- would be a betrayal. It has always been the sense of a new and restless spirit, seeking to burst through the older cramped forms., and, yes, concerned with changing inner states of consciousness.
    Groups are always behind the curve with respect to collisions of values. Often it is romantics who wrestle with the choices before the enlightened. Any truth inherent in value pluralism shows that this clash is inherently who we all are. Berlin’s “Historical Inevitability”(1954) presents the possibility of false options, with the resulting choices both not to be taken. Sorry, but reductionism is a false choice to me/ as would be turning Christianity into some form of system.

  • Kyle F

    As is almost always the case, Koch’s objections, while understandable, are a derivative of selective intellectual engagement, for what would Koch mean within his quest to explain the world in purely natural terms when he says, “I’ve never lost my abiding faith that everything is as it should be!” He shows no hint of incredulity about that belief correlating with reality or an interest in deconstructing it in accordance with the tenets of, say, evolutionary psychology. He there appears to halt his quest to uniformly describe the world through materialistic or empirical terms. Put another way, I think Koch’s passion for his scientific pursuits is a love relationship that he will not question, in part because it is tangible and life-affirming and him some sense allows him to deny self, and I don’t think this makes him a fool. Christianity and the church would do well to offer a worldview that champion’s these passions (even if they can be tweaked) as reflections of God’s creative impetus and Christ’s self-renunciation, ie affixing oneself to a problem until it is redeemed (isn’t this problem-solving in most every domain?). Emphasizing depravity among other doctrines can lead one to believe incorrectly that accepting Christianity means rejecting that which is working so well otherwise. And certainly Christianity is consistent with a man clinging to a loved one even if it gets him martyred.

  • This is a stimulating post, RJS. I sense an authentic humility in Koch and I think it is sad that he, and many like him, feel the need *to reconcile* this reality: “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” with what he was discovering as a committed scientist. Why not live embracing both as irreconcilable and uncomfortable as that tension may be?

  • RJS

    Kyle F,

    Some good ideas there, but I am not sure you quite get the level of conflict. It isn’t so much a quest to explain the world in purely natural terms as though this were a presupposition as it is an increasing dissatisfaction with other explanations and an inability to reconcile the two.

    And Scott,

    Peers (selectively defined) have a significant influence on pretty much everyone, including creative romantics. Few people are islands unto themselves.

  • RJS


    “even when “the others” may have meant a journey in Christian community with peers.”

    This is hard to find.

  • Alan K

    RJS, help me out here a little. If I’m understanding you correctly, in your environment the conviction of things not seen is “woolly-headed thinking.” Is there any reading of philosophy? How is the meaning of life derived?

  • DRT

    Thank you for this. It inspired me to look at my own walk away from the RCC that was a big part of my life in my youth. After exploring that some today, I realize that I have much more work to do in understanding my motivations and inclinations being as I seem to have externalized most of the issues and simply attributed them to faults in the church.

    I too had no conflict between science and faith, at least as far as things like evolution are concerned. I compartmentalized notions like transubstantiation (though the Eucharist has always been a most holy and awe inspiring time for me) into a box that I labeled “doubtful” to myself but outwardly I labeled it “mystery”. Those things did not really bother me, though I never matured enough to examine it in depth.

    What did bother me was the fact that I, by all measures that I was taught, was a hopeless fun loving, swearing, drinking, loving womenm, having fun sinner that would never make it to confession soon enough to then be acceptable given the “morally unassailable institution” and its standards against which I felt I was being judged. The question that I had was “is morallity all there is and by that standard I don’t measure up”. So why keep going just to make myself feel bad.

    After maturing I would not go back because of how the church treats women, though I am starting to rethink that pat answer and (this post has helped spur) put more thought into why I would not.

    Grandpa was in a Catholic seminary for some time and ended up teaching philosophy, and the intellectual tradition of the church is quite attractive to me. And I now believe (today, … thoughts are happening) that the intellectual tradition is something that I need to have in a church. For the record, I think Calvinism is anti-intellectual because it seems to be a classic case of examining all of the trees but neglecting the forrest, and that is cause enough to no longer be intellectual in my book.

    The last part that seems to give Koch pause is what I think of as the magic aspects of Catholicism. That seems to be an intersection with peer pressure that can be difficult to live with. Dad simply says we all have disagreements with the church, and lets it go. I agree, but don’t think that is what the RCC wants you to do.

  • RJS

    Alan K,

    I think the question of meaning of life is a significant question – and one that reductionist materialism doesn’t do well. Yes, some will refer to this as woolly-headed thinking, but it still is a weak link.

    I am interested to put up more of Koch’s reasoning on this in a later post to start a conversation.

  • dopderbeck

    I have a hard time understanding how a contemporary Catholic could feel this way, if he or she really studies that church’s theology and its official statements about faith and science. There are of course a few areas of tension, but most of those relate not to science per se but to metaphysics (e.g. is matter “all there is,” is the human person “nothing but a body and brain”). On the whole, the Catholic Church today accepts all established scientific observations, including evolution, etc. Every great Catholic university has science departments that do quality mainstream work, and at schools like Georgetown and Notre Dame there are robust theology-and-science programs. It seems one of the easiest places today to be a Christian and a scientist today is in the mainstream of the Catholic Church.

    But I guess it depends on how you’re raised and socialized. There are many less sophisticated, fundamentalist type Catholics in local schools and so-on.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Wonderful post, and the comments reflect it.

    “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)”

    What a hopeful quote! Let’s pray many university students with Church backgrounds read it. This kind of abiding faith is vastly underrated. A famous Canadian prime minister, not usually cited for his piety, put it this way “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” If this abiding faith is coupled with the message of the Cross, it is a rock from which we can explore virtually anything. 

    “Within evangelical communities – there are serious questions and “the church” gives idiotic answers, and won’t take the questions seriously.”

    Ouch! That’s two owies in one week, and both spot on. Blogs like Jesus Creed are so important to righting the evangelical ship of faith.

    In the situation(s) Koch describes, kind colleagues are a Godsend and his tribute to Crick in thus regard is heart warming. Many colleagues are like this, some are not. It’s here where we need maximum tolerance, flexibility and …… humour. Fortunately, the human resources to help the Christian scientist working in the secular environment are the best they have ever been. For example, imagine what it would have been like to have had Jesus Creed 40 or 50 years ago (I know the numbers are nowhere near correct for you 🙂

    Scott (6)

    “Sorry, but reductionism is a false choice to me/as would be turning Christianity into some form of system.” 

    Well said, I agree.

    DRT (12),

    This must be forest/tree metaphor day. Yours is well put. Roger Olson, just today put it like this in answer to a question “It’s good to remember, however, that it is possible to get lost in the forest because of the trees. Surely the forest does not depend on individual trees here and there.”

  • DRT

    bev, shows you great minds think alike!

  • dopderbeck

    Bev (#15) — it depends on what you mean by “childhood faith,” though, doesn’t it? We all need to grow beyond “childish” faith, and that usually means leaving behind structures or institutions or doctrinal formulations we uncritically received when young. But if one’s “childhood faith” simply means the Christian faith in general, then I don’t want to see anyone “leave” that. It’s a terrible shame that this guy feels he can’t trust in the God revealed in Christ, who created the world out of love and cares for it and for us like a tender Father. He seems to have left it for a vague, impersonal, and ungrounded something or other. That doesn’t seem like growing up to me…

  • Norman

    I can see how one could turn away from the Catholic Tradition, just as one turns away from Calvinism and other Traditional outgrowths of established religious orthodoxy’s. The Catholics have gotten better at refining their messages since Protestantism challenged their methodology and that’s a good thing. However they still have acquired vestiges surrounding the application of the Lord ’s Supper and grandiose garments and traditional imagery that seem overstepping when examined from the original intent of those meals and the attitude of the early church toward a spectator religious demonstration of worshiping. I find the Catholic and Anglian models of worship organization just as distracting as the minimalist seeker service we spoke about yesterday. It seems to fly in the face of leaving the Jewish elite priesthood and a temple worship atmosphere in the dust bin of history contrasted to the simplicity of the Gospel message of Christ.

    I do think when we strip the superficial add-ons of Christian religiosity away and take it back to the origins of pure Judaism and their Christological manifestations of the first century then we have less confusing concepts to work through. Christianity as it has evolved IMO has muddied the waters to the point that it takes years to strip the negative and unneeded connotations away in order to think clearly about the Gospel message. If we think that our concepts of acts of communion and liturgy are the locus then perhaps we have missed the importance of Christ telling us that there are two Great commandments in which everything derives from. First and foremost is to have a deep reverence toward God and secondly is to develop a deep respectability toward others. Yes communion should accentuate a respect toward God and Christ but the acts can also become overly dramatized to the point where they become the object and a distraction rather than Christ and God. There’s more ways than one to do things and the body is made of many members whom are God’s creation and they often relate in myriads of different methods.

    Hopefully the simpler we keep things the less confusing the message will be.

  • Bev Mitchell

    dopderbeck  (17),

    Yes, of course. Some parts of the “faith” that children are brought up with can be close to spiritual abuse. But even under those circumstances, the living heart of Christ beats in other expressions of real faith. We would also be surprised at the places the Spirit has to visit to bestow grace. Having it all together theologically is not a requirement for receiving the Spirit of Christ – and that is a very good thing!  🙂

    But, you are correct, what can sustain when all else is jettisoned is an abiding faith that is real. I think we should better consider it to be the action of the Holy Spirit – though we don’t have to know that or call it that in order to possess it. The next important step, which is the challenge at all levels of the way, is to let it (him) posses us. 

    Without having read the book, it seems to me what Koch calls “abiding faith” in the quote provided by RJS could well be the real thing. However, his saddest sentence there is “I slowly but surely lost my faith in a personal God.”

  • I grew up in and subsequently walked away from the RCC without any malice or anger myself. I think the issue for me, and I suspect for someone like Koch, was that Catholicism as I experienced it worked a lot like a collection of superstitions. For a while in high school I wore a scapular which carried the promise that if I died and went to purgatory, Mary would rescue me on the first Sunday after my death. You went to confession so you didn’t run the risk of dying with the stain of sin. You took communion and got confirmed at a certain age because those were the rites of passage for a Catholic person. I remember at one point trying to convince my mother that one of my sisters should not be confirmed as she was adamantly opposed to everything about the church. My mother replied to the effect that something about the confirmation ceremony would confer benefits on her and perhaps work to soften her heart, as if it were a form of magic at work. And I do know that there are deep, theological reasons and explanations for all of the practices of the church. But in practice, they really do function for a lot of people like a set of superstitions that you almost can’t help but practice – knocking on wood when you say something hopeful, crossing yourself as you pass a graveyard, saying “bless you” when you sneeze. But we don’t live in a superstitious age.

    The difference for me was that I had a profound spiritual experience in my early teens which kept me from being able to walk away from faith entirely. In fact, I wonder if my experience of being Catholic from that time until the point where I left the church in my early 20s wasn’t somewhat analogous to what a person of faith experiences working in an academic setting. I had this living, vibrant faith life going on within me that I knew my co-religionists didn’t share. Or at least didn’t ever, ever, talk about. I had no vocabulary to share my faith experiences. And it would have seemed bizarre if I had tried – a Catholic priest told me once that it was easier for him to get people to talk with him about their sex lives than their prayer life. He said he used to think it was because it was so personal, but he finally realized it was because they didn’t have a prayer life to talk about. (I know it isn’t like this everywhere, but I think it’s pretty common.) It was just a very lonely experience for me and almost certainly what drew me to Evangelical churches. Here were people who seemed to know God the way that I knew God and talked about it and engaged in open worship and prayer together! So I guess that rather than walking away from the RCC into the arms of academia, I walking into the arms of the church. But if I had not had such strong, personal experiences with God, I would have just walked away into the arms of whatever else might have worked for me.

    At any rate, much of what I think and write about today is my own personal attempt to figure out what the Christian faith looks like when you stop fighting the reality of the world we exist in. How does accepting evolution affect our theology? It means letting go of the idea that we once lived in a world where there were no mosquitoes and nothing ever died. What happens to our ideas about morality and free will and original sin when we learn about how closely linked our behaviors are to genetics and the limitations of the brain and psychology? There are so many questions that need exploring. Unfortunately, much of the church is still stuck on trying to deny or explain away what science and exploration is showing us about how this world God created works. But, one of the things I have been coming to recognize lately is that these times when things are a mess and conflict is rampant and people like Koch are left without answers to hang onto are a normal part of humanity’s experience. It’s the same dynamic the desert mothers and fathers and the saints tell us is part of our spiritual lives: we have to suffer and walk through deserts and rage at God and man and ourselves and suffer great uncertainty on our way to greater union with God. Before we get there it looks and feels like everything is all wrong, but it’s just part of the process. I think that Koch is right – everything is profoundly as it should be. We’re just in an uncomfortable time.