A Spiritual Haven for Scientists

From a vantage point of years, I can reflect upon an inwardly satisfying life in which science and Quakerism have reinforced one another as sources of inspiration and outlets for service.

It has been my experience that science and Quakerism have more in common than do science and other avenues for religious expression. As an ongoing process of revelation based upon reason, evidence, and argument, science seeks closer and closer approximations of the true state of nature. Experimentation provides its most uniquely valuable information source. Quakerism, in turn, has been an historic effort through continuing revelation to erase obscuring impediments to the experiential, life-shaping faith Jesus exemplified. These impediments were institutional and other accretions that the still highly authoritarian and politicized Protestant Reformation left intact.

Quakerism is grounded in communal as well as individual contemplation, especially the uplifting experience of the gathered meeting for worship. Really creative leaps in a research scientist’s mind and the kind of spiritual creativity evident in an unexpectedly gathered Quaker meeting for worship are remarkably similar. In both, an individual arrives at an original synthesis of ideas—a sudden flash of insight through an impossible-to-explain awareness of meaningful connections among seemingly diverse observations, impressions, or other thoughts. Possibilities for such unanticipated enlightenment are inherent in Quakerism’s historic emphasis upon personal experiences that may stimulate growth within the community as well as the individual.

I was not always a Friend. But, as I neared completion of my formal training in three branches of biomedical science, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. I felt a compelling and increasingly discomforting need to reconcile science with continuing religious influences upon my life. As early as my teens I had mentally associated this inner need with the comforting idea of a personal God. I did not want my growing competence as a biomedical scientist to necessarily signal rejection of this intuitive awareness of such a "Guide Within."

During my subsequent career as a research scientist, I retained this strongly felt need for spiritual guidance toward what I have always hoped my total life might mean. I could not shake the gut feeling that some Inner Force acts as an innate and cultivatable influence upon all persons and transcends all culturally-derived influences. What such an Inner Guide might conceivably be has proven a constant challenge to my ability to apply my scientific training, to bring it to bear upon social problems it could relate to.

Beyond all such inner needs, my mind has harbored a lingering doubt that science alone might ever account fully for the abundance of order, symmetry, pattern and harmony evident in the universe. But, that aside, I have always been much more awestruck by nature’s beautiful asymmetries—its poetry: wind in the trees, a raging surf, smiling eyes, situations that can make us either laugh or cry, the overpoweringly soulful mystery of love. Wondering how such phenomena could affect one’s physiology and dominate one’s mind prompted a stronger gut sense that something transcendent must be operative in us and the rest of the universe. Moreover, even as a young scientist whose curiosity was wide-ranging, I learned that discoveries made unexpectedly in the laboratory buoyed me to the same level of ecstasy and contagious enthusiasm as later did the unexpectedly gathered Friends meeting for worship.

For all of these reasons, I could not with any conscience continue to associate myself with the religious affiliations of my boyhood. I could not remain within any religious body which would force me to partition my life into different, noncommunicating religious and rational compartments. My personal perceptions of science and religion would not tolerate their open conflict, nor a muted state of nominal coexistence. To achieve a sense of inner peace I realized that I could not be tied to a static body of permanent "truth" whether defined by hierarchical authorities or ancient books. Nor could I adhere to a religious faith bounded by dogmatic creeds or dependent for illumination of truth upon unexamined occurrences of claimed miracles. Because my religious values were serving me as the ongoing stimulator and mediator of right actions, of purpose, I understood that they, too, had to be susceptible to the basic scientific notion of continuing revelation.

What I realized at age 24—from much seeking both within and without Christendom—was that Quakerism and science are each ongoing processes for seeking answers dependent upon personal experience. I knew then I had found what I hungered for spiritually as well as intellectually. Within Quakerism, relevant experience derives from melding a continuing inner search (a sufficient centering capacity to perceive guidance and inspiration from an Inner Light) with lessons gained from useful work and other aspects of daily living. And, while in science experience is more systematically observational and experimental, it is nonetheless under-girded and directed in its most creatively revealing aspects by similarly mystical access to new insights, by some kind of strange subjective awareness. (In 1984 I was given the opportunity to share with academic colleagues some of these ecstatic experiences, if not their spiritual connections, and they were published as Knot Tying, Bridge Building, Chance Taking: The Art of Discovery.)

Eventually, I discovered, too, that, beyond each being an alternative avenue to unanticipated insights, and despite the fact that their problem areas are usually different, both science and Quakerism require a balance between the prepared mind (which connects experiences) and the open mind (which accepts ongoing revelation). I appreciated more and more, therefore, that Quakerism and science have a uniquely wide, but insufficiently exploited, potential to interact to social as well as personal advantage.

Such interactions have taken place importantly in my life. One of the first instances was participation in 1958 in the establishment by Arab and international Quakers within Near East Yearly Meeting of a highly successful Quaker International Center in Beirut. On the model of Carl Heath’s "Quaker embassies," this Center presciently and almost unprec-edentedly provided a forum for open public discussion of such contentious issues as religion in relation to Middle East political tensions and the global politics and economics of oil. I wrote about this in an article, "Dar al AsHab, a Quaker Experiment in the Middle East," in Friends Journal, September 15, 1960.

Here, chance may also play key roles, but only—in a social context—when minds involved have been sufficiently prepared to integrate all relevant experience, spiritual and intellectual. Sufficiently prepared minds are encouraged by gathered lives, lives in which varied spiritual, work, familial, sociopolitical, recreational, and other aspects interact productively. This gathering of our lives and preparation of our minds requires continuous efforts on our part.

While early Quakers found solace and great inspiration in the holy Judeo-Christian books (the only religious traditions they knew), in no sense did they regard these as the begin-all and end-all for spiritual growth. While alluding often to these most familiar sources for solace and guidance in 17th-century England, George Fox, Quakerism’s founder, expounded nevertheless an unbounded faith, refreshed by new insights and experiences. "What canst thou say?" was his guiding admonition to Friends. Not surprisingly, scientists were among those attracted early to this spiritual dynamic of a nascent Religious Society of Friends and many other scientists have found it a fulfilling spiritual home ever since. (There is a need today for an up-to-date inventory of Quaker scientists. The most recent effort of which I am aware was one by Richard M. Sutton, Quaker Scientists, in 1962.) However, the problem remains that too few scientists yet realize that such a haven exists.

My own witness testifies that, in dispensing with creeds, Quakerism offers unique accommodation to spiritually hungry scientists (and others conversant with the processes of science and what it has yet to offer). I believe also that there are many scientists who, like myself, crave interaction with soul mates spiritually as well as intellectually. That is probably one very important reason why, especially during the last four decades, a number of new Quaker meetings have sprung up in proximity to liberal arts colleges and major universities. Too often, however, the Religious Society of Friends’ potential to attract scientists to a uniquely creative synergism between matters of the spirit and matters of the intellect still remains hidden beneath a bushel.

Calvin Schwabe

Calvin Schwabe, member of Haverford (Pa.) Meeting, is an interdisciplinary scientist who has carried out basic and applied research in medical, veterinary, and public health schools in the U.S. and abroad. A former member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Secretariat in Geneva, he has served for several decades as consultant on global health, food supply, and environmental problems to WHO, UNICEF, FAO, UNEP and other science-related governmental and NGO service organizations. He is the author of a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Quakerism and Science.