Holy Curiosity
By Andrew Shaughnessy

Photos by Dan Saelinger / Trunk Archive

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Tommy McElrath was fascinated with the life in his backyard. Lizards lurked in the brick pile, tobacco hornworms in the tomato plants. He loved the grapefruit trees, because pill bugs hid beneath the woodchips piled around their trunks.

As a boy he would catch them and watch as they curled into little balls and rolled around in the palm of his hand. 

Years later, as an undergraduate biology student at Covenant College, a sense of wonder and curiosity still pervaded McElrath’s experience of the outdoors. On hikes, he would frequently wander off trail, chasing butterflies straight through clumps of poison oak and shouting with delight as he discovered tiny beetles scurrying among the rotting carcasses of fallen trees. His desk was inevitably littered with Mason jars — holes poked in the lids to keep his latest catch alive. He became a master builder of ramshackle ecosystems, a watcher of tiny worlds encased in glass: rhinoceros beetles and hawkmoths, praying mantises and wolf spiders. 

“Whenever I’m outside catching [insects], looking at things and trying to understand them, learning what they are, trying to figure out how to name them — that’s when I’m in my element,” said McElrath. “That’s when I feel the most joy — being outside in God’s creation and with His creatures.”

Today, McElrath serves as the insect collections manager of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, Illinois. Armed with a Ph.D. in entomology, the study of insects, he takes care of the survey’s collection of more than 7 million specimens, sorts through the vast database of knowledge, and ships preserved and labeled arthropods out on loan to researchers across the globe. In his spare time, he studies beetles — his specialty.

As a Christian and as a scientist, McElrath takes immense pleasure pursuing his curiosity, trying to dig deeper and discover new things. He looks closely at the natural world — closer than most — and sees the wonders God has made, the intricate processes and systems that link creatures and their environments. Yet throughout his life and career McElrath has been forced to grapple with a tension between his two worlds, the popular narrative that tells him that his faith and his science are at odds.

Conflict, Conflation, and Assumptions

“Some Christians look at evolutionary biologists like heretics,” McElrath explained. “[They’ll argue] that evolution is this sinful view of the world and there’s no way you can be a Christian if you believe in evolution as well. … Then [on the other side], a lot of scientists see those kinds of Christians as backward fundamentalists who refuse to accept any new knowledge. [They think] they’re willfully ignorant and refuse to look at the facts.” 

The popular perception is that faith and science are locked in a battle of worldviews, and for most of his life McElrath has had to engage with that narrative. Raised in a Christian home, he was taught that God created the world and that Scripture was infallible, but his parents didn’t force a singular view of how God created the world. In public schools he learned evolutionary history and fell in love with biology.

At Covenant, he embraced the idea that all truth is God’s truth and dove into the history of science — the very idea of a rational, ordered universe grounded in Christianity. He encountered Christian students who viewed scientists as foes of their faith, and others who experienced as much joy as he did through the lens of a microscope. The more he learned, the more he loved it — the hunt for knowledge, for a deeper understanding of the systems by which God has precisely ordered the world.

Yet still, that narrative of tension lurked just beneath the surface.

“For years I didn’t know what to think,” said McElrath. “But I didn’t think that a lot of scientists were Christians. I thought it was this hostile field where you go in and everyone hates you if you’re a Christian. … When I got into the sciences, what I actually found was a group of people who are very accepting as long as you do good science. I found my community. I found a group of people who are incredibly curious about everything.”

“Christians outside of science often assume that the scientific community is this spiritual wasteland of abject materialists who hate Christians, but that’s not the case at all.

Doug Sponsler, a Christian entomologist completing a postdoctoral research program at Penn State University, had a similar experience. He grew up in a PCA church, then studied at Cedarville University before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Ohio. Like McElrath, Sponsler entered the sciences with a low-simmering burden of assumptions.

“Christians outside of science often assume that the scientific community is this spiritual wasteland of abject materialists who hate Christians and will hunt you down and fire you if they find out that you’re a Christian,” said Sponsler, “but that’s not the case at all. … There’s maybe the odd individual, but Richard Dawkins is not characteristic of biologists or the culture of the scientific community. That’s one guy who writes flamboyant books.”

Sponsler didn’t find militant atheists among his fellow scientists. Instead he found regular people with spiritual questions just like anybody else, very willing to talk about matters of faith, so long as you come on grounds of mutual respect rather than kitted up for combat. 

“I’ve had hourlong conversations with scientific colleagues about matters of faith that were not awkward,” he said. “I didn’t have to stand up on a chair in the office and start preaching to have these conversations. In fact, the only way to not have those conversations is to intentionally avoid them, because the opportunities come up at every turn.”

For McElrath, Sponsler, and countless other Christians in the sciences, the daily work of science is not a battle with their secular colleagues. Rather, the battle is with their own sinful natures.

“My training as a biologist initially caused me a lot of angst, mainly as an undergraduate, in my view of the Bible,” said Sponsler. “For a while my response was this desperate campaign to reconcile these two worlds that didn’t seem reconcilable. … There are seasons like that where you’re hitting the hard ideas … but it’s not the daily experience. … The daily intersection between faith and science is very similar to the intersection between faith and any other career. Questions of: Am I going to love my neighbor instead of competing with him? Am I going to love God instead of loving the idols of careerism? These are the daily challenges of faith, the real substance of Christian discipleship in the academic workplace. The questions and answers you arrive at in your metaphysical speculations really don’t help you very much when you’re facing the temptation to be arrogant and self-serving, to accept the empty values of the currency of academia: recognition, glory.”

“It’s a very competitive field,” McElrath added. “It’s easy in science to become very self-serving, self-focused. … My faith has helped me stay grounded, realizing that … the ultimate end is not to glorify yourself, but instead to glorify God and to serve others.”

Delight > Conflict

McElrath likes to use this illustration of a fundamentalist Christian and an atheist scientist out in a field. In the metaphor, the Christian looks around at the flowers, the bees, the trees, the ground beneath their feet, and the plants growing around them, and says, “Wow. God created all this. This is really beautiful.” The scientist goes out into the same field, looks around at the flowers, the bees, the trees, the ground beneath their feet, and the plants growing around them, and she says, “Wow. This is such a magnificent product of millions of years of evolution. This is really beautiful.”

“They’re coming to the exact same conclusion from two different perspectives,” McElrath said. “I think both [secular] scientists and Christians value the same things. We both value the world around us. We both value curiosity. We both value the beauty of other animals and the complexity of the created order. … But both sides kind of get hung up on — ‘how did it get here exactly?’”

As for McElrath, he doesn’t see a distinction.

“God created the world, and He made it really complex,” he explained. “Science helps us figure out that complexity.” 

Too often, conversations surrounding faith and science are reduced to an argument of origins. The evolution/creation debate can be loud, drowning out the voices and contributions of faithful Christian (and secular) scientists, and at times making people of faith and secular scientists unnecessarily suspicious of one another. It’s not that the questions of creation and evolution aren’t worth thinking through or talking about, and it does matter who gets credit for the beauty and intricacy of that metaphorical field. But when Christians look at science and scientists primarily with suspicion, when they become distracted by issues on which there is a wide spectrum of acceptable, biblical views, they miss out on the joy of discovery, the remarkable revelations of scientific exploration, and the poetry of the natural world.

It’s not that the questions of creation and evolution aren’t worth thinking through or talking about, and it does matter who gets credit for the beauty and intricacy of that metaphorical field. But when Christians look at science and scientists primarily with suspicion … they miss out on the joy of discovery, the remarkable revelations of scientific exploration, and the poetry of the natural world.

“When people find out that I teach biology, rarely are they interested in the wonders of the immune system,” said Tim Morris, a Covenant College biology professor. “They want to get ammunition to push back against the naturalists. So, while 99.9 percent of science is common-grace things that we can embrace and wonder at with unbelievers, unfortunately all the air gets sucked out of that, and we wring our hands over that 0.1 percent. We covet arguments that would help us ‘win.’ These are heart issues. … Evolution and creation become proxies … and what’s lost in all that are the working scientists who are just fascinated by the world around them — the unfettered delight in the things they find out about … beetles, for Pete’s sake.”

The Joy of Discovery

When McElrath talks about his work, the path of the conversation inevitably diverges again and again into soliloquies on the wonders of the insect world. He waxes eloquent about millimeter-long parasitic wasps that eat caterpillars alive and moths with markings like eyes on their wings designed to ward off predators. There’s a beetle that catches mites with its suction-cuplike mouth, then, slowly — like a prisoner tunneling out of a cell with a spoon — it scrapes through the captured mite’s protective shell, injects it with a digestive enzyme, and sucks out its insides, leaving only a desiccated husk behind.

One time, while dissecting a beetle from Thailand, McElrath discovered that the species’ aedeagus (AKA male reproductive organ) was three-quarters the length of its body. No one knows why.

More recently he discovered two tribes of beetles that have no known males. It’s a scientific mystery that he aims to solve.

“It all starts with curiosity,” said McElrath. “The really cool moments in science, the ones that I get most excited about [are the ones that make] you stop; when you say: ‘Huh. That’s weird. I don’t know what that is.’ … My interpretation of Genesis [is basically that] God wants us to be curious and to delight in the world around us, to use the eyes and ears and minds that we’ve been given to understand the wonderful world that He’s made.” 

There’s a common misconception that mankind has discovered pretty much everything there is to discover. Sure, we’ve still got to figure out a cure for cancer and colonize Mars, but as far as knowing about the creatures that walk the Earth, we’re good — right? But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Scientists estimate that only approximately 20 to 50 percent of species on earth have been discovered and described. Many of those species are insects. “Right now [we know of] about 350,000 species of beetles and about 5,400 species of mammals,” said McElrath. “If you put all of life on Earth into a big metaphorical bag and pulled one out at a time, one in four is going to be a beetle. [So] I’m pretty sure that God likes beetles.”

“Once you get a little bit of background knowledge, it’s like you’re given a new pair of glasses [and you can suddenly see] this whole world of discovery waiting for you,” he added. “It’s nonstop. You become unsurprised by the unknown.” 

Scientists such as McElrath work to fill in the blank spaces on the map of human knowledge — blank spaces that we don’t even know are there. They look at a world awash in nouns and verbs, identify the pieces, and turn the chaos into sentences. 

Of course, there’s a tangible application to all those discoveries too.

Natural history surveys, such as the one McElrath works for in Illinois, function as giant repositories of knowledge. Once scientists have organized a baseline of biodiversity information for an area, they can make informed decisions about how to respond to threats from invasive species. Data about insect populations tracked over time can tell a story about changes in the environment and water quality. 

In California, entomologists have intervened several times to save the multibillion-dollar citrus industry from invasive species. Others were instrumental in finding the specific type of mosquito responsible for spreading malaria, allowing scientists to target the species and rid Europe of the disease, saving millions of lives.

“More people are killed worldwide by diseases from mosquitoes than anything else,” McElrath said. “A major call to Christians in the Bible is to ease the suffering of others. If you want to make the most difference, you should study medical entomology.”

Holy Curiosity 

In the popular narrative, Christianity and science constitute opposing worldviews: facts versus faith, the book of nature versus the book of Scripture. But science is not a worldview. It is a methodology, an organized way of observing the world and gathering knowledge — one that can be used to learn more about the world by believers and nonbelievers alike. When our primary lens for faith and science is one of worldview conflict, we not only alienate our brothers and sisters in the sciences, we become distracted and miss countless chances to wonder at the beauty and complexity of God’s creation.

“God made us to be creative, curious,” said McElrath. “We [scientists] are trying to organize the world around us, to discover it and make sense of it and bring order to what we perceive as chaos. [It’s] a very biblical response for us as image-bearers.”

During the interviews for this piece, over and over again the same words kept coming up: delight, joy, curiosity. These were scientists talking, men of reason, logic, and cold, hard data — the sort that society stereotypes as humorless nerds in thick glasses and lab coats. Yet when I asked them to pinpoint the moment that they knew they wanted to become a scientist, the moment the natural world captured their imagination, they became poets. They described the mysterious architecture of DNA and the myriad wonders of the immune system, the love lives of beetles and the odysseys of bees, miniature metropolises wriggling beneath the rocks and the daunting blank spaces on mankind’s map of the natural world, just waiting to be explored.

A holy curiosity had caught hold, and it would not let them go. 

“I tell my biology majors, ‘Don’t be surprised if at some point as we’re working here you find joy in it,’” said Morris. “That joy and delight come from God, and it’s a shame to have that reduced to ‘give me more tools to beat on the naturalists.’ It’s not that naturalism is not a problem in our time, but if it wasn’t science that was being wielded by naturalists, it would be something else. Naturalism has been with us for a long time, but you kind of let Satan win if you let the origin disputes color all of science.”

Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer based out of Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Covenant College, he has lived and worked in England, South Sudan, and India, honing his craft with a focus on non-profits, startups, and international affairs.

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