Exploring God, Religion, and Science

January 28, 2013—Rev. David J. Collins, S.J., has always been “fascinated by God and religion.” With an Ignatius Seminar that explores the relationship between religion and science, he imparts this fascination to Georgetown students.

Father Collins has been a member of the Georgetown community since 2004, where in addition to performing ecclesiastical duties, he works as a professor in the history department. Ordained in 1998, he has found it enriching to serve as priest at a university with roots in the Jesuit Order.

“As a priest at a Jesuit institution, you benefit from a lot of good will that was generated by hard-working and well-liked Jesuits from previous generations—something I have greatly benefited from, especially in the history department,” Father Collins said.

In his time at Georgetown, his roles as a professor and a priest have allowed him to work with students in a variety of ways. “On the one side, I know some only in my capacity as a professor. At the other, I know some only as a priest because of Mass at Dahlgren [Chapel] or confession or spiritual direction,” he continued. “And then there is every conceivable mix of the two.”

Father Collins believes that his service to the clergy has been divinely inspired, with the Holy Spirit guiding his path to the priesthood and then to Georgetown. All of his life he held a theological curiosity, but during his undergraduate career he began to investigate his own relationship with God.

As a senior, he applied to become an official member of the Society of Jesus.

“Even during a highly skeptical phase in my life, I found the big questions that theology poses intriguing and important as in no other discipline,” Father Collins said. “But the decision to enter religious life and pursue the priesthood had much more to do with an awareness of God in my heart than with any theological proposition or school of thought.”

Still though, theology plays a major role in Father Collins’ life.

He has published extensively on the relationship between Christianity and German culture, examining humanism and the writing on the lives of saints during the Renaissance and Reformation. In the classroom, he channels his interests into a popular Ignatius Seminar, Science and Religion in the West: Historical Perspectives.

Father Collins created the course two years ago, when Dean Chester Gillis asked faculty members to come up with seminars that are not only educational but also creative and globally relevant.

Science and Religion,” Father Collins said, “takes a broader perspective” than his research. It begins with influential Latin theologian St. Augustine and the dominant question of his time—should Christians study science, as the pagan Greeks do?—and ends with modern American debates about evolution. Students also analyze the controversial place of magic in the ancient world.

“The debates over magic in the Middle Ages are [that period’s] version of contemporary discussions over the relationship between science and religion,” Father Collins said.

“I’m currently doing a lot of research into learned magic, which includes things like alchemy, astrology, and divination,” he continued. “These were much debated in the Middle Ages by theologians and natural philosophers [scientists], who were trying to figure out whether the practice of ‘magic’ worked and whether it was morally appropriate.”

For Father Collins, the most rewarding aspect of his Ignatius Seminar is that it goes against the popular Western narrative that science and religion are mortal enemies. According to him, history shows that these two institutions work well together and that their cooperation often leads to good things for civilization.

“America’s religiously inspired hostility to evolution is the exception, not the rule, in the history of the West. It’s enjoyable to watch students’ jaws hit the floor when they see that, despite some newspaper polemic, Western scientific discovery has recurrently advanced thanks to religious insights and religious commitment of resources,” he said.

“The actual history of the relationship between science and religion in the West is so much more interesting than the sound bites of culture warriors on the left or the right.”

—Brittany Coombs