Rev. John Cunningham: When a priest and a physicist meet

The Rev. John Cunningham is an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago. But, his background may surprise you. He is the chairperson and an associate professor in the Department of Physics. He has a long history in the fields of particle physics and astrophysics. Medill Reports interviewed him to learn more about his faith and his studies.
Q: Tell me about your background. How did you get your start?

A: In high school I was always very much interested in mathematics, so my history of my education in some ways started with the science first. I was interested in particle physics – quarks, leptons.

Out here in Batavia, Ill. was this place called Fermi National Accelerator. My goal was really was to work at that facility. I think it came down to a picture I saw in a book about the accelerator.

I don’t have a dramatic Jesuit story about an uncle that was a Jesuit or that I went to a Jesuit high school and loved it. I didn’t go to a Jesuit high school. I grew up in Pennsylvania in the western part. There were very few Jesuits there. I never knew any. But, I knew the reputation they had, particularly in science, historically as well as contemporary involvement in universities.

They asked me what I would like to do when I was ordained. I said I would be very much interested in stepping back into a university job teaching. I would have to retool myself because I had been out of research, but it worked out.

Q: You got the call to be ordained after your postdoc and studying particle physics. Was your faith always as strong as your love for science?

A: It was fairly strong. I grew up in a Catholic family. I went to Catholic elementary school. I was faithful, but I wouldn’t call myself overly zealous. I did go to mass in college, but I don’t remember thinking that I was a superreligious person. I never thought that.

In fact, that was one of my concerns when I was entering the order. I said that I don’t spend my free time doing volunteer work. I didn’t teach on the weekends in a church teaching little kids religion. I am just a science person, and they were fine with that.

Q: Some say scientific theories come in conflict with faith. Does your faith ever come in conflict with what you study?

A: So there was this idea in many academic circles of separating the two, which I think goes on now, still. But in its core, I think, particularly in Catholic spirituality there was always a reverence for creation. It was a gift from God, and we’re here to enjoy it, and I think to explore it.

Now, as to how you do science and you come to its conclusions, then sometimes. But for me as a physical scientist, I find nothing. I don’t find a conflict. And there’s a long history of people like me, and lots of other Jesuits, and a lot of good Catholic people, spiritual people, Christian people, Muslim people who believe in God and can still do science and they don’t find conflict.

I always say I’m very privileged as a Jesuit because I get to do both. I can be a priest. I work in a church on the weekends. I work here in ministry, but I go to meetings to talk about supernova and other things. And I get to teach it too, so it’s nice.

Q: You don’t every find scientists and theories, like the God Particle and the Big Bang, coming in conflict with religious beliefs? (Play the audio link to hear his response.)

A: The God Particle is a funny story because the author of that was Leon Lederman and wrote a book called “The God Particle” and he was referring to the Higgs Boson. As a scientist I understood it as this was going to explain a lot of things.

I was a particle physicist and what they did to discover the Higgs was nothing against faith or religion or anything. It was basically science people using their mind and innovation and technology to dig through all this data and to find this evidence for this particle state.

A lot of people, for instance Stephen Hawking, tend to be not the most positive about faith. And Carl Sagan was a little tough too. There’s that idea that to be purely objective in your understanding of the world, to many of them means you have to reject religion and it’s kind of not objective stance that it takes. A statement of faith cannot always be proven or systematically experimented.

In many ways the two, science and religion, are best kept separate. That doesn’t mean they can’t talk to each other or work in tandem. But I think the framework in which science has evolved is very objective. And that’s great. That’s how good science gets done. I don’t think it’s good for religion to sometimes step in and say this isn’t how you should be doing it. That’s how they get upset.

It’s two separate things. Kind of like church and state. I think church and state is a good analogy. You can be a faithful person and still be a good American, but it’s good that we keep them separate. And I wouldn’t want the church telling the government what to do – really don’t. And I really don’t want the state to tell religion what to do. We’ve seen history where that causes a lot of problems.

Q: When I told people that I was interviewing a scientist who is also a priest I got a lot of raised eyebrows. And I think that comes from what you just touched on, which is that religion often butts heads with science. Do you see that often?

A: There’s such a spectrum of ideas. Right? So you still have people who are biblical fundamentalists who want to believe that everything in the bible is basically all that we need. And whatever statements are made, for instance, about Creation or the evolution – quote evolution of man – is really what they want to hold on to. So that crowd that can be quite vocal, and if you don’t have a discerning sense of what different faith traditions are saying and believing, it gets difficult I think.

And I always get frustrated as a church person because the science community is very good at monitoring. You know, when you publish a paper, there are reviewers and they give you feedback. They want you to come back and show how you got that number and did it make sense.

The religious community is this big, big group, and it’s not clear who the voice is. One religious group can come up and say something completely crazy and that in some sense reflects the whole religious community. So that’s a complicated thing.

For more from Medill Reports, click here.


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