An Interview with Professor Jeffrey Reimer

Professor Jeffrey Reimer is the Chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and the head of Berkeley Faculty Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. He sits down with To An Unknown God to share his views on science and faith and his experiences as a Christian professor.

Due to space constraints, this interview has been condensed and edited from its original form.

TO AN UNKNOWN GOD (TAUG): How did you become Christian and when did you decide to pursue science?

PROFESSOR JEFFREY REIMER: I grew up in a church-going home, and my family went to a small Lutheran church. There was a revival meeting that I went to in seventh grade. That was the event where I responded to an altar call and accepted Christ as my Savior. That decision has both informed and directed my life since that time.

Science is a passion I’ve had for all my childhood memories. Although I was just a little boy, I remember the excitement of the first American to orbit the earth. That time was when science was special in our culture, so it was easy to get excited about science. In sixth grade I gave a talk to my class on air friction, and I still have the grade from my teacher who gave me an A+ and said that I should be a professor someday. Both my personal relationship with Jesus and my passion to be a scientist really come from childhood.

TAUG: In the culture back then, was there a tension between science and faith as there is now?

REIMER: I did not perceive a conflict between science and faith at that time. Astronauts were portrayed in the media as Christian men, sci fi movies like Forbidden Planet invoked God as creator of planets, and most of all science was seen as the chief protagonist in the battle against the “godless” Soviets and “Red China.”

TAUG: Many Christian students studying science have a hard time coming to terms with both now. Was there a time during your undergraduate or graduate studies when you struggled with that?

REIMER: When students declare themselves to be Christian in front of their faculty and peers—there’s plenty of evidence for condemnation. But I never really saw these two parts of my life as in conflict with each other in undergraduate, graduate school, or starting here as a professor.

I never had this angst of, “Oh, I can’t be a scientist because it’s contrary to Christian faith,” or vice versa. In fact, right after my PhD in 1980 when I went to IBM in New York, as part of a church organization, I went to Baptist churches up and down the East Coast making presentations about science and Christianity. A lot of Christians struggled with accepting the authority of science in their lives, and I tried to assure them that the authority of Christ in their lives was not threatened by the preeminence of science in our culture.

TAUG: What were your thoughts about the emerging struggle between science and faith, when you were making your presentations?

REIMER: What I saw from the Christian community was that they felt scientific discovery and the particular origins of life were threatening their Biblical worldview. I was befuddled by that, but I understand that there are some of our Christian peers who have a very different interpretation of the Bible than I do—literal seven-day creationists—and that’s a community that is in conflict with science. But it’s so far out of mainstream Christianity that it’s hard for me to get all worked up about that.

On the flip side, some scientists get angry because they see some Christians declaring that the conduct and observations of scientists are tainted to support their own atheist worldview. I think that makes many scientists really angry, and this is unfortunate. When I look at what I call the “extreme Darwinists,” like Richard Dawkins, (retired Oxford University professor of evolutionary biology and author of The God Delusion) I don’t see that person as being a common voice in science at all. I think he’s as extreme in the scientific community as a literal seven-day creationist is in the Christian community. It’s a very small number of people that have very deeply-held beliefs and yes, people like Richard Dawkins are threatened by Christianity.

When I talk to students and colleagues, I try to avoid those two extremes. I don’t engage with people who are in that literal seven-day community and people who are in the Dawkins community because there is no point to it really. There are a huge number of Christians and scientists who are in between and are confused. I try to speak to both communities about how scientists have no interest in telling Christians how to live, and how Christians don’t have any interest in telling scientists that they’re a special class of sinners.

Scientists are not a special class of sinners, and Christians are not a special class of anti-scientists.

TAUG: Then, do you see science and faith as separate realms, related, or integrated?

REIMER: For me, the revelation that’s clear in Scripture and in my experiential life—when I walk and talk with Jesus every day—are very real to me, although I understand that there’s faith in their construction. Similarly, I do science and write about it every day and that’s also very experiential. But it also is a certain kind of faith. You have a hypothesis, which is based on nothing more than a lot of educated guesses, so I see them in a very similar realm. Both look to have data to reinforce the faith that you have. I think all Christians want to know, “What is God saying to me today?” and look for a way to do that, while scientists want to know, “What is nature saying to me today and how do I find that?” So their paths are similar. And maybe because they are so similar, the two extremes have grown. It’s like living with your brother. You’re different but you’re close, and that’s how conflict can arise too.

I don’t do evolutionary biology, and people in that community might feel differently. But I do a lot of quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics and evolution are probably two of the most tested hypotheses in all of science. There’s yet to be a test that shows that they aren’t correct. The question for Christians is, “And so?” And so, does that really matter to your faith? Is it something that denies the authority of the Scriptures or the authority of your own walk with Christ? The answer is no.

TAUG: Would you say that your career as a scientist has affected your faith?

REIMER: Anyone who is successful professionally outside of the ministry has to ask, “To what extent has my faith been critical or important to my success?” In my case, I would say absolutely. You think of me as a scientist, as someone of knowledge, but I’m really a professor and my calling is not only about science, but also about relationships. When I look at being a professor and at students in a classroom, my understanding of who Jesus is, has informed me of how I engage students. You may have had or heard of professors who are cynical and bitter. I have colleagues who are like that. Having a personal relationship with Christ formed by Scriptures really turns that around. If you are imbibed with the Holy Spirit, you can’t be a bitter, cynical person—they’re in contradiction with each other. Which is not to say that they can’t happen—all Christians are failed and continue to fail, even though we have our faith. But it really helps me understand who I am and what I need to be in these relationships. I can’t be cynical and bitter because that’s not a place Christians can go and be Christ-like.

TAUG: Berkeley has a reputation of being unreceptive towards Christianity and other religions. Have you experienced this in your relationships with your colleagues?

REIMER: I am unaware of any [bias] against me personally. But I have seen [bias] against others and I have overheard things said that are deeply [intolerant] about my colleagues. I’ll give you a systemic example: if you are a professor in the arts and humanities, you cannot come out as a Christian until after you have tenure.

If an untenured professor in the humanities stands up and welcomes you in the name of Christ or shares their faith in student meetings, they feel as though they are jeopardizing their tenure decision. If you are in the biological sciences and do the same thing you’re perceived as jeopardizing your career.

A tenure decision is ultimately made by your peers. My junior colleagues who are not tenured will come to me at our faculty Christian group and say, “You cannot use my name in public in association with this group until I get tenure.” Only after, do they suddenly become more open. This is because in the very charged and subjective atmosphere associated with tenure, an affirmed Christian worldview might be perceived by some to limit the range of your scholarship.

However I don’t want students to think of professors as being some sort of martyrs. There are many segments of life in which if you identify as a Christian, you are going to experience some judgment from others. It’s true in science, it’s true in academia, but it’s also true if you’re a garbage collector or work at Starbucks. The Gospel has a very real edge which makes people feel really uncomfortable. Jesus makes it very clear that that’s going to happen. Thus it should not be considered a surprise.

On the other hand, there are professors whose visibility as a Christian is not seen as a problem, and they feel comfortable talking about it. I certainly do, and everybody in my department knows who I am and what I stand for.

TAUG: When you went through the tenure process here, did you have to experience not being open about your Christianity?

REIMER: During my interview I told one of my colleagues that I wanted to find a church where I could be a Sunday school teacher because that was an important part of my life. There was no problem, and I didn’t feel like that was going to be threatening. You see, engineering is a little bit different than some of the pure sciences. But I never felt like I needed to be shy about that.

TAUG: If you were to speak to a secular student seeking Christianity, what would you say to him or her?

REIMER: I do that often because I’m an academic advisor. I’m assigned 25 people, usually freshmen, and when I first meet them I’ll ask them these questions: “Who are you, and why do you exist?” Those are the two questions that all of us need to answer, and what’s funny is that almost every student acts surprised. As far as “who” they are, they always give their name—which is an interesting response to that question. Only once, has a student directly addressed the question “Why do I exist?” And you know what that student said? “I exist because my parents had unprotected sex.”

Those two questions are really the important questions in college; everything else is a detail. When you start down that path, you’re on a path of discovery about the spiritual nature of humans. What would be the origin of that nature, and what’s a framework in which I can express that nature in an uplifting and healthy way? The answer is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the path I try to go down.

TAUG: Have you been able to discuss that in depth with students?

REIMER: No. I’ve gone as far as we just did, and that’s usually it. I had an interview once with an editor from a campus Christian magazine. She asked an interesting question, which was to please name the students that had come to Christ as a result of my engagement with them. The answer is I can’t. The woman from the magazine was very blunt. She said, “Well, if you can’t do this, then the interview is over.” And it was. Two things came to mind: Am I supposed to be naming them? Is that how you want to measure me as a Christian professor? In the faculty Christian group, we talk about evangelism and have serious discussions about these two questions. And I, being sort of a pseudo-Calvinist in my personal theology, feel it is very important to engage people. But I’m not sure if leading them to a certain set of words that I identify with being saved is really what I’m called to do. I try to be as upfront and engaging as possible about the two questions—who I am and why I exist. I try to engage students into going down that path. But your faith is a deeply personal thing. I’m afraid that a program that leads you to a certain response may not measure what it means for me to be a Christian professor. I like to think of myself as ministering to people around me. I don’t think of myself as someone who counts the names and numbers of people who are “saved.”

TAUG: On another subject, what do you think about Christians who try to use science to prove miracles in the Bible?

REIMER: I have a concern about people who try to use science, which is a human construct, to affirm the miracles that Scripture shows God as Creator. If we know deeply who God is and what God is about, then the notion of using something humans constructed in our brains to affirm God strikes me as unnecessary. Why would it make my faith deeper if the parting of the Red Sea could be explained by known meteorological phenomenon? Might that not constrict God to our current scientific laws in order to accomplish miracles? God could certainly use current meteorological things, but if I look at what Scripture says about who and what God is, then God does not need our scientific constructs to accomplish His will and his revelation.

If you share this point of view, then you can appreciate why I am puzzled at people who choose to use their intellect and talent as scientists to try to prove that things in the Bible are consistent with science, a human construct. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent—God can create, or un-create, our scientific laws. So I have never really devoted any emotional, personal, or intellectual attention to whether or not the miracles in the Bible need to be verified.

I like a book I read in graduate school called Knowing God by J.I. Packer. The book reminds me that if you look very carefully in Scripture, the nature and character of God, is in many ways truly terrifying because all of what we see around us is within God’s will to change in any way. Yet some see God as bounded by the laws of science, as though once these laws were created God stepped back and our perceived reality must work within those laws. In this context, water could not have turned into wine without a known process, such as fermentation. I see the character of God as being unbounded by physical laws, and the miracles must be taken literally as events that transcend our understanding of the natural world and reveal the character of God.

It is that character and nature of God, then, that informs me about the Gospel story. I think about what it must have been like for a God of that character to present Jesus as, at least at that moment in time, a mortal human being. It clarifies for me the real sacrifice that happened on the cross on our behalf.

TAUG: What do you think about Christians who try to use scientific evidence to support historical accounts given in the Bible, such as Noah’s Ark or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?

REIMER: I believe that the accuracy and historicity of the Bible are foundational to Christian apologetics. When science affirms Biblical tradition, our fear of God deepens, as does our understanding of Christ as Savior. But in the end it is faith, not ancient pottery, that identifies us as Christians.

TAUG: Here’s a random question: who do you think would win in a fight, Jesus or a Tyrannosaurus Rex?

REIMER: I’m not quite sure what this means. It could be a metaphor for, “Do I think dinosaurs existed at the same time as man?”—those are sort of seven-day questions.

Why do we have to set up this construct in which Jesus, and Noah, and everyone else, was standing there with a Tyrannosaurus? There’s no need for that. Christian faith doesn’t need that, and it sets up conflict with the community who isn’t offended by Christians. So let’s not go there. I take scientific evidence at its face value. There were dinosaurs. They existed x millions of years ago, and I don’t have a problem with that.

But if Jesus is the Son of God, and the authority of the Father, God the creator, comes through him then I know who’s going to win that battle. I think your question has many different sorts of layers to it, and I’m not quite sure where you’re going with it.

TAUG: I think we were trying to go in a silly way.

REIMER: Then the silly answer is, oh yeah, Jesus is the super one.

 

Jonathan Chen and Chloe Ng are both second year students from Fremont, California. Dinosaurs are extinct. Jesus is not. Enough said.

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