Sunrise Magazine Online

Faith of a Scientist

By Curtis Beach, Minister, The Neighborhood Church of Pasadena, California

A tribute to Robert A. Millikan, from the pulpit of the church of which he was an active member.

That Robert A. Millikan, man of science, was also a man of religion should be cause for wonder to no one, yet it is surprising how many people think it extraordinary that a man dedicated to scientific pursuits should also be deeply religious. It was particularly gratifying therefore to find in the editorial of the New York Times, published a day or two after his death, such wholehearted tribute to Dr. Millikan as man of science, man of education, and man of God:

"There are many tests of greatness. Some men are accounted great because they push forward the boundaries of human knowledge. Others are honored with this title because they have educated and inspired their students, helping these younger men to go forth and revolutionize our understanding and our technology. Still others are spiritual giants, setting examples for the multitude on the relationship between puny man, God, and the infinite universe of which we are the transient inhabitants. Usually a man is considered great by one only of these criteria, more rarely by two. Robert A. Millikan, who died on Saturday [December 19, 1953] at the age of 85, was that extraordinary case, the man who must be considered great by any or all of these definitions.
"To generations of scientists still unborn Dr. Millikan will undoubtedly be remembered for his fundamental work in nuclear physics, particularly in relation to our knowledge of the electron and the cosmic rays. . . . [He will also be remembered] as one of the great physics teachers of the past half-century, and in particular as the man who built the California Institute of Technology into one of the nation's greatest seedbeds of scientific talent and research ability. But all of us — scientist and non-scientist alike — cannot help but have been inspired by the example he gave of the brilliant prober into nature's secrets, who openly declared his humility in the face of God's wondrous handiwork."

Born the son of a Congregational minister, raised in a religious home, Robert Millikan spent his whole life close to the church. His work as a scientist not only convinced him more firmly of the truth of religion, but made him want to see religion grow. He had the vision to perceive the narrowness of most of our churches, and especially of their theology; but instead of rebelling against the church, he stayed within it, trying to help it expand in its thought, and, at the same time, trying to help the unseeing and scoffers, among the public and in the field of science, see the value of those religious concepts and ideals which are of permanent worth.[image] The cornerstone of his whole concept of the universe was his concept of God. He saw that this universe is primarily spiritual. To him the organization of the universe was far more the reflection of an Idea than it was an arrangement of matter. Within human life — which is the one thing that gives the universe its meaning — he saw that the greatest values were spiritual, not physical. The efforts of man's mind — his vision, his dreams, his goals, his aspirations, his achievements in art, in science, and in literature, in the development of ideas which make for progress in civilization — these were the things that he felt gave life worth, not atoms, molecules, highways, and buildings. In other words, he saw the universe as the garment of the cosmic Mind; and he saw the earth as the home of human aspiration.

To him, most of the current ideas of God were far too limited. He would have agreed perfectly with the title of a new book, Your God Is Too Small. With any ideas of God as a thick-bearded old man looking down out of heaven, he had no patience — nor with theologies that confined God within the dogmas of any church, or fitted him into the sacramental system of any institution. To him, God must not only be as big as man's growing concept of the universe, but bigger. As the scientist speaks of an expanding universe, so man's concept of God must expand with it. Just as no scientist dares to be too precise in expressing his concept of the universe, but must always allow a large measure for the unknown, so man's concept of God must always be clothed in elastic terms, and must leave a large margin for the unknowable.

Dr. Millikan saw the physical universe as a system in which there is order. The universal operation of cosmic laws, the universal regularity of chemical and physical reactions, the fact that natural phenomena can be studied, catalogued, and in some measure predicted — all this gave him evidence of a purposeful and intelligent design. Where there is order, there must be intelligence behind it.

His faith was expressed in the words of Einstein which he liked to quote by heart:

It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life, perpetuating itself through all eternity — to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe, which we can dimly perceive — and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the Intelligence manifested in nature.

Rather than thinking of God, the Creativity in nature, as the originator of the process who stands apart from it, Dr. Millikan thought of God as being within the process. He liked to speak of the "immanence of God." The laws of gravitation, cohesion, precipitation, and so on, rather than being the invention of God, these were part of God. As a man's mind dwells in and gives vitality to his whole body, so the mind of God fills the universe; and all the movements and processes of the universe are part of the activity of the indwelling Mind.

In his Autobiography he quotes the words of Newton, whom he regarded as "probably the greatest analytical mind of all history." Says Newton:

The main business of [science] is . . . to deduce causes from effects till we come to the very first cause, which is certainly not mechanical.

Dr. Millikan underlined the words, "which is certainly not mechanical." This Dr. Millikan said again and again in his own way, ridiculing those scientists who insisted that the universe could be understood in mechanical terms alone. To him, the universe was not so much a great machine, as the evidence of a great Idea.

Once when he was asked, "Do you believe in a supernatural God?" he replied, "If there is any kind of a God I do not believe in, it is a supernatural one." He did not mean that he thought God was less than nature, but that he thought of God as working in, through, and with the laws and processes of nature, not contrary to them. To him, the natural processes of the universe were the evidence of God, not some alleged setting-aside of these laws, or "miracles." He saw the activity of God as completely natural and normal.

Recognizing the impossibility of the human mind ever understanding all of the universe, much less understanding all of the Mind revealed within it, Dr. Millikan had little patience for the confining chains of man-made theologies. He says, "We have in this country dozens of different religious sects, and just as many different theologies, all necessarily wrong in some particulars — since there obviously can be but one correct theology, and certainly no one knows what that is." Therefore he preferred to leave God undescribed and undefined, simply seeing him in "the intelligence manifested in nature" and in the idealism and power of the human spirit.

One of his first efforts to breathe a liberalizing spirit into religion, and to bridge the gap between science and faith, came back in the '20's, at the time of the famous Scopes trial, which he regarded as a deplorable event in itself, but which he thought could be fortunate if it set men thinking. This, you remember, was the trial of a teacher in Tennessee for teaching the evolution of species, this teacher being opposed by the forces of dogmatic religion, because evolution was contrary to a literal interpretation of Genesis. Dogmatic religion won, and the teaching of evolution in Tennessee was forbidden. Afterwards Dr. Millikan compiled a little booklet, consisting of statements by eminent scientists and clergymen on the harmony of science and faith.

A few years later, in 1927, he published a small book on Evolution in Science and Religion. This was a daring title, for in those days it was a shocking thing to some to speak of evolution in religion. In that book he traced the development of religion, especially in the Hebrew-Christian tradition, from the most primitive beginnings to modern times. In it he shows how man has grown in his ability to understand himself and his universe and to express spiritual truth. He says that religion is concerned

first with one's conception of the meaning of existence, of what is behind these various phenomena of life, coordinating them and giving unity and significance to nature — in a single word, with his conception of God — and second with his conception of his own responsibility in this world, with his own place in the scheme of things. . . . These two ideas have always been associated in all religions. . . . But notice how these conceptions of God and duty change as man learns more and more, and gets farther and farther away from the earliest stages of his development.

Dr. Millikan was militant in his opposition to both fundamentalism and atheism. The fundamentalist insists on a literal interpretation of the Bible; the atheist denies the existence of God. Each of them, he says, "asserts a definite knowledge of the ultimate which he does not possess. Each has closed his mind to any future truth. Each has a religion that is fixed. Each is, I think, irrational and unscientific. The fundamentalist," he says, "is so because, in his assertiveness about the ultimate and the unknown, he trenches on the known, and asserts as true what we now have every reason to believe is false, such as the six-day creation of the earth or the rotation of the sun about it. The atheist, on the other hand, is irrational and unscientific because he asserts that there is nothing behind or inherent in all the phenomena of nature except blind force," and because the atheist denies the possibility of the existence of the God that he does not see or know. "Atheism," he says, "is essentially the philosophy of pessimism, denying, as it does, that there is any purpose or trend in nature, or any reason for our trying to fit into and advance a scheme of development; and any such denial is a direct contradiction of the evolutionary findings of all modern science."

Dr. Millikan's religion was not solely concerned with the concept of God. He was also concerned with that other side of religion, human ethics. He insisted that man's concept of God and his concept of his responsibility to his fellows went hand in hand. His philosophy of ethics was summed up in the one word "duty." He did not speak much of the privileges of man as a child of God, but he spoke a great deal about the obligation of man to his fellows, because we are all God's children. He says:

A sense of personal responsibility — a consciousness that "I ought or I ought not" — is today very closely identified with what I mean by the spirit of religion.

What constitutes a man's duty, for him, was determined by what was good for other people. It was a sense of responsibility that was world-wide. It is expressed in the words of Montesquieu which he loved to quote:

If I knew something beneficial to myself, but harmful to my family, I would drive it out of my mind. If I knew something advantageous to my family, but injurious to my country, I would try to forget it. If I knew something profitable to my country, but . . . detrimental to the human race, I would consider it a crime.

With Alfred North Whitehead, he liked to say: "Religion is world loyalty."

To Dr. Millikan, man's largest duty was to all mankind. His philosophy of human ethics was summed up in the obligation of men to cooperate with God in His plan for our development — and he saw God as being not only in the universe but also in man. He speaks of the human spirit as "that part of Him that becomes us." He says: "It is our sense of responsibility for playing our part to the best of our ability that makes us Godlike."

A man's religion is never divorced from his life, and Dr. Millikan's was not dreamed up in the quiet, rarefied atmosphere of his study. It was forged on the painful anvil of several personal tragedies. Many people, knowing only his successes, are unaware that his life was touched by deep personal sorrows. Many years ago, there was the loss of a little grandchild. Subsequently there was the loss of his son, Glenn, on a mountain-climbing trip; and more recently the loss of his grandson and namesake, in an accident. All of these and other griefs might have tempted lesser men to become discouraged. But with him, they tempered his character, strengthened his faith in God, and deepened his sympathy for all human beings.

In recent years, since his retirement from the active leadership of "Caltech," he has given a great part of his time to speaking in colleges on the harmony of science and religion. He felt that perhaps his last contribution would be in helping people to bridge the gap between these two.

To us who knew him well, especially in this little church which he loved, perhaps the chief mark of his greatness was his humility. Never ostentatious, he forgot his laurels easily, feeling ever just as one among men. Of all virtues, the one which he prized and practised most fully was sincerity. That is why men so truly loved him.

It seems to me that the words which Michelangelo wrote of Dante are a fitting tribute to Dr. Millikan:

"Escorted by great thought, this star of virtue revealed to us blind mortals the hid eternities."

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