Adam Hincks is not the first professor to have taught a popular undergraduate course called Faith & Physics — but as a cosmologist and Jesuit priest, it’s clear that he’s suited to the task.
Offered as part of the Christianity & Culture program at St. Michael’s College in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Faith & Physics explores the complex interplay between religious faith, culture and physics. It’s a class where students learn that physics and theology share a long history rooted in the most profound of philosophical questions.
Hincks is sometimes asked whether faith and science contradict each other. But he says that’s a minority view, noting that while some physicists — Stephen Hawking being a famous recent example — may be atheists or agnostics, others lead robust faith lives. He cites the example of Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell.
Though more conceptual than historical in orientation, Hincks’s class also covers what might be the most famous philosophical exchange of the 18th century — the correspondence between German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) and the English philosopher and cleric Samuel Clarke (1675–1729).
“They were writing about space and time, and about the implications their ideas had with respect to God’s relationship to the world,” says Hincks.
[The course] lets you see the richness of both faith and physics from different perspectives. On any given topic, I’d lean more toward the physics side — but in class another student might approach the same question from a theological angle. It made me realize there are different ways of looking at the same thing.
Former student Daniel Hoogsteen is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Faculty of Information. He graduated as a member of Trinity College in 2021 with a major in physics and a minor in Christianity & Culture; that same year, he took Faith & Physics.
In both disciplines, says Hoogsteen, “you’re asking the big questions: How do things work? Where did we come from? What is the nature of the world that we live in? We’re complicated creatures, and when we ask those questions there’s space for us to take in ideas from spirituality as well as science. I think this course is a nice nexus in which to have that discussion.”
There are, in fact, four other science and math-related courses in the Christianity & Culture program — including one called the Bible & the Big Bang, which Hincks created himself. How is the interplay between physics and religion different than that in other STEM fields?
“Physicists love breaking things down into the simplest components,” Hincks says, referring to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s characterization of his specialty as one that encompasses the most essential “rules of the game.”
“Physicists ask, what are the rules whereby things happen most fundamentally? They tend to be bottom-up kind of people, as John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and Anglican priest, observed. I think that gives them an interesting perspective in the way they might approach God.”
No prior knowledge of physics is needed to take the course, and students come from a variety of academic backgrounds. That’s something Ava Spurr really appreciated.
“The course was so different than what I thought it was going to be, in the best way possible,” says Spurr, who’s in her fourth year as a member of St. Michael’s College studying astronomy and astrophysics, as well as the history and philosophy of science.
“It lets you see the richness of both faith and physics from different perspectives,” she says. On any given topic, “I’d lean more toward the physics side — but in class another student might approach the same question from a theological angle. It made me realize there are different ways of looking at the same thing.” Spurr says Faith & Physics inspired her to add scientific history and philosophy to her program, the better to look at the original underpinnings, frequently rooted in spirituality, of many scientific ideas.
We offer an academic space where the perspective of faith is welcome — not required, but honoured. I think it’s important for many of our students to be able to examine faith in an academic setting: in a place where it won’t be ridiculed or dismissed as irrelevant, but will be taken seriously.
Given that it’s a Christianity & Culture course, Faith & Physics makes a close examination of the relationship between physics and Christianity. Hincks notes, however, that other faith traditions have also treated physics in their own writings.
“We’re definitely open to other points of view in the class,” he says. “In their research papers, some students will look at other religious traditions, other ways of faith and how they relate to physics. A significant minority of our students come from non-Western backgrounds, whether they be Christian or non-Christian; I think that having that variety of perspectives makes the course richer.”
The world of classical physics is highly predictable: quantum physics, on the other hand, trades in uncertainty. It’s tempting to wonder, therefore, whether the 20th century’s quantum revolution has brought physics even closer to faith — which, as the Bible calls it, is “the evidence of things unseen.”
Hincks himself is uncertain about this. “But I suspect that quantum physics has made physicists a little more open-minded: not necessarily to religion writ large, but to the idea that there’s something more to the world than what we get out of our own equations.”
Hincks is pleased that the course saw a big increase in enrolment this year, possibly filling a need for a more holistic approach to science. Centuries ago, one cardinal famously remarked that the Bible teaches one “how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go”; but a course like Faith & Physics shows that distinction is not nearly so rigid. And, according to Hincks, it creates an environment where both science and religion are accorded equal respect.
“We offer an academic space where the perspective of faith is welcome — not required, but honoured,” Hincks says. “I think it’s important for many of our students to be able to examine faith in an academic setting: in a place where it won’t be ridiculed or dismissed as irrelevant, but will be taken seriously.”