You could see Professor Karl Giberson’s students warming to his lecture as he began talking about a time when some of the most respected scientists in the world were caught up in the equivalent of a mastermind smackdown. The clash took place nearly 50 years before many of them were born. But Giberson’s description of the emotional and intellectual fireworks made them feel like they were ringside to this epic debate – one centered on the very existence of God.
The spark was astronomer Georges Lemaitre’s then scandalous idea about the creation of the universe: “The Big Bang Theory,” a term coined by fellow astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle and intended to be derisive. After describing the deeply contentious atmosphere that sprung up around the theory, Giberson asked his class for examples of other controversial creation theories. Students offered ideas ranging from the existence of multiple universes to suggestions that the universe is cyclical and constantly regenerating itself. Giberson was waiting for one example that was crucial to the discussion and sure enough a student hit on it: God created the universe.
Giberson smiled. He was getting to the heart of what he loves best.
“I teach courses that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science,” says Giberson.
In this case, the course Giberson was teaching was part of a Learning Community (LC) called “The Big Bang Theory and Other Scientific Artforms.” LCs at Stonehill combine two related topics and explore common themes. For this one, Giberson paired up with James Petty in the Visual & Performing Arts Department. Students explored science and religion and then compared reality to what is portrayed in plays, films and on TV shows, from the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” to “Inherit the Wind,” a renowned play that centers on the Evolution vs. Creationism argument.
A scholar-in-residence at Stonehill whose position is partly funded by a Templeton Foundation grant, Giberson is an internationally renowned expert in his field. In addition to writing nine books and lecturing around the world –including at the Vatican – his reviews and essays have been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian and websites that include the Huffington Post and CNN.com. Since arriving at Stonehill, Giberson has secured a second grant, valued at $200,000, to explore the significance of randomness in the natural world and its intersection – or lack thereof – with divine action.
“The most interesting part of the class was that Professor Giberson never told us whether he believed that science and religion could coexist,” says Lauren Bonagura ’14 of Rockville Centre, N.Y. “This forced us to develop our opinions and beliefs based on course readings and texts.” His other classes have included “Science & Belief” and “Does Science Disprove God?”
Embracing Knowledge Without Boundaries
Such classes are the kind of learning opportunities that thrive in an environment that embraces knowledge without boundaries, a central educational theme for Congregation of Holy Cross colleges. “In the pursuit of truth, we are obligated to study all sides of difficult issues in the Church,” says John R. Lanci, professor religious studies. “We educate with compassion and empathy, and we seek to educate always with justice in mind. These are the Catholic virtues that we stress.”
This type of exploration is particularly prominent in junior year, when students take classes – collectively known as the Third Year Experience – that raise probing questions about values, ethics, faith and belief. Many students say courses that explore the intersections of faith and facts have helped them grow intellectually and emotionally. “It’s thought provoking on an academic level, but also on a personal level,” says Samantha Putko ’16, a criminology major from Bristol, Conn.
Treating Others with Dignity and Respect
Giberson says that kind of growth fits perfectly with the vision of the Congregation’s founders, who saw education as a work of forming the whole person.
Jon Morasse ’14 of Greece, N.Y., says his experience in Giberson’s class and throughout his time at Stonehill has shown him that the importance of free inquiry is embraced by professors throughout campus. “Each time philosophical, moral or religious issues are discussed, whether in class or beyond, the multitude of perspectives is not only recognized but respected and given equal consideration,” he says.
In a recent issue of Stonehill Alumni Magazine, Giberson reflected on why such open and respective dialogue is so important. “I want to help my students think through issues that may inform their own journeys, regardless of what direction they are traveling,” he wrote. “A classroom should be a secure place where students can think about big questions.”
Information about Karl Giberson, his writings and upcoming speaking engagements can be found on his blog, www.karlgiberson.com