The Way of Discovery: A Personal Journey of Faith

Henry F. Schaefer III

Professor Henry F. (Fritz) Schaefer is one of the most distinguished physical scientists in the world.  The U.S. News and World Report cover story of December 23, 1991 speculated that Professor Schaefer is a “five time nominee for the Nobel Prize.” He has received four of the most prestigious awards of the American Chemical Society, as well as the most highly esteemed award (the Centenary Medal) given to a non-British subject by London’s Royal Society of Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Moreover, his general interest lectures on science and religion have riveted large audiences in nearly all the major universities in the U.S.A. and in Beijing, Berlin, Budapest, Calcutta, Cape Town, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Paris, Prague, Sarajevo, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sofia, St. Petersburg, Sydney, Tokyo, Warsaw, Zagreb, and Zürich.

For 18 years Dr. Schaefer was a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, where he remains Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus. Since 1987 Dr. Schaefer has been Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Center for Computational Chemistry at the University of Georgia.

I would like to take as my theme the title of a book by Michael Polanyi entitled The Way of Discovery. Polanyi was a well–known physical chemist in England who later became even better known as a philosopher. In The Way of Discovery, he makes the point that scientists are not robots, mechanically filling up notebooks with data and coming to inevitable conclusions. To put it another way, science is not just an exercise in advanced logical positivism.

Rather, Polanyi argues, there is much of the artist in the good scientist, and he or she approaches the laboratory with a wealth of presuppositions and intuitions about how things should be.

I can confirm Polanyi's thesis with an example from my own research. In 1978, one of the most distinguished organic chemists in the world suggested that it was just a matter of time before someone would make the cyclopropyne molecule. Since cyclopropyne would contain a carbon–carbon triple bond in a three–membered ring, my own chemical intuition was very skeptical about such a suggestion. Guided by this presupposition, we were able to demonstrate that cyclopropyne does not involve a triple bond.

One can find pieces of Polanyi's thesis scattered throughout the philosophy of science. For example, Albert Einstein wrote in 1938 that, "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the physical world." So intuition and presupposition in science are by no means harmful, as long as they are continually refined in the dialogue with observation.

The Way of Discovery

Intuition and presupposition are necessary ingredients to discovery. I am a theoretical chemist by profession. Prior to my first involvement with Freshman Chemistry ten years ago, I had spent most of my time as a professor doing research in theoretical chemistry. My research consists of using mathematical equations and computers to understand the electronic structure of molecules. More specifically, we attempt to predict the shapes of molecules, their energetics, their spectra, and how they react with other molecules.

As Polanyi points out, the real excitement of science is the excitement of discovery—to observe things that no human being has ever seen, to discover a new and potentially important molecule or a new type of chemical reaction. If you were to ask the average Ph.D. chemist what Professor Henry Schaefer's most important discovery was, he or she would probably say "the structure of methylene."

From time to time, people actually do ask me "What is your most important discovery?" And I respond that the most important discovery in my life occurred during my fourth year on the faculty at Berkeley. This was not a time of professional turbulence in my life. Although I was still an assistant professor, I had been told that the chemistry department was going to recommend my promotion to tenure. Nor was it a time of personal turbulence, since I had already been married for seven years to the most wonderful woman in the world. At the time of this discovery, my students and I were doing some very interesting theoretical work on the identification of the interstellar molecules hydrogen isocyanide and protonated carbon monoxide.

Some Personal Discoveries

However, the most important discovery of my life was my discovery of Jesus Christ. In 1973, I discovered the Jesus Christ of history, the Jesus whose life is described on the pages of the New Testament.

The Jesus I discovered 20 years ago was rather different from the one I had heard of as a boy in church. That Jesus was a well–intentioned, infinitely tolerant person who laid down some simple moral rules which all religions now embrace. The real Jesus bore some resemblance to the Jesus of my youth, but not very much. In particular the real Jesus sharply challenged the religious leaders of His time. And He claimed to be the only way to establish the relationship with God for which we were originally created, stating that all who claimed otherwise were thieves, robbers, and false prophets. The real Jesus was a very controversial person.

I discovered that on a Sunday morning 1,960 years ago that Jesus rose physically from the dead. I discovered that the resurrection of Jesus is not only historically true, but that it's one of the best–attested facts in all of ancient history. If you haven't made this discovery yet, I would strongly encourage you to examine the evidence carefully. A good summary of the evidence for the resurrection is given in Frank Morrison's book, Who Moved the Stone?

I discovered that when the apostles spoke of Jesus being the Son of God, they didn't mean that God was His Father in some vague and undefinable way. Jesus' closest companions meant that He was God the Son. Jesus Christ, the carpenter from Nazareth, was and is God almighty.

I discovered that I could know for certain that I have a relationship with God forever. Now this may strike some of you as a terribly arrogant statement. And it would be if it were based on anything I had done. But I'm going to spend eternity in relationship with God because Jesus died on the cross for my rebelliousness and disobedience. It is not because of anything I've done, but in spite of everything I've done.

I discovered that the New Testament is a reliable historical document. When I became a Christian 12 years ago, I wasn't sure of this, but a book by the British classics scholar F.F. Bruce changed my thinking in this regard. And as time went by I came to have a deep respect for the Old Testament as well, because I discovered that Jesus spoke personally of its authenticity. I want to emphasize here that a belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible need not carry with it a wooden or unnaturally literalistic understanding of every verse. To quote a statement of faith that I like very much,

We affirm that God in His work of inspiration (of the Bible, that is) utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers who He had chosen and prepared.

In this context, my personal opinion is that the universe is probably 15–20 billion years old. I am convinced that such a view is completely consistent with the teaching of the first chapter of Genesis. For those of you who want to go into this matter in depth, I recommend James Montgomery Boice's commentary on the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

I discovered that I could share my new–found faith in Jesus Christ with friends and with strangers. I discovered that most of the questions that people have about Christianity boil down to about ten distinct questions, and that there are intellectually sound answers to all ten.

One of my most interesting experiences occurred about 15 years ago. My wife, Karen, and I went with a friend to a visit a husband and wife who had visited our church. We should have expected something unusual because this couple was only about 25 years old and they lived in a $250,000 house. Furthermore, the man who answered the door was about 6'8" tall. As we sat around getting acquainted, I asked Tom where he and Susie had moved from, to find that they had just moved up from Los Angeles. When I asked what kind of work Tom did, he replied that he was in professional sports. I was still oblivious to all this and so was Karen, but fortunately the third member of our party recognized that we were talking to the starting forward for the Golden State Warriors [professional basketball team] and blurted out, "Oh, so you're that Tom Abernathy!" The best part of that evening was the ending. An hour after that awkward introduction, Tom and Susie Abernathy received Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.

I discovered that there is no problem too heavy for Jesus. Fourteen years ago, I spent several months at the University of Texas. On a Sunday morning (December 9, 1979, to be exact) I had just returned from church and was tidying up a few things in my office in Austin. My wife called and told me that our five–month old son Pierre had just died of crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome. Whatever illusion I had that life was just a bowl of cherries disappeared forever in that instant of time. Without going into the details, I can stand here tonight and tell you that never before nor since have I been so overwhelmed with the certainty of the love of my heavenly Father. There is no problem in your life that Jesus can't bring you through.

I discovered that life with Jesus begins at the moment of conversion, [through] death, and then on to eternity. Jesus isn't only interested in extracting a prayer of submission from me. He wants to change my whole life. That's a tremendous challenge.

Finally, I discovered that the intellectual challenge to fully understand the depths of the Christian faith is quite comparable to that required to plumb the depths of molecular quantum mechanics. I've been at it in earnest for over twenty years and haven't come close to exhausting the wealth of 20th century Christian intellectual writing. Almost anything written by C.S. Lewis is good—my advice is to read it all.

If you want to understand existentialism, read Francis Schaeffer. A book to start with is, The God Who Is There. If you like biography and history, as I do, read Arnold Dallimore's two volumes on the great evangelist George Whitefield. I've read a lot of biographies and Dallimore's Whitefield is the best. If you want to concentrate on Bible Study and have gone through the lighter commentaries, check out Martin Lloyd–Jones' eight volumes on the Apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans. Lloyd–Jones speaks with authority to both the intellect and the heart. And finally, if your passion is theology, make an investment in Carl F. H. Henry's six volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority. I think Carl Henry is the most outstanding theologian of this generation. His wisdom overflows each of these volumes.

I don't want to leave without reminding you that there are many spiritual counterfeits today. If you don't have a church of your own, look for one that is centered on Jesus Christ and based on the Bible.

I'd like to close this message with a series of four questions that Francis Schaeffer asked a young woman who had come to Switzerland searching for truth:

  1. First, he asked her, first, did she believe that God existed—God as clearly revealed in the Bible, who is infinite and yet can be know personally?
  2. Second, did she recognize that she was a sinner in light of God's standards?
  3. Third, did she believe that Jesus Christ truly came in space, time, and history?
  4. And fourth, would she bow to Him and accept what He, Christ, did for her individually by taking her deserved punishment on the cross?

Copyright © 2001 by Henry F. Schaefer III. All rights reserved.