Science, Theology and Jane Austen

Science, Theology and Jane Austen


November 10, 2014

Susan Waldstein is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University. She has an interest in natural philosophy and will offer a new course on Science and Theology in Spring 2015. She agreed to meet in her home and answer a few questions. Her chair, where she prefers to sit and read or work, is set beside a large window which looks out over a small lake. She has a remarkable view of the open Florida sky.

1. When I was young, I was always interested in science. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had chemistry sets and I did science projects with hamsters, rats, mice, and plants. In the summer, I worked at a lab at the University of Santa Barbara, and I wanted to go to MIT. But my parents wanted me to go to Thomas Aquinas College, so they sent me there to visit. After a year, if I still didn’t like it, I could go to MIT.  But I visited, and I just loved it. I realized it would be a place to deepen my intellectual understanding of the faith.

2. I met my husband, Michael, at TAC. We were married after my senior year. We moved around quite a bit while he was still in school—from the University of Dallas, to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and finally to Harvard University. We moved to Notre Dame, where Michael taught after earning his second doctorate, and then to Gaming, Austria, where he taught at the International Theological Institute (ITI).At this point, we had eight children.

3. While I was at TAC, I became more and more interested in the philosophical side of natural science. I have stayed interested in that, and bided my time until our family life was at a point where I could pick up my studies again. I loved homeschooling, but I put my interests in science and theology on hold for a long time. At ITI, for the fist time, I was in a position where I could start studying again. I had older children who could help around the household and watch the younger children. So I went to class and studied natural philosophy and theology.

4. I received my Master’s from ITI in 2002. I began teaching as Assistant Professor of Theology, and at the same time, I earned my licentiate. My thesis was on the theological significance of natural hierarchy.

5. When we moved to Ave Maria University, I began writing my doctoral thesis for the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. I finished my S.T.D. from Fribourg in 2013 (my thesis was entitled: “Mercy and Self Gift, Exploring the Implicit Connections between Charles DeKoninck’s Evolutionary Biology and Theological Principles”). I’ve been Adjunct Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University since 2008.

6. I’m currently working on a number of projects related to my interests. I have a grant from the Stein Center for Social Research at AMU to take a class in Biology and write two papers on the philosophical and theological questions that come up in the course. From those papers, I will develop a new course on theology and science, which I will be teaching in Spring 2015. I’m also organizing a conference on Intelligent Design, Thomism, and Evolution. I’m just finishing an article on natural hierarchy, which is based on my work for my licentiate thesis. I hope to publish some articles from my dissertation as well. And I hope to work with Dr. Dan Guernsey (Chair of Education, AMU) on his project for helping Catholic schools learn how to teach science from a Catholic Perspective. He’s working on how to teach what’s true in modern science without the materialism and reductionism that usually go with it.

7. One thing that attracted me to Ave Maria was that the sciences were being taught, as well as philosophy and theology. It seemed like a good place for me to work on my project of the interface of philosophy, theology and science. I felt that I might be able to contribute something to the sciences here if I could develop a course that looks at the philosophical and theological issues of science. Also, the fact that there were many Catholic families living so close to the university was very attractive. We love being able to ride our bikes to the office, to teach, to church. The community of professors is wonderful.

8. I’m most grateful for my husband and my children, for the fact that he encouraged me to stay home with them and teach them instead of earning money. That he contributed so much to our family life—reading out loud and listening to music with the children every night. And he still encourages me to study, to continue thinking and reading whenever I get the chance.

9. The book I’m most excited about at this very moment is Pierre-Marie Emonet’s The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Being.

10. I loved traveling around Europe in our huge Volkswagen van with as many of the eight children as possible. I had boxes of food, and books, and I would read aloud, nurse the baby, and make ham sandwiches. I would try to read a novel that had to do with where we were going. We read The Boy Knight of Reims before we went to the Cathedral at Reims, and Hittite Warrior before we went to an amazing museum in Switzerland where they had a collection of coins from that period.  One time I read a history of architecture, another time, a history of sculpture. I loved being with the whole family together in such a little space, sharing these beautiful things together.

11. If I had a month off, I’d go to the mountains, to read, write, pray and just be in mountains. I miss the Alps. But honestly, I just enjoy reading and writing and praying more than anything else, and I can do all that at home. Traveling has many attractive aspects, but it’s hard to keep your routine.

12. Everyone knows my morning routine: An hour in the chapel, a five-mile bike ride.

13. If I could go back in time it would be to the time of Jane Austen. My favorite of Austen’s novels is Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read them all many, many times, but I’ve probably read that one twelve times.

14. I never leave home—I never even leave a room—without at least five books in my hand or in my bag. I never want to be any place without books.

15. I relax by drinking tea and reading novels or books about the philosophy of biology.

16. Teaching is about arousing wonder in students, a passion for the truth, a desire to be disciplined about acquiring the principles, and helping the student see the connections between things.

17. I love Renaissance polyphony: Tallis, Monteverdi, Palestrina. I remember being really tired when I was pregnant with Hannah (our youngest), and Michael taking all the children to a party at ITI. I went out on the terrace on a lawn chair and listened to Tallis, looking up at the millions of stars (this was up on a mountain). It was a beautiful experience.

18. One thing I appreciate at Ave is that we get to spend more life with the students than just in class. We see them at Mass, outside of class, walking around campus. Year after year, I’m able to keep up with students, and often teach them a second time. They let us know when the get married, and when they have children. We have a real community here.

19. My favorite gift was the Bible my parents gave me. When I was 13, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and in it, the mother tells the daughter that she should read the Bible and Shakespeare every day, because as far as she could see, education makes the difference between a good life and a bad life. I thought to myself that if someone would do that because they wanted to be educated, and if I believe it is the word of God, then shouldn’t I read it every day? And so I began reading the Bible every day.

20. One of the most influential intellectuals for me is probably my husband. Besides that, Aristotle and Thomas.

 21. I love to teach and think about the connections between physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, and theology. Thinking about how everything came forth from God, and how creation developed and evolved to the point of man, and how human history developed to the central point of the birth, life and death of Christ, and how we are continuing the life of Christ in the Church until the end of the world, when everything comes back to God through Christ. I like to think about how, for the sake of elements, for the sake of molecules, for the sake of stars, planets, plants, animals, for the sake of man, Christ is going to bring it all back. There is intense value in studying nature, because humans are the ones who can see God reflected in it, and praise him for it.