John Williams Scientist with Faith

Dr John Williams is one of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent group of Australian scientists concerned with advancing solutions to secure the long term health of Australia’s land, water and biodiversity.. We’ve provided this interview as part of a series on Christians in the workplace.

John Williams

What is your occupation?

I have worked in Universities and CSIRO as a research scientist studying ways to make agriculture more sustainable and how society can care for the living environment, its rivers, landscapes, estuaries and wetlands. This means I work across the natural resource sciences of hydrology, ecology, soil science and agronomy.

Tell us about your family.

I was born, baptised a Presbyterian, and lived as a young child on the Snowy Mountains near Tumbarumba. Then most of my youth was spent on a sheep station perched along the Tinderry mountain range that feeds the Queanbeyan River. My family supported the Bush Missionary Movement and for many years we gathered in homes and woolsheds as the travelling pastors and my mother rounded up the station communities for worship. Later Merrick Webb of the Queanbeyan Methodist Church included ‚Woolcara‚ Station on his travelling preaching circuit. As cars and roads improved our family travelled to town for links with the Methodist Church in Queanbeyan. The Billy Graham Crusade of the 1950s began my call to live as a disciple of Jesus. I went to Sydney University where I studied Agriculture and completed a doctorate in Soil Science and Hydrology. I then spent the next 10 years overseas working as a scientist in universities in Canada, USA and Fiji. On my return to Australia I joined CSIRO. Over 30 years later I retired from CSIRO and now operate as an independent scientist. I have three adult children with my first wife, Joy, who died of cancer when the children were teenagers. I married Ruth who also has three adult children. We now have nine grandchildren. So life has been full with much joy, great sadness, and underpinned with enduring hope and love. Woven through all of that has been an ever present sense that God lives and dwells with us.

Where do you worship?

Kippax Uniting in West Belconnen has been my spiritual home and place of nurture since 1990. It has challenged and informed my thinking, faith and practice. It has encouraged my ministry in the application of scientific knowledge to the care of our environment.

How did you come to choose your career?

As a farm boy I saw and was distressed by soil erosion, overgrazing and loss of habitat. My father worked hard to find ways to produce wool and beef and not harm the land. He taught me how tricky and difficult that was, and encouraged me to study and see if we could learn how to do it better in Australia. My Dad loved the land and he would say how much it hurt him to see it harmed. He also said he felt it must also hurt God to see us harm the creation. So science and how God‚’s creation might be better managed by us was a strong theme all my life. I could never understand how people would marvel of the beauty of the Murrumbidgee River landscape and say how good God was to have create such beauty – then do or think very little about how to make sure the way we grew our food, built our cities or extracted our water did as little harm as possible to the wonder that the God of creation gave us. So that why I am who I am.

Do your Christian beliefs or ethics influence you in your work?

Yes, most certainly. But Christian thinking and theology on how we should consider care and use of the environment has been disappointing. It remains very low on the Christian agenda. Our focus on personal salvation has driven Christian perspectives to be very homocentric. What about the rest of creation? Does the work of Jesus have a voice in the redemption and health’¦ wholeness of the rest of creation? I think it will become of critical importance in the future. I see Paul telling us that Christ was about redeeming the whole of creation — that means to me a lot more than human beings. In that context I feel that God has called me to contribute to Christian thinking on the matter of how we care for and nurture our planet. I feel our profligate use of resources must be hurting God a great deal. We have a great need for Christian thinking, faith and action to help turn around what we are doing to this planet. It is long overdue, and I hope not too late.

Have you ever experienced God‚’s particular help in a work situation?

Yes, many times. I feel seeking out what we do with our lives is all about finding where God‚’s call and our creative strength and energy come together. In this coming together I have found a sense of God’s presence, calmness, a clear purpose and a wonderful freedom‚ that all is okay, nothing can separate us from God’s love. On occasions I have had to say what I know to be scientifically true to communities and industries who did not want to hear. In these experiences I have found a quiet assurance. This is how I know God to work in my life.

Are there support groups or associations for Christians in your field?

There are many scientists who are people of faith‚ slightly more than most other professions actually. To me being an active research scientist and a modern Christian makes good sense, although I am often asked how you can be Christian and do serious science. There are few associations to support Christians in science although there were groups at University who I found important to me at the time. The Student Christian Movement was one. I would be delighted to talk to young people who are thinking of a career in science.