Dr. Jean Bieri: A World of Wonders from Electrons to the Cosmos

An obituary for Dr. Jean Bieri – written by GSC’s Executive Director, Peter Schuurman…

Our Global Scholar Dr. Jean Bieri died of natural causes, alone in his own apartment in Montreal, Quebec, on the weekend of September 25th 2021. This was sudden and unexpected, and we are in a state of shock and disbelief. Our condolences go to his family, for he was the fourth child of six, all who are still living in France and the Congo. His parents are deceased, but he has nieces and nephews across the ocean who will certainly feel a loss.

We also think of his many students and those who worked closely with him. He was a global scholar on multiple levels, and his passing is a loss to our fellowship and to those who were to benefit further from his unique double-expertise in science and theology.

May God’s mercy and compassion comfort all those who are baffled and grief-stricken. This season of pandemic has been a distress to many, and events like this, while not directly related, continue to quietly occur.

Jean has been in Canada since 2011, teaching at École de Théologie Évangélique du Québec (ETEQ), which is affiliated with Laval University. He applied to become a Global Scholar in 2019, after he saw an advertisement for us in a magazine which prompted his inquiries. He has since been part of our fellowship from his home in Montreal, where he has been completing his second doctorate and preparing for a fresh overseas placement. I looked back at his application for our guild and pieced together a few reflections on his life and faith. His family in France also provided some insights into his life.

Launching Rockets in the Congo

Jean was born in Madingou, Republic of Congo, 1955. His father, Michel, was an agricultural engineer and a deacon in the Evangelical Church of the Congo. He was known to have said, “In my family there will be pastors and scholars.” Well, Jean became both. His mother, Delphine Mboyo, was a farmer and trader, and Jean was the 5th of 10 children (including four who died before age three). As a child already, he spent his time inventing cars and other things out of bamboo, wood, matchsticks and tin cans. Later, he was more interested in mixing chemicals bought from pharmacies than studying for exams. Apparently he would glance at the academic material the night before the exam and still ranked first nation-wide in his class.

He did crazy things like inventing a device to grill chicken by using the rays of the sun. He asked his older brother in Belgium to send him chemicals, with which he made rockets he would blast off behind the family home. Apparently one rocket he launched flew several kilometres and that caught the attention of the President of the Republic, who then followed Bieri in his research from then on.

He left the Congo after this third year at the University of Brazzaville Marien Ngouabi in 1975 to continue studies in France in Toulouse–on scholarship from the Congolese state. He showed himself to be a brilliant student, and passionate about research. He was noticed by the father of physicist Albert Fert, who encouraged Jean to study with his son at the University of Paris-Saclay. Jean did his PhD under Fert, settling into the laboratory sometimes for 24 hours a day to carry out experiments in theoretical and experimental physics. When his dissertation was complete, Fert sent him to Chicago to do more scientific research, but at that time Jean felt a call from God to study theology at Fuller Seminary in California. Jean got an M.Div. from Fuller, and Fert must have been an exceptional scientist, as he went on to receive a Nobel Prize in 2007.

Intra-Planetary Travel

Jean was a quiet and thoughtful man who drank neither alcohol nor coffee. He was gentle and unassuming, and you’d have to be patient if you wanted to draw him out for conversation. French was his first language, Spanish was another fluency, and then he was quite competent in English, too. Thus for English speakers like me, we had a handicap in getting to know all of him. “I value listening,” he wrote. “I have an empathetic personality.”

An internationally educated man, Jean had theology degrees from Paris and Fuller Seminary, California (M.Div. 1990), and his PhD was in condensed matter physics from the University of Paris-Sud in 1985. A PhD in theology at the University of Geneva was an afterthought, but theology itself was an interest early on.

Dr. Bieri with his students in Armenia

As a seasoned bachelor, he admitted to over-working and feeling lonely at times. But he wasn’t bored. Activities that delighted him included hiking, jogging, playing soccer, strumming guitar, reading and watching scientific documentary movies. His big passion was travel, and he prided himself in being an “intercultural person.” He was born in the Congo, grew up in France, did his M.Div. in the USA, and was in Canada for the last decade. He also spent time in South Africa and India (Church of North India Seminary, Ahmedabad and Vasad Methodist Seminary). When it came to deciding on his next chapter, he looked backwards at where he’d been and said he would be open to Europe (France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, England), Asia (Singapore, India, Armenia, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines), Australia, New Zealand, or Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa). In fact, he’s taught at Lake Saven Orthodox seminary in Armenia some 20 occasions. So Dr. Bieri is one for whom the title “global scholar” is quite apt. He was certainly open to cross whatever political and geographic borders that the wind of the Spirit would take him.

He was also very ecumenical. He wrote: “I feel comfortable working with all the traditions stemming from the Reformation. On occasions, I have also worked with the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Having taught theology in various Christian traditions, I have learned to emphasize the shared core of the Christian faith.”

Teaching the Good Infection

When it comes to teaching, he wanted his student to catch a passion for the subject matter. He wanted to arouse curiosity, and demonstrate relevance by bringing up current events. He saw himself as a guide, helping students think creatively, critically, and analytically. He was there to build their self-confidence, help them ask good questions, and know their own learning styles. Students, he said, should leave his classroom with “a thirst for inquiry, which is necessary to being a good scientist.”

With students and colleagues in Vasad Methodist Seminary, Vasad, India

He was first of all a scientist, and he wrote a blog for us here giving an introduction to the complementarity he nurtured between his faith and his science. He knew science provided answers about when the world was created and how, but that it could never explain the whyThe Scriptures tell of God’s actions in history, and the human need for a Saviour. Science is a means by which “God helps humanity to cope with a world cursed since the Fall.” Jean compared science to the garments of skins made by God to clothe Adam and Eve: they offered protection and functionality. In this pithy comment we can see Jean bringing special and general revelation together in harmony, each with their blessing for humanity.

Quantum physics… from Gerd Altmann at Pixabay

When asked to explain his current research, he wrote about how he was a student of the interactions between electrons. He wrote:

My current research focuses on the analysis of the quantum-mechanical many-body problem in the presence of very strong particle-particle interactions by using the methods of quantum statistical mechanics and field theory, as well as diagrammatic techniques. The existence of strong interactions between electrons leads to the appearance of unexpected new behaviours of matter such as High-Tc superconductivity, Mott transition, Hall quantum effects, heavy fermions systems, and so on.

Publishing in some leading journals in both theoretical and experimental physics, he knew that working in underserviced universities meant he wouldn’t have the best equipment for experimental research. “That does not prevent me from doing cutting-edge theoretical research, though,” he added. He had high expectations for his vocation’s future.

University of Geneva with PhD candidates

He wrote that while completing his doctorate in physics, he was fasting and praying and he felt the Lord calling him to start a second PhD in theology. He wrote:

I have been working in both physics and theology, with the goal of knowing the Lord Jesus through an intimate relationship with him, daily walking with him through reading his Word and prayer, seeking his will, trusting in him and counting on him in everything. My relationship with the Lord allows me to manifest his presence and share his love and his blessing with the people around me.

The doctorate he was to defend this fall focused on Daniel 7, at the University of Geneva. He wrote that it was “an opportunity for me to not only spend time meditating on God’s Word but also to learn about the celestial world through Jewish apocalyptic literature.”

His Christian Worlds

Jean was part of a church planting team. He served on boards, including that of his church. He preached from time to time. He also served as the editor of Actualités bibliques, a magazine of the Canadian Bible Society.

Church of North India Seminary, Ahmedabad, India

Recently, he has done some partnering work with another Global Scholars, Dr. Stephen Ney. Steve wrote a few notes on this relationship that speak to the gift and promise that Jean embodied for his mentoring work in science and Christianity (LCI) with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IVCF).

We mourn the loss of Jean Bieri, not just to us and the LCI, but to his family, friends, colleagues, Global Scholars, IFES, and to the global church. In many ways Jean Bieri’s life embodied what IFES and LCI aspires to be: focused on Jesus, deep in God’s Word, generous in offering his considerable intellectual gifts and accolades fully in service to God and God’s people, multi-cultural, committed to our institutions of higher learning, and adept at working cross-culturally.

Over the past year, Jean played a vital role in the LCI, both by mentoring a young Congolese scholar and by designing a 5-week e-course in French on how the sciences and Christian theology intersect and can interact. In this course, which we plan to keep using for years to come, the clarity of Dr. Bieri’s thinking, and the patience of his teaching are remarkable. His students express gratitude for the careful input he has given them. In the LCI we will miss him greatly, and have trouble imagining how we’ll find anyone like him!

Alhough Jean had this very impressive CV, he was humble, gentle, and unassuming. He had no interest in being in the spotlight, but in spotlighting what is true. At LCI we are very thankful for the significant contributions he made in such a short time. But we lament our loss.

They needed someone who knew his theology but was competent in science and could speak fluent French. Few could fill such a position as fully as Dr. Jean Bieri.

God Picks Up the Pieces

These reflections draw attention to the terrible tragedy, and also travesty, of Jean’s death. So much potential yet for life, mentorship, and research so suddenly cut short, just when he was on the cusp of integrating the life work of two dissertations! He had so many resources and gifts to offer still! Maybe he was poised to be a shy successor to Dr. John Polkinghorne or Dr. Alistar McGrath—British Christian scholars with the same double PhDs. God only knows. Such lost opportunity makes me think of the “meaningless” theme of Ecclesiastes, where the Preacher reflects on how death renders so much of our achievements futile, like chasing after wind.

Yet at the heart of this Biblical book is the testimony that God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). There is a season to everything, even a season for human life like Jean’s and somehow God gives it all a special dignity. Toronto aesthetics philosopher and Biblical scholar Dr. Calvin Seerveld has his own translation of Ecclesiastes 3 in his book Take Hold of God and Pull, and he maintains that chapter 3 verse 15 sums up the wisdom of the whole book. He translates the Hebrew into contemporary idiom to read: “Whatever is and will be has already been: God picks up the pieces!”

Lake Sevan Seminary, Armenia

Its a comforting thought. There are pieces of Jean, to be sure, roughly scattered around the world: family relationships, scholarly writings, beloved students, and cherished friends. They may seem to lay in disconnected fragments. Yet our faith holds to this promise: God picks up all the pieces, and holds them in his fatherly hand. In fact, historical evidence for this lies in Jean’s Saviour Jesus Christ, who in resurrection picks up the pieces of our broken humanity in order to restore them to God.

Jean’s own spiritual life he defined to be one of prayer and meditating on the Bible, which gave him great comfort. He had a passion for sharing the Good News with others, and he confessed this proved difficult in secular Quebec. His spiritual gifts were teaching, preaching, wisdom and discernment, and he used them well. This is what he said of his life:

My desire is to know him and thus live by his life as it flows in and through me. I can see daily that he is with me, he guides me and allows me to share his love and his life with people around me.

Dr. Jean Bieri

Jean’s earthly life is now over, but we hold to the promise of a life yet to come. Better than any academic conference, this next world will be a reunion with those of every tribe and language, and with our Lord, the first of the resurrected, the One in whom both science and spirituality find perfect harmony. Yes. God picks up the pieces.

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