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About four and a half years ago, as I was starting to think more deeply about religion and science, I reached out to Professor Karl Giberson, one of the giants in the interaction of science and religion. I wanted to pick his brain a little, and he responded almost immediately. The next day, by coincidence, he had also received a note from a Baha’i biotechnology researcher who was about to teach about religion and science. He put the two of us in touch, thinking that she and I would have some things to talk about.
Boy, did we ever.
Lisa Ortuno was a dynamo, and for the four-and-a-half years I knew her, she challenged assumptions, explored profound ideas, and worked tirelessly on interfaith relations, LGBTQ issues, and of course, elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science. Sadly, she was killed in a car crash on December 16, taken from this world far too soon. So in her memory and honor, I want to share a few thoughts about how she impacted both my life and my work, as she did for so many people.
When Sinai and Synapses was just the germ of an idea, I wanted to create an interfaith group of people who were dedicated to both science and religion, and ideally, personified both. Lisa was one of the first people I invited to the group. “I have no idea what might come of this,” I said, “but I’d love you to be a part of it.” Her response: “This just sounds fun! I’m in!”
So for two years, Lisa was part of our initial Sinai and Synapses Fellowship, and quickly became one of our greatest assets and advocates. She pushed us to think about what we were doing and why; created one of our most viewed videos; and interviewed a series of friends and colleagues to explore the question “Are We More Than Our Genes?” In fact, she created so much content that I had to space it out so that people wouldn’t get overwhelmed by it.
Perhaps my favorite moment was when she ran a webinar about a year ago on “Baha’i Participation in Uplifting Science and Religion Interfaith Initiatives” as part of the Association for Baha’i Studies of North America. She did a better job explaining Sinai and Synapses than I do!
But it was truly on a personal level that allowed me to connect with her. I learned so much about the Baha’i Faith through her — about its compassionate nature, its embrace of scientific inquiry, and its passion for improving the world. Yes, some of that was through the texts she shared. But more importantly, it was how she lived her life.
As Lisa herself said:
[In] thinking about my development as a Baha’i, when I became exposed to the faith, as you might imagine, I was a little bit skeptical, and so what I did, because I was trained as a biologist, was I applied the scientific method to the claims of the faith. And I did this for three years.
And what I found as a result of it was that my relationships improved, and some of them I had been struggling with. And so this was a real, actual, scientific result in a lot of ways. And I continued to test it. And I found that for me, that this was the path that I wanted to take.
Too many religious people profess one set of values, but then are cruel or closed-minded in their day-to-day lives. Lisa, however, was a true exemplar of the best values the Baha’i Faith possesses — curiosity, kindness and humor.
In the Jewish tradition, we say, “zichronah livrachah,” may her memory be for a blessing. From a scientific perspective, we may not ever truly know what happens after we die. But the impact that Lisa had on me, on those who knew her, and on the world at large, will truly bless all of us.
The mysteries of which man is heedless in the earthly world, those will he discover in the heavenly world, and there will he be informed of the secrets of the truth; how much more will he recognize or discover persons with whom he has been associated. Undoubtedly the holy souls who find a pure eye and are favored with insight will, in the kingdom of lights, be acquainted with all mysteries, and will seek the bounty of witnessing the reality of every great soul. They will even manifestly behold the Beauty of God in that world. Likewise will they find all the friends of God, both those of the former and recent times, present in the heavenly assemblage. – Baha’i World Faith, p. 367.
Lisa was a seeker of truth in all its forms and ways. May her passion, kindness and curiosity inspire us all.