What does Christ have to do with Chemistry?

Cyclostreptin, of the molecules David has made
Cyclostreptin, one of the molecules David has made. © David Vosburg

David Vosburg is associate professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, California. Here he writes about how his faith enhances, and is enhanced by his science.

A friend once asked me, “What does Christ have to do with chemistry?” He was challenging me to see how my faith might inform my plans to pursue a PhD in chemistry, and also how my understanding of chemistry might enrich my faith. I did not have a ready answer for him, so the question lingered in my thoughts for several years.

My answer developed over the following years, through prayer, reflecting on the Bible, reading many books, and talking with other Christian academics. I found a few passages in the Bible that seemed relevant to me: “all things were created through [Jesus] and for him,” and “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16,17); “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3). What would that have looked like? It almost seems a little crazy to think of Jesus existing (though not as a human) before the Big Bang. But if he truly is God, that means he was not himself created and so must have been around in some way from the beginning. The late Dallas Willard would say that Jesus was the greatest chemist that ever existed. I am awed by this, even knowing just a small part of the universe myself. I respond by loving God and embracing science as a joyful form of worship and discovery, delightfully learning about God’s thoughts and designs at a molecular level.

As a molecule maker (like Shannon Stahl and Cale Weatherly), I especially resonate with J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation: human creation in humble response to God’s role as creator. In The Silmarillion, he writes:

Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without any thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.

My ability to create comes from God’s own creativity; he gave it to me. Tolkien’s concept of rejoicing in this gift of creativity reflects the joy and inspiration I experience as a synthetic chemist. I hope my students see this joy in me and grow to feel it themselves, too, as they experience the thrill of making molecules—perhaps ones that no person has ever even thought of making before!

Molecules are beautiful. I delight in them, and I believe God does, too. Making new molecules (or making old ones in new ways) is a privilege and a cause for joy and worship. How might a chemist worship God in a distinctive way? An example might be my chemistry-themed adaptation of Psalm 148:

Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD from the classroom, Praise him in the laboratory, too.

Praise him, all his molecules, Praise him, all his proteins and nucleic acids.

Praise him, all alkaloids and steroids, Praise him, all you sweet carbohydrates.

Praise him, you manifold terpenoids and you polyketides and peptides.

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.

He formed them from the elements; he decreed how they should bond.

Praise the LORD from the NMR, all you chemists in industry and academia, whether you be famous or not,

carbon and oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen, electrons that do all his bonding,

you fluorine and chlorine, light hydrogen and heavy iodine,

all alkanes and alkenes, every alkyne and aromatic ring,

all amines and aldehydes, ketones and carboxylic acids,

esters, amides, and anhydrides, alcohols and ethers.

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is revealed in our every molecule.

He has raised up for his people the Christ, the praise of all his saints, of the church, the people close to his heart.

Praise the LORD.

© David A. Vosburg 2013

David A. Vosburg is an associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in Claremont, California. His research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, medicinal natural products, biomimetic chemistry, green chemistry, and the relationship of science and Christianity. He regularly partners with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and wrote a discussion guide for the film “From the Dust: Conversations in Creation” (2012). The preparation of this blog post was supported by a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program.

19 thoughts on “What does Christ have to do with Chemistry?

  1. michala February 27, 2014 / 10:33 am

    I always smile when I see a car sticker claiming ” thank god for Darwin”.ironic?excuse me, but I always thought jesus was the son of god and god created the heavens and the earth.god is alpha and the omega and is outside time.therefore no timeline is required if creation happened if/ when the big bang occurred.it does sound like myth or totally impossible but anything is possible with god?

    Like

    • michala February 27, 2014 / 11:42 am

      I understand jesus was referring to himself and god when talking of alpha and omega.thought I should clarify as my comments may sound simplistic at times.

      Like

  2. Bob F February 27, 2014 / 7:44 pm

    I can find nothing specific to Christ in Vosburg’s argument, except that’s his deity of choice. However, replacing “Christ” with any other deity would seem to alter nothing in Vosburg’s argument, and sacred books for virtually all religions can be used to support the idea that “all things” derive from the referenced creator(s). Creating is, after all, what a creator does.

    Like

    • davosburg February 28, 2014 / 3:23 pm

      Dear Bob F,

      I apologize if my post was unclear. Perhaps I should have specified that the friend who asked me the question in the title was a Christian (in fact, the pastor of my church). So the logic of my response was formulated for an assumed Christian audience (who might be skeptical of chemistry or of science in general) and not as any kind of argument defending Christ’s relevance to chemistry to non-Christians. The post is probably most helpful as an affirmation to Christians that Christ is very relevant to chemistry, and that they are therefore encouraged to explore and enjoy it. I did try to word it in a way that would be understandable to a broader audience. I was certainly not building an apologetic argument in the post that Christ is relevant to chemistry and other deities are not, though in retrospect I can see how the title is open to other interpretations of meaning. I hope you can appreciate the post for what it is, and not for what it is not.

      Some readers will readily accept that God is relevant to chemistry, but will be surprised at the claim that Jesus is, too. The passages I cited in Colossians and John (as well as others in Hebrews 1:2-3, John 17:24, 1 Peter 1:20, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Proverbs 8:22-31, Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, and Luke 8:22-25) are probably the most important ones that address this topic.

      Thank you for your response!

      Like

    • michala March 2, 2014 / 11:10 pm

      Personally I could never subscribe to a Darwinian God.Simply because evolution is based on a particular science not mathematics. Its ironic cause science is supposedly based on mathematics.statistics can be biased and should be used carefully.I’m not a creationist but I can see quite clearly where they are coming from with regards to use of maths/ scientific laws – laws are set and shouldn’t be broken to fit essentially what is just a theory.maybe nature appears to have evolved but appearances are deceptive in nature and biology is complex.

      Like

  3. Pauline August 16, 2015 / 8:56 am

    Hi Sir David. Praise God for professors like you! I am an organic chemistry teacher as well and I am planning to teach Christ in my Course and one point i could start with is the creation where it all began. I know that plants, animals and us humans came from d dry land. So i’m still in search for further evidences that may offer proof to this statement in Gen 1, can u please help me narrow my search? God bless you!

    Like

    • davosburg August 17, 2015 / 5:00 pm

      Dear Pauline,

      Thank you for your question. As for Genesis 1, I strongly recommend John Walton’s book, “The Lost World of Genesis One.” I would not recommend using science to “prove” statements in the Bible (since the Bible is not a science book), but you might be very interested in Ben McFarland’s forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, “A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life.”

      As for teaching Christ in your chemistry course, that may be fine if you are teaching at a Christian school. If not, I would seek the wisdom of other like-minded teachers from your school or similar schools.

      Blessings,
      David

      Like

  4. Chris December 18, 2015 / 2:45 am

    Your “addition” to Psalm 148 is not logical. The Word of God is not for us to add to it like we would add a functional group to a molecule in an addition reaction. Its like adding a thiol or mercaptan to an otherwise sweet scented naturally occurring compound.
    Chemistry in itself is not evil and is ubiquitous in nature. It has helped us in many ways. Nevertheless, due to our fallen nature, man’s use of chemistry has done just as much harm as it has done good.

    Like

    • davosburg December 18, 2015 / 4:26 pm

      Dear Chris,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you value both the Word of God and chemistry.

      I would not call my poem an “addition” to the Bible, just an echo of it. It is not inspired in the same way. Like C. S. Lewis with his Chronicles of Narnia, I am rejoicing in the creative gifts that God has given us to give a new expression to the themes of God’s majesty and redemption. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not enjoyed by everyone, nor is my poem. But the book and the poem, in themselves, do no harm. If they inspire readers to follow God in new parts of their lives (such as reflecting on how their faith and their work relate to one another), then I will be very pleased.

      Certainly we can use chemistry and any other human endeavor (even theology or posting comments on blogs) for good or for evil. Amazingly, God gives us the freedom to do that. Yet I believe that God likes my poem and wishes to bless others through it. If my poem has errors, God can redeem them. And there is much more good than bad in it.

      Grace and peace,
      David

      Like

  5. Dani September 2, 2016 / 12:32 am

    Hi,
    I really agree with your views. I’m a chemistry teacher at a Christian school in Korea. I have been looking for books (not textbooks) about chemistry intertwined with faith for my students to read… but no luck. Seems like everything is biologically or physics based. Would you be able to recommend any? Thanks in advance.

    Like

  6. Sue Cary September 15, 2016 / 2:52 pm

    Can I get a copy of your poem in ouster form and put it up on my lab in high schoolers?

    Like

    • davosburg September 15, 2016 / 11:41 pm

      Hi Sue, you are welcome to create a poster of the poem and put it up in your lab for high schoolers!

      Like

  7. James Kennedy December 3, 2016 / 8:15 am

    Hi David,

    I’m a Chemistry teacher in Melbourne, Australia. I am writing a book at the moment and I have a question for you about chemistry in the Bible.

    In Exodus 26, the Bible mentions “rams’ skins dyed red”.

    What was the red substance most likely used to dye the rams’ skins red?

    Thanks in advance,

    James

    Like

    • davosburg December 5, 2016 / 7:34 pm

      Hi James, that’s exciting that you’re writing a book. I’m sorry that I have no idea what red dye was used in Exodus 26. Possibly an archeologist or art historian might be helpful. That is definitely not my area of expertise.
      Best,
      David

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dr. Anuradha Sidhu September 27, 2017 / 8:26 pm

    I just loved reading the post. I believe that the great scientists and discoverers are most close to God.
    I also hope my students are able to feel the joy which l carry while teaching them chemistry!

    Like

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s