If all truth is God’s truth, then science must have an impact on our theology. This was the central message of theologian Steve Motyer’s seminar in the God in the Lab evening series at London School of Theology (LST) earlier this year.
Having taught theology and counselling for a number of years as part of his role at LST, Motyer is all too aware of the connection between mind and brain. Neuroscience is showing that Continue reading →
This post is the last in a series of three from an interview with Professor Jeff Hardin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love what he says here about aesthetics, transcendence, and the feeling of worship that a scientist can feel when they’re in the lab. (Part 1 here, part 2 here.)
To me, there’s something wrong with you as a Christian and a scientist if you don’t have a personal investment in the material that you’re trying to convey. I think my colleagues also share my sense of wonder about the world. Why exactly is that? Why do we have a sense of wonder? I could talk about Rudolph Otto’s ‘sense of the numinous’. But can we get to something a little bit more concrete than that? I think it’s, as Tom Wright says, an ‘echo of a voice’. Creation itself is calling out to us, saying something about its creator. That’s what motivates me as a scientist.
Science for a Christian, in some very real sense, is an exercise in art appreciation, and art historians must take the works of art on their own terms and try to understand them. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has written a good deal about aesthetics, and how it feeds into epistemology (how we know what we know), and even to metaphysics. I’m trying to explore that in my own thinking and reading. For me, being a Christian means that I need to take the contingent world as it is and understand it as well as I can, in the same way that someone who’s studying a work of art must take it as it is and try to understand it for its own sake, as well as he or she can.
I think the tendency at times in the States is to be suspicious of people of faith when they come to doing science. But I would argue that Christians ought to be better scientists because they have to take the world on its own terms. There’s the analogy of the ‘two books’ – which comes from Psalm 19 – the book of God’s works in the world and the book of God’s word, which for Christians is the Bible. We need to take each of those books incredibly seriously. The regularity of heavenly bodies is the subject of discussion in Psalm 19, but there are other Psalms that talk about biological process, including predator-prey relationships and everything else. It’s clear in these pieces of poetry that understanding those biological processes as well as you can is actually an exercise in giving glory to the one who stands behind them. To me that’s part and parcel of being a scientist.
Theoretical chemist Fritz Schaefer was quoted a number of years ago in an American news magazine as saying that when he discovers something for the first time he has a moment where he thinks, ‘Aha, that’s how God did it!’ That moment is very like when you go on a hike and there’s a special spot at the end with a beautiful view that not many people know about. The natural response is to want to share that with somebody. I think the same is true in science, and as a Christian I want to share that discovery with God himself. It becomes an act of worship for me.
I’ve been blogging about astronomy recently. It’s an easy target really – anything that involves staring at the night sky is likely to move people to worship. But what about my own subject of biology? The living world is a lot messier, but it is just as amazing.
Our own development from sperm and egg to squalling baby takes just nine months. During that time, the instruction manual for a unique physical human being is read off from the DNA code that resides in every cell in our bodies.* It’s incredible that the information is all there in the 2 metres or so of code in each cell. DNA is about a billionth of a metre (2nm) wide, and is not visible with even the best light microscopes (these can only see things as small as about 50 nm). Inside the cell DNA is coiled up, in a number of complex stages, into a tiny mass that fits inside the nucleus of the cell.
Until recently I believed that we had enough DNA in our bodies to take us on an amazing journey. I was told that if all the DNA in each cell of your body – all 2m of it – was extracted and added end to end it would reach as far as the moon and back. That’s quite a thought.
But then I checked the numbers for a children’s talk that I was preparing and discovered that the story I had been told was way off the mark.
We have about 50 trillion (50 x 1012) cells in our bodies.
Multiply that by 2m, and you have about 100 trillion metres, or 100 billion (100 x 109) kilometres of DNA.
So yes, we do have enough DNA in our bodies to take us to the moon and back, but you can go much further than that – to the sun and back more than 300 times! I can’t even begin to comprehend that, but it’s very impressive. And I’ve ended writing about astronomy again…
I’ve been criticised for making the leap from ‘wow that’s amazing’ to belief in God. But that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t believe in God because of anything to do with science (see my earlier post for more on this). The point is that I believe in a big God, and learning more about how incredible the universe is helps me to understand a little more about just how big God is.
*Except mature red blood cells or the lens in our eyes – in these cell types the DNA would get in the way so it’s broken down.
Following on from last week’s post, I’m looking for material for new worship songs using scientific discoveries, in the hope that someone might take the bait…
What about the amazing discoveries made through the Hubble Telescope? The pictures from this incredible piece of technology in the sky grace our coffee tables, computer monitors and television screens every day. Hubble has filled in many of the gaps in our knowledge about how planets form. Before high-resolution images were available astronomers could only guess some of the details, but now a clearer picture has emerged – quite literally!
Planets form in vast clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. A new planetary system forms when part of the cloud clumps together and begins to collapse under the force of gravity. The compression at the centre of the cloud is so great and causes so much heat to be generated that a new star is formed. The remainder of the dense cloud rotates around the star and begins to flatten into a disc. Planets begin to coalesce within this circulating dust ring. The new planets grow larger and larger, gathering up the remaining dust until a new group of planets is formed orbiting around its own star.
It’s incredible that we can know about star formation in such detail, given that it happens so far away, and over such a long period of time. The discoveries from space telescopes such as Hubble provide plenty of fuel for the imagination, and increase our picture of how big our creator God is. Our universe was created through the same Jesus who appeared to a small nation on the tiny planet that we call home. It’s hard to keep those two things in your head at the same time…
The writers of the Psalms wrote about stars using the most up to date science of their day. Cutting edge astronomers in Israel in the first millennium BC knew that the stars were created (nothing was known yet about how that might have happened), they had their places, and they (on the whole) kept to those places and danced their set dances every year.
He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.
There is a wealth of hymns and songs that echo this theme but while science has moved on, the language in the songs hasn’t. I’m not suggesting that we do away with the old hymns, or that we use lyrics that might be divisive in a church context, or even that we tie ourselves in knots with technical jargon (I don’t think I could sing about DNA transcription with a straight face!) But what would it look like if we praised God in song for some of the things we have discovered in the last couple of centuries?
Here is an example of a hymn that uses up to date scientific knowledge, written in 1967 when the space race was at its peak.
God, who stretched the spangled heavens,
infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance
through the silent fields of space…
We have ventured worlds undreamed of
since the childhood of our race,
known the ecstasy of winging
through untraveled realms of space…
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
This fabulous quote was used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan in his commentary on Psalm 148 (BRF/Lion, 2003). Psalm 148 almost feels as if it was written by a scientist, it is so tidy in its structure – moving from the outer reaches of the universe and zooming in to the tiniest creatures.
Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above…
Praise him, sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars…
Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…
you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all ceaders,
wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds…
Coggan says that
We are bidden to listen to the song of praise that creation sings, to join in the ongoing hymn of the universe. We are to become aware of our place in creation, of our relationship with the creator, with all creation and all created beings. This will lead to a realisation of our own littleness and yet to a realisation of the uniqueness of our humanity.
Coggan’s last point is what gets me – that I worship a God who created the universe, and I can call him ‘Father’ (daddy, even!) I can be amazed by an incredible view from the top of a mountain or by something I have seen down a microscope but I don’t have to be overwhelmed by my smallness or weakness. The one who’s responsible for the universe cares about me and enjoys my every act of worship. Worship is everything I do that’s offered to God, like a kid running to its parent with a picture for the fridge. I’m not earning something, I’m worshipping a God who already loves me. If only I could constantly keep that in mind and not get distracted by blackberries…