Science as an Instrument of Worship, Part 1
Today's entry was taken from an article written by Jennifer Wiseman for the 2009 Theology of Celebration conference and published originally on our website in 2010; we are reposting it here. Here she shared her personal Christian perspectives on how churches can better incorporate science as a positive element of worship, service, and celebration.
When astrophysicist Dr. Jennifer Wiseman first published the following posts as a paper in the BioLogos Scholarly Essay series, the essay’s subtitle asked the question, “Can Recent Scientific Discovery Inform and Inspire Our Worship and Service?” Over the next few weeks, we will look at Dr. Wiseman's answer to that query—an emphatic “Yes!”. But in this first installment we begin by describing some of the reasons such a posture of worship through science is not more common in the contemporary church than it already is.
Oh Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art
(Carl Boberg, 1885; Trans. Stuart Hine 1949)
The words of this great hymn convey the proper overwhelming sense in which the wondrous Creation of God should translate directly into a response of awe and praise from mind, body, and spirit. The writer sees and hears the wonders of nature with his body, considers with his mind what all this implies, and responds with songs from his soul.
But is this worshipful response happening in our Christian congregations today? I believe this kind of response to the Creation can and should happen within the hearts of God’s people and wherever congregations of believers are gathered. Such power can even unify believers who differ on lesser matters as we all look up outside of ourselves at the same wonders and respond with the same praise. As an astronomer, I have felt the sense of being “blown away” by seeing images of countless distant galaxies, or even by just looking up at the array of stars overhead on a dark moonless night and sensing something of the “big-ness” of God.
There are impediments to realizing the fullness of this kind of worship experience for many Christian congregations today. I believe four of the main culprits are ignorance, distraction, controversy, and uncertainty.
Let me start with the first, and clarify up front that by ignorance I am simply referring to being uninformed, rather than the sometimes more negative connotations of the word. How up-to-date is the scientific knowledge of average, educated, committed evangelical church members and pastors?Americans, both adults and schoolchildren, are not ranking favorably compared to the rest of the world’s developed nations in science knowledge these days. We enjoy our technological achievements and resulting gadgets, but true comprehension of scientific principles and recent discoveries is not a strong part of our culture and national conversation these days.
This is reflected directly in what kinds of things are (and are not) discussed in church. In my own generally very good church experience growing up in mainstream America, I can only remember science and nature being discussed in a general way (e.g., we should look at the beauty of flowers and mountains and animals and thank God), except for once in a specific way in a children’s sermon (where we were told we should not believe we came from monkeys!). That was a while ago, but how are science issues handled today? Do pastors speak about the evidence from cosmic background light for a spectacular beginning to the universe? Are the genetic codes being mapped out for animals and humans resulting in praise for God’s amazing “blueprint”? Are the advancements in nanotechnology and biotechnology and medicine subjects for discussion of good and poor uses of technology in church? The answer to these is, of course, “no”, for the most part, yet even issues seemingly more relevant to the daily lives of parishioners are often driven by current technology and scientific advancement, and an informed congregation can better understand how to praise, pray, discern, dialogue, and serve.
Related to being uninformed is the condition of distraction for many evangelical Christians today. The distractions of overloaded schedules, pressured jobs, divided families, and even church environments of entertainment-based worship and activities can impede a lifetime of quiet listening, learning, and contemplation. If there is no encouragement from church leaders to learn and incorporate nature and current scientific discovery into contemplation and praise and service, then there will be no space available in the lives and activities of congregants for what should be the resulting awe and praise.
But what does it mean to be informed about science in today’s evangelical congregations? Too often this has implied a direct relation to controversy, the third reason science is not often inspiring worship these days. There are many voices trying to “inform” Christians about science, and for the average evangelical congregant, discernment about which authority figure to believe can be difficult. Many times Christians are presented with a clear and strong implication that scientific conclusions, especially on issues related to origins of the universe and of life, are part of the secular “World” camp rather than the camp of “God’s Truth”. And Christians “know” that they must be on one side or the other of this stark line of worldliness. Often in more conservative churches a teaching will come from the pulpit that goes something like this: “Scientists tell us that *...+, but they cannot give a reason how *...+ happened; but WE know how: God is responsible!” Therefore any serious consideration of a scientific understanding of the development of the universe and life implies that one is “compromising” the teaching of the Word of God, rather than studying the details of how God works. In Scripture, however, never is the study and experience of nature seen as somehow antithetical to knowing and following the Lord; just the opposite in fact!
This often boils down to the correct interpretation of Scripture. Through sermons, radio spots, television shows, and literature, evangelical Christians are hearing adamant messages conflating the acceptance of modern scientific discovery with worldly compromise, or else providing alternative ideas that are not entirely satisfying. From Young-Earth Creationists, they hear that a literal reading of the Biblical creation account is the only correct one, so all scientific discovery must be reinterpreted to fit a recent Creation. But this robs them of the sense of awe we glean from the magnitude of space and time revealed by astronomy, geology, and fossils. From the Intelligent Design community, they hear the message that life (and perhaps the entire universe) is too complicated to develop through natural processes alone, and therefore that God’s work requires miraculous inputs of information into the natural world. This implies that somehow natural processes must not be fully God’s processes, or that God’s work through them is somehow inadequate. They also hear the message to “teach the controversy,” so that somehow by proclaiming that there is a controversy about natural processes as an adequate explanatory tool for natural history, the controversy will in fact become real. They are then surprised to find out from either advanced scientific study or from the Evolutionary Creation voices that in fact there is no great controversy in the scientific community about the basic structure and timeline of the natural history of the universe and life; that in fact there need be no theological debate about how God brought (and is bringing) the universe and life into being, rather, the issue is whether God is in fact real and responsible for all we know and are. And yet even this unifying message can sometimes seem to gloss over the central theological issues of suffering and death and fallen-ness in Creation. So every approach to origins and evolution evokes some difficulties and challenges with which the Christian congregant must grapple.
Next week, Part 2 concludes Dr. Wiseman's discussion of the stumbling blocks that can stand between the church and its appreciation of science as a means of worship, and turns to the ways that the pursuit of God through study of the created world can help overcome those difficulties by pointing us directly to the Lord.
Dr. Wiseman is an astronomer, author, and speaker. She holds a B.S. in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard. Active in science and faith dialogue, she enjoys giving talks to congregations, youth groups, civic groups, and science enthusiasts on the excitement of science