Science as an Instrument of Worship, Part 2
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.
Jennifer Wiseman’s 2009 white-paper explained how a renewed engagement with science can enrich the church’s life of worship. The first installment of our series taken from that paper looked at some of the reasons a posture of worship through science is not more common in the church today: many Christians are uninformed about the state of contemporary science, distracted by other important (and not so important) features of contemporary life, and asked to focus on controversy as a defining feature of the science/faith dialogue. This week, Part 2 continues the discussion of such stumbling blocks by addressing uncertainty, and then 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.
Beyond the issues of Origins, Christians also face genuine ethical issues related to science and technology: for example, should an infertile Christian couple seek modern fertility treatments that result in unused embryos? Some issues involving science and technology become politicized as well, which can be extremely polarizing. So with differences of opinion and different voices about science all appealing from both within and without an evangelical congregation, pastors and teachers will often either avoid serious scientific discussion (who wants unnecessary, divisive controversy?), or else will choose one particular viewpoint and preach it (thereby alienating anybody in the congregation who would like to consider other views). In other words, sometime the controversy model leads to a questionable certainty about what science does and does not say.
Perhaps less divisive than controversy, though, is the general concept of uncertainty, which makes church leaders timid about venturing into discussions of science at all. There is simply no easy theological answer for why genetic codes get fouled up, why the plate tectonics that continually shape our continents also drive earthquakes and destruction, which technologies are ethical, and whether God may sustain and redeem life in other star systems. The fact that the “natural processes” that God has created can sometimes enable and sometimes destroy life is difficult to explain when you are facing someone suffering directly from disease or natural disaster. The idea that human life has only been around for a small fraction of the history of life on earth or an even tinier fraction of the history of the universe is hard to address, given that our Scriptures focus on God’s relationship to humans. How or why should a pastor or church leader even bring up such difficult topics, when there is no clear way to bring closure to the discussion, and when it is easier to simply ask a congregation to Praise the Lord for the beautiful day?
And yet I believe it is important to rejuvenate our congregations with a sense of joy and unity in contemplating the magnificence of Creation, with forefront scientific knowledge. Since God is responsible for all nature, there is nothing to fear in studying the details; in fact God calls us to study his handiwork as a means to learning of God’s character and glory. The time has come to raise up Praise, based on knowledge and wonder, as a primary response of our congregations to scientific discovery. It is not just science (or rather scientists) that gains by raising the level of comfort with which most Christians approach science; there is also much to be gained for the Church by instilling a positive view toward science. From here, I’ll turn to some of those remarkable benefits.
I. Studying the Creation can show us the nature of God.
The Psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim his handiwork” (Psalm 19). And Paul says that people are “without excuse,” because the nature of God – his “eternal power and divine nature” – is clearly revealed through what has been made (Romans 1). Therefore contemplating God’s handiwork in Creation is not an expendable “extra” but is of critical spiritual importance for all people. So what is it that we can learn about God’s character through studying the natural world? We need to be very careful here, because misunderstandings about the interface between scientific knowledge and God’s activity has caused immeasurable confusion and division. The limits of science should be clear, but often are not discussed that way. Science addresses the processes, content (matter and energy), and forces of the physical world. It is an invention for the systematic study of nature, and is not designed to address anything outside of the physical world (e.g., a spiritual realm).
To point out natural processes that science cannot yet explain should be an invitation for more scientific study with the aim of getting to a scientific explanation (thus avoiding the faulty path of seeing God only where science is – usually temporarily – not giving complete explanations). But science addresses only the “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” questions, in a cause-and-effect sense; it cannot address the “who” and “why” questions of divine intent. The very existence of a magnificent and ordered Cosmos that we can study and comprehend can imply, for many, the existence of a divine creator, and for Christians the coming of Christ makes that creator a very personal Being. While science itself cannot address or prove the existence or non-existence of God, there are other compelling reasons, looking at nature and experience as a whole, for many people to believe in God. And from that perspective of faith, the Creation itself will reflect the nature of God. So what could we learn about the character of the Creator God by what we have discovered in the universe? This is subjective, but I believe there are several characteristics of the Creator that one could glean (not scientifically) by considering the universe in which we live, so let me elaborate on these points.
Power is hard to describe, but when we consider that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe, most with hundreds of billions of stars, all the eventual result of an enormously energetic initial flash of energy over 13 billion years ago, great power is evident.
Creativity is seen in the very processes themselves. Stars, for example, are not only shining balls of gas; they are also factories where heavier elements that we rely on for life are produced. What a brilliant mechanism!
Beauty can be seen in everything from spiral galaxies to snail shells to mathematical equations of motion. The fact that beauty exists and that we are able to recognize and appreciate it has interesting implications for the purposes of Creation.
Patience is implied as we now can see, through careful astronomical study, the slow (to us) formation and maturation of galaxies and stars over billions of years, leading to our life-bearing planet, where fossils and formations tell a tale of a slowly changing Earth. Yet faith reminds us that God has been in charge this whole unimaginable time, knowing that each of us, and our Savior, would eventually appear.
Faithfulness is implied by the very stability of the universe, and the fact that we can study it knowing that fundamental forces and principles like cause and effect are stable and reliable, making our lives possible and meaningful. In fact we live in what appears to be a very finely tuned universe. The physical constants that describe how the forces of nature work with high quantitative accuracy are exactly right to allow life to exist and evolve and thrive for a meaningful length of time. Even tiny deviations from their measured values would have precluded life. One could (and many do) try to explain this away by imagining that there could be a very large number of other universes, each with different fundamental constants and forces, so that this one that enables life as we know it is a statistical accident. If that were true, it would still be incredible that this “multi-verse” would be of such special character that even one universe within it would be a birthplace for life.
Within that framework of faithfulness, however, we see basic principles allowing freedom and its resulting good and bad consequences; quantum mechanics and chaos theory have revealed a world of uncertain or unpredictable outcomes at fundamental levels of the physical world.
And then there is the existence of Life. However one believes life came about, it is undeniable that at least one planet (and maybe many others) harbors flourishing life. It appears that the universe was infused with that potential from the very beginning, and the last 13.7 billion years has seen the playing out of this resulting drama, as galaxies, stars, and planets formed, and as life appeared and diversified on the scene on at least one planet.
This all points to a God who loves, who desires living beings to exist, to recognize beauty and wonder in the universe, and to eventually respond in personal relationship to their Creator.
The next time, connecting the knowledge of the world we get through scientific investigation with humanity’s Biblical mandate to exercise stewardship of God’s Creation.
(The Omega Centauri star cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO team.)
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