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The Beauty of Being a Scientist and a Christian

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June 13, 2012 Tags: Science as Christian Calling

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Beauty of Being a Scientist and a Christian

In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, "Lisa the Skeptic," a plot involving a supposed "angel" pits scientists against naïve religious townfolk. The episode ends with a trial at which the judge puts a "restraining order" on religion, keeping it "500 yards away from science."

Many people say that science and religion need to be even further apart. I disagree, however. And there are many scientists who agree with me.

I am a Christian. I believe that God is the ultimate reality and that the world, including me, was created by God. But this is not just an idle affirmation, a faith statement to be recited in church on Sunday. I find my experience of the world enriched in several ways by my belief in God.

For starters, my first contact with the world that God created is through its great beauty. I write these words from my desk in a sunroom on the back of my house. Outside my window a row of Newport plums is in bloom, their delicate pink flowers lighting up the landscape. My andromedas are also blooming. The dogwood, whose branches brush my window when the wind blows, is starting to bud. Directly in front of me the sun is coming up, visible through the forest. New spring foliage at the tops of the trees is becoming illuminated. In a few minutes I will have to pull my blind to keep the sun out of my eyes.

A choir of birds is singing, celebrating the arrival of the new day. I can tell from their joyous song that they must not be Red Sox fans. The sound of the birds is so welcome, in contrast to the traffic noise from the front of my house, which starts up shortly after the birds each morning.

Scientific explanations exist for all that I see and hear outside my window. And explanations can be proposed for why humans enjoy nature so much. But faith is God is not about explanations. We do not believe in God because we need to explain this or that feature of the world. That is what science is for. We believe in God because we see something deeper in the world, something that transcends the scientific explanations.

The experience of natural beauty is available to everyone, and only the flattest of souls cannot enjoy scenes like the one outside my window right now.

As a scientist, however, there are other layers to this experience. Underneath the artistic beauty of nature lies the deeper beauty of a system of natural laws. All the wonders in front of me are built from a few dozen different atoms -- hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. They combine and recombine to make life possible. Their molecular arrangements are the pixels of nature's most beautiful scenes.

These atoms are all built of protons, electrons, and neutrons. In all the atoms, electrons hum about tiny nuclear cores, following an amazing set of mathematical laws. I can still recall those giddy undergraduate days, decades ago, when I learned to solve the equations that specify what these electrons can do. The solutions were difficult and required the better part of a math degree to produce, but they were elegant beyond belief.

I remember working into the wee hours of the morning, losing track of time, hoping that I wasn't making mistakes along the way. And then finally a solution appeared on the paper in front of me that was so breathtakingly beautiful that I knew there was no way I had made a mistake. The solution was so simple. All you had to do was plug numbers into the final result -- simple integers like one, two, three -- and electronic arrangements would pop out. It was Sudoku on steroids.

The beauty of these mathematical patterns is a rich part of the scientific experience of nature. It is what draws people into physics and often turns them into detached and marginally functional mystics, like Newton and Einstein.

What seems the most remarkable of all, though, is the way that the whole system works together. That sun coming up in front of me is 93 million miles away. It takes eight minutes for the light generated by its fusion reactions to make the long trek to earth. Some of the light arriving outside my window is absorbed by chlorophyll molecules in the plants and becomes stored energy. Some of this energy was in the lettuce I ate last night in my salad. Now that energy is driving my metabolism, keeping me alive, letting me experience this new day, powering my fingers now on my keyboard. Some of the sunlight warms the ocean after a long New England winter, coaxing summer into existence. The light makes it possible to view the scenery outside my window. Everything I see becomes visible only when light strikes it.

I also note that this same multi-tasking sun provides the gravitational force that keeps the earth in its stable orbit, tracing out a mathematically perfect ellipse several billions times in a row.

The full experience of a new day is a complex mix of wonder and science, facts and beauty, mathematics and color. Science explains much of it, and what is left over is not so much in need of explanation as it is in need of celebration.

My belief in God provides a framework for this celebration. In some way that I cannot articulate, I praise God for each new day, dimly aware that I am sharing the experience with the artist who put it all in place and put me here to enjoy it.

This piece originally appeared April 21, 2010, on The Huffington Post.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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Mark Koop - #70428

June 13th 2012

We believe in God because we see something deeper in the world, something that transcends the scientific explanations.

But can’t science explain why you see something deeper in the world? And just because you see something deeper, does that mean there is something deeper? Why must it be something that transcends scientific explanations instead of something that as of yet has not been explained because it is presently beyond our reach?

The full experience of a new day is a complex mix of wonder and science, facts and beauty, mathematics and color. Science explains much of it, and what is left over is not so much in need of explanation as it is in need of celebration.

I agree whole-heartedly with this statement. I just can’t see why a god provides the framework for this celebration.


James Palmer - #70429

June 13th 2012

“And just because you see something deeper, does that mean there is something deeper? Why must it be something that transcends scientific explanations instead of something that as of yet has not been explained because it is presently beyond our reach?”

The problem with the question, “Is there something deeper?” is that science CAN’T answer it.  If you are to force science to try to answer this question, it will always answer it with “No”.  And that is useless.  There is no point pursuing a scientific explanation of something if it will always answer the same regardless of the reality of the matter.  If different realities do not produce different results within science, then science is not equipped to deal with the question.  “Is there something deeper?” is one of those questions.  One must seek other modes of inquiry to pursue these questions.


Mark Koop - #70432

June 13th 2012

The problem with the question, “Is there something deeper?” is that science CAN’T answer it.

How do you know this? And whether or not it can, that still doesn’t answer my question - “Just because you see something deeper, does that mean there is something deeper?”

How does faith solve this question where science fails? Isn’t faith even less likely to find the answer? Doesn’t faith boil down to believing what other people tell you about things that are unverfiable?


James Palmer - #70435

June 13th 2012

“How do you know this?”

The rest of my post was explaning just that.

“Just becuase you see something deeper, does that mean there is something deeper?”

It points to a strong possibility of that.  I spend my whole day seeing things and trusting that my senses are correct, and over and over again that is verified to be true.  I trusted I could sit down and not fall on my butt because I saw my chair.  Occasionally our eyes can deceive us for sure, but for our default position to be that our senses deceive us is not very practical and will most often trip us up (literally!)

“How does faith solve this question where science fails?”

Philosophy (which would include theology) can help with this question because it can examine the question in ways science cannot, because it can deal with the question “Why”, where science deals with the question, “how”.

“Doesn’t faith boil down to believing what other people tell you about things that are unverfiable?”

Not at all.  I have faith that if I lend my best friend my car, he will return it to me.  Sure, I’ve never lent him my car before, so I do not have repeatable car-lending observations, but I have faith in him because of my previous experiences with him and there is plenty of evidence that he would not betray me.  Faith is about taking evidence and reason and putting it into practice by applying it to lesser known situation.  What’s interesting is that you say, “Scientific observation tells us otherwise” about how the earth was created - what direct experiments have you done, or are you merely believing what other people have told you?  You have faith in the scientific community - well-grounded faith, but it’s still faith.


Mark Koop - #70443

June 13th 2012

The rest of my post was explaning just that.

Sorry, I don’t see how the rest of yoru post explained HOW you KNOW what you claim to know.

I spend my whole day seeing things and trusting that my senses are correct, and over and over again that is verified to be true.  I trusted I could sit down and not fall on my butt because I saw my chair.  Occasionally our eyes can deceive us for sure, but for our default position to be that our senses deceive us is not very practical and will most often trip us up (literally!)

I’m sorry, I don’t see how this points to something “deeper.”

[Philosophy] can deal with the question “Why”, where science deals with the question, “how”.

I suppose it can deal with the question, but how can it verify whether its answers are correct or not? Wouldn’t the plethora of answers to these philosophical questions point to the possibility that most, if not all, of these philosophers are pulling intelligent answers out of thin air? Here’s a plausibility! Here’s another one! Yay!

I have faith that if I lend my best friend my car, he will return it to me.  Sure, I’ve never lent him my car before, so I do not have repeatable car-lending observations, but I have faith in him because of my previous experiences with him and there is plenty of evidence that he would not betray me.

Um, you used the word evidence there. There is plenty of evidence that he would not betray you. I don’t think this is faith, because you can’t apply this same sort of real-world evidence to any sort of Creator. Or if you can, I’ve yet to see a convincing case made for one in the same way you make a convincing case for the reason to lend your friend your car.

I think I tend to trust the scientific community, but I hesitate to call it faith. Because faith is… “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and that doesn’t really apply to the friend analogy. I’ve seen my friends be my friends. I don’t need to hope that they are my friends, they ARE my friends.


James Palmer - #70430

June 13th 2012

For an even better explanation than I can give, I’d recommend the following Biologos post on Scientism:

http://biologos.org/blog/what-is-scientism


Mark Koop - #70433

June 13th 2012

I don’t think my question fits in with “scientism.” I don’t think science tells us everything we need to know.

But I do seriously doubt that faith fills the gap left by science!


James Palmer - #70436

June 13th 2012

“But I do seriously doubt that faith fills the gap left by science!”

By your own definition of “faith”, I completely agree with you.


HornSpiel - #70449

June 14th 2012

The full experience of a new day is a complex mix of wonder and science, facts and beauty, mathematics and color. Science explains much of it, and what is left over is not so much in need of explanation as it is in need of celebration.

I agree whole-heartedly with this statement. I just can’t see why a god provides the framework for this celebration.

What else could provide a framework for celebration? Without God, a loving personal creator, celebration is ultimately absurd, isn’t it?


Mark Koop - #70450

June 14th 2012

I don’t believe in a god, HornSpiel, but I celebrate existence nonetheless. Existence itself provides me with a framework for celebration. I don’t see why the absence of a loving creator makes celebration at the fact that we are alive absurd. I know I don’t feel absurd in being glad that I’m alive and in enjoying the beauty of nature.


HornSpiel - #70451

June 14th 2012

I am glad as an atheist you are interested in this site. I assume, because you are, you may be “spiritual.” By that I mean you probably believe there is more to Life than just the physical or “scientific”.

Although I don’t think it is absurd to celebrate that one is alive, with or without god, what I am saying it is ultimately absurd without “someone to thank.” At least I think that is the conclusion of many who try to make sense of, not only life and the beauty around them, but many other complex and even mystical human emotions and experiences.


Mark Koop - #70453

June 14th 2012

You say life is ultimately absurd without someone to thank. Perhaps you have the impulse to thank someone. I wonder where that impulse comes from - nature or nurture? I suspect that it is nurture, because once I came to the point that I could no longer believe in a god, this need to thank someone for the natural word evaporated. If the natural world happened without an intelligence guiding it, I am fine with the simple happiness of existence. I don’t see why that is absurd, either specifically or ultimately.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70538

June 19th 2012

Mark,

I hope that you enjoy life because it is good.  Some people do not enjoy life because they find that it is not good.

Certainly if someone gave you a good gift, such as life, you would be grateful, aren’t you?  I hope your parents taught you that, so it might be nurture.  Or you might be thankful to nature because the world is a great place that we humans did not create. 

Science seems to indicate that the universe came from nothing and will return to nothing.  Christians and Jews do not believe that “nothing” is ultimate, we believe that God is Ultimate, the Source of all that is, and thus Life has real meaning.   


George Bernard Murphy - #70431

June 13th 2012

“We believe in God because we see something deeper in the world, something that transcends the scientific explanations”

Well I believe in God because I believe there is science/Bible concordance in Genesis 1.

Most of the scientific explanation has been developed in the past 150 years but the biblical account has been available for 3000 years.

 Only God could have known the facts BEFORE THE SCIENTISTS KNEW IT.


Mark Koop - #70434

June 13th 2012

Genesis 1 says that God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days.

Scientific observation tells us otherwise.

I’m not seeing the concordance here.


James Palmer - #70437

June 13th 2012

“Well I believe in God because I believe there is science/Bible concordance in Genesis 1.”

Fascinating.  Is this how you became a Christian?  I would love to hear your story.


George Bernard Murphy - #70438

June 13th 2012

The six days is an example of eisegetical NON-concordance.

 The word is “yom” which is not necessarily a day

Giving the text something the original author never intended so that it will correlate with a recently discovered fact is I think eisegesis, [or perhaps it is eisegeticism].

 Anyhow it is cheating.

 People who see concordance  between Genesis and science are accused of being eisegetical, BUT IN FACT IT IS THE ANTI-CONCORDANCE folks who use the tactic. Saying that “yom” is one day is not in the original writing.  

OR you can ask, if Days were created on day 4 what measured the first 3 days?


George Bernard Murphy - #70440

June 13th 2012

Well I honestly knew nothing about the origin of the universe and I happened to be a college student when the Big Bang was accepted. I was asking typical sophomoric questions of my physics teacher and i asked how the universe started.

He laid out the evidence for a Big Bang.

 I asked timidly,‘Well isn’t that pretty much what the Bible said”

And,.. [and shall never forget this],.. he adjusted his big thick horn-rimmed glasses with the coke bottle lenses,.........[and BTW today he would get lasik surgery and get rid of those glasses but then they were necessary] and said “Yes it seems to be”

When I realized that scientists had proven that the universe came into existence as a result of a sudden miracle, I was flaberghasted.

The first sentence in the Bible had always been the one that I felt could not possibly be true,.... sudden miraculous creation of the entire universe,..AND IT WAS THE FIRST ONE THAT THEY PROVED WAS TRUE.

 I DECIDED THE BIBLE WAS TRUE,... but after the first verse there are other strange verses that had no backing by science,and i didn’t know what they meant,.... but I was a smart little sophomore  student and I said to myself at the time"I’ll bet that IN THE FUTURE scientists will prove that these other statements  are true too.

 

 Well a lot of future has come and gone and I have always watched scientific breakthroughs with the concordance issue in mind and I was not disappointed.

 But getting people to look at the evidence is difficult.

They usually say you are being eisegetical.


James Palmer - #70441

June 13th 2012

Awesome stuff - thanks for sharing.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70444

June 13th 2012

Thank you, Karl, for reminding us that without God there would be no One to be grateful to, no One to thank for the beauty and wonder of this world and the magic of Life. 

Without Gid we would have every reason to be ungrateful and self centered, complaining about what seems to be wrong with this world, rather than rejoicing in what is good and right. 

 

   


GJDS - #70446

June 13th 2012

“We believe in God because we see something deeper in the world, something that transcends the scientific explanations.”

I do not agree; this statement seems to support a faith based on what we can see and hear and then seek some type of transcendence. I think the writer seems to point to a conundrum involving scientific discriptions, aesthetics, and personal responses to the way he experiences and/or appreciates science and nature. The Christian Faith may inform us of the world, be it described in scientific and/or natural/poetic terms, but is not founded on any understanding of the world. It is just as likely that an atheist can have an equal or greater appreciation of science and nature, and see deep beauty and asthetic qualities, without concluding that these are the basis for transcendence. Faith must be the result of the Grace of God and the Fruits of the Holy Spirit.


George Bernard Murphy - #70457

June 14th 2012

There are no “scientific explanations” for things like the Big Bang.

 It is just a miracle, pure and simple.


sy - #70502

June 17th 2012

I enjoyed this post very much, since it reminds me of the times, before I found Christ, when I would sit in awe of some natural wonder or beauty, and tell myself how wonderful nature was, how intricate are the ways of natural selection, how marvelous the laws of physics, and how special that I, as a product of animal evolution could feel such emotions. As an atheist, that is where I stopped, but even then, with no belief in God, I felt that there was something lacking, some deeper truth behind it all. I began thinking about the great good luck that accompanied all of these natural causes, and again, thinking maybe luck was not the answer.

When Christ found me and I opened my heart and soul to Him, he opened my mind, and I saw what had only been in the shadows before. The idea of luck faded away, and I saw with great joy and even a sense of scientific satisfaction, that the Lord stood behind all of this wonderment. And everything made sense, and was rendered even more special that I had first thought.  


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