Advice for Christians
My path to a Christian vocation as a scientist is not unique. While each of our lives is different, I know from conversations with numerous Christian colleagues that they faced similar quandaries regarding apparent conflicts between scripture and science. In many Protestant churches I have encountered Christians who fear science because of this seeming conflict. On the other hand, I have also encountered Christians with a desire to better understand modern science and its interplay with scripture, but little opportunity to do so. Likely there are some scientists or young people in your congregation dealing with similar issues.
I encourage churches to develop and teach a consistent Christian worldview in which scientific and theological understandings of the universe are viewed as mutually supportive and complementary. The historic “two books” view of nature and scripture reminds us that God’s revelation comes not just through the Bible, but through the physical world as God’s book of general revelation to us. In line with Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, we must not reject outright the testimony of scientists, since they speak truths about God’s creation. Nor can we afford to ignore the controversial aspects of this debate. Churches should instead invite scientists who are Christian to share their knowledge with the congregation and come alongside them to wrestle with difficult passages. Churches can lead in-depth studies of the scriptures, helping everyone to better understand the historical aspects and cultural milieu of the text. Often a misunderstanding of the context can create a false conflict between scripture and science.
Churches can also remind Christians of the many ways that science enhances faith. Learning about science and scientific discovery can deepen our understanding of God’s creation and of God’s creative nature. It can renew and deepen our awe and reverence for God. Science can also shed new light on scripture and on theological issues. In the rest of this essay, I want to share with you the beauty, order, and wonder of creation displayed in my own field, elementary particle physics and cosmology. In order to understand these discoveries, I will start with a brief history of the human views of the universe.
Expanding Views of the Universe
Over the last few thousand years, the human perception of physical reality has gone through several stages. Each shift has illuminated a larger, grander creation, and for Christians, each advance should signify a fuller representation of God’s eternal power. The Middle Eastern world of one to two millennia B.C. perceived reality essentially as a three-tiered structure (Fig. 1). Center stage was the flat surface of the earth and the ground below containing the underworld of the dead (e.g., the Sheol of the Old Testament). Beneath this level was a primeval ocean upon which the earth floated and into which the pillars of the earth descended. Far above were the split levels of the heavens: the firmament of the stars and the sun and moon and the watery expanse of the heavens kept separated above by a cover (as in Gen. 1:7), and often beyond that was the heaven of heavens. This was the setting in which Genesis 1 was written.
The Greek civilization brought about a significant paradigm shift, one that lasted almost one and a half millennia—the geocentric picture, in which both the sun and the other planets were believed to orbit around the earth (Fig. 2).
Then, in the 1600s astronomical discoveries by scientists such as Galileo resulted in the realization that the earth and all of the rest of the planets orbit the sun. Thus was born the heliocentric era. Simultaneously, the law of gravity was developed by Isaac Newton and proven to apply both on the earth and throughout the whole heliocentric system (Fig. 3).
By the 1800s, astronomers discovered the existence of gaseous nebula beyond the solar system and found that our sun was but one of hundreds of billions of stars within the so-named Milky Way galaxy. Thus, a galacticentric perception replaced the heliocentric (Fig. 4). Our galaxy and its contents were believed to compose the entirety of the universe.
By the 1920s, many of the objects identified during the preceding century as “spiral nebulae” inside our Milky Way galaxy were discovered by astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to be independent galaxies, located vast distances (millions to billions of light years) away from the Milky Way and of comparable size to it. Thus, after little more than a century the galacticentric paradigm was transformed into a univercentric paradigm, with our universe comprising the entire stage (Fig. 5). Over the following decades, around a trillion visible galaxies were identified in our visible universe, each possessing hundreds of billions to trillions of stars (Fig. 6).
In the next installment, Cleaver follows up this quick walk through the history of cosmology with a discussion of its next, modern stages, when scientists began to ask anew, “How came the universe?”