On May 24, 2014, BioLogos president Deb Haarsma gave the commencement address at her alma mater, Bethel University. Yesterday and today, we’re reposting the content of her speech, which discusses her calling to the sciences and how to talk and think productively about science and faith, here on the BioLogos blog.
How I worked out my scientific calling with the Bible.
Graduate school was where I fell in love with astronomy. In astronomy class I learned about neutron stars for the first time. That night I went home to my apartment for Bible study with my roommates and told them all about it. “Can you believe it? These neutron stars have more mass than the sun, all packed into a sphere only about 10-15 miles across. It’s packed so dense that a teaspoon of this stuff would have the mass of a mountain! The gravitational field on the surface would squash us flat!” (Fortunately my roommates were scientists, so they didn’t laugh at my geeky enthusiasm.)
Astronomy showed me that the Creator has filled the universe with an abundance of wonders—wonders that scientists didn’t even know about before the last century.
I also began to encounter the scientific evidence that the universe is billions of years old. Now, I was skeptical at first. I grew up believing that the earth was young, created by God in 6 days just a few thousand years ago. I looked hard at the science, but the more I looked, the more solid evidence I found for great age.
It drove me back to the Bible. I had to wrestle with how to understand the Bible that I loved. At Bethel, professors emphasized the importance of considering the original cultural context of the passage. So, I started reading biblical scholars. I learned that the ancient Egyptian, Babylonians, Hebrews believed the earth was flat, with a solid dome sky and an ocean above the sky. That picture sounds totally strange to us, but they really believed it! They thought rain falls when holes open up in the dome to let the water through.
But this ancient picture helped me finally understand what’s happening on Day 2 of Genesis 1. God said “Let there be a firmament to separate the waters above from the waters below” (Gen. 1:6). It dawned on me that God didn’t try to correct their scientific misunderstanding. He didn’t try to explain atmosphere and evaporation and precipitation. Instead, God accommodated his message to his people’s limited understanding so that they could focus on the main points: the world is not filled with many gods, but is ruled by one sovereign God. Creation is good and humans are very good, bearing God’s image. I came to believe that these are the primary messages of Genesis to us today, rather than the “how” and “when” of creation.
I also learned that Christians hold a range of views on creation and design, the big bang and evolution. Now, words like “big bang” and “evolution” sounded very uncomfortable in my ear. I was used to hearing these as atheistic notions, set up in opposition to God. But I started to learn the evidence for these as scientific ideas, and about the many Christians who accept them as such. I learned about people like Francis Collins – one of the world’s leading biologists and Director of the National Institutes of Health. In his book The Language of God, he tells his testimony and explains how he accepts the science of evolution as the means God used to create. So when I became a professor, I started helping my own students work through these questions for themselves, showing them the evidence and arguments.
Now, Christians disagree about the age of the earth and evolution—I know we don’t all agree in this room! But you know what? We all agree that the God of the Bible created this planet. That’s what unity in Christ means—not uniformity that we all agree on everything, but unity where we share the same core beliefs in spite of those disagreements. I experienced this in graduate school where my Intervarsity fellowship group included Christians from all denominations—Pentecostal, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic. Those very differences actually helped me see more clearly the essence of what we shared—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:5-6).
In living out your faith at work every day, you will run into conflicts. My hope for you is that you will use conflicts as opportunities to seek God. Dive into Scripture. Examine the world and the culture around you. Evaluate how your profession functions, and hold to what fits with a biblical worldview. And listen to your fellow believers. Look in the faces of the people you disagree with and seek God there. Look for that unity under the lordship of Christ.
Something I learned about God along the way
As I learned more about the universe, like many others I was stunned by its immensity. Our galaxy contains billions upon billions of stars, and it is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe. That can make us feel very small. Astronomer Carl Sagan gave an atheistic perspective on this, writing “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York: Random House. 1980. p.193)
Insignificant? Forgotten?? The Bible looks at the same universe and tells a very different story. Psalm 103 ponders the vastness of the creation with phrases like “as high as the heavens are above the earth.” But the Psalm doesn’t go on to say “you are so small before God.” Rather it says: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth so great is God’s love for those who fear him, and as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:11-12).
When we look at the vastness of universe, God doesn’t mean for us to feel insignificant, but to see the vastness of his love and forgiveness. In the New Testament we learn of Christ as the creator of the cosmos. John writes “In the beginning was the Word” and “through the Word all things were made” (John 1:1-3). Every inch of this vast universe belongs to you, O Christ. (Colossians 1:15-20, lyric by Matthew Westerholm “The First Place”)
My hope for you is that you will keep seeking God. Keep your eyes open. Look for him in the natural world, in the practices of your profession, in the Bible, in the faces of those you disagree with. Be ready to be amazed at God the craftsman, the God who faithfully keeps his promises, the God who accommodates his message to our understanding, and the God whose love and forgiveness dwarfs the universe.
Seek, and you will find.