Celebrate Science, Don’t Fear It
The world cries out for explanation at both a scientific and an emotional level, and the latter must not be reduced to the former.
In The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, Francis Collins and I make a familiar but underemphasized theological point: the world cries out for explanation at both a scientific and an emotional level, and the latter must not be reduced to the former. We are familiar with the science discussion and the many things that we have learned about the world—gravity, electricity, continental drift, atoms and molecules, and so on. Although these ideas are challenging to learn, often because they involve advanced mathematics, they are simple to contemplate: gravity is described by such-and-such a mathematical equation and that is the end of it.
In the familiar verse that opens the Bible we read: In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. Too often, when we “fill in the blanks” here, we focus on the material world described by science. The language perhaps tricks us into thinking of “planet earth,” and “the rest of the cosmos” as the referent for what God is creating. But the Genesis creation story is telling us that God created everything. Everything.
Everything is far more than planet earth and the rest of the cosmos (and even those, of course, are conceptualized far differently by us than they were by the ancient Hebrews.) It is in this “everything” that we find our deepest emotional connection to the world that God created.
Francis and I used these passages to make this point in The Language of Science and Faith:
We marvel at the elegant beauty of flowers, the songs of birds, and the scampering chipmunk. Sunsets, mountains, waterfalls, and alpine lakes express a grandeur our poets struggle to capture. And yet the laughter of toddlers exploring their new and unfamiliar world with such curious delight is also strangely spectacular, especially as we ponder our deep intuition that we must care for that young life. Some of this experience is captured in hymns like “How Great Thou Art”:
“O 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.”
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
More than two thousand years ago the Psalmist expressed similar sentiments:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”
In the past couple of centuries, another layer of extraordinary beauty has emerged. Scientists studying God’s creation have uncovered the elegant and hidden foundations of our world. We now understand why the sky is blue and why sunsets are red. We know about chlorophyll and how it gathers energy from the sun to empower plant life. We know that stars like the sun shine by using the energy of nuclear fusion—an almost limitless source of power. Our planet is a fascinating yet fragile sphere, suspended like a dust mote in the life-giving rays of the sun. It rotates reliably on its axis, giving us day and night, and revolves reliably about the sun, giving us regular seasons.
Figuring out the shape and the motions of the earth were the first great triumphs of mathematical physics—the enterprise that has uncovered the profound and breath-taking rational undercarriage of the world. Off the radar of our immediate sense perceptions, we now understand that the world is made of invisible atoms and that they are composed of electrons, protons and neutrons. The protons and neutrons are composed of quarks, bound together by gluons. And all of these particles dance to elegant mathematical tunes, reliably and faithfully being themselves so that the world that is made of them will be stable and congenial to life.
Those of us who appreciate mathematics find a beauty buried deep within nature rivaling that of the sunset. The created order radiates with layers of beauty from the sunset to the orbit of the electron; from the song of the bird to the laughter of the toddler. We strain to summon analogies to describe the remarkable world that God created. Perhaps, in some way, we might think of the creation being like the humble onion with its layers. Each layer of the creation is beautiful in different ways and, as we unpeel it, we encounter so many different kinds of grandeur and beauty.
In this excerpt, we are driving home the point that the created order must not be reduced to what science can quantify. The easiest description of just about anything is the scientific description, and so we too easily default to that. Evolutionary psychology enthusiasts like E. O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Pinker are quick to reduce aesthetics to hard science in an effort to collapse all forms of experience and explanation to science. But there is more to the world than the scientific description, even though it is all but impossible to theorize effectively about that.
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