How to Preach about Gravitational Waves

on June 21, 2017

In September of 2015, an incredible discovery was made. One hundred years after Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves, researchers at LIGO detected gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away. This is the strongest confirmation yet that black holes exist. Astrophysicists hope this discovery will open up a new era in our observation of the universe.

While this discovery sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community, many congregations interested in the science-faith discussion struggled to integrate it into their community life and worship services. Much of this is due to the technical knowledge required to understand the science (what are gravitational waves?) and its perceived relevance (what do gravitational waves have to do with Jesus?). These difficulties make gravitational waves a great case study to illustrate how congregations might bring cutting-edge science into dialogue with the Christian faith. As a part of my work for the STEAM Project and plpit, I’ve been learning from and resourcing congregations interested in the science-faith conversation.

In my experience, one of the biggest hurdles to the science and faith conversation in congregations is the complexity of scientific research. Few pastors have training in the sciences or time to learn new fields, and few congregations have professional scientists among its members. When it comes to phenomena like gravitational waves, where you need to have a basic understanding of the general theory of relativity, astrophysics, quantum theory, and interferometers, it is understandable why few congregations have talked extensively about gravitational waves since we learned of their discovery. How can a pastor find accessible yet reliable information on gravitational waves?

When I first heard about this discovery, I immediately followed up with visits to science news sites. Yahoo News may be reliable on celebrity gossip, but for astrophysics, you’ll want something a little more nuanced. For this, Scientific American, an online science magazine intended for a popular audience, is great. They’ll tell you that gravitational waves are the result of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago. This collision disturbed the fabric of spacetime in such a massive fashion that we can detect the disturbance 1.3 billion light years away! And they’ll explain, in pictures, how the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) built a device that was sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves.

Once I became familiar with the concept of gravitational waves, I began to dig deeper into more specialized articles (although still written for a popular audience). Science Friday, a public radio program, has great articles and podcasts written for a well-informed lay-audience. They interviewed two of the lead physicists at LIGO for this podcast who will tell you the role gravitons play in gravitational waves. Aeon, an online magazine, shared enthusiastically about what this might mean for our expanding knowledge of black holes, neutron stars, and the big bang. After I felt comfortable with the basics, I tuned in directly to LIGO and begin reading the story behind the discovery of gravitational waves and about the complex instrument (an interferometer) that detected them. While I’ll never understand the complexities of astrophysics, I now feel comfortable enough to discuss the discovery of gravitational waves in my congregation. I now understand how gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime produced by two huge black holes colliding, and how these ripples spread across 1.3 billion light years of space while decreasing in size and disruption.

After coming to a basic understanding of gravitational waves, the next step is to integrate it into congregational life. Some fields, such as positive psychology, might appear a more natural fit for a sermon or Bible study (we are familiar with concepts such as forgiveness and gratitude after all). Others, such as gravitational waves, can feel light years away from the daily lives of congregants. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from integrating science and faith in our congregations!

The most common place to integrate science into a congregation is in the sermon. Because black holes have a strong place in our imaginations, you might use the discovery of gravitational waves as an opening hook to spark the imagination of the congregation. Of course, the hook is only helpful if it relates to your sermon, which is where the real fun begins. There are different ways you can go here. You could try to use the discovery as an illustration of faith. The hunt for gravitational waves can be an example of patiently hoping and waiting for what you do not see as in Romans 8:18-27, or of searching for Wisdom as in Job 28. Another avenue is to allow this discovery to assist our interpretation of scripture. Gravitational waves that were created 1.3 billion years ago by the collision of two black holes allows us to more fully understand how incredible, creative, and tireless our God is. This discovery helps us to interpret Isaiah 40:27-31, which tells of an incredible, creative, tireless God who renews our strength when we grow weary. That is great news for us!

There are other ways that this discovery of gravitational waves can be integrated into a congregation. You might begin a small group to discuss this and other important scientific discoveries. BioLogos is a great resource for this. You might also try the Test of Faith curriculum. Another idea is to organize a special event. Try holding a stargazing night after discussing gravitational waves and how the objects we see in the sky interact with each other. Or Invite a physicist to discuss gravitational waves. Your local college might have physicists who are eager to discuss science with a church. BioLogos has a list of speakers in its Voices program that are skilled at integrating science and theology. When it comes to bringing gravitational waves into conversation with faith in your congregation, you are only limited by your imagination.


Notes & References