Forums
By 
Deborah Haarsma
 on July 07, 2014

Seeing God in Everyday Work

Speaking before her alma matter at Bethel University, BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma discusses her calling to the sciences and how to talk and think productively about science and faith.

Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print

In 2014, BioLogos president Deb Haarsma gave the commencement address at her alma mater, Bethel University. 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.

President Barnes, members of the Board and faculty, honored graduates, dear family and friends. It is great to be back at Bethel! I can’t believe it’s already been 23 years since I was the graduate. Today I want to tell you about four memories I have, one from my time at Bethel and three from after that. All are related to seeing and seeking God in everyday work.

How I discovered my calling to be a scientist

Bethel was where I fell in love with physics. Now, I know physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. There we were, a group of students in the physics lab, trying to put an experiment together and figure out what to measure in this messy real world. Then we did the mathematical calculations following the textbook. We compared the math to the real world data and it matched! I was amazed!The reason and logic of mathematics actually describes the real world. Physicist Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner, called this the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” And in it I could see God. God crafting a universe of such order and regularity that we can describe it with logic and mathematics. And God creating us in his image, with the ability to understand something of how he governs the world—“thinking God’s thoughts after him,” as Kepler described it.Bethel was where I learned that the science that I loved could be a Christian calling. Before that I had a vague notion that truly serving God meant being a pastor or missionary. Here I learned that in every profession you can love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, studying God’s world with your mind and caring for it with your hands. And in every line of work, you can love your neighbor as yourself, sharing the gospel with those who haven’t heard and placing a priority on people rather than busy-ness. I hope that you also have been inspired in your time at Bethel to seek and serve God every day, in whatever work you do.

How I worked out my scientific calling in the world

So off I went to grad school, to a large international research university. I felt so alone after experiencing the close-knit Christian learning community at Bethel. Even the food was different. I’m a Midwest girl and I grew up on casseroles and church potluck dinners; back then Chinese food felt like an exotic adventure. Now I had a roommate from China!

Beyond the cultural adjustment, I started to wonder: exactly how should faith be making a difference in my scientific work? In my research lab, I worked alongside some agnostics, a non-practicing Jew, a Mormon, and two Christians (although they didn’t talk about their faith much). We used the same equipment, the same computer analysis methods, and the same types of scientific reasoning. I got the impression that scientists had to be “neutral” when analyzing data and not consider religion or God in the lab.

Yet I was firmly committed as Christ’s disciple that faith should be integral to all I do. Does that mean I should get different answers than everyone else?

I finally worked it out. I realized that scientists do agree in a lot of areas, despite religious differences, and that’s ok. Scientists agree that the natural world has regular repeatable patterns that can be understood. The difference is why we believe that. To me as a Christian, those orderly laws that I fell in love with at Bethel are a display of God’s faithful governance. In Jeremiah, God points to the fixed laws of heaven and earth as a testimony that he will faithfully keep his covenant with Israel (Jer. 33:19-26). Now an agnostic scientist will believe there are regular patterns for other reasons. But when I sit down at the computer to analyze data, in no way am I setting aside my faith. In fact, my faith calls me to study those natural laws as a way of celebrating the faithfulness of God.

Similarly, scientists share a motivation to do science. Most scientists are motivated by the joy of discovery and a desire to serve. Believing scientists are too, but we have an added, deeper joy: the joy of knowing that there is a Person behind this universe, it was created by a master Craftsman. And we have the even deeper joy of knowing that this Creator is our own Savior and Lord.

You’re not all scientists, but many of you will face similar questions, whether you work as an accountant, a teacher, a social worker, run a business, or practice law. You’ll be following the best practices, ethics, and professional standards of your field. That means your work will look a lot like everyone else’s.

My hope for you is that you never set aside faith to do your work. Don’t compartmentalize. Seek God. Look for him in the underlying practices of your profession. Where they align with your faith, celebrate your work every day as service to God.

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.

About the author

Deb Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is an astronomer and frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin University. She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.