From crystalline caves, to distant galaxies, to the tiny phytoplankton in the ocean that produce more than half of the earth’s oxygen, the world we live in is complex and wondrous. Our own brains have 100 trillion to 1,000 trillion neural connections and more than 100,000 miles of myelinated nerve fibers. For a Christian, a natural awe in creation is the outcome of an awe of the creator. These amazing things we see, including our own brains, are the works of his hands.
Psalm 104 describes how the natural world glorifies God, saying in verses 5 and 6: “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.” Later verses describe God’s power over winds, waters, the sun, moon, wild and domestic animals, wild and domestic plants, the oceans and its creatures. The psalmist gives glory to God for providing for the earth and all the creatures in it, not only humans, claiming, “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate — bringing forth food from the earth” (v.14). The works of God are vast and show the wisdom of God, we are told. “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (v.24). Similar sentiments are expressed in the book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible.1
The conservationist John Muir saw the beauty of nature and reflected the sentiment of the psalmist in the living world around him, declaring, “Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples.”2
Muir’s sentiment reminds us of 1 Chronicles 16:33, which says, “Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.” Similarly, Isaiah 55:12 says, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” These verses enforce our sense that nature is both temple and choir, testifying to the glory of the Maker.
Muir argued for the protection of wild spaces and human enjoyment of the outdoors because nature so reflects God’s glory. However, for some who worship God, worship includes the in-depth study of the details of nature. While artists may paint a sunset to record its beauty, scientists study the natural world, even in the laboratory, out of a love for their subject and a God-given curiosity.
A scientist in the lab using curiosity to uncover creation’s secrets is doing God’s work as much as any hymn writer. The Bible describes an orderly, real world, one that can be understood by human study. The Bible, however, does not describe science as the process we know today. Like much of modern life, we have to extrapolate from biblical principles in order to understand how we are to view this modern effort. The pre-scientific nomadic tribes and ancient city dwellers present at the writing of the biblical texts did not have microscopes, telescopes, germ theory or ways of measuring radiation. Nonetheless, throughout the ages, the people of God have sought to honor God by understanding and caring for his world.
Today, we know that human curiosity is a great gift. One recent neuroscience study shows that our brains change when we are curious, and this makes us not only better at learning information on the subject of our curiosity, but on other subjects we may be less interested in as well.3 The joy of learning is apparent in very young children. Grasping objects, looking at them, touching and tasting are ways young children learn about the world. The glee of learning about the world around us remains in adults as well. Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium and first person to win two Nobel Prizes in science said, “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”4
Marie Curie’s work is an example of science that involves what we call “pure science,” science about the basic functioning of the world. Those excited by science want to understand the patterns we see around us. How are the stars moving in the galaxy in which our sun resides? How do blood cells move in our own arteries and veins? These questions move our understanding of the world to a new level. What fun to extend the understanding of the universe, from the smallest subatomic particle to the greatest galaxy!
Science not only honors God because God created the world we see, but also enables us to solve problems. We call those more practical uses of science “applied science.” George Washington Carver, the great botanist and chemist, used his skill and curiosity to help poor people in the South, especially African Americans, have more food. He worked on ways to grow and use the peanut, a nutritional powerhouse, to solve malnutrition and found uses for peanut products in order to revive both the economy and soil depleted by the exclusive growing of cotton. He described his work this way:
As I worked on projects which fulfilled a real human need, forces were working through me which amazed me. I would go to sleep with an apparently insoluble problem. When I awoke the answer was there. Why then, should we who believe in Christ be so surprised at what God can do with a willing man in a laboratory?5
Christians in the sciences need the support of their congregations and church leaders. It is common for science and religious belief to be portrayed as being in conflict. That does not have to be the case.
Being involved in science is a natural outflow of our own human natures and God-given intellect, and Christians in the sciences can be a witness to the world around them. We need good science to care for the needs of people and the world around us. We have many good examples of past and living Christians in the sciences who both love God and are thrilled to be a part of studying the majestic, tremendous natural world.