INTRO BY DEB: Anna Korver and I have a lot in common: We are both captivated by the heavens above, and we both were driven to explore God’s world with the tools of modern physics. Anna holds a PhD in atomic physics, and as you will read below, she has spent a lifetime reflecting on how science and Christian faith enrich each other—which has led her to reconsider some beliefs from her childhood. I hope you are encouraged by her story.
After being homeschooled for much of my young life, I entered public school in eighth grade with an intense interest in astrophysics, which had developed in part because of the educational freedom homeschooling gave me. My love for science was revealed to my new classmates early in the school year, during a seemingly trivial science lesson which captured my curiosity. The class had a unit on gravity which culminated in “Drop Day”, where we all dropped a single object to compete for fastest, slowest, and most creative item. Many people brought in books and paper; I “dropped” light. As I walked into school that day with a flashlight in hand, I told myself over and over that, yes, light is affected by gravity; it is bent around massive stars, as I had read in a book about black holes. What I failed to realize is that by shooting it down the stairwell I was imparting an initial velocity to my “object” which was against the rules; instead I should have shot it horizontally, but no one (including myself) realized this. I won the prizes for fastest and most creative object dropped, as well as the most blank looks as I tried to explain the topic of general relativity. The unexpected and counterintuitive nature of gravity fomented my fascination with God’s creation, especially the heavens that declare his glory. It was curious to me that anyone could study, or even look at, creation and not acknowledge the Creator.
There was one particular classmate to whom I made my faith in the Creator clear during several arguments over creation and evolution. I had so many arguments against evolution and had done so much research, but the discussion never went anywhere. What I wanted was someone who shared my wonder and gave God the glory, and I saw nothing wrong with my approach. I did not realize back then that any argument for creation is never fundamentally about the science; the story is about God. In order for my friend to accept creation, he would also have to accept a creator-God. As a middle schooler, I did not fully understand this creator-God and his relationship with his creation in a way that would enable me to give a reason for my faith in the context of science.
My love of science continued through high school, and I chose physics as my major in college. I went to Covenant College, a small Christian liberal arts school where the physics department consisted of two professors and my graduating class had three physics majors. The size of the department and the workload of the professors did not allow for the number of physics classes necessary to earn a BS. Although this left me at a significant disadvantage when considering graduate schools, what I received at Covenant College was far more than any top research university could have provided. My theology of science developed in an environment where faith and physics were not at war with one another.
My mentors at Covenant were instrumental in guiding me to this point. Among the more important lessons they taught me was to approach God’s creation and my study of it with humility. God has graciously given us a universe that we can study and understand. However, our understanding of his creation is tainted by our finite and fallen natures, so we must approach the natural world and the knowledge we develop about it with humility. We must acknowledge what the history of science has shown: Although a theory may describe what we observe quite well, we cannot hold it too tightly lest it blind us to better descriptions. This truth is valid for cosmic paradigms as well as daily tasks in the lab. Humility in science is a natural product of understanding God’s relationship to his creation. This relationship is not only one of creator, but also sustainer. God, through his Word, is in relationship with his creation, faithfully upholding it. I, as a steward of his creation, study it with a sense of awe, humbled by the power and creativity God gave, and continues to give, us through the works of his hands. This new realization took me far from my dogmatic middle school declarations, giving me a better understanding of how to view science and how to explain God and science to unbelievers. Instead of approaching non-Christians with an attitude of arrogance I can now, with humility, speak to others about my faith in the Creator without the fear that being “wrong” means God does not exist.
The summer before my senior year, I had the opportunity to put this new understanding to the test. I had a research position where I and about twenty other fellow researchers lived together. The topics of religion and faith often came up in discussion. I and only a couple of other students claimed Christianity as our religion, while the others were a mix of atheist to agnostic to vaguely religious in some way. Strangely enough (in contrast to my middle school self), these conversations did not revolve around my views of how God created the world. Instead, they focused on the rationality of faith, countering, as some people claimed, the “magic” of religion. Was I, who professed belief in a creator and savior God, a rational human being? Could I give a reason for my faith? There were many times that I faltered and failed to explain myself perfectly, but I hope those I talked to walked away with respect for my faith. I came back from that summer vitalized and ready to bring God’s truth into the academy.
In my experience as a physicist, most conversations with non-believers follow the same pattern. They generally don’t care about the “how” of creation, but are curious about why I believe and how my creator-God fits into my scientific understanding of the world. Here’s the answer I usually give them: my work as a scientist serves to magnify the name of the God who faithfully sustains his creation and who graciously enables us to study his work. In the lab, I pursue unraveling and unveiling the intricacies of God’s created order, but understand that my discoveries and descriptions are just a glimpse of the grandeur of creation.
In middle school, I thought I had the scientific answer to the unbeliever’s doubt. This arrogance, I now know, is abrasive and counter-productive. Instead, I now acknowledge what I do not know, admitting that both science and faith only give us the smallest glimpse of the vastness and glory of God and his creation. All I know as a Christian is that Christ is the beginning of all things, past and present. Problems arise amongst brothers and sisters in Christ when one party claims that the other must affirm or deny a particular scientific theory in order to be a true believer in God. My faith is not based in science, but at the same time I see my scientific work as fulfilling the creation mandate in Genesis 1. By taking this grander (and less combative) view of God’s creative power, we actually open the door for more meaningful conversations about God, science, and creation—both inside the church and with the unbelieving world beyond.