Praising God in the Planetarium: My Story
Our fear of discussing science in the church often demonstrates a lack of wonder or curiosity in our faith.
Planetarium at the University of Nevada, Reno
I grew up in the Nazarene church–both my father and grandfather were Nazarene pastors–and as soon as I graduated high school I went off to Olivet Nazarene University, where I earned a degree in science education. While a student at Olivet, I also had the good fortune of finding work at the university’s Strickler Planetarium. It was there that I found a love for teaching people of all ages about the science of the universe. After three years as a student operator at Strickler, and a couple more as an adjunct professor, I managed to find a full-time position as a planetarium coordinator for the Michigan Science Center in Detroit. Then only a year later, the Longway Planetarium in Flint, Michigan underwent a large renovation and hired me to help with the process and to manage it upon completion. I’ve now been in that position for a little over three years.
I’m often asked how I reconcile my holistic approach to science with my Christian faith. That’s definitely something I had to work through during college. I’m forever in debt of my old professors for the numerous conversations about geologic evidence and biblical interpretations. Even with their guidance I spent more than a few nights frustrated at my slow progress in tying together what seemed to be two disparate worldviews.
It wasn’t until I read some young-earth creationist literature that I realized there isn’t a conflict with Christianity itself and science. Instead, the apparent conflict has arisen when these “literalist” groups inject a modern material-oriented worldview into the authorship of the Bible. I put the word “literalist” in quotes, because when we take the worldview of the biblical author into account it becomes clear that this view implants foreign ideas into the text. The world at the time of the authorship of the Torah would have been focused on teleological (function-oriented) questions, not material or scientific ones. This was true not just of Hebrews but of all ancient scholars. In explaining the natural world, men like Aristotle explained in terms of objects fulfilling their functions. This differs greatly from the modern mechanistic (cause and effect) worldview we hold today. Reading Genesis from a function-driven perspective, how the authorship intended it to be read, it is clear that the Bible is not making scientific claims that can be pitted against modern scientific theories.
This month marks my 10 year anniversary of working in planetaria. At this point in my career, I’ve given thousands of planetarium shows. But one show continues to stand out in my memory. When I was still a student operator at Strickler, a school group had booked a private showing of Wonders of the Universe. This program is about some of the amazing formations found in the night sky and it showcases some stunning images from the Hubble Space Telescope. During the show, the narrator makes several mentions of our 13.8 billion year old universe. At each mention, the teacher stood up mid-show and used her teacher voice to talk over the audio track, “Actually kids, we know the universe is only 6,000 years old right?” to which the children would respond affirmingly. It quickly became clear that this teacher had booked a show at a Nazarene university planetarium expecting to get a different sort of “Christian” perspective.
When the show finished I gave the usual closing talk, thanked them for coming and showed them out. As I was leaving, I looked over to see the teacher had sat her students on the grass. She was in the process of telling them about how, “Satan still had the hearts of some who thought they were following Christ.” Even as a young college student, I knew enough to see this was directed at me. I didn’t take personal offense, but it was very frustrating to see dozens of ten-year-olds being explicitly told that an age of 6-10,000 years was the only viable Christian perspective about the age of our planet.
The Christian teacher I mentioned earlier clearly viewed the age of the earth as an issue of primary spiritual importance—to the point where other Christian views were looked at as demonic. This mentality is clearly a problem. But I think the opposite mentality is also problematic—and it is far more common. As a planetarium manager, I occasionally speak on these topics at our church either to groups or to the congregation. My father-in-law is also a pastor so there are a few churches that know what I do for a living and this invites conversation about these topics. During these conversations it’s not uncommon to hear things like, “well, it’s not a salvation issue.” Until recently this argument seemed reasonable to me, but ultimately it implies that an attitude of apathy or even indifference is an acceptable Christian approach for all topics not currently considered “salvation issues.”
I know a handful of my college friends that walked away from Christianity because they couldn’t reconcile what they were learning in geology with what they believed to be the only approach to the Christian faith. These were friends who, like me, were never told they had to believe in a young earth. But they, like many of us, grew up in churches who never discussed other perspectives. We implicitly teach youth in the church, through our unwillingness to openly discuss topics like evolution, that we should be afraid of these different perspectives—that they shouldn’t have a place in the church or in the Christian mind. This type of mentality demonstrates to these young people —as well as to the world outside—a community that has no inherent curiosity or wonder for the universe. We shouldn’t be surprised then when so many who leave for college have a crisis in their faith with respect to these very issues.
If you find yourself in charge of a sunday school class, a small group night, or an entire congregation, please give these issues some thought. Seek out literature about how others have worked through them and don’t be afraid to begin some open discussion. John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One is an example of a biblical approach that finds harmony with modern science. The Bible, Rocks, and Time by Davis Young demonstrates how a Christian can look at all scientific evidence without concern about a diminished faith.
We don’t do God any favors by pretending like we have the answers to all questions, or avoiding questions without easy answers. If you are a lay person in attendance at these events, please let your leaders know that you would support these discussions. There’s often pressure on our pastors—especially when a salary might be at stake—to tread lightly on these sorts of topics. Let them know you would support their efforts to open the discussion about faith and science at your church. We can’t make real progress until our leaders feel safe to begin the dialogue.
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