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Featuring guest Deborah Haarsma

Deb Haarsma | Break Forth into Praise

In this episode, Deb Haarsma, president of BioLogos takes a turn in the interviewee’s seat.


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field of wildflowers

In this episode, Deb Haarsma, president of BioLogos takes a turn in the interviewee’s seat.

Description

In this episode, Deb Haarsma, president of BioLogos takes a turn in the interviewee’s seat. She tells her own story of an interest in science from a young age and how she was able to hold closely to her faith through her study of physics and a PhD in astronomy. But that doesn’t mean she has everything figured out—she also talks about some of the questions that remain unresolved. Even in the face of uncertainty, it is God’s glory, which she finds in abundance, including in the study of our vast universe, which turns her always back to praise.

  • Originally aired on October 15, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Haarsma:

When I think of God creating the flowers of the field, I now picture the process that God created, this process of gradual development and diversification that we describe as evolution, and how it produces a whole wealth of flowers of every shape and size and color and scent and I glorify God for the abundance and extravagance of that process and how it has, you know, led to flowers of all types all over the earth, realizing that I can praise God for the natural mechanisms we have discovered that he uses that we learn about in science that those are just as praiseworthy as the direct miracle type of creation. God can do it either way and we’re finding through science how God actually did it and we can praise him for that.

I am Deborah Haarsma. I’m an astronomer and I’m President of BioLogos.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Regular listeners to this podcast will have heard Deb on previous episodes; she and I have co-hosted several of them: from our very first episode with Francis Collins, to the one about Adam and Eve, and the conversation she and I had a few months ago responding to the significant crises in our world. She also hosted Elizabeth Conde Frazier all on her own back in Episode 11. But Deb’s appearance on this episode today is not as host. We’ve put her squarely in the guest’s chair and have given her a chance to tell her own story about her path to becoming an astronomer, and the role of faith throughout her career. She reveals some of the questions that remain unresolved in her own mind, and considers the signs of hope on the science and faith landscape. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, welcome to the podcast, Deb. 

Haarsma:

Oh, it’s good to be here. 

Stump:

You have been here on several other occasions joining me and interviewing people or in some other capacity as the President of BioLogos. But this time, we’re putting you squarely in the interviewee’s seat. Are you ready?

Haarsma:

I’m ready. I’m looking forward to sharing my story.

Stump:

Well, it’s probably worth stating out loud the fact that you are my boss, but we’re not going to let that stand in the way of a fair and penetrating interview, right?

Haarsma:

That’s right. You can ask the hard questions. 

Stump:

None of what I ask here can be used against me in my next performance review, right?

Haarsma:

That’s right.

Stump:

Seriously, we thought it would be interesting to hear more about you personally. As the President of BioLogos, you’re this major figure in the science and Christianity circles in the country, but we don’t want this episode to sound like a commercial for BioLogos. So no elevator speeches or fundraising appeals. You have to take off the President’s hat and let’s just talk science and faith as you have thought about it personally. Sound good?

Haarsma:

Sounds great.

Stump:

Alright. So starting, as I usually do with podcast guests, let me ask you to go back to your childhood, your family of origin. What hints or precursors do you see there that you would ultimately want to be a scientist?

Haarsma:

Oh, yeah, I always loved science and math. I think math first. My dad played math games with my brother and me. I remember that was so fun. I always loved those courses in school and took as much math and science as I could all the way. In high school I thought I would be a chemist. But then in college, I found chemistry too…messy or something? I don’t know. But I think I had some bad lab experiences in those intro labs. But something about physics really appealed to me because of how mathematical it was. And yet, it wasn’t math in the abstract purely, it was math describing how the universe works. And that intersection is what I love the most.

Stump:

That’s not a common response for females, particularly of our generation. What do you remember of that gender disparity in the classes and in the topics you were drawn to most?

Haarsma:

You know, I was really fortunate in that respect. It wasn’t until I think my junior year of college that I heard something about that women were supposed to be underrepresented in physics. I had not had that gender disparity up till that point. Really, at that point. Now, I really felt it when I went to graduate school. I went to MIT and there the incoming class of physics graduate students was like 49 people. And there were three women.

Stump:

Oh, wow.

Haarsma:

And only two of us were from the United States. So there I suddenly really felt like a fish out of water and it really stood out, it was really obvious I was the only one in a lot of my classes.

Stump:

So go back to this trajectory of coming to astronomy instead of chemistry. Where did that kind of happen for you?

Haarsma:

Yeah. All through college I was thinking physics. I got to graduate school and I started learning that physics out there in the universe was even more cool. Like, you can have black holes with this incredibly extreme gravity, neutron stars with their extreme gravity and magnetic fields. Radio Astronomy had these incredibly diffuse magnetic fields, diffuse gases that are—it’s mostly empty space, more empty than the best vacuum we can make in the lab on earth and it’s out there in the universe. And what physics happens in those circumstances, what did the particles do? And I found that really fascinating. So that’s how I got into astrophysics.

Stump:

So going to MIT then and in astrophysics, what can you tell us about some of the projects that you were involved in? I don’t mean what can you tell us in the sense that there were classified government projects about space aliens or something? Unless you can tell us that! That’d be really interesting. But what can you tell us that we might understand without getting too deep into general relativity or differential equations or something?

Haarsma:

Yeah, I imagine you don’t want the full technical details. For my PhD thesis, I studied something called gravitational lensing. So people have heard of Albert Einstein and one of his discoveries in general relativity is that space can be curved and not flat. So there’s these weird distortions in space that happen around very massive objects. And I worked on an example where we could actually see that happening out in the universe where there was this massive object and then there are objects behind it, very bright sources called quasars, and when they’re right behind the massive thing, you could see multiple images of them. It’s kind of a distortion like you might get in a crazy house mirror where you’re looking at a mirror and everything is kind of twisted around and you see multiple versions of things. That’s kind of what was happening in that part of space. So I got to study one of those systems and use it to make my own estimate of the expansion rate of the universe.

Stump:

And how close were you?

Haarsma:

Well, the cool thing about mine was it was an independent method different than what a lot of other people were doing. But it turned out the uncertainties in the method were so large it didn’t really contribute much to the conversation at that time. At that time in the 90s there was a huge debate going on about what that expansion rate was, for the universe, and how old the universe was. So, I was right in the thick of that, but then my own number was kind of boring in the end.

Stump:

Okay, let’s back up here again. And how about the community of faith that you came from? Locate for us on the map of say, American Christianity, your community, and then also talk about your experience of faith as a kid.

Haarsma:

Yeah. I am blessed to have grown up in a Christian family. My parents took me to an evangelical church, a wonderful church. I learned so much about all the Bible stories, how to love Jesus, how to serve and great preaching. And that’s been just a wonderful impact on my life. I wanted to make the faith my own though, especially in college. I did spend some time thinking “okay, just a second, is this really what I think?” I went to a Christian College. And so over my life I’ve recommitted my life to Christ many times and I would say the reasons I have for believing in Jesus Christ as my Savior and the God of the Bible as the God of the universe, those reasons have developed over time. So my faith has grown. But it all began back in Grace Evangelical Free Church in Fridley, Minnesota. 

Stump:

And you don’t have any big dramatic moments along that path of the prodigal daughter returning back home after years of rebellion or anything interesting like that you could reveal to us?

Haarsma:

I don’t have any interesting stories like that, no. I’m just not the rebellious type. [laughter] I think people at home might have had doubts about me at certain points, but for me, I never felt like I was in a crisis of faith of that sort.

Stump:  

Good. Okay, so we’ve pursued a little bit these two threads of your science and your faith, on fairly independent tracks. So let’s bring them together here now, for it seems to me that something like a study of galaxies in the universe might very naturally come into contact with your understanding of the Bible and God as creator. So maybe back up again and go through some of the stages of your understanding of how science and your faith fit together. When do you first remember thinking about the two of these and how they might fit together or might not fit together?

Haarsma:

I think that would have to be in elementary school, when my dad brought us to a Saturday conference for a young earth creationist group. And I was so excited because here we were talking about science and the Bible at the same time. How cool was that? It was great. So I would say that, you know, that actually, you know, fueled my interest or showed me these things could go together. There was a way to talk about them together. So then fast forward. I did clearly pick up the impression that the Big Bang was a bad word, evolution was very bad. So fast forward to high school biology class and here we are going through the book and I know the section on evolution is coming up and we turn the page and like, okay, I’m steeling myself. Okay, here it comes, here is going to be this awful evil atheist idea. But we had to read it. So I’m starting to read and go, huh? This actually kind of makes sense. Now I’m really confused. 

So I remember bringing the book home, putting it on the kitchen table and talking to my dad. And we went back and forth and like it says this and what about that, and we’re going back and forth and I remember him finally kind of sitting back and going, “I don’t know.” And I, at that moment, was like, “oh, it’s okay to not know?” I just thought this was wonderful. Like, it was such a relief to me that I didn’t have to have it all sorted out. I was still very much a black and white kind of kid like, tell me the right answer so I can memorize it and do well on the test, it was kind of my thinking. But to realize there’s some things that are hard that we might not know and that a mature Christian person, like my dad, might not have the answers all sorted out himself. And that’s okay that you could live in that space. And so that really helped me set aside the tension over that and just continue to grow in my faith and grow in my love of other areas of science. And it wasn’t till, boy, graduate school that I really wrestled with it again.

Stump:

There weren’t any stages in college and your undergrad as a science major where these things came up or that you felt like you made some progress to where you are now?

Haarsma:

In a broader sense, yes. So Bethel University in Minnesota where I attended, taught me about the integration of faith and learning. So this was the more grownup version of that moment in elementary school. It’s like whoa, my faith and science can fit together, because I’ve been in public school all this time. And so talking about that in more broad terms, how science is the study of God’s creation, science can be a Christian vocation that can have an important role in the Kingdom of God and our witness to the world. So I grew so much in those kinds of areas. As far as for particular things about the age of the earth and evolution, I think I just wasn’t taking those classes. So I was thinking more about thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism.

Stump:

So was there though, like a conversion moment of some sort that you had, to realizing that the big bang maybe isn’t a bad word or even further into evolution.

Haarsma:

So that happened in grad school. So in grad school, I told you why I got interested in astronomy. Well, I actually entered interested in physics. And I started getting interested in astronomy and that’s when I was like, “oh, my, I have to sort this out. I can’t just have it on hold in the I-don’t-know zone. I have to really think about this now.” So I was involved in Graduate Christian Fellowship with InterVarsity—got to put in another plug, this time for InterVarsity, they’re great—and they had an active chapter on our campus and different conferences and at one of those there was different books sitting out there that we could look at, just sample books that we might be interested in. And, you know, I picked up a couple of those and started reading more about these origins questions. I think that the first big book I read was called Portraits of Creation by a group of Calvin University authors. And I later ended up teaching at Calvin University. And that was the first time I read scientists who were Christians describing the evidence they saw for the age of the earth, and for the age of the earth, for the age of the universe. And it was like, okay, good, I can hear it from scientists who are believers. I know this won’t have a big atheist bias in it. And to hear how they framed it is like, oh, okay, this could work. But what really turned the point for me was reading biblical scholars for the first time. And to learn, oh, there was an ancient context for Genesis. There was a whole cultural understanding there that we need to take into account. And all of a sudden, I’m understanding Genesis in a deeper way, a better understanding of what God is teaching us in that passage. And also realizing, oh, this is not about modern science. I don’t—it isn’t in conflict with modern science. And it gave me a way that I could hang on to scripture. And that’s what I really needed because I was not going to embark on a study of astronomy, and just say, “oh, I’ll take that Bible verse and I’ll leave that Bible verse out,” and just kind of pick and choose based on what fit with science. I did not want to do that. I wanted a way to read scripture that I could be faithful to that could work for all of Scripture. And I started to find that for Genesis.

Stump:

These can be pretty challenging moments for Christians, particularly who grew up thinking that there was one particular view of science that had to be wedded to their faith. Did this coming to understand the science in this way have any—I mean, did this cause any doubts for you and for your faith or for—did it otherwise affect the practice of your faith in any way?

Haarsma:

Yeah, it, it did. So I started to work through that, eventually worked through issues of evolution, and I remember one Sunday morning at Park Street Church in Boston, and we’re singing, I think it was it was like one of those hymns like “All things bright and beautiful, the Lord God made them all, each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,” and I just had this realization, oh my goodness, I’ve sung this hymn my whole life, picturing Jesus, you know, speaking each of these things into being, Asland walking in the garden, you know, this very direct sort of picture of creation. And now I’m starting to think about evolution. What exactly am I praising God for? And so that was a moment for me to work through and figure out what to praise God for it that time. It didn’t shake up my faith in a fundamental way, but it was something I had to work through.

Stump:

So you see this hymn differently? What kind of practical effect does that have on your faith? What are the kinds of things then that you do praise God for now with this new scientific understanding?

Haarsma:

Yeah, that’s been really interesting. So, when I think of God creating the flowers of the field, I now picture the process that God created, this process of gradual development and diversification that we describe as evolution, and how it produces a whole wealth of flowers of every shape and size and color and scent. And I glorify God for the abundance and extravagance of that process and how it has, you know, led to flowers of all types all over the earth. Or I think of the process that like pushes up the Himalayan Mountains. You know, the plate tectonics coming together and how it creates this mighty mountain range. Realizing that I can praise God for the natural mechanisms we have discovered that he uses, that we learn about in science, that those are just as praiseworthy as the direct miracle type of creation. God could do it either way, and we’re finding through science how God actually did it and we can praise him for that.

Stump:  

For too many Christians, I think, there’s a kind of fear that those scientific explanations will take away something from the awe and the wonder of these events, but you’re giving a kind of different take on that.

Haarsma:

Yeah. So people keep wanting to say, “well, you know, it’s miraculous.” It’s like, well, okay, it might not be a miracle, it might be natural mechanisms, but it is glorious. Like if that is our touchstone word, there’s so much glory in the natural world of all sorts on all size scales. And I know for some people it feels like it’s a little taking away of the mystery. I think it might for a lot of people be associated with bad experiences in school with science. Like, oh, man, do I have to go back there now to praise God? But I hope that those of us who are scientists and believers can share our understanding of the natural world in a way that can inspire the whole church to worship God for what we are discovering about his creation.

Stump:

I’d like to give you the chance here to talk a little bit more about maybe wonder as a kind of bridge between science and faith maybe. I think as an astronomer, you have a distinct advantage that when you go give a talk somewhere you get to put up on screen these amazing pictures from, say, the Hubble telescope, of our universe, that just make our jaws drop in wonder, right? Even even for people who have no religious faith, these can be pretty powerful, transcendent experiences. What is it about the natural world, at that scale particularly, that evokes this sense of wonder in us? And what does that tell about, what does that say about us as people?  

Haarsma:

Oh, yeah, that is interesting. So yeah, I love showing those pictures and sharing them with people and sharing them in Christian contexts where we can just break forth into praise and it’s not presented in a neutral context or an atheist context. But where we can acknowledge, oh, this beautiful, amazing thing we’re looking at that is made by our Creator, our Savior. 

So why do people have that response to the natural world? I think in the Middle Ages, people would sense that openness in the heavens and feel that it was drawing them closer to God, feel that somehow they were a step closer to God, going out and looking at the stars. Now, somehow, in the, you know, mid to late 20th century, people started to think, oh, that big openness and vastness of the heavens, that means I’m very small and God doesn’t exist, which is different than how most people have responded to that. But just about everybody has some sort of visceral response. You go outside and you look at this, your pondering the stars, or pondering what science has found about the vastness of the universe. It opens up our souls in a way. It really taps into something different and deeper than just scientific information.

Stump:

In that regard, tell us about your pilgrimage to go see the eclipse when it happened, when was that, a couple years ago? 

Haarsma:

That was an amazing trip. My family and I planned our summer vacation around the eclipse. And we traveled to a spot in Oregon, that was forecast to be very likely to have clear skies because we didn’t want to be clouded out and my dad had a cousin living there. So my brother and my husband and I, we all went out there. And we got a place just by the side of the road somewhere and watched the eclipse. And I remember how the desert air smelled, you could smell the sagebrush, perfectly blue sky. You couldn’t even tell much was happening unless you looked through your shielded glasses and you could start to see oh, there’s this bite taken out of the sun. And I’m like, “yeah, yeah.” I’d seen partial eclipses before. But then in those last few moments, there was about 30 seconds where it was like the sun was on a dimmer switch, and it just got all of a sudden, whoosh, got dark. And then we quickly took off our glasses so that we could look at it with the naked eye and I like screamed, I think. I had no idea it would be so bright. It was like a Hollywood special effect, except it was real. And there was the black circle, it looked like a hole in the sky, and then the corona blazing forth around that, super bright. We were just all eagerly pointing out features of it to each other. We checked it in binoculars. We could even see these little red dots in a ring around the black circle of the moon that were the prominences of the corona. Oh my goodness, it was quite the experience there for a few minutes.

Stump:

And somehow knowing the laws of physics by which these things happen and that we can predict them so far out, that doesn’t take away from that for you for the amazingness of the experience?

Haarsma:

Right. And it doesn’t for anybody. Like you ask anyone, “so what was the, you know, was there a mystery behind the natural mechanism of the eclipse? Was there a miracle there?” No, it’s just the moon moving in front of the sun. There’s nothing mysterious about it, nothing hard to understand scientifically. We perfectly understand the natural mechanism and yet we’re all blown away by what we saw. 

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Okay, I want to ask you about this other direction of influence of how your Christian faith influences scientific work. And without getting too wonky here, there’s this position sometimes called methodological naturalism, which I think, at its best, is interpreted to mean that there are limits on the kinds of questions that science gets to answer. But sometimes people talk about it as though, when you walk into the science lab, you have to bracket off your faith or even pretend you’re not a Christian. You don’t like that characterization of science, do you?

Haarsma:

I really don’t. And that’s why I don’t like that term. I guess because it sounds like oh, we’re going to use the methods of naturalists or of people who deny there’s anything supernatural in the universe. And I don’t feel that’s what I’m doing. Because for me, the methods of science also can flow naturally from a Christian worldview. The methods of science rely on believing that the universe has repeatable patterns, and there’s a regularity to it that we can investigate. And for me as a Christian, that is relying and based on God’s faithful governance. That’s why it works. And I have to work carefully and test my conclusions, compare them with others because I know I’m a limited and fallen person. That’s in the Bible too. We can’t just sit back and guess how the universe works, we have to go and look at it. Somebody I read recently was saying how the doctrine of original sin actually kind of prompted some early people on the scientific revolution to say, “okay, we can’t just rely on ourselves here, we have to test everything we’re thinking about the universe, with observations of what’s actually out there.” So for me, doing science is fully an expression of my Christian faith and not setting aside of my faith.

Stump:  

But isn’t it one of the real virtues of science that the conclusions you come to work independently of ideology so that somebody on the other side of the world in a very different culture and perhaps a very different religion, can look at the same set of data and come to the same conclusions as you did? 

Haarsma:

Yeah.

Stump:

So what do you make of that?

Haarsma:

It’s an amazing feature of science. And it all relies on the fact that we are looking at this external point of reference, at the data of in the natural world and we’re holding ourselves to that. We all agree to do that for different reasons. I just gave the Christian reasons why I hold to—we’re comparing everything to the data in the natural world. But atheists and people of other faiths all have their own reasons for following that practice. And it’s very fruitful. Some people follow it just for that reason. So it points to—there are universal truths. Truth is not just a culturally derived phenomena. There are real things in the universe that we can investigate and that can tell us we’re wrong. So discovering we’re wrong looking at the universe is actually really refreshing. It’s like, oh, okay, there’s truth I didn’t know. I’m not just making this up and I can be corrected by it.

Stump:

You mentioned earlier though, when you were in grad school, the fear of atheist bias creeping in to some of the science that you had been presented with that. Is there a counterpart that to that then though, that if we might be nervous that an atheist may be not doing the equations themselves, but interpreting the science, of what it means, might be influenced by or their atheistic ideology, is there a kind of Christian version of science of how we ought to see or how we ought to interpret this data so that it fits in this bigger worldview that we are committed to?

Haarsma:

Yeah Jim, that’s the right sort of distinction to make. I think when people hear the word science, they think a lot of different things. And when we’re talking about the findings of science, that’s one thing. But when you talk about how we interpret it, the meaning we draw from it, the context, we put it in, how we weigh its importance, the larger conclusions we draw from it, that’s all separate from the scientific findings themselves that are done by calculation and experimentation and vetted and compared with other people, computer models, all that stuff. And what I had observed growing up was that there was this big atheist bias and I didn’t understand where it was. I think now I understand better that it is virtually all on the side of those larger implications that people draw from it, the popularization of science where you have Dawkins or others saying that there is—evolution shows there’s no meaning and purpose to humanity. Well, science itself can’t say that. That is a conclusion that goes beyond it. And yet, people seem to think that evolutionary science requires that conclusion, and it doesn’t.

Stump:

After grad school, you did some postdoc then became a professor at Calvin University and you continued to have these scientific projects you worked on but increasingly you started participating in this scholarly science and faith community, right, and writing about the connection between science and faith as opposed to just doing pure research. Was that a kind of intentional decision of yours to focus your scholarly energy in this field? Or is something that just naturally happened because of the community that you’re a part of?

Haarsma:

It actually started a lot sooner. So the first science and faith talk I gave, I was still a graduate student. I spent hours and hours and hours preparing it…

Stump:

Is that recorded anywhere? I would love to go back and hear this.

Haarsma:

No. And it was done—this was in like the mid 90s and it was just to my small group of friends and graduate Christian fellowship and it was all with an overhead projector and transparency.

Stump:

[laughs] Nice.

Haarsma:

I probably still have that set of transparencies somewhere. We could resurrect it. But it was along themes I still talk about today of the wonders of the universe and where that ties into scripture. And then my husband, Loren, and I also gave a series of Sunday school classes at Park Street Church when we still live there in the mid 90s. And also when I was a postdoc. So we had done a lot of this. And at Calvin I did with my students. And then we were invited to write a book. A publisher invited us to write a book about creation, evolution, and intelligent design.

Stump:

Tell us about that.

Haarsma:

Yeah. It was supposed to be like a study guide for Sunday school class. And we came back with like a 450-page book. And they’re like, “no, no, no, that’s a little long.” So we cut it down, moved a bunch online, but we made sure it was accessible and it’s called Origins. We made some videos that went with it. It’s been used by quite a few churches and also quite a few Christian high schools and colleges as a supplement to a biology course or a seminar course, to think through origins questions. And yeah, it was a good project.

Stump:

So lots of people think you learn the most by reading other books. It’s been my experience that you learn the most by writing a book. What did you learn from writing origins?

Haarsma:

One thing I learned is that it was—I enjoyed writing a book with my husband. So people often ask us, what was it like to write a book together? And we say it was a lot more fun than remodeling the house together. Home remodeling, we don’t do that anymore. That was much more stressful. But we enjoyed that process of collaborating and sharing our creative ideas there and seeing each other’s creativity at work. I think what I learned in writing that book was how to think in more anecdotes and everyday metaphors, and to really think in those terms, and not just the abstract ideas. And that really helped me in all my communication.

Stump:

And you weren’t even necessarily advocating for a particular position in the book, right? It was more explaining, trying to show strengths and weaknesses of all these different positions?

Haarsma:

That was the approach we took. And we found that to have been really useful with our students in the classroom. And we think it’s useful for everybody, I still do. There’s something that happens when there’s an audience and you talk to them about different points of view. And when you start laying them out, and people see that their own view is on the list, and they go, “ah, okay, I am in this conversation. I’m not excluded. My own view is being treated with at least some respect here.” And they also start to go like, “oh, but there’s these other views? Wow, I wonder if the people sitting around me hold some of those other views? I wonder if that speaker holds other views?” And it starts to—so it both reduces the heat and the tension, but also, you know, inspires some questions, perhaps some confusion, but it puts people in a different mental space to be able to consider the different views on their merits.

Stump:

So, having been in this business of science and faith for a while now, undoubtedly—and the talks you give and such, there are certain questions that come up again and again from people you talk to, people who are maybe at an earlier stage of their own journey of coming to accept the findings of contemporary science. What are some of those questions that you find from other people, first of all, we’ll ask, that come up over and over again about how science and faith might fit together?

Haarsma:

Oh, the ones I’m asking most often? I’m asked about Adam, all the time. As an astronomer, I get asked about life on other planets, sometimes about astrology and aliens. Yeah, that almost always comes up. And what are some other common ones? Oh, the flood. That comes up a lot. Yeah.

Stump:

We can perhaps talk about some of those. But I think I’d really like for you to talk about the questions that are unresolved in your own mind. I think we both think, obviously, that our Christian faith, at least in its broad strokes, is compatible with the findings of modern science. But where are the tension points for you, the points that you might not always lead with in a talk at a church say, but the ones that might keep you up at night are ones that you wish we could develop a little better explanation?

Haarsma:

Yeah. And there are still those. I’m glad you asked about that. It’s easy, you know, for you and I, who are in the business, to have it look like, yep, we’ve got it all sorted out. And on so many questions I have had so many years to think about it, I do have a standard answer. You just plus press play and there’s the answer. But there are definitely questions that still give me pause. Questions around original sin. I think there because that theological doctrine is so rich, and I am not a trained theologian and every time I read about it I learn a lot more theology and I’m still not sure I understand all the theological implications of going different ways on original sin and how that played out with Adam and Eve. So I’ve been hesitant to come down on a particular way of understanding that.

Stump:

So the tension here is, I mean, this evolutionary story, our species has a very long history of suffering and pain and death, and how we square that with the fact that humans hadn’t sinned yet and yet this is God’s good creation. Is that the trouble?

Haarsma:

Yeah, that’s definitely a part of it. What was going on with these hominids before Adam and Eve? What was their spiritual status? And then how did sin spread? Because just thinking about the genetics and the genealogy of how the sin, how things get passed down. Is that how sin spreads? And I kind of know how long that takes and I know there was a large population and what was going on with those other people? Can I just say, well, it just took a while for sin to spread to them? But that’s—how does that fit with the traditional understandings of how sin spread? Could sin spread socially? Sure see that in everyday life now. Sin happens and other people pick it up. Sin definitely does spread socially, but does Original Sin spread that way? There’s a lot I need to learn on that. Yeah.

Stump:

What else? You started talking about something else.

Haarsma:

Oh, spiritual death versus physical death. As far as what kind of death was the punishment for sin in the garden. There’s a lot of ways in which—you know, the traditional understanding that I grew up with was that Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die. And I’m like, okay, they had been immortal and now they’re mortal. But then as I read…

Stump:

It wasn’t it the day though, right?

Haarsma:

That’s the thing. Yeah. And then I was like, “oh, my goodness, they didn’t die of it in that day. They went on to live. So what happened exactly?” And so certainly separation from God. Okay, so spiritual death happened. And Paul writes about how, you know, the sting of death is sin. It’s that separation from God that is the real thing that brings us sorrow and that we mourn and that must be abolished. But in the same passage in First Corinthians 15, he’s clearly talking about Christ’s literal, physical death and resurrection. So, which is Paul referring to? And can I just, is it so easy to just say that the fall brought about spiritual death? So those are questions I still wonder with? And the biblical interpretation as well as the theology.

Stump:

And you’ve brought up a couple of times references to Adam in the garden. The historicity of that give you any difficulties?

Haarsma:

Can I plead the fifth? No. [laughter] Oh, well, yeah, you know, I’ve given many talks where I say here are different possibilities on Adam. And my usual conclusion is, there’s enough, I’ve read enough options and I’ve read enough in the different theological issues that I feel like there is—that I’m hopeful there is an answer in there that can respect both what God has revealed in his Word in Scripture and what God has revealed in his world in nature. There’s a way to put it together but I’m not sure I know which is the best way to do that yet. I just feel like I need to understand some of the theological crosscurrents better before saying okay, I think this is definitely the way it happened.

Stump:

Let me ask, this is getting dangerously close to me asking you to put your presidential hat back on here, but in this intersection of science and Christianity that you’ve been part of here for a good number of years now, the topics have shifted, the topics have changed somewhat, and the age of the Earth and even evolution, these aren’t going away. But there’s a sense in which even in our work at BioLogos, we’ve recognized that there are other issues on the table here now. Can you talk about what some of those are as you have, I think, a unique perspective from which to survey the science and faith landscape in the country and what some of the other kinds of questions are that we think are important to people in the days and years ahead. 

Haarsma:

Yeah. There has been a change. I see it in a couple different ways. I see it in what’s in the headlines. So in the 2000s, you have the Dover trial on intelligent design, there was a series of trials in the 90s and 2000s about textbooks, headlines about science versus God. And that seemed to be, it was such a prominent issue. And those kinds of headlines you just don’t see anymore. They’re not there in the same way. So I’m talking here about like what issues are in the public square. There are many Christians still debating those issues, but in the larger culture, issues of age of the earth and evolution just aren’t in the headlines in quite the same way. Meanwhile, creation care issues, environmental issues are definitely in the headlines. And now in the pandemic, science is in the headlines all the time, and it’s all about the virus and how it spreads and masks and vaccines. So, those issues have changed a lot too.

Stump:

It strikes me that these two issues, creation care and bioethics, whether it’s related to COVID, or gene editing, or many of the other bioethical issues that are among us and will be among us, it strikes me that these two have a much sort of more direct contact point with Christian theology and the emphasis on care of the least of these, right, then perhaps evolution has had. I think evolution has been maligned in some ways in this regard. But there’s a kind of popular conception that it’s all about survival of the fittest. And you know, the weak are going to perish and be replaced by the strong. And we have to fight against that, obviously, but when the sea levels rise more, who’s going to be at risk? It’s going to be the poorest, the countries like Bangladesh, it’s going to be countries in Africa when the temperatures rise and food can’t be grown anymore. And it almost seems that there’s a theological pressure for us to make, you know, these are much more important than whether evolution happened or not, in some sense, aren’t they?

Haarsma:

They’re important for how we live in the here and now. Yeah. These issues are ones that are going to, as you start to get into them and take them seriously, they change how you live and act, what your church does and its ministry. Other examples of the least of these are the communities, underprivileged communities, like in Flint, Michigan, who didn’t have clean drinking water. You know, in this country that not everybody has access to clean drinking water, in this decade, is just almost unfathomable. But who suffers from that? It’s not the wealthy, that’s for sure. So, there’s a host of environmental issues and they do require action for the sake of our fellow image bearers. And that’s a huge difference from the creation evolution. I think the creation evolution issues tie more directly to Biblical interpretation. They really raise how, that’s where the crux of those comes. How do I take the Bible Seriously? How do I read the scriptures? And they’re very central to that. The issues in bioethics and the environment, gene editing, it’s not tied to the biblical interpretation so much, it’s more our theology and then what does that mean for us now and how we act? 

Stump:

Well, I started this conversation by asking you to think back to the beginning of life, beginning of your life. How about ending by looking the other direction, and I don’t mean to imply that the end is near.

Haarsma:

I hope not. Hey, Jim, we both turned 50 but that doesn’t…

Stump:

I was gonna say, you and I have passed the midpoints of our professional careers at least right. But as you look at this next phase of life, what do you hope to accomplish before you’re done working in this field? What do you hope, at the end of life, you can look back on and maybe over these next decade and a half say, here’s what we were able to do during this time. Here’s what’s different now. What are the outcomes that you’d put into a grant proposal for the next phase of life, the things that you’d like to see?

Haarsma:

I don’t often think of those terms, actually. I mean, when I look ahead to the future in my career, as I’ve always done, I’m ready to follow God’s call. And for me, leaving my tenured position at Calvin University and coming to a small nonprofit that was just getting started, that was a step of faith, but I believed I was following God’s call. I don’t know where God will call me or our work together and science and faith. So it’s staying open to that call is the biggest thing on my list.

Stump:

What signs of hope do you see in this work that you’ve devoted your career to?

Haarsma:

Signs of hope. I see signs of hope in the next generation. I see young people today who are deeply concerned for the well being of the least of these, for the rights of others, who are more informed than I was on some of the challenges in our world on science and faith, than I was at their age. And so there is a wonderful rising cadre of leaders who will carry on these conversations and keep re-articulating the gospel for today’s world. And that is what the church has always been called to do—to hold to the gospel, but find out what does that mean for us now? And I have hope in the rising generation. And I have hope in—there are still many evangelical organizations that are holding to a strong centrist position of saying we don’t have to divide between the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-progressives, there are ways to go forward that can keep our eyes on Jesus and allow us to minister together and to remember that there is a broad tent in the church. And that gives me optimism as well. Ultimately, our hope is Christ, but those are some of the things that give me a more optimistic view of the future.

Stump:

Well, good, may they be so. Well, thanks, Deb for talking to us. This was fun.

Haarsma:

Sure, yeah. Anytime.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

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.

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