The Bible opens with such beautiful language, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Those words begin to describe the relationship between God and humanity. How we relate to God, each other, and the world is what the Bible is all about. The Bible was never meant to be a scientific description of how the universe came into being. The Bible is more of a devotional book than a scientific textbook. The Genesis story begins with a polemic against the Babylonians who had enslaved the Hebrews around 6 BC. The Babylonian Enuma Elish described the world being created after the god Marduk defeated Tiamat. The blood dripped to the ground and created other gods to rule earth, but soon these gods became tired and enslaved humans. This creation myth legitimized the Babylonian culture, a hierarchical system that used violence to crush their slaves’ spirits. The Hebrews’ story of creation contrasted with this violence. God created and proclaimed creation good. The stars were not little gods in the sky but lights to shine in the darkness. God even rested on theseventh day.
Scientists may feel alienated when they encounter a Christian who is standing on the other side of what could be a wide gulf between the literal and polemic understandings. On the other hand, scientists are still suspicious of religion ever since Galileo was accused of heresy for claiming the earth revolved around the sun. I had a taste of that during seminary. An internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during my studies at the University of Tennessee helped me get a part time job at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory when I went to seminary. The scientists were trying to harness the power of the stars, fusion, that kept stars burning thousands of years. My job was to visit the scientists to complete a questionnaire recording how their research was stored. Several times the scientists could not believe why I was there. “You’re a seminary student? Why don’t you tell me the truth, tell me why you are really here!” one exclaimed. He was convinced that I was part of the government’s downsizing of the lab. Let us pray that those days of science and religion feeling at odds with each other are almost over. One denomination, the United Church of Christ, decided to make it clear where it stood with a pastoral letter to the world:
“Through the scientific advances of our time, we are seeing nature with new eyes, and what we see fills us with wonder and praise. Stunning images of deep space are like new windows on creation. Microscopic details of living cells show us the unexpected intricacies of our biology. Mathematical equations unravel the secrets of the first seconds following the birth of the universe. Through these gifts of science, we look across ever expanding vistas of cosmic beauty, almost to the beginning of time itself. What we see evokes wonder and humility, and we hear within ourselves a new voice arising and singing anthems of praise that reverberates through the whole creation. Science shows us a cosmos that gives birth to stars, galaxies, planets, life, mind, and self-consciousness, all emerging one after the other, each stage giving birth to what follows, each playing its part in the interactive dance of cosmic self-generation. Through these discoveries, science reveals a new picture of human beings as tiny creatures in a vast cosmic sea. We are filled with amazement and awe, and we are brought face to face with new questions about ourselves and our place in the universe. Are we alone? Does the universe have a purpose? What does it mean to be human? Questions like these are as old as scripture and as new as the latest discoveries of physics and biology. For many people today, old answers to these questions are no longer credible. Science is sometimes unsettling because it destroys old foundations without providing new ones. Yet, because of science, many today are on a new search for meaning…We believe in God, not in some cosmic force or impersonal designer. We trust in a loving Creator who is personal and relational, who seeks our companionship, who comes as Christ incarnate in the thick of things, and whose life-giving power permeates the whole cosmos as the creative Spirit, calling us to lives of gratitude in communities of justice. This great and bounteous God has created us in the image of God’s own inexhaustible mystery. Confident in such unfailing goodness, we know we can open ourselves and our theology to the momentous conceptual changes of our times, finding in them new occasions, new duties, and new languages of praise. The transformations of today’s scientific vision enrich our faith, and our church honors our members who answer God’s calling with careers in medicine, science, and engineering. And we find ourselves strangely compelled to explore the mysteries of the cosmos and unravel its secrets, to dream of comprehending the whole, to ponder its source and destiny and ultimate meaning, and by our technology to transform nature itself. We are insatiably curious, and our profound curiosity fuels equally the venture of science and the quest of faith.” That excerpt shows the olive branch of faith. We have come a long way since Galileo!
And science has come a long way. When I was a child I remember visiting a planetarium. It was a black sky with white lights and an arrow pointing out the constellations. Several weeks ago my family visited the Adler Planetarium to see the new projectors in the Grainger Theater. Here is the escription. “Encounter The Searcher, a visitor from another galaxy, and join him on an adventurethrough space and time as he searches for his lost civilization. This science fiction adventure is based on real science and features stunning visualizations of the formation of our Universe, the collision of two galaxies, a spectacular supernova explosion, and a supermassive black hole. The Searcher was written by author and screenwriter, Nick Sagan, son of the famous astronomer Carl Sagan.” The glorious spectacle of colors, imagined worlds, planets, and a ride through space was beyond amazing. And it does provoke deep humility and awe. Teddy Roosevelt was known to entertain guests at his Sagamore Hill estate on Long Island. He enjoyed watching his guests’ reactions after a late dinner as they walked beneath the brilliant nighttime sky. Roosevelt would walk solemnly and then say, “I guess we’ve been humbled enough now. Let’s go inside.”
One of my professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen, used to describe the two ways to know God:The Bible and the Book of Nature. Poet William Wordsworth wrote of this Book of Nature at age eighteen:
The same power of God keeps the stars burning also as Wordsworth says, “rolls through all things.” That holy power was what Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, referred to in the first message between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland on May 24, 1844: “What hath God wrought?” Morse seemed to realize that God gave him the power to invent. Along those same lines, the three astronauts of Apollo 8, Anders, Lovell, and Borman, on Christmas Eve 1968, celebrated by reading from Genesis 1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There was no way to miss God’s presence, they were surrounded by it.
Even though we are surrounded by God’s power in nature, we still overlook God’s holy presence. You may have attended a college that had the 10 minute rule: If a professor was late to class more than ten minutes, the students could leave the classroom. Once a professor arrived at his class shortly before 9:00 a.m., put his hat and briefcase down, and went to get a cup of coffee. He returned at exactly 9:10 to an empty classroom- all the students had left. The next time the class met he wrote on the blackboard in big letters, “WHEN MY HAT IS HERE, I AM HERE!” I think the students got the message. The following class he arrived at his classroom to see 30 hats on 30 empty seats- but no students!
Sometimes we are like those students, feeling as if God has left his hat and gone out of the science classroom- but God is here! Albert Einstein once said in an address, “Science and Religion,” at the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, New York, 1940: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” If we want to understand who we are, science and religion both play a part, and one without the other is incomplete. Science tells us about what is. Religion tells us about what we should be doing with what is. Science is about facts of life. Religion is about values of life. Science is, and ought to be, value neutral as much as possible. Science cannot tell us about our goals in life. It cannot tell us right from wrong. Science deals with that part of life and experience which can be measured, predicted and controlled. It does not deal with world views; world views are the subject of philosophy and religion. And science cannot tell us the ultimate mysteries which are, in the end, personal ones. The physicist Max Planck put it this way: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And it is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.”
We have been considering looking up into space, but we also need to consider the vastness of the human soul, for that is where our faith calls us to explore. The Unexpected Universe describes how naturalist Loren Eiseley related an experience in his youth, a time when he was out for stars, his attempt not only to examine the universe with the naked eye, but to observe the stars and galaxies through an observatory telescope on a mountain peak. The attempt to examine and explore outer space led him to turn his thoughts in the opposite direction, toward inner space. He observed “that the venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with a certain interior expansion, an ever growing universe within to correspond with the far flight of the galaxies our telescopes follow from without.” Dr. Eiseley goes on to observe that “the inward skies of man will accompany him across any void upon which he ventures and will be with him to the end of time.”
Writer Alan McGlashan says, “There is strong archeological evidence to show that with the birth of human consciousness there was born, like a twin, the impulse to transcend it.” Indeed, that has been the experience of the prophets and poets and mystics of the centuries. When we come to behold both the outer and the inner galaxies we are startled by mystery. Whether it is Moses and the voice of God from the burning bush, or Isaiah caught up in a religious trance in the incense-filled Temple, or Jeremiah trembling with the inner Word of God, or the shepherds amazed in the presence of angels and Jesus, people through the ages have been awakened by mystery. As science amazes us, there should be something happening inside us to keep up with this new perspective of earth and our place in the universe. Have we grown, have we become more humble? Remember when Moses heard God in the burning bush, he had to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground? In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pick blackberries.”
The people of God should be the first ones to take off their shoes on the holy ground of new scientific discoveries in order for the questions of values to be asked, such as What is the meaning of life? How do I fit into this world? How are my relationships with others, with God, with my friends and family? How can I love more, forgive more, hope more? How can I live as a person of faith? How can I connect with God? Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel has God’s arm outstretched to Adam, calling him into life with creative power. Let us take that image with us today. God is reaching out to each of us right now with creative energy. God’s energy flows through life and calls us to respond with curiosity, doubt, and discovery. God reaches out with faith, hope, and love. The book of nature proclaims God’s presence and power, and the book of Scripture teaches that God is not an impersonal, distant force, but a loving, caring, personal God who wants each of us to reach back to him and take his hand, the hand that not only called the universe of stars and planets into being with the power of love, but called each one of us into being, so wherever there is darkness, let us shine like the stars!