On December 25, 2021, while we were celebrating Christmas, a rocket launched carrying the James Webb Space Telescope. By mid-July 2022, the world’s largest and most powerful space telescope began generating never-before-seen images of the distant universe.
John Mather, NASA senior project scientist, reflects on what it means to reach this moment after 25 years of work by 20,000 people:
“It was worth the wait! Our immense golden telescope is seeing where none have seen before, discovering what we never knew before,…Already…we have seen galaxies colliding and merging…we have seen one black hole close up….we’ve seen the debris when a star exploded….” (Senior Project Scientist John Mather Reflects on Journey to Webb’s First Images. NASA Blogs, July 15, 2022.)
When asked, “What’s next?”, Mather’s response is, “We have guesses and predictions, but astronomy is an observational science.” He then goes into a litany of the kinds of questions for which astronomers will be seeking insight through observations made possible by the Webb telescope.
While many people are finding renewed interest in this new era of space exploration, those within the Christian tradition have special reason to embrace this news. The Christian tradition and its focus on a creating God who engages with creation has long incentivized people developing skills of observation, and the sciences that arose out of deploying such skills on the natural world.
The polytheism found in ancient sacred texts such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elish focused attention on many gods and goddesses who have direct connection to natural processes—sun gods and rain gods and goddesses of fertility. Humans were subservient to these deities and subject to their whims and battles. This understanding did not encourage independent thinking or creative exploration.
Monotheism, as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures express it, includes not only the belief that there is only one God, but also the view that creation is fundamentally good and orderly. This essential belief even extends into humanity’s creation, claiming that human beings are created in the image of God. Taken together, the Christian doctrine of creation results in a positive view of the universe that stimulates human thinking and exploration.
It was in a school biology class where I had my first exposure to how the Judeo-Christian worldview prepared the way for modern science. I was introduced to a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who is widely regarded as the father of genetics. His fascination with God’s good, orderly creation led him to experiment with pea plants. He studied their basic characteristics, such as plant height, pod shape and color, seed shape and color, and flower position and color. He coined the use of dominant and recessive to refer to these characteristics.
Mendel published his work in 1866 demonstrating the actions of invisible ‘factors’, which are now called genes, in predictably determining an organism’s traits. Mendel was a biologist, meteorologist, mathematician, and abbot of St. Thomas Abbey in Moravia. He is a good example of the way in which the belief in a good and orderly creation is an invitation from God to think with God’s thoughts. From this perspective, science becomes one very important way of being faithful to God by serious observation of God’s beloved creation.
Another great scientist Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics, was also a Bible scholar and theologian. His faith in God as maker of heaven and earth fueled his research into subjects such as gravitational pull and the circulation of the planets. Creation is God’s gift to be explored and understood as much as possible in order to be good stewards. Science was an expression of Isaac Newton’s faith. Move on a number of generations and we have Einstein’s assessment that physicists are the only religious people around anymore because they still have a genuine sense of awe and wonder at the immensity of the universe.
Sadly the rise of Evangelicalism in the church has led to the demonisation of science as somehow in opposition to God and has at times led science to loose its moral touchstone.
Do those of us alive today have any awareness of the way the Christian faith motivated men and women to become inquisitive rather than fearful about science?
The scriptural story and the church’s teachings encouraged men and women to practice observation of the world around them, which led to the development of science. In return, we now have the opportunity to consider how the scientific method can inform our own understanding of the Christian faith by heightening our powers of observation. Scientists are observant. They pay attention, and then they study, compare, and develop hypotheses based on their observations. Today, we may find that it is scientists who can encourage us to embrace the kind of ‘paying attention’ that we see in the Bible.
We see this clearly in Psalm 8, which begins and then proceeds to observe the natural world: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth! When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made— the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place,” and concludes with a question, “What are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?” Wrestling with this question leads to a conviction with an order of magnitude on par with the images from the Webb telescope. “You’ve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur.”
Psalm 19 continues this practice of observing God’s glory in the created order—“Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork”—before moving to consider the law of the Lord as being just as revelatory as is nature.
The Gospels testify to the way Jesus invited a more intense observation in daily life, in phrases such as:
- “Look at the birds of the air”
- “Consider the lilies of the field”
- The vine and the branches
- Wheat and weeds
- Treasure in a field
- Water of life
- Loaves and fish
- Sheep and shepherds
- “As you did it to one of the least of these…”
- “Let the children come to me…”
In Luke 12:54-56 Jesus challenges his hearers to expand their capacity for observation,
Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?
Matthew’s Gospel includes the story of the magi who were willing to go on a journey based on their own observations—“We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” They were paying attention to the world around and were willing to travel to gather the data they needed to arrive at a conclusion. There came a time when the light they were following had carried them as far as it could—to Jerusalem. Then, like good scientists, they started asking questions. Observation-driven questions that led them to Bethlehem and to the Child.
The presence of these astrologers from the east serves as a witness to the global reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wonder if this well-worn story could provide fresh incentive to use our own senses as means of paying attention to what is going on in us and around us—which may not be as mundane as we might assume.
And just as the wise men traveled together, might we learn to view each other as traveling companions who have been brought together by the church and, through the church, invited to be co-researchers?
It is exciting to hear John Mather say, “the Webb images will rewrite our textbooks, and we hope for a new discovery, something so important that our view of the universe will be overturned once again.” I am confident that there are new discoveries to be made if we take our faith as seriously as we ask our scientists to take their work.
For one thing, embracing the complementarities of faith and science can give us a renewed sense of the drama of our faith and the need to give it our full attention. The wise men observed the star in the east and by following it they came at last to Jesus. Observation is a fundamental part of the scientific method. To observe means to pay attention to the world—both the world around us and the world inside us. Engaging this first “sense” of the scientific method can help us to discern the surprising ways God is calling us to move forward on the journey of faith. The disciplines of worship, Bible study, fellowship, witness, and community outreach are ways of paying attention in order to make new discoveries.
May we (re)learn what it is to observant disciples of Christ this Lenten season.
Grace and peace to you,