Awe and Wonder: Where Faith and Science Meet

Published in the Cape Cod Times, on Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recently, I spent several minutes meditating on photos from the Hubble telescope. It was a religious experience. Filled with awe and wonder. I remembered the Psalmist’s exclamation, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1) Later that day, as I took my morning walk on Craigville Beach, the words of a hymn of my childhood filled my mind and I began singing:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Like the ancients poet, I proclaimed “How great Thou art,” as I pondered the immensity of the universe, the multi-billion-year journey to this moment of beachcombing on Cape Cod, and this small but beautiful speck in the Milky Way we call home. I am regularly filled with amazement when I read about the formation of the universe, the slow and patient evolutionary journey, and the intricate interdependence of life on our amazing, but fragile planet.

For me, although they are occasionally in conflict, faith and science are companions, each of which reveals amazing things about our universe. When joined in conversation, faith and science only add to our gratitude, amazement, and care for this unique blue-green sphere that we call home.

With the author of Psalm 8, I revel in the contrast between grandeur of the universe and the apparent insignificance of our world: “When I look at God’s heavens, the works of God’s fingers, the son and moon established by God, what are humans that you mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Divine wisdom created and still creates the universe in its majesty. Our span is short, and yet God is with us, “You have made mortals a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” We and all creation are wondrously made. So, wonderful as embodiments of God’s loving wisdom, that every creature praises God, not just humankind. (Psalm 148 and 150)

Albert Einstein asserted that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Faith needs science and science needs faith. Healthy science requires the ethical and spiritual vision faith provides. Faith brings meaning to the scientific adventure and reminds us that our universe reflects providence as well as chance. Some historians of science suggest that the Western scientific quest initially depended on belief in an intelligent and orderly universe grounded in the recognition of an intelligent Creator whose purposes were revealed in the heavens above and the earth below. Without the presupposition of order and a correspondence between human intelligence and world outside us, there would be little incentive explore the world from cell to galaxy. God constantly creates the universe and despite its wildness and chance occurrences, we can discern order in the movements of the planets and the cells of our bodies.

Faith needs the ongoing adventure of scientific discovery. Photos from the Hubble telescope and images of the immune system and microscopic organisms add grandeur to our religious visions and inspire wonder at God’s creative wisdom as well as humility before the 100 billion galaxy, 13.7 billion year old universe. Evolution need not be godless, but can give testimony to God’s grandeur and creative wisdom. A young earth, created in six days, with humans at the center is too small for our spiritual adventures and for the God we worship. We need a grand canvass to remind us of the brevity of life and the wonder of this beautiful planet. We need to remember that though we are not the center of the universe, we are important in God’s eyes and what we do matters in the fate of the earth. We are newcomers on an evolutionary stage that began over 3.6 billion years ago, with the emergence of the first bacteria. Yet, today, despite our late arrival, and the emergence and disappearance of species over hundreds of millions of years, we have a role to be good stewards and caretakers of the flora and fauna, and the sea, land, and skies of our planet.

Our parents in the faith proclaimed that wherever truth is found, God is its source. There is no need for a war on science or a war on faith. While different in focus, science and faith can recognize their limitations, repent their mistakes, and work together to expand human knowledge and wonder and protect our planet. Neither faith nor science is finished. Science is still discovering and God is still speaking, as a motto from the United Church of Christ asserts.

Faith needs to claim something of the scientific spirit of constant discovery. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observes, “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal but the expression of these principles requires continual development.” Together religion and science need to be humble in spirit, appreciative of the wonders of the earth and its creatures, and protective of our fragile ecosystems and the foundations of human and non-human life.

When scientists and persons of faith are filled with awe and wonder, they realize that there is no need for a scientific war on faith or a religious war on science. Scientists can be humble believers and persons of faith can be scientists, following the facts wherever they lead. Together they are enriched, and inspired by wonder and appreciation, they can enhance the quality of our lives, work to feed the hungry and care for the sick, and bring beauty and healing to our planet.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville. He is the author of over forty books including “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” “The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” and “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.” He can be reached at bepperlychurch@comcast.net.