“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” ? — Carl Sagan
Sagan was one of my favorite public figures when I was younger. I remember watching his science TV episodes on PBS with rapt attention. In particular, I loved the scene where he took an apple and cut it in half to show how thin the skin really was, and then compared that to the thickness of Earth’s crust. I was also entranced by his vision of what life in the atmosphere of Jupiter might look like (big floating gas bags, with no solid surface to ever rest on).
I’ll be honest, I miss Carl Sagan. He was one of the best science communicators of the modern age, and while he often had rather harsh criticisms of religious beliefs and institutions, some of which I think were justified, others not so much, he did so in a mostly civil and respectful manner. Contrast this with the angry, spiteful, ugly, and sometimes hate-filled rhetoric of certain prominent scientific atheists today.
Speaking of atheists, I recognize that Sagan could be considered an atheist of sorts (he himself shirked the label, and called himself an agnostic), and I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among many of my atheist friends: like Sagan, they share an almost transcendent sense of awe and wonder of the natural world that amounts to, for all practical purposes, a religious one. I find that as I grow as a scientist, I increasingly share this impulse, but from the perspective of a Christian theist. It’s this remarkable point of confluence that I wish to elaborate on in this post.
I chose the above quote because I think it highlights one of the biggest points of disconnect that many theists have with the natural world (and thus that which falls under the purview of science). The thing that sticks out at me most is that Sagan, an avowed nontheist, in my view has captured a profound truth about God that escapes too many Christians (not to mention other theists) today. Namely, that he cannot be limited, boxed in, or ever completely fathomed by anything we think about him, or any theology we come up with. (Note, this does not mean that we cannot know *anything* about God, or that there are no proper responses to God, but that’s for another post). One needn’t go far to find Scriptural support for this: consider Isaiah 55:9 as a starting point. The Psalmist, I think, understood that the unbelievable grandeur of the natural world pointed in turn to the ineffable grandeur of the Creator: see Psalm 8:3-4. As far as I’m concerned, the new vistas we are opening up in science, in which so many wonders are being uncovered day by day, is about as powerful a testimony as I can think of for a faith in an even more awesome Creator God.
Now, before I give Sagan too much credit, I want to point out that I actually disagree with his assessment of modern religion, particularly when it comes to Christianity. Christianity, at various times and places through the ages, has in fact looked at science in exactly the manner that Sagan laments that it hasn’t. One only needs to look at any list of historic figures in science, and one will find numerous devout Christians among them: Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, and Michael Faraday are only a few that come immediately to mind. These and other figures, to varying degrees, all shared the conviction that God’s nature was reflected in the wonders of the natural world, and indeed, that scientific discovery was in a very real sense, a way of revealing an even grander God than the prophets revealed, to paraphrase Sagan.
Unfortunately, these times, places, and people are fewer and farther between these days. I will elaborate on this state of affairs in future posts, but for now, suffice it to say that I think that many modern Western Christians (of whom I am naturally most familiar with, being one myself) are at the very least missing a huge opportunity to grow deeper in their knowledge and relationship with God by meditating on the wonders of nature as revealed by science, and at worst, are actively spurning such endeavors. Let me be clear, not everyone has to be a scientist; not everyone is called by God to serve him in such a regard. But all members of the body of Christ should rejoice together when one part rejoices, and I’d like to see a bit more of that when it comes to the “science parts”. Some of the reason for this, I believe, is a latent Gnosticism that the Church has seemingly never shaken completely in its 2000 years of existence, but I digress.
I’ll be frank: I have become increasingly convinced that in this particular area many atheists or other nontheists (at least those of the scientific persuasion, again of whom I am most familiar) actually have a better visceral understanding of the immanence of God in Creation than many theists, because of their willingness to be open to what our ever-increasing knowledge of nature has to offer.
For my part, when I stumble across something new during the course of my own research, I sometimes am overcome with a sense of awe. Here I am, privileged to see something that perhaps no one else has noticed before, and yet, I get the feeling that it was here all along, and I just happened across it. I indeed imagine that I feel like Johannes Kepler when he declared that he was merely “thinking God’s thought’s after him”.
And then I imagine I perceive a voice, saying “There’s more where that came from. Keep going, keep looking, keep digging!”