Every year about this time, someone in the astronomical realm speculates what the Star of Bethlehem was. Some say a supernova. Some say a comet. Or, as a Real Clear Science article this year argues, some say the giant planet Jupiter, an unusually bright celestial object when it crosses our nighttime sky.
Certainly, Jupiter must have dominated desert nights more than 2,000 years ago. Even with present-day haze and city lights, it typically outshines most stars.
Yes, evangelical purists might hold that such scientific arguments cheat God of glory, as if the nightly trek of Jupiter somehow diminishes the story of a heavenly marker that oriented and led wise men — some biblical scholars believe they were astrologers — to the recently born Christ. Nonsense. I consider scientific study and research as mankind’s peek beyond the celestial curtain at an array of wonders utterly divine in nature, many running by laws of physics that required centuries for us to understand.
Even now we don’t understand them all, something Einstein acknowledged.
Earlier this year, I spent an enlightening morning drinking coffee and discussing theology, scientific research and learning with Ralph C. Wood, Baylor University’s mild-mannered professor of theology and literature, and A. Christian van Gorder, associate professor of religion and a specialist in the amazing multitude of world religions. We were discussing with retired chemist W. Richard Turner what some imagine as the uneasy mix of science and faith.
At one point, Wood summoned a passing Baylor mathematician to our table.
The mathematics prof then obligingly spent several minutes talking to us about the wonder of numbers in terms of truth and how, yes, he saw them as essentially divine in their nature to refute nonsense and shine light on theories once deemed impossible or even heretical. I won’t pretend I understood everything he said, but he praised the perfection and absolutes that numbers offer when combined in different ways.
I’ve sensed this meshing of science and faith often enough. One of my favorite columns of 2015 was by former Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center chief cardiologist Michael Attas and longtime pulmonary medicine specialist Rodney Richie, both doing what good physicians should do. In this case, they touted politically controversial Environmental Protection Agency ozone standards because of the good these new standards offer for people’s health and well-being. Consider this robust excerpt:
“The Declaration of Independence guarantees us ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The question then becomes whose life? Whose liberty? Does the liberty of companies to pollute our water or air supersede my right to life and health? Does the clout of Americans for Prosperity have more weight than the well-being of everyday, ordinary citizens? Does the fact that the wealthy, politically influential Koch brothers are leading voices against any environmental regulation and also happen to be the leading investors in coal and fossil fuel ring any moral bell at all among thinking Americans? It should.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn Dr. Attas was also an ordained Episcopal priest who helped found Baylor’s remarkable medical humanities program. In it, students immerse themselves meaningfully in ethics, religion, literature, philosophy and history along with the sciences. In a Baylor Magazine interview, this gutsy physician and priest explained a vision in which ethics and spiritual formation have a fundamental and influential role in Baylor’s pre-med curriculum.
“As humans, we can have a tendency to compartmentalize our faith life and our academic life and our social life,” Attas said. “But the real world is not compartmentalized. It’s multi-disciplinary. Everything we do — what we see, experience, read and think — makes us who we are. The vision was to work with students to help form and shape them with a worldview that integrated faith in the practice of medicine.”
Some of this returned to me a few weeks ago when I witnessed high-tech demonstrations of what Waco High School’s long-mothballed planetarium could be if properly overhauled and catapulted into the 21st century. While those of my graying generation were thrilled at old-styled planetariums and their casting pinpoints of light onto domed ceilings to better outline the heavens, today’s planetariums showcase vivid IMAX-type programming about ecology, geology, environmental science, anatomy, chemistry, physics and engineering.
All of this holds the power to instill in students a curiosity about not only the heavens above us but the world around us. For instance, among other things, one planetarium program can track soot and sulphur in our air, giving students a better idea of the invisible threats we take into our bodies with each and every breath. Another offers up-to-the-hour tracking of earthquakes and tremors across our globe, including those possibly caused by fracking. Yet another shows how the stars will appear to our descendants 10,000 years from now — assuming we have any descendants. That in itself is a sobering thought.
Yet another program outlines the increasingly tortuous path of monarch butterflies, surely one of God’s most beautiful creations. Their migratory perils hint at the environmental complications that may undermine us all if we’re not prudent.
Such programming proves we live in a world anything but static and in a universe continuing to evolve in ways that may or may not benefit us. Much of our success is dependent on willpower, conscience, curiosity, courage and, finally, the intellect the good Lord gave us. Presumably, God expects us to use that intellect to solve problems and not simply rely on biblical scripture to survive and flourish. Scripture, after all, partly represents not-to-be-ignored signposts as Christians and others journey to confront new challenges. Those signposts yield principles that, when embraced, ensure our work ultimately seeks the betterment of others, Christian or not.
I remember a particularly frustrating conversation I had with a local political activist who cavalierly dismissed the threat of global warming — a concept that even a basic earth-space science student can grasp as an obvious threat to the natural order of things. Her attitude: Place your faith in God. Let him handle it. Yet this approach assumes God gives some of us the intelligence to tackle such mighty problems, then invites us to allow this gift to lie fallow — in short, to dispense with our very faith in ourselves. What a sacrilegious waste of creation.
This holy season’s campaign to revamp, modernize and imaginatively program a modest-sized planetarium long locked away behind a hallway door that at least some Waco High students and teachers thought hid only mops, buckets and disinfectants is one key to expanding young minds. The Waco Independent School District fundraiser to transform this space into a full-fledged community planetarium asks we take an exceptionally long view — one that challenges those of faith to envision a bigger picture than even the Bible can reasonably contain.
Can the minds of the next generation reconcile faith, science and the awesome divinity of the nighttime sky in ways that many of us have not? Certainly we owe our children at least that opportunity.
The Reach for the Stars campaign seeks to modernize the Waco High School Planetarium for both school and community use in collaboration with Baylor University, McLennan Community College, Texas Tech University, Tarleton State University and Texas State Technical College. For more information, contact Bruce Gietzen at 755-9454 or visit wacoisd.org.