This is the fifth question in our series on apologetics called Redemptive Windows, where Campus Ministers answer faith-challenging questions sent in by CC readers. You can view earlier articles at christiancourier.ca.
Kelly Sibthorpe responds:
“Forgive me Father!” I actually blurted out loud while sitting alone at the base of my 12” Newtonian reflector telescope under the dark skies of Lake Erie’s north shore. It was approximately 1 a.m. when God’s Holy Spirit gently chided me by saying, “Now do you understand how powerful I am?” In an instant, God’s natural revelation after 10 years of a personal vendetta to disprove the existence of God through the pursuit of science demonstrated to me, beyond any shadow of doubt, God’s reality. How did I arrive at this conclusion?
My first pastoral career began as a Classical Pentecostal church planter. Ordained in 1985, I planted two churches in a cross-cultural context within the heartland of Quebec. This deeply rich experience as an evangelical preacher took its toll, so that after 10 years, I was left in a state of disillusion and doubt. Anger at God was not the problem; it was more anger with the church and its systems that left me desiring to disprove the existence of God.
It was a journey into modern science. I had been hooked on astronomy since high school, when a science teacher loaned me a telescope. Years later, the research of optics and telescopic equipment and its use became my passion. I spent hours learning the night sky. Using the star-hopping method under the vast dark skies of Lake Erie’s north shore broadened my knowledge of a vast and beautiful universe. I read all I could on the observable objects through a 12” telescope, including double stars, planetary nebula, globular clusters and star clusters. In the 90s, a membership in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s London Centre opened doors for me to meet some of North America’s best researchers in astrophysics. Our centre enjoyed visits from scientists in the space program, lunar exploration and the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory University of California). JPL is responsible for the Mars robotic missions and the extraordinary Cassisini mission to Saturn and its moons.
A love larger than the universe
As many of the atheists I now rubbed shoulders with scoffed at any claim of the universe being a form of divine creation or revelation, I felt I was in the right place. As time rolled on and my relationships within the amateur astronomy community grew, I came to admire several people, one a Baptist pastor and the other a Christian planetary scientist. Many hours were spent in conversation with these men at the London Centre meetings and at the Cronyn Observatory at the University of Western Ontario while doing public outreach and education in astronomy. I took great delight as the public lined up at our telescopes set up on the lawn on summer Saturday evenings. My favourite clients were children, hoisted on the shoulders of parents, looking eagerly look through my telescope. “That’s Jupiter and its moons,” I would explain, or “That is the Sombrero Galaxy in the constellation Draco. The light you’re now seeing took 68 million years traveling at 186,000 miles per second to reach your eye!” The oohs! and ahhs! were constant, but never once did I “see” God.
Around this time my planetary scientist friend, knowing the path I was on, began to challenge my godless worldview. Gently, while discussing the makeup of Venus’ atmosphere, my friend quipped, “As great as creation is, God’s love as revealed in John’s gospel is greater.” The ensuing discussion centered on my disappointment with the church and its systems and my descent into doubt. He simply replied again that “God’s love in Christ is greater knowledge than any knowledge found in science.” This man of science was also a man of God!
Science as a tool
My friend continued to help me to understand that faith and science are not in conflict but rather complimentary. The church has come a long way since the old geocentric concept of planet earth. But more could be done to acknowledge that science can help us unlock the wonders of God’s creative ability. Consider the greatness of God as understood through natural revelation: we live on an obscure “pale blue dot,” a speck of dust, orbiting an ordinary star in a larger than average galaxy. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has over 100 billion stars of all ages and sizes with stellar nurseries of hydrogen, constantly birthing new suns even as I write this. A majority of stars have both gaseous and rocky planets in their orbits around them, hence many, it may be assumed, even billions of planets exist in the Milky Way alone! And the Milky Way galaxy is one of a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe.
“God,” as Albert Einstein said, “is far greater and more powerful than we have ever imagined.”
I tell my interested students that science and theology are not at odds with each other; theology is the loftier of the two because it seeks to know and understand the creator, whereas science simply seeks to understand how the creator made things. Therefore the proper study of theology requires interpretation in the light of scientific advancement. The fact that scripture contains a variety of types of literature that require several different forms of interpretation (author, context, language, culture and audience) should in no way affect God’s ability to exercise his gift of faith in our hearts. Faith, in fact, is a greater gift and quest than that of science as it seeks the unseen yet knowable love of God in Christ Jesus!
Back at the telescope that night, I had just finished observing the “Wild Duck” star cluster known as M11. This beautiful cluster of about 2,900 stars sits roughly six million light years from our sun – basically in our galactic back yard. In the centre of this cluster, which resembles a duck in flight, is a single amber-coloured “red giant” star. I had observed this cluster many times over the last several years because of its ethereal beauty. This night, however, was different. With the Holy Spirit’s words fresh in my mind, God’s love once again flooded my heart in a profound way that science could never describe.
I know from science that God is more than 13 billion light years across, or at least he governs that amount of space. I know from faith that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, abides within me, and science remains mute in any attempt to describe the love and glory of that act.
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