By David Wilkinson
The first images from the James Webb Telescope were astonishing. A patch of the universe showing objects from which the light started its journey over 13 billion years ago and the distorted shapes of galaxies whose light had been magnified by the gravitational presence of dark matter. Then there was a region of star formation which showed in dramatic relief the dust and molecular hydrogen cloud which is a maternity hospital for newly born stars. And then, if that is not enough, a planet around a distant star with the indication of water molecules in its atmosphere, one of the things necessary for the emergence of life.
Even as someone with a PhD in theoretical astrophysics, the sheer beauty was as jaw-dropping as the multi-billion dollar and three-decade long project which had built, launched, and assembled the telescope to operate one million miles above the earth. And as a Christian this sense of awe naturally turned into worship “as the heavens declare the glory of God.”
However, these pictures of the universe do not lead everyone to belief in a Creator. Science is a complicated business both in its process and its interpretation. While NASA has chosen some awe-inspiring and intriguing first photographs, the hard work of scientists will continue in the background. Science does have its wow moments, but a lot of the time it is tedious, tough, and frustrating. It is about experiments which don’t work, about papers that are rejected by journals, about colleagues who don’t do what you think they should be doing, and about proposals that are never funded!
The long delays of the Webb Telescope, its ballooning budget, and even press conferences which don’t go smoothly illustrate this. Yet scientists continue for the wow moments which show us that the universe is even more spectacular than we thought it was, and for that sense that science is progressing to a tighter description of the reality around us.
The interpretation of science is also complicated, not least in its relationship to belief in God. The media has had many voices who see science and Christian faith as incompatible. Celebrity scientists such Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, Lawrence Krauss arguing that the Universe came from nothing, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, have all argued that science demolishes the “God delusion.” They argue that science says one thing about the origin of the Universe and the Bible says something different and you have to choose which is correct. Then some say science is all about fact but Christianity is just about faith, implying that faith is a kind of blind belief which bypasses the mind and reasonable argument.
As a scientist and a Christian, I find such voices naïve and somewhat simplistic. That science and the Bible describe the origin of the Universe in different ways does not immediately mean that one is right and one is wrong. Such a conflict model is far too easy and not true to the nature of science and the nature of the Bible.
If I ask why is the kettle boiling I can have two answers. One because heat energy increases the velocity of the water molecules to a point where bubbles form. Two, because I desperately need a cup of tea. One describes the mechanism, the other describes the purpose. Therefore “the Universe came about through a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang,” and “the Universe is the creation of a sovereign God” are for me complementary descriptions of the same reality. Both are true but different.
However, what about the fact/faith opposition? This assumes that science and Christian faith explore the world in completely different ways and are therefore incompatible. But science is a subtle interplay of observations and models, involving human judgment of data and assessment of models. It is based on observations but it is more than that. It thrives on questions but it also involves faith, that is, actions which arise from trust in the evidence.
To launch the Webb Telescope is a huge act of faith. Christianity has some parallels here. I became a Christian because as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus and saw him at work in the life of Christians, I was confronted with evidence which needed to be interpreted. My Christian faith is an outworking of trust in that evidence and the interpretation that this cannot be explained in any other way than this was God in the space-time history of the universe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As both a scientist and a Christian, faith involves questions, some of which I continue to struggle with, but questions which have always led me to further excitement about both science and Jesus.
The science that will flow from the Webb Telescope will allow us to learn more of the origin of the Universe and perhaps whether we are alone in the Universe. In all of this I don’t want to believe in a “god of the gaps” who simply is rolled in to fill gaps of ignorance. The God whom I believe in is far greater, sustaining all of the physical laws throughout the billions of years of the Universe. The Bible understands that the whole Universe is the result of God’s working and sustaining.
It is fascinating that science does not answer all of the questions. First, “why is there something rather than nothing” is not only a question about mechanism it is also a question about purpose and meaning – the why question behind the Universe’s existence.
Second, where do the scientific laws themselves come from? If the Universe emerges as a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang, we need to ask where quantum theory itself comes from? Where does the pattern of the world come from and how is it maintained? This is not a “god of the gaps” argument, as science itself assumes these laws in order to work. There is a long tradition stretching back to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who saw the laws of the Universe as the work of the divine lawgiver. “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…,” Newton wrote in 1687. “The Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of His dominion He is wont to be called Lord God.” German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was “carried away by unutterable rapture” as the correlation between orbital periods and mean diameters, which showed that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, was disclosed.
Third, why is the Universe intelligible? In 1936, Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Yet why should this be the case, that the mathematics of our minds resonates with the mathematics of the Universe. Some scientists, including the noted British physicist/clergyman John Polkinghorne, suggest that the natural answer is that there exists a Creator God who is the basis of the order in the Universe and the ability of our minds to understand it.
None of these insights prove to me the existence of God. My own belief in the existence of God and understanding of God’s nature comes from the Christian claim that God revealed himself into the space-time history of the universe supremely by becoming a human being in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from that perspective that I welcome any scientific work on the story of the universe. For me science is a gift from God. As Kepler believed, being made in the image of God allows us to “think God’s thoughts after him.” It is also to be filled with awe at God’s work and to worship this God who creates with such extravagance and joy. So I give thanks for the Webb Telescope, the thousands of scientists and engineers who built it, maintain it, and then interpret its observations. And I look forward to the new questions, puzzles, and insights that it will give us.
David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College, Durham University in Durham, England. He is author with Dave Hutchings of God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse (Monarch, 2020). Professor Wilkinson is a British Methodist minister, theologian, astrophysicist, and academic. He is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, has a PhD in astrophysics, and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Image: NASA: “What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by … NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.” Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl.