Stardust and the Glory of God
I attended a small liberal arts college in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, where the night-skies are so polluted by light that not even a hint of the Milky Way can be seen. It's an odd place to find a world-class astronomy program, but that's what Eastern University has, thanks to Dr. David Bradstreet. Dr. Bradstreet knows more about binary stars than just about anyone and I'm sure he could easily land a job somewhere more prestigious, somewhere with better facilities, better pay and a darker sky. But he graduated from Eastern and he seems to love the place almost as much as he loves to teach.
It's that love of teaching that made his "Astronomy Without Math" class so popular. That's what he called his introductory class for nonmajors. I was an English major, and I had already fulfilled all my core requirements for the sciences, but I didn't let that stop me from taking the class. It was one of the highlights of my college experience.
Eastern is a Christian university, and Dr. Bradstreet is a devout Christian. One of the highlights of his nonmajors class is an annual lecture that takes as its theme Psalm 19:1, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." This meditative lecture was, in part, an attempt to make us try to grasp the ungraspable vastness of the subject — the incomprehensible distances referred to by the terms "lightyear" or "parsec" that we'd been so glibly tossing around all semester as though we could really understand what we'd been talking about. (I don't remember exactly what he said during that part of the lecture, but I remember the whiteness of my knuckles as a gripped the sides of my chair.) My favorite part of this lecture reviewed what we had learned during the semester about the life-cycle of the stars. Here the original lessons about the formation of the heavier elements were infused with an infectious sense of wonder. We are born out of the ashes of dead stars.
Next door to our astronomy class was a biology class taught by Doc Sheldon. Joe Sheldon is an entomologist, now at Messiah College, who shares the Creator's inordinate fondness for beetles.
The entomologist and the astronomer were good friends. They both recognized that every freshman class included some students who had been raised to believe that science and faith were incompatible. They both had to contend occasionally with students who believed, as an inviolable article of faith, that if evolution is true then their faith was false. Occasionally, we'd get a glimpse of the professors' frustration with the complaints of such students. When the biology class got a little too loud one afternoon, Dr. Bradstreet leaned out into the hall and, pretending to be angry, yelled something like, "Hey Sheldon, you want to get control of your class?" "We're fine, you just go back to teaching the Big Bang, you evolutionist!" Doc Sheldon hollered back in the same fake-angry voice. "Bug lover!" "Star gazer!"
For both men, both scientists, the study of creation — including the amazing reality of evolution, whether biological or cosmological — reinforced their appreciation for the power and majesty of the Creator. Avedon Carol made a similar point the other day:
Look, the theory of evolution is not the theory that there's no god. It's perfectly consistent to believe that whatever design the universe may have, including the Big Bang and evolution, God set it up. The idea that evolutionary theory is necessarily atheistic is a straw man. If God is not big enough to contain evolution, well, it's a pretty small god. But you can't prove God had anything to do with it — that's why they call it "faith."
The publication of The Origin of Species deepened and enlarged our understanding of the natural world. The scientist who also believes in Christianity and the Christian who also believes in science can only be grateful for this deeper, larger understanding.