Of awe and atheism

A view from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/public domain.

Awe is the common element both Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein have harnessed in their work. It is also a common theme in making connections between faith and science, but its impact is difficult to pin down.

Awe is what has drawn so many non-scientists to look closely at the contributions both Hawking and Einstein have brilliantly made to our understanding of the building blocks of the universe.

That foundational work has also meant however that both men have struck a chord in the public’s imagination in their denials of God.

In his recently released book, Hawking writes, “There is no God. No one directs the universe.”

Even after Hawking’s death this past spring while finishing up the book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, some still wondered whether he had accepted Christianity at the very end. His newly released definitive “no” to belief in God seems to be in stark contrast to his optimism and awe in studying the universe closely.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,” he wrote.

That curiosity and awe of the universe is more often than not what leads many to look at the bigger questions, albeit not with the help of complex equations.

Of course there is also the famous Einstein quote, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Yet the upcoming sale of Einstein’s so-called “God letter” has drawn widespread attention as of late. In this 1954 letter Einstein wrote to philosopher Erik Gutkind that for him belief in God is nothing but human weakness. The letter was written a year before Einstein’s death and is expected to fetch $1.5 million at Christie’s in December.

In the September issue of Covalence, pastor and physicist George Murphy took on physicist Lawrence Krauss’ 2017 advertisement that says a lack of understanding is not evidence for God.

While Krauss’ words may have legitimately been a dig at the Intelligent Design movement, Murphy points to another quote this time from Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

Most involved in the faith and science dialogue would be the first to admit that God is not a stand in for scientific theory. And some say that if you are looking for God in the details of some scientific process you are likely looking in the wrong place and that God’s presence is everywhere and not one specific place or time.

While Hawking and Einstein’s awe for the universe leads to a rejection of God, but there is still a case to be made that it can lead to strengthened belief in a creator.

Some may say it depends on your beginning viewpoint. If you believe in God then the universe affirms that and if you are not a person of faith it will embolden the atheistic world view.

Images of stars and microbial life were the jumping off point for the Faith and Science Sunday that was held at my congregation Good Shepherd Lutheran in Champaign, Illinois on September 23, 2018.

We are sharing this month the work at that congregation as an example of incorporating science into the liturgy and service.

In working on this special service at no point was there a sense that only scientists who were Christian could tell us something awe inspiring. Nor was there a feeling of an “either/or choice” between faith and science camps.

We led off with the hymn Earth and All Stars and concluded the service with God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens.

At the back of the bulletin was a quote from a scientist from the time of Martin Luther.

“Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”

That quote from Johannes Kepler summed up the idea behind the service perfectly.

May it also serve as inspiration to those who explore the farthest reaches of our galaxy and beyond with a healthy amount of curiosity and awe.

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