Confessions of a Christian Astronomer

1 comment Posted on September 1, 2016

Christian Astronomer Declares Peace in the Old “War” Between Science and Faith

by David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” said the Psalmist David, “the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Most people rarely take a moment to look up and savor our Creator’s awesome display of cosmic handiwork or praise Him for the beauty of Creation. But I’ve been privileged to spend my lifetime studying God’s cosmic glory, beginning when I was a boy, spending evenings out in the backyard of our Massachusetts home, my eye glued to the eyepiece of a telescope, my mind awed by everything I saw.

My first telescope had a cheap cardboard tube and rickety aluminum tripod, but I knew my trusty Gilbert Observer had more stargazing power than the telescopes Galileo used.

StarStruckStargazing was tough during the summer, but visibility improved during the winter, when I often took my telescope up to my second-floor bedroom, threw open the window, and saw what I could see—which wasn’t much. Only a narrow slice of the sky revealed itself to me from my restricted perch.

I felt frustrated. I had been studying my older brother’s Golden Book of Astronomy and wanted to see everything the book described.

So I wrapped myself in layers of warm clothing, grabbed a flimsy, derelict metal chair out of the basement, and headed out to our big backyard, along with my telescope and observation notebook.

I studied the heavens to my heart’s content as I sat bundled, silent and shivering.

On nights when the frigid winds grew particularly bitter, my numb fingers and bulky gloves made it difficult to write down my observations in my notebook.

Alongside my observations, I often sketched the alien life forms I was certain inhabited the various planets. Yes, I was a certifiable nerd and a big fan of TV shows like Star Trek. I had no doubt that space teemed with all kinds of unusual and bizarre creatures. Like most scientists, I have an abiding weakness for science fiction.

When I could no longer control my frozen body’s shakes and shudders, I reluctantly went inside to warm up. Many times I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, but nobody in the family ever called me crazy, at least not to my face. My dad even helped me cart my equipment around. And even though we didn’t have much money, my mom never denied my frequent requests for more astronomy books.

I thank God that my family and my bigger church family at First Baptist Church in Brockton lovingly embraced the somewhat obsessive “junior astronomer” in their midst. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how different things might have been for me had I grown up in a church that condemned science and discouraged believers from working in astronomy.

I thank God that didn’t happen to me. My parents and the people at my church supported me as I pursued my calling.

By the time I was eight years old, I’d made up my mind. I had a clear destiny in life. “This is a great time in history to study the stars, and that is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”

My dream came true. Fifty years later, I’m still happily studying stars.

The equipment I use now is far more sophisticated than my childhood telescope. (I handpicked a Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain sixteen-inch-diameter telescope with computerized movement for Eastern University’s Bradstreet Observatory, which is named after me.) But I still experience the same kind of childlike joy and wonder now that I did when I first scanned the heavens.

The Calling of a Christian Scientist

I knew God called people to serve Him in various ways, but in the Bible it seemed He mostly called people to be preachers or evangelists. Could God be calling me to be a scientist?

I wrestled with this question as I watched a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade on TV one evening. After his powerful sermon to the crowd, Graham looked straight into the camera and challenged viewers at home to get right with God. I felt like he was speaking directly to me.

I knelt before the TV and recommitted my life to Christ, promising once again to serve God no matter what, even if He wanted me to go halfway around the globe and die as a missionary somewhere. But in my heart of hearts I hoped and prayed I could be an astronomer instead.

When it was time to choose a college, I faced a crucial decision. Should I attend a major secular school with a solid astronomy program? Or should I go to a Christian college where the Bible teaching might be stronger than the science program?

After much prayer, I chose the combo platter! I registered as a full-time student at Eastern University while also taking higher-level astronomy classes at Villanova University. I wanted to grow in my grasp of both faith and science.

I later discovered a spiritual companion in Francis Bacon, the English statesman and author whose “Baconian method” of inquiry helped fuel the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bacon saw deep connections between faith and science: “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.”

The War is Over

God has called me to study these two books and teach others how to do the same. I’ve studied the book of Scripture to become a better disciple of Jesus day by day, and I’ve learned everything I can about the book of nature, earning both a master’s and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Decades later, I can tell you that the “war” that some people try to create between religion and science is a thing of the past.

I’m not alone. Right now, hundreds of committed Christian astronomers are busy studying the Creator’s handiwork. We work on top government projects, teach at esteemed universities, conduct cutting-edge research, travel to space, and praise God for giving us the awesome privilege of understanding previously undisclosed mysteries of the cosmos.

I believe God is calling young men and women today to serve Him as scientists, but I wonder how many young people fail to hear this calling because Christian adults and teachers tell them that all scientists are “godless scientists.”

The fact is, godly scientists are everywhere, as a recent survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows. AAAS found that more than a third of scientists have no doubts about God’s existence, 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services (compared with 20 percent of the rest of us), and 15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (compared with 19 percent of the general population).

God’s Scientific Role Models

Christian scientists follow in the footsteps of many powerful role models from the past few centuries. Two of my favorite role models from the past and present are Johannes Kepler, a Protestant astronomer who was a friend of Galileo, and Francis S. Collins, a committed believer who serves as director of the National Institutes of Health, one of the most prestigious science positions in the United States.

Like me, Kepler struggled to find his calling.

“I wanted to become a theologian,” he wrote. “For a long time I was restless. Now, however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy.”

It was 1596 and Johannes Kepler, a German Protestant, was expressing his love for God’s “two books” in a book of his own: Mysterium Cosmographicum (or The Cosmographic Mystery). The book’s forty-six-word subtitle explains its focus: “Forerunner of the Cosmological Essays, Which Contains the Secret of the Universe; on the Marvelous Proportion of the Celestial Spheres, and on the True and Particular Causes of the Number, Magnitude, and Periodic Motions of the Heavens; Established by Means of the Five Regular Geometric Solids.”

Kepler studied theology, but today he is celebrated as a pioneering theoretical astronomer (they use numbers and formulas, not telescopes).

His constant prayer was that his work would “always be ready to offer delight not unworthy of a Christian, and give relief from sorrow either in the astronomical practices or in the contemplation of the heavenly works of the harmonies of the universe.”

Kepler’s astronomical theories flowed from his deep faith in God, the cosmic architect and builder. He believed astronomy was one way to better understand the Creator’s mind and methods, allowing us to praise Him more accurately and rapturously. “Those laws [of nature] are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us in his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.”

Faith also gave Kepler the courage he needed to express unpopular ideas at a time when astronomers were regularly accused of heresy for suggesting the then-radical idea that the Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around.

If you want to know a more contemporary example of the working Christian scientist, check out Francis S. Collins, who explained his dual calling in a 2015 National Geographic article, “Why I’m a Man of Science—and Faith”:

“I am privileged to be somebody who tries to understand nature using the tools of science. But it is also clear that there are some really important questions that science cannot really answer, such as: Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are we here? In those domains I have found that faith provides a better path to answers.”

A Hymn to the Creator

As soon as I could talk, I sang hymns with my parents at our Baptist church. I did my best to make sense of big theological words like sanctified, but one other hymn needed no explanation:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder 

Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, 

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed 

I’ve probably sung “How Great Thou Art” hundreds of times. When our church sings this classic hymn on a Sunday, I often hear it playing back in my mind the following week as I look through the telescope here at Eastern’s observatory.

“How Great Thou Art” makes a perfect soundtrack for today’s Christian astronomers who believe God has called us to explore previously unknown mysteries of His universe.

Christian astronomers aren’t necessarily super-godly or more devout than the average person, but we’re totally out-of-this-world curious to learn all we can about the delightful details of Creation.

As sixteenth-century Protestant astronomer Tycho Brahe put it, “Those who study the stars have God for a teacher.”

But you don’t need to be a card-carrying astronomer to appreciate the glory God declares through His heavens. All you need to do is look up!

David H. Bradstreet is an astronomer, author, and professor who chairs the Astronomy and Physics Department and director of the David H. Bradstreet Observatory and Julia Fowler Planetarium at Eastern University. www.euastronomy.com

Co-writer Steve Rabey has helped create more than 30 books for the CBA market (bestseller Rachel’s Tears) and written more than 2,000 articles for major media outlets (New York Times, Christianity Today, etc.). www.steverabey.com

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Discussion…

  • 01/21/2017
    Ed LaBelle said:

    I love this story! The opening Psalm 19 verse caught my eye. I believe in dual revelation: that God’s word, the Bible, and God’s world, the universe, will always be in agreement when properly interpreted. They have the same author!

    This story matches well with a new sidewalk astronomy ministry I started last year called “Psalm 19 Astronomy.” I would like to get the word out to other amateur astronomers to grow this ministry to other cities. This ministry is based on Psalm 19:1-2 written by King David about 3000 years ago:
    “The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
    Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge”
    – Psalm 19:1-2

    This new ministry is a great way to share God’s word in a gentle manner while showing people God’s beautiful world through a telescope. The ministry mission is “Sharing the beauty and majesty of God’s universe through astronomy.” Members simply host sidewalk astronomy events a few times per year in a high pedestrian traffic area near where they live.

    I have been hosting my events on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge near downtown Austin, TX since June 2016. This bridge has a lot of foot and bicycle traffic after dark. About 1100 people have accepted our offer to look in our telescope at the Moon and planets between June and November of last year.

    If anyone is interested in being a part of this free ministry then please email me at <http://www.privatedaddy.com/?q=JnVDTAkAIUAxV11RDGJ2bBxZTgYgeBV-2FDx4wRGFX_404> or go to the Facebook page Psalm 19 Astronomy and ask to join that group.

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