Archive

Tag Archives: science

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-6 (ESV)

How would you describe beauty? I could point you to a picture of a stunning sunset or get you to listen to The Lark Ascending, one of the most stunning pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard. But I don’t think I could straight up tell you what to look for. What about majesty? It’s how we describe kings and eagles and lions. But I can’t define it in the same way that I’d define what something physical like a book is (the OED definition is “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers”, in case you were interested). I have to use a concrete thing to communicate to you about an abstract thing.

Psalm 19 is about two ways in which God is revealed, through creation and through His Word, and this time I’m going to focus on the first six verses. So let’s see what this Psalm has to say about creation; how it, a concrete thing, displays the glory of the God who made it, and how, when we look at the natural world around us, our hearts are led to look beyond what we see and worship the God it points to.

The first thing we see as we look at these six verses of Psalm 19 is that nature declares God’s glory. The psalm bursts open with this! When he was writing this, David wasn’t making a cold observation; you can sense his wonder as he passionately exclaims:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (v1-4b)

The first thing you notice as you read this is how much communication is going on: by the heavens and the sky, day and night. It isn’t a small memo casually slipped onto your desk, either: they are declaring, proclaiming, pouring out speech, all day, all night, all over the world! And what is this message that the heavens are shouting to all and sundry? God’s glory. The goodness, the perfection, the purity of who God is in all His wisdom and power and knowledge and love and holiness and so much more! The natural world around us is communicating.

It communicates God’s glory because it is created by Him. When I was at school, I used to really enjoy art lessons. I loved painting things and making things, especially when we got to use things you don’t get to use every day. Like clay, because then you get to make stuff in 3D rather than endless drawings of random fruit and veg. It was great fun to mould it, to give it shape with my own hands rather than a brush. And to finish proudly with something that looked… close enough to the idea I had in my head, covered in fingerprints and lines that the ridges on my hands had made, and the occasional nail-mark that I’d forgotten to smooth over. The creation bore the marks of its maker. And – much better than my attempts at creativity – God’s great masterpiece, the universe, bears the fingerprints of its Maker. It reflects Him because He made it.

Verses 5-6 give an example of what we see in creation. In the UK, the sun is often a thing of myth, especially in our long and overcast winters; but when David was writing he was in Israel, where the climate is hot, and the sun would have been far easier to spot in the sky!  Let’s look at how he describes it:

In them [the heavens] he [that is, God] has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (v4c-6)

The sun has been given a place in the sky by God: a home, and a course to run (v4c, 6). And our closest star doesn’t struggle along as if it’s dragging its feet; no, it is like a groom going to his wedding, the happiest day of his life, all dressed up and bursting with happiness. It is like an athlete doing what they have trained for, muscles singing and heart thundering with the thrill of the race. The sun, as David describes it here, shows God’s glory as being exhilarating! And other parts of the physical world show other things about God’s glory.

This means that the physical world is good. As we want to be people who imitate God, and resist the temptation that comes so naturally to our human nature, we can fall into the trap of forgetting that the world we live in is made by God, and God made it good. We can focus on crucifying the passions and desires of the flesh, as it says in Galatians 5:24, and this is a good thing to do; but we can do it so religiously that we either don’t allow ourselves to enjoy the good things in this world, or don’t realise that God has made these things to display His glory – the nourishing taste of good food, the sweet pleasure of a well-performed symphony, the reassuring warmth of a hug from your mum.

The fact that God displays His glory through His creation also means that we have no need to worry about science. I firmly believe that you can be a scientist and be a Christian, and I think that people like Richard Dawkins who famously wield science as the antidote to God are wrong. At the end of the day, science is about discovering how the universe works. So what we find out won’t disprove God, because God doesn’t lie (Numbers 23:19), and He wouldn’t deceptively make something that disproves Himself. As we discover more about our universe, it’ll only show us more about His creative power and glory! And for those of us who are involved in discovering more about the world, it’s important to not lose our sense of wonder as we look at what God has made. We shouldn’t let rampant rationalism steal away our joy and reduce nature to a mere set of rules and processes. The heavens declare God’s glory; all the burning balls of gas that we call stars hang in space because they are held by God’s sustaining power.

But God displaying His glory through creation also means that we should look after it. When He created us, God gave us the task of looking after the world (Genesis 1:28-30). Can we say that we do that today? Do we care for our planet as the God-given reflection of His glory that it is, or do we use it as if exploiting our resources won’t have any long term effects? This is something that can be harder to bear in mind as our cultural mind-set has become separated from the land that we live in and depend on; we can forget that the food we eat is grown in the ground, that our electricity comes from energy released by burning coal and oil (mostly), that our cars aren’t carbon neutral. So part of our worship involves looking after our planet.

We’ve seen that creation displays the glory of God because He made it. The second thing we see in Psalm 19 is that creation is a hint of the true God. It is God’s glory that the heavens declare. Nature reflects Him because He actively chooses to communicate through it. Romans 1:19-20 says that “… what can be known about God is plain to them [that is, humanity], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have clearly been perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” God has given us something concrete to describe something we can’t see ourselves. His glory is something that we cannot see and survive to tell the tale [Exodus 33:20] because God is so pure and holy and we are so imperfect. So God doesn’t just communicate what He is like in words, like what we see in the Bible. God created a physical world that displays His glory, and He gave us the ability to see it, and taste it, and hear it, and touch it. The smell of cooling rain on a hot summer’s day. The quiet splendour of a winter’s morning where the sun gently rises in pastel hues of pink and orange.  The ferocity of a storm, where the rain pummels roofs and roads, thunder roars over our heads, and the sky is split by great flashes of lightning. All of these hint at how life-giving, how beautiful, how powerful God is!

But these hints can be misinterpreted – look at how many religions throughout history have worshipped nature or gods representing the sun or the sea or animals. They’re seeing the glory shown in nature, but are missing the point. And I think this could be one reason why Psalm 19 isn’t just about creation. The rest of it is about God’s “law” – God’s commands and everything else God wants us to know about Himself. It’s basically His Word, the Bible as we know it today. Henry will talk about it in much more details about it next week, but today it’s important to know that the glory creation displays in colour and sound and substance, the Bible specifically attributes to God, and only God.

When we marvel at the vastness of the sky and open ocean, God says “He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name” [Amos 5:8]. When pride gets the better of us and we start thinking we have the right to tell God what to do, He says “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – tell me, if you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” [Job 38:4-7] When life gets too much, God points us to the star-filled night and says “Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power, not one is missing… He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” [Isaiah 40:26].

God uses creation to points beyond itself to who He is. So get out there! Walk round the lake in Wollaton Park. Climb mountains! Go rockpooling! At least, watch a David Attenborough documentary! One of the sad things of our modern world is how we are separated from nature. We work in office blocks away from the sky and grass and trees; we stay up late in artificial light, not noticing the moon and stars and the soft evening breeze; our food comes from the supermarket rather than fields watered by rain and ripened by the sun. Nature becomes something to be controlled and bent to our will, rather than something to delight in. And so we can be missing out on something that’s really refreshing for us, and spiritually refreshing as well as emotionally or physically refreshing. The beauty of the natural world shows God’s glory, and God’s glory is transforming [2 Corinthians 3:18].

And while you are being refreshed, remember Who it is that nature points to. Remember that God is the God who made everything, things we can and can’t see, mountains, DNA, rainforests, atoms, supernovas. This is our God! He is our loving Father and awesome Saviour and invincible Lord. And delight in the world God has created because it points to Him!

As we’ve looked at the first few verses of Psalm 19, we’ve seen that creation displays God’s glory and point to Him as the better reality of what it reflects. But as I’ve been talking, I wonder how easily you believe what I’ve said? Have you taken it all in, thinking “Yes, the world is wonderful! It’s so obvious how great God is!” Or has a seed of doubt, a shadow, passed through your mind? Do you wonder whether what I’ve said really is true, because as far as you’ve seen nature isn’t all sweetness and light?

I’ve just finished a Masters degree in Clinical Microbiology. Over the last year, I’ve studied a whole load of infections and what causes them. Besides seeing how fantastic our immune systems are and how sneaky some bugs can be, I’ve realised that viruses, bacteria and fungi aren’t intentionally horrible. It isn’t like the Ebola virus decided that one day it would destroy humanity and started infecting people in Africa. Infection is an intrinsic part of how these bugs survive, reproduce and even flourish. You can’t separate their life cycle and the effect they have on the people they live in. The same goes for all infections. It’s a tragic reality. So can a good God really exist when the universe He has made contains disease and disaster and wasps?

I don’t often agree with Richard Dawkins, but he puts the issue quite well:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

[Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life]

Dawkins, and others, use this as a reason not to believe in God. But how should we deal with the fact that the world is messed up? That sometimes it does look like there’s no justice, no reason behind all the suffering we see, and surely no loving God behind it all! Turn with me to Romans 8:19-23. It says:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is groaning. Our whole universe has been made subject by God to decay, to suffering, to futility. Why? Why would an apparently good and loving God force something He created good to submit to this horror? Because of sin. Genesis 3 talks about the first time humanity rebelled against God, which has had consequences that have spun through our entire history. Our relationship with God and with each other was broken, and creation was plunged into misery. Humanity was thrown out of the garden that was a place of safety and provision, and the world became a place where life would be hard and filled with suffering. All that Dawkins was talking about in that quote, the gruesome destruction of life to feed life, the starvation, the misery; these all show what a world without God is like. They show how horrendous rejecting God is, and the appalling consequences of sin. God is so completely perfect that sin is repulsive to Him, so as we are disgusted by the misery we see, creation is still displaying God’s glory by enabling us to understand His hatred of sin.

But, as verse 20 says, creation was subjected to futility in hope. As we have been shown the horror of sin to a holy God, He will show His glory again. Did you notice, v21 says that creation was subjected to futility in hope “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” There will be a day where God will free creation from the decay-ridden state it’s in and transform it into a place of peace with no death or mourning or crying or pain, as it says in Revelation 21:4. Creation will be at peace; wolves and lambs, calves and lions, children and cobras will be safe to put together because they won’t harm each other [Isaiah 11:6-9]. And this was made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, where God reconciled to Himself all things [Colossians 1:20]; and so those of us who believe in Him, who are called God’s children, have an incredible future ahead of us. We and creation will have freedom and glory [v21] where we shall be so transformed that nothing gets in the way of us truly delighting in God and being satisfied in Him!

Yet for now, we see the cruelty of nature. Creation shows God’s glory, but creation is tainted by the corruption that stains us all. And this is why God’s Word, the Bible, is so important. Because it addresses the problem of our spoiled world and shows us what true goodness is. It says that we’re right to be appalled at death and suffering, but it won’t last forever. And it says that a holy and glorious God has made a way for us to be renewed, and made right with Him, at great cost to Himself. So let the darkness of this world drive you to the refreshing Light of Jesus. If you aren’t a Christian today, I really do hope that you’ll come to know this great God.

If you are a Christian, be encouraged! Look around you at what God has made! And delight in the fact that God, who is so glorious and powerful, is our God! One day we will see Him as clearly as we see the earth around us, and hear His voice as clearly as we hear a thunderstorm. One day we will be freed from all death and pain, and the universe will be transformed into something more incredible than it is now!

As we’ve looked at the first bit of Psalm 19, we’ve seen that the natural world around us declares God’s glory. It shouts it out for all to hear. And the glory we see in creation is the glory of God Himself – every speck of beauty, every hint of majesty points to the Lord its Maker. Still, this world is broken because God has subjected it to decay so that we would see sin for the monster it is and turn to Him. And one day God will renew the universe, and transform us, into something perfect and a people who will completely enjoy Him forever. So as we see the splendour of the world around us, let’s worship the God who made it! And as we see the misery of its fallen nature, let’s be driven to turn away from the corruption of sin to the God who will make all things new.

Advertisements

In reply to my last post, I had this question:

“I don’t have any problem with christianity and evolution from the POV of what the first three chapters of genesis say, but…. doesn’t evolution necessitate that God actively chose to create us through a competitive process whereby the strong live and conquer, and the weak die and are destroyed – isn’t that fundamentally contrary to Christian ethics and the God we meet in the Bible? Why would God choose to create in that way?” – TheologyJohn

That’s quite a poser! But before I can start to answer that, let’s have a look at evolution. It’s an interesting process, because it works on lots of levels – from the whole organism right down to the DNA itself. Evolution itself is more about the overall process of change in characteristics inherited from the parent(s), and is driven by various things (pressures that kind of define what is successful in the environment the living thing is in) to go in a certain direction. So water puts pressure on living things to either a) be happy with just floating around (if you’re veery tiny, like bacteria), b) swim around to get air/food/anywhere, or c) “breathe” under water.

But biology is beautifully complicated and detailed, and the important things in this are the smallest of all – DNA and genes.

DNA is a molecule that all living things have (and viruses too – but the scientists aren’t quite sure as to whether they are alive or just… undead), and is made up of two strands that hold together and twist around like this:

The backbone of each strand is made up of sugar and phosphate molecules (if you want more detail, you’ll have to look it up) and sticking out from the backbone are DNA bases. They pair up by things called hydrogen bonds, which work a bit like molecular magnets.

There are four bases that our DNA has: Adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). As the pretty picture shows, adenine and thymine stick together, and cytosine and guanine stick together. The A will only stick to a T, and vice versa, and the same goes for C and G because of the number of hydrogen bonds that they can make (A&T make two, C&G make three).

Genes are regions of double-stranded (i.e. like the picture) DNA that encode proteins. Proteins are made up of lots of units called amino acids, and each amino acid is coded by three DNA bases. So the amino acid methionine is coded for by an A-T-G sequence. Basically, enzymes unzip the DNA so that one strand is exposed, and copy the DNA into a form that can be recognised by the enzyme that reads the copy and sticks amino acids together to make proteins.

It’s a pretty cool system. You know how much computers can do? They just run on binary code – two “letters”, 0 and 1. But living things run on a code with four letters, and this means that you can get things that swim, fly, glow in the dark, and make tea (a very important skill, I feel)! There’s so many combinations of the four bases that there are more triplet codes than amino acids, so each amino acid is coded for by three or four codes. Add to this the number of amino acids that our cells can use, and you have big numbers of biological potential!

Back to evolution. As I’ve mentioned, evolution works through change. Our DNA doesn’t stay the same all the time – there’s lots of stuff around that can damage it, and our own cells can make mistakes when copying and repairing it. So soon enough the base sequence of the DNA will change. Thankfully, we’ve got some awesome proteins in our cells that can fix almost all dodgy DNA. But every so often, a change doesn’t get fixed before it’s copied to make new DNA, and is part of the new DNA forever. This is a mutation. Sadly, mutations don’t mean that we can get new super-human powers or turn into human lizards or whatever. Sorry, superhero fans. But they can affect the proteins that are made from them. Having a different amino acid in a protein can change its shape, or whether or not it can do the job it’s meant to do, or not affect anything – remember I said that every amino acid has a few codes? It’s a good failsafe against problematic mutations.

So these mutations change proteins, which can change what the proteins do. They could change how a protein looks, giving a different colour of hair; or how it functions, giving some form of intolerance. Basically, proteins do pretty much everything.

The important thing in survival genetics is passing on your DNA to the next generation. Don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is. DNA can’t think, it doesn’t want anything, but for some reason the main purpose of living things is to pass their genetic information on (or so I’m told). So living things reproduce a lot!

Back to the big picture. In an environment (let’s say my back garden) there are lots of things going on. The air will be a certain temperature, it will be sunny in different places, and there could well be things that eat you (especially the neighbour’s cat). You’ll have to search for food. You’ll have to sleep somewhere. All of these things put pressure on things living in the environment – called selection pressure because they select for different characteristics. Being under the apple tree selects for things that can live in the shade. Being slimy and hungry for the home-grown peas selects for things that can hide from my slug-killing mum. And so on. In the case of the slugs, the pressures on them will select for mutations that mean that somehow they can survive the slug holocaust that happens after a rainy spell.

That’s only half of the story, though. Natural selection – pressure from the environment and competition to survive with other living things – only accounts for the survival part of the story. Reproduction is also really important. With living things that don’t have sex, reproduction is pretty easy. Most of the time, it’s just growing and dividing like bacteria, so new characteristics that come from mutations are passed down the generations fairly simply. Characteristics that don’t work get killed off with the bacteria that fail at life because of them. But for living things that do have sex, it gets more complicated. After all, someone else has to want to reproduce with you. So besides the fairly logical “survival of the fittest” there’s the “survival of the hottest”.  This means that you can get some random things developing, like long tails, or bright feathers, or weird courting rituals, just because the opposite sex like it. The theory goes that these things must show something about the individual that is good for survival, like “I’m so awesome that I can put energy into PRETTY COLOURS!!!” Of course you’d want the Awesome Gene for your offspring because it makes them better at surviving, which means your genes will live on. Granted, you do have to share gene-space with your mate’s genes in your offspring, but combining can be a good thing. It can get rid of dodgy genes, and create more diversity.

So there’s natural and sexual selection, which are both part of evolution. It is a bit brutal, because it’s all about death and dog-eat-dog survival.

Why would God choose to create like this?

To be honest, I don’t know for sure. Death is a fundamental part of evolution, and if God created by evolution, we have an inconsistency with the Genesis account where death didn’t happen until after Adam and Eve (the first humans, according to the Bible) made a big booboo by eating that fruit. So we’ve got a problem there. Personally, I’m ok for this to be a grey area. I know that God created the world and that the Bible is true. I also know that evolution is a pretty sound theory – it underpins pretty much all of our understanding of living things, and it works. The details between the theology and science are tricky, because we simply weren’t there so we can’t know for sure, but what could (I stress could; I’m no expert) have happened is that death was there, but it’s spiritual death that Adam and Eve introduced.

However, to create a process that not only makes new versions of things, but continually does so, while adapting to all changes and pressures around, is pretty clever. I think it’s incredibly creative.

There’s a paper by R.J. Berry and published free online by the Faraday Institute that talks about evolution, and it’s well worth a look: (http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/resources/faraday%20papers/Faraday%20Paper%2012%20Berry_EN.pdf). Seriously, go and read it, it’s only four pages long. On p.3 it mentions that even Darwin had a problem with the brutal nature of evolution. Unfortunately, there’s not much to reconcile the ideas of brutal evolution and a loving, compassionate God in the paper. BUT it does say that there is a value to pain and suffering – pain is a good protective mechanism, and tells us when something is wrong, and suffering helps to mature us (Proverbs 23:13; Romans 5:3; Hebrews 5:8). Also, it is through Jesus’ suffering and death that we have a way of escaping suffering in hell, and what Jesus did on the cross affects the natural world as well as our human world – we have hope of everything being renewed in heaven.

It pains me not to give a conclusive answer, but I hope that’s helped!


I relied heavily on my first year genetics notes for this, so thanks to the lecturers! And credit to the Faraday Institute for the insights from their paper as well. Go and look them up, they’ve published some fascinating papers on science and religion (Christianity in particular) that are very faithful to both the science and religious thought.

Hi guys,

I hope to start posting about sciencey stuff soon – especially biology (since that’s what my degree was). I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of stuff that I thought everyone knew because it was basic information for my degree and A-levels, but actually people don’t quite know. It’s not a clever-than-thou thing, it’s just that school doesn’t always teach you why water and oil don’t mix, or why genetics isn’t quite as scary as the movies (or the press, to be honest) make it – but can still be pretty cool, or why you can believe in God and think that evolution works, or why biology is awesome. You poor, deprived people.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit of a biology geek… and when I say ‘bit’ I mean “you are such a geek!” happens quite a lot. So a chance to rabbit on about one of my favourite subjects is going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully there’ll be some hilariously-badly-drawn pictures too.

So if you want me to find out anything for you, or post about anything sciencey, leave me a comment!

Science and Belief

A blog about the positive interactions between science and faith.

Beyond the guide book

Ramblings of a compulsive travel addict

littlelifeofsquirrel

Thoughts, smiles, and 'Sarah moments'

Anglican Memes

a humour site about the Church of England

Hymns in My Heart

Sharing thoughts on my favorite hymns and Christian songs that have brought me comfort, joy and inspiration to worship Jesus Christ.

Christ the Truth

Jesus is the Word of God

Christ is Beautiful

"I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." – Jesus (John 17:26)

phil moore

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

The Knight of Nottingham

Blogging about God, Nottingham and nursing

Phil Whitehead

... needs a cool tagline ...

The mighty mighty Monk Seal

Would like to apologise to anyone he's offended by having an opinion

From the Vicarage

Henry Curran's musings