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If you’re anything like me, the images sent back to earth by the James Webb Space Telescope made you feel very small. It’s hard and uncomfortable to comprehend being a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a universe full of tiny, beautiful specks.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the James Webb images actually sent me into a sort of existential crisis, one that I didn’t fully leave behind until I spoke with Deborah Haarsma, a Christian astrophysicist, about their spiritual significance.
Haarsma, who serves as president of BioLogos, an organization that works to reduce tension between the worlds of science and faith, told me I’m not alone in being shaken by the vastness of outer space. Then she shared some wisdom that’s helped guide her work for years.
“You don’t have to look at the vastness of the universe and feel insignificant. You can look at it and see how great God’s power and love are,” she said.
To Haarsma, the new images of outer space aren’t a reason to be scared. They’re a reason to revisit and celebrate religious teachings on the natural world and a reason to give thanks that we humans get to be part of it all.
Here are some more of Haarsma’s thoughts on the new images. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey Dallas: Do you think the images from the James Webb Space Telescope are spiritually significant?
Deborah Haarsma: Yes, I think so. They are certainly scientifically significant since they show us new things about the universe and about the conditions on other planets. But I think most people believe there’s more to the images than that.
What we discover about the universe tells us about humankind’s place in the universe, and that’s something that matters to us on a spiritual level, whether we’re religious or not.
KD: Did your own faith influence how you viewed the images?
DH: Yes, they were significant to me on multiple levels. Just the sheer beauty of the images means a lot to me, because when we do astronomy or any type of science, we are studying the very handiwork of God. We’re seeing God’s creation.
KD: Does gaining more information about the universe has the potential to create conflict for Christians?
DH: I know some people feel that way, and I personally felt that way when I first started studying astronomy. I grew up in an evangelical church and heard that you have to choose between the Christian view that God created the earth and it’s 6,000 years old and the atheist view that the earth was billions of years old.
But when I got interested in astronomy, I saw how much evidence there was for the very old age of the universe and also got pointed to some great resources that helped me dig deeper into scripture and understand Genesis better. I didn’t want science to dictate how I interpreted the Bible, but I did enjoy deepening my understanding of Genesis.
In general, I believe that studying the handiwork of God won’t drive people away from faith. Instead, it’ll tell us more about his work as the creator. I believe all truth is God’s truth. If you’re studying something about the universe that’s true, that’s not something to be afraid of.
KD: Do you think faith leaders should talk about the images in church programming, like Sunday School classes or in sermons?
DH: Yes, there’s so much potential there. At my own church, we had the images projected on a screen the Sunday after they were released and sang hymns about nature. They created an opportunity to thank God for the wonders of the natural world.
The images also offer a chance to talk to young people in the church about science and let them ask questions. We have to show kids that Christians can engage with science and that, if they like science, there’s a place for them in the church.
Pastors should take comfort knowing that they don’t have to have all the answers about science in order to benefit from bringing it up. What kids want most is somebody who is just willing to have a conversation.
KD: What drew you to your career as an astrophysicist? Did your faith have anything to do with it?
DH: I was always interested in science and math, and my parents and teachers encouraged me to lean into that passion. I got into physics because I loved how mathematics describes the real world. The calculations you do on paper can be measured in the real world.
For a while, I wasn’t sure if working in science was a Christian-y thing to do, but I went to a Christian college and heard that, yes, it’s good to study God’s creation. Astrophysicists see how physics principles work out in the universe under the extreme conditions of black holes and ultra-intense gravitational forces. It’s just amazing.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Spiritual abuse
The week’s term is a tricky one to define, since people of faith disagree on when faith-related behavior that’s upsetting crosses the line and becomes abuse. “When does a disagreement, an unhealthy culture or the normal challenges of church life turn abusive? The answer is not always clear,” Religion News Service reported last week in a story on recent conflict at a few high-profile churches.
That article drew on the expertise of authors and scholars to sketch out some of the markers of spiritual abuse. “Spiritual abuse, at its core, involves the misuse of spiritual authority,” Religion News Service reported, noting that spiritually abusive faith leaders “manipulate or coerce” members of their congregation into following their demands and sometimes go as far as shunning those who dare to raise concerns. Worshippers end up feeling silenced and scared instead of uplifted and loved.
What I’m reading ...
As the average lifespan gets longer, faith communities are adopting new rituals to recognize significant moments in the lives of older adults, according to The New York Times. “The second half of life includes so many moments that are worthy of attention and communal celebration,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner to the Times.
I always like when articles surprise me, and Christianity Today’s look at Christian colleges embracing green energy fit the bill. The story highlighted how new financing options are helping schools across the country install solar panels, save money and live out the belief that protecting the environment is part of living a life of faith. “I think taking care of the planet is a prerequisite to being a Christian,” said Tim Fennema, vice president for administration and finance at Calvin University, to Christianity Today.
Odds and ends
The iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, which sustained major damage during a fire in 2019, will reopen in time for the Paris Olympics in the summer of 2024, according to Reuters.
I’m a Midwesterner at heart, so I loved The Washington Post’s recent article on “the most Midwestern things on Earth.”
If you ever find yourself wondering “What’s up with American religion?,” I’ve got a video for you to watch. Two scholars and I attempted to answer that question in a virtual panel last week.