I was crap at science in school. Some kids are pretty good at everything and then there are those of us who are really good at just one thing, to the exclusion of all other subjects. I was the latter kind of kid. In my final years of high school, I had to retake final science exams multiple times, engage a tutor, and take remedial classes to get a passing grade in physics, chemistry, and biology. To me, science was dry and boring memorization of answers and charts.
If you would have told me that twenty years later, I’d be fascinated by astro-physics or biology, I’d have thought you were out of your mind.
But it started with Madeleine L’Engle, I think. Good literature will get us every time. Her fascination with physics permeates most of her brilliant work, particularly her novels like A Wrinkle in Time. It nearly broke my brain at times but it left so much room for delight and imagination with my old nemesis, physics. Who knew physics could be so exciting and dangerous, so filled with possibility?
Then along came the rabbit hole of Doctor Who to capture my imagination. It’s a silly show perhaps but for me, the complex story-telling romped with the delight of weird science and possibilities and the vastness of the universe.
And then I found Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Carl Sagan of my generation perhaps, and I began to watch his public television show, Cosmos, which was on Netflix. Every time an episode ended, I felt properly small, humbled, and amazed. I couldn’t wait to talk about it, I couldn’t wait to go back and think it all through again. I said “WOW!” more times than was reasonable. I had no idea that our universe was so dazzling and beautiful, complicated and vast.
Yes, these are all books and movies and television shows, I’m a pop culture cliche perhaps. But by then I couldn’t get enough: science stories on the Internet, weird photos from space, movies about the relativity of time, the what-if space dreaming in novels, all of it. I’ve gone from adoring exclusively period drama based on classic books to devouring anything to do with time and space. When the Higgs-Boson particle (called The God Particle) sounded like dance music, it dazzled me. Oh, and here’s this one, for heaven’s sake, how crickets sound like a choir singing when you slow down the speed of their natural chirp. The pale blue dot of Earth in space is sobering. There’s the stunning images of the Creation Pillars from the Hubble Telescope – that’s a picture of them right at the top of this post. Again: wow.
I couldn’t figure out why I was suddenly fascinated with science stuff when it hit me: wonder.
Science has reclaimed wonder for me again. It’s that sense of the vastness of the universe, of the possibilities, of the mystery and beauty of it. It makes me feel more wonder about God particularly.
Religion in our modern era has been primarily concerned with making God small and knowable. Most of our religious work or scholarship is about breaking complexity into simplicity, systemizing theology, charting timelines, and answering questions. It’s about removing the wonder, bringing God to a manageable deity, an understandable force, to our minds and understandings, our methods and concerns. It’s not the sole proprietary work of conservatives or progressives: we all seek to erase the wonder because it scares us. We need a God we can manage, perhaps, one that fits into our story instead of orienting ourselves around how we fit in the bigger story.
So much of our study of theology is actually just a way to stop conversations, rather than start them. We want the answers, I know, but it makes me wonder if we are even asking the right questions, let alone if we even see the vast glory upon glory of what lies before us and around us. The most small and common aspects of our lives contain worlds.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I loved Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God – the unabashed science of wonder particularly in quantum physics that he connects to the complexity and even ambiguity of God is so rare in non-academic religious publishing or thought. As he wrote, ““Because sometimes you need a biologist, and sometimes you need a poet. Sometimes you need a scientist, and sometimes you need a song.”
And sometimes it seems there is more room for wonder, mystery, grandeur, delight, beauty, and reverence in astro-physics than in religion.
I want to chase wonder a bit more, to stop thinking that my job is figure everything out but instead to sit in the awe and the beauty, in the vast unknowing of God, and be a bit more dazzled. I see wonder in so much of Scripture – over God and the universe – and I think I need more of that again.
Science leaves room for possibilities. It makes me ask myself: how else am I domesticating the wild unknowable possibilities of God?
I want to steer into the things that leave me asking questions instead of memorizing answers. I want to see the hand of God painting through skies and crickets, babies and black holes. Science is re-introducing wonder to my life and I need it because it’s reminding me of the inherent wonder of God. I think we all need to say “I don’t know but isn’t it amazing?” a bit more often.
And now, your turn: what are some things that are recapturing wonder for you these days? Doesn’t have to be science but it sure can be!