image via NASA

image via NASA

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!

(For fun: 50 Awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets. Oh, and a Beginner’s Guide to Doctor Who.)

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  • Yes, yes… I’m with you, Sarah. Have you seen Louie Giglio’s presentation on the sun, Sirius, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Canis Majoris, etc? Science is a fascinating window into the grandeur of God.

    • Wow, no I haven’t – will have to track that down! Sounds fascinating.

      • Here’s a short version. There’s a longer one. I’ll look for it and tag you on Twitter… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRiIWL04po8

      • Louie Giglio opened my eyes to the wonders of science and the universe. Breathtaking!

      • Jo Inglis

        Also Louie Giglio’s Indescribable presentation – we sang ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ after watching this during one evening service. Pin drop wonder

    • I go to the church he pastors in Atlanta, Passion City. For our Christmas Eve service, he talked about a dwarf galaxy with a huge black hole in the middle of it. And he was talking about the wonder of that, and how Light created the light yet he became God-in-flesh (I think. He got so excited the story got lost and it was Christmas; I remember barely anything.) But I absolutely love having a pastor who is so excited about science!

  • Nel

    Moving into the deep dark Derbyshire countryside (UK) & reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s brilliant ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’ I am beginning, bravely, to find the night sky, moonlight & starshine wonder-full ~ full of colour & glory once my vision adjusts x

  • Orton1227

    I just watched this special called “Strip the Cosmos: Black Holes” and it’s spectacular. It takes my breath away to think about black holes that are tens of millions of times as big as our sun. And at the end when it gets into the possibilities of white holes…wow. Enjoy!

    “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2sF9gVnEVU”

  • Melanie

    Yes! Me too! Just saw interstellar the new Chris Nolan movie. A bit silly and ridiculously far fetched but it is sci fi after all and wow the possibilities of the universe. And then yoga actually, and the Eastern understanding of energy centres and auras and co creating and manifesting. All a good step outside my comfort zone (I was a conscientious objector to yoga in high school!!!) but I’m in awe of God’s design. How u

    • Melanie

      For some reason I couldn’t type any more and my Comment was truncated. Don’t know how to edit. Anyway that’s all. I’m in awe and wonder at how incredible it is that we are here at all.

    • Oh, I liked that movie, too! First movie I actually made a point of going to see in the theatre in probably three years. So worth it for the big screen experience of the solar system. Although the cryo-sleep thing did freak me out thoroughly. 🙂

  • The ocean. Always the ocean.

    And snow.

    And fresh fruit and veggies at a market. I stared at a cauliflour a few days ago.

  • YES! I hated chemistry in high school, but a general college class changed all that. I was amazed at quantum theory (greatly simplified: subatomic particles are both waves and particles at the same time, a seemingly dual nature of sorts). It’s kind of amazing.

  • What a good post! Though I like parts of science, the parts where things can be figured out, answered even, I haven’t yet ever gotten into things like physics or astro-physics. Nonetheless, I find your point about religion being a way to answer questions instead of allowing the wonder of a Higher Power, God.

    Perhaps, in some ways this is why I don’t subscribe to a religion, preferring to be spiritual instead. For spirituality allows me to explore and experience my own version of a Higher Power and to live through that. I also find that this belief, for me, has lent to an understanding that my “definition” doesn’t need to mirror or agree with another’s “definition”, just as my experiences will always differ from another’s.

    I love the wonder of nature. They way things do what needs done if you let them. The way we’re given what we need. And the energy nature provides, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 🙂

  • Emilie

    Cliché, maybe, but I’m 10 days from the due date of my miracle baby after four years of loss, infertility, and disappointing adoption attempts, and that fills me with great wonder. Since May, all the things happening in my body and his have made the biology I used to hate suddenly fascinating. But it’s not enough, after all we went through, for my husband and I to take credit for his creation. We know where he came from, and that is more wondrous still.

    • Oh, that isn’t cliche at all! I feel that wonder too.

  • Eliza

    One of my favorite books is “A Really Short History of Everything” by Bill Bryson. It’s a remarkable “history” of the universe, from the big bang on. The science in the book is facinating and awe inspiring. I’ve read it several times and am amazed at the beauty and complexity of our universe each time.

    • I’ll have to add that to my library queue, Eliza! Sounds fantastic.

  • R W

    So I re-read “A Wrinkle in Time” and fell in love…and I’ve been madly reading every Madeline L’Engle book I can lay my hands on lately. For whatever reason, I’m seeing Jesus in her writing more than I am anywhere else these last few weeks, and it’s so. good.

    • I know, right?! I regularly have that experience when I read her work.

  • Angie Stumbo

    Many things stir wonder in me. How does a baby that was created in a water world suddenly breath air and survive? I know the science behind it but it still blows me away. How does my dead California land spring to life with only 1/10″ of rainfall? How did the cancer found in my lymph nodes suddenly disappear and not show on the scans? My best answer, Jesus. Only and forever Jesus. My favorite song these days – “May we never loose our wonder. Wide eyed and mystified, may we be just like a child staring at the beauty of our King”.

    • Oh, that’s a beautiful song lyric, Angie – who sings it?

      • Angie Stumbo

        It is from Bethel Music on their You Make Me Brave album. I believe Amanda Cook is singing it. It wrecks me every time. 🙂

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  • Oh, I love this! My undergrad is in physics and my PhD is in astrophysics and it is heartening when I see Christians affirm the value and beauty in the fields that I love and are my life’s work (well, behind my family/kids/community/etc). I love literature and art and theology and all those parts of what human beings do, and it makes me so happy to see Christians also affirm and see the holiness in math and science.

    • Wow! That is incredible, Julia – I never knew that about you. You rock!

  • I love this, Sarah, and yes, as an adult I’ve found a newfound interest in science. I’m 99% sure it has to do with two of my three kids being in love with science, so I’ve followed suit. The 4,000 types of bugs in the Australian rainforest? The fibonacci pattern in romanesco broccoli? Wild, I tell you.

    • I know! That is mindblowing! My eldest is fascinated with human biology and she regularly schools us on stuff.

  • I have to admit, science sometimes sucks the wonder out of it for me when offering explanations for the “unlikelihood” of our existence. Still, it angers me when Christians act as though science can’t coexist with religious beliefs. Great post.

  • Julie R

    One of my favorite things about working as a scientist is that I get to marvel at God’s creation on a daily basis.

    If you haven’t already read it, you should also read The Language of God by Francis Collins, a Christian who is also the director of the National Institute of Health. He talks about the wonder of God at the tiny molecule end of the spectrum.

    • Oh, that sounds fascinating, Julie! Thank you for the recommendation.

  • Perfect timing for Epiphany, Sarah! “Star of wonder…guide us to thy perfect Light.” 😉

    • Ha! You’re right – that is (unintentional) good timing.

  • MLB

    You had me at Madeleine L’Engel. (Thus my baby #1’s name).
    I had the experience of a young humpback whale interacting and “playing” with us while we were whale watching on a small boat. He got as much pleasure in the experience as we did. I loved whales before, but now I’m enamoured – their size, their intelligence, their grace and their mystery. I also am in awe of oceans and all images coming from the Hubble. I can barely comprehend our solar system, let alone the vast universe.

    • Amy W

      (ooo, MLB, I was just lurking here but now I have to chime in because *I* have a (6yo) baby named after Madeleine L’Engle, too!)

    • Yes, whales! Living here on the Pacific coast I finally get to see them now and again and nothing prepares you for it. Pictures, video, nothing does it justice, right?!

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  • This is so interesting b/c this is how I feel about the brain – I’m certainly not a science junky but now I consider myself an armchair neurologist (probably a bit dangerous). I’m amazed by it’s complexity and the ability it has to heal itself. When we sit an extra moment with “good thoughts or experiences” our brains actually say hip hip hooray I want to remember that and then they do all kinds of fabulous healing things to our bodies. I have to step away before I get too excited. The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and anything by Lisa Genova (fiction but incredibly educational) would be my book recommendations.

    Also, I’m totally with Idelette – the ocean. Always the ocean.

    • Oh, wow, that is so interesting, Heather! I watched a couple of TED talks about the brain recently and found them captivating. I’ll have to check those books out.

  • Becky Hays

    I’m always inspired by your writing Sarah, but I love this! I’m a scientist – bachelors in Biology, graduate work in Oceanography. I have always been fascinated by how ecosystems function and how every part is necessary and interconnected. I’m a Biology professor at a Christian college and love having the opportunity to teach my students about science, but also to share my passion for science with them. Some of my favorite students have been the non-science majors who find such beauty in everything, from cells to the ocean. Being a scientist lets me appreciate and love God in ways that go beyond theology. To me, science is sacred. I get to ask questions, find explanations, and be marveled by how little we’ll ever be able to know. Science draws me closer to God and has helped me to be more comfortable in the spaces where I don’t have the answers.

    • Wow, Becky! That is so cool. Thank you for what you do – Love this.

  • Briana Meade

    I literally have been thinking about all of this all year! I just submitted the manuscript for a book about wonder (that includes quantum physics talk… 🙂 to Rachelle! Excited to see this blog post up!

  • Paul Delashaw

    I recommend Abraham Heschel’s work titled Between God and Man. It may help you a little in your reflection about wonder. Thanks!

  • Danielle

    I couldn’t agree more with you as someone who works for an aerospace company and is married to a PhD chemist!

  • Jessie Buckmaster

    Yes yes yes! I’m an engineer (female engineer! but that’s a whole different discussion) and took a ridiculous amount of physics classes in college, and engineering, and then environmental science and even meteorology. And every single thing I learned and study only reinforced and encouraged my belief in God. He is the ultimate creator of the laws of physics, and biology, and everything in our universe, the original designer, and master builder. The idea that science and Christianity are mutually exclusive has been so harmful in many ways, but not the least of which is limiting our experience of the vastness of our God. Science and the church is a topic that I’m very interested in diving into. Specifically for me right now: Sustainability and creation care/stewardship…but I digress. As a science person I’m so thankful for people like you you can so beautifully articulate in words the things I can only study and solve formulas for!

    • Jessie, this makes me so happy! Thank you for what you do!

  • thelifeartist

    that is the EXACT reason why i loved loved loved Rob Bell’s book too! AND: have you see interstellar?! that movie will play with your insides; mess you up and make you weep for wonder. 😀

    • Yes! We saw that movie on NYE – first movie in a theatre in years! – and it was amazing.

  • This is a great post. Very well said.
    Gardening/farming helps keep me in awe and wonder. As for science, for me it breathes life into faith that would otherwise be sterile and dull. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, the nearly incomprehensible vastness of the universe (or multi-verse)–amazing realities like those make laughable any attempt to put God and truth into some kind of box. Science helps keep me amazed and humble.

    • My husband is like that with gardening, too, Bill – so many metaphors abound there!

  • Yes to Cosmos and Dr. Who and science as a path to wonder and all of this. Wonder lies in the questions or at least in the acknowledgment that the answers we have may not be complete.

    I had a similar experience with mathematics a few years ago. It was also my most challenging subject at school, but when I started looking at it again as a parent and adult I became fascinated by the way the numbers work, and started reading about the idea of mathematics being discovered versus invented and frankly math just seems like magic to me now. Just straight up magic.

    • Oh, mathematics – I can see why it’s so fascinating but I’m still so intimidated by it. I fell out of bed with mathematics right about the time of long division. 🙂 I love to hear or read about people who love it though.

  • Kaitlin

    “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. ”

    This is really good, and so true. Personally, when I choose to honor God in His glorious vastness, it makes me realize how completely blessed I am to be created, noticed, even pursued by Him.

    Thanks for this reminder! I’m going to go look out the window now. 🙂

    Kaitlin

  • Nicole Chase

    *claps excitedly* Oh, this is excellent. 🙂

  • ColleenMary

    Book rec: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. I just started it; it’s about the science/exploration happening at the time of Wordsworth/Keats/the Romantic poets. Bought it for the exact reasons you describe—chasing wonder! Back cover: “an amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy, and biography”—what’s not to love?

    • Kaitlin

      That sounds awesome, Colleen!

    • Oh, wow, that sounds fascinating!

  • “Religion in our modern era has been primarily concerned with making God small and knowable. ” God help us and forgive us. You are so right.

    Several Summers ago, I became fascinated with the Geckos, on our porch. I researched the types resident with us, and learned about others. I observed them night and day for three years. There is such perfection, balance and harmony in creation. It seems every living thing lives within it’s created parameters, EXCEPT humans. WHEN we flow with God with a (moral, righteous, just be nice) lifestyle, our abilities for magnificence in sciences, music, art, support of our neighbor, is without parallel.

    Becoming like a child, is tough, for this hardened adult, BUT it opens my eyes again to the Wonders of our magnificent Creator and Savior.

    • You know, that’s something I’ve thought about lately, too, Gary. How we know so much but we know so little about our own backyards. Like what are the names of the trees that live near us, what kind of berries are those, that kind of stuff. Childlike curiosity is so enlivening.

  • ApoAgathos

    I show my students this interactive when first introducing scientific notation: Scale of the Universe http://htwins.net/scale2/

  • I love science. I love it. I fell in love during Rob Bell’s ‘Everything Is Spiritual’, even more during BBC series ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Wonders Of The Solar System’, and confirmed by views of Hubble space telescope and a chapter of Bell’s last book on atomic and sub-atomic science. Always gives me a sense of awe and wonder, and expands my view of God. My story is much like yours – the wonder of science tells me more of the wonder of God. It’s truly awesome.

    And I’ll be honest, even Doctor Who expands my view of God.

  • Aaron

    Hi Sarah, I wonder if you are familiar with the work of BioLogos? They are a forum of Christians who foster dialogue between mainstream science and christianity.

    I recently completed my doctorate in neuroscience and I wrote an article which was published on BioLogos regarding the sense of smell and how it is surprisingly awe-inspiring. Here’s a link in case you’re interested:

    https://biologos.org/blog/the-aroma-of-the-knowledge-of-god

  • Sarah Nicole

    what. wow. yes. you touch on something that i feel deeply but am still uncovering as i rediscover faith and God. “What we talk about when we talk about God” was big to me. And C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy was huge. The wonder aspect, the vastness, the power of God and the crazy incomprehensibility of the universe & everything beyond it is pushed into boxes in the Christianity & apologetics that I grew up with. I want more people to say “I don’t know” more. “I don’t know, but I agree it’s huge.” “I don’t know but let’s explore it.” “I don’t know, but isn’t it amazing?” yes.

  • Joy

    Wow… I just… lately…I never thought to consider this beauty. Thanks for the kick in the pants. 🙂 And look at all these amazing resources in the comments! (And can I puhleeeeese whine about the Christmas special? Waaahhhhhhhhh! I hated it! Hated it, hated, hated it.) Ok, got it out of my system. 🙂

  • I read this again this morning, printed it and hung it in my office among the “Wake up and SMELL that Rose/Coffee and SEE” items on my wall. The beings on Avatar say to each other,”I SEE you”. One of the visiting humans explained what it meant and from that day, I determined to SEE my wife, children, friends and the wonder, of God, around me.

    Have a great day.

  • Sarah Nicole

    what. wow. yes. you touch on something that i feel deeply but am still uncovering as i rediscover faith and God. “What we talk about when we talk about God” was big to me. And C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy was huge. The wonder aspect, the vastness, the power of God and the crazy incomprehensibility of the universe & everything beyond it is pushed into boxes in the Christianity & apologetics that I grew up with. I want more people to say “I don’t know” more. “I don’t know, but I agree it’s huge.” “I don’t know but let’s explore it.” “I don’t know, but isn’t it amazing?” yes.

  • pastordt

    Oh, yeah. YEAH. Madeleine said this repeatedly – she hated reading theologians, so when she needed to lean into God, she read physics books. I’m not quite there yet, but I so get this whole idea. And it is connected to wonder. Absolutely. (And there is one theologian – and an interpreter or two of his – who does deal with wonder, of sorts. It’s tough sledding, so an interpretation or summary might make the entry easier. Teilhard de Chardin was a geologist and a devout Jesuit priest with a background in the Sacred Heart tradition. And he began to see the entire universe as beating with that sacred heart. It’s been the picture that helps me the most when I feel overwhelmed by tough things. To see us all as ultimately safe, held in that great heart. Thanks for this. Truly.

  • I pray we learn to stoke the fire of that unknowing in our young children and encourage them to keep those darling eyes wide open well into adulthood. I pray we teach them to doubt, to be comfortable with “I don’t know.” And to accept other perceptions of what cannot be known as equally valid, equally beautiful as their own.

    I pray we teach our children that different is not wrong.

    And teach them that in seeking that diverse and even disparate beauty in their neighbors, they are seeking the beauty of God.

    More …

  • Robin

    I love this post! Check out the meditation on the pale blue dot at http://www.theliturgists.com/vapor. One thing I’ve always wondered is how small do things get? We know that things are so much more vast than we can imagine. Are things infinitely smaller, beyond the atom?

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  • There have always been Christians who “got” that wonder. It’s not a new thing. I’m sure you know that, but I feel like it needs to be said.

    Making our God more knowable may have been a reaction against the old Deist thinking, which made God to be too big and too concerned with big things to have any relevance to us. It’s just as easy to look at that glorious otherness and the vastness of time and space and to conclude that we are ants that God would step on. But God is transcendent AND immanent, “out there” and “right here”. We need to stretch our minds both ways.

    Thanks for linking to the crickets recording. That is incredible! Not because they sound like humans, but because they’re singing plagal cadences! Which maybe doesn’t mean anything to most people, but as a music geek, it’s blowing my mind.

  • David Antonini

    You m7ght enjoy Louie Giglio and Matt Redman’s book “Indescribable”

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  • Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk

    I just started a weekly link-up at my blog called #SmallWonder, where participants are encouraged to write a short post reflecting on a moment of wonder. I’m hoping it will be like yoga for our souls, practicing a posture of openness and praise. You can read more about the link-up here: http://afieldofwildflowers.blogspot.com/2015/01/welcome-small-wonder.html