Monday, November 17, 2008

Overlapping Realms

The orderliness and regularity of apparent movement of stars and constellations of the night sky supports a scriptural principle affirmed in Psalm 119:89-91: “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (NIV). When we contemplate thoughts of what is eternal, what stands firm in the heavens, and what laws endure to this day, thousands of facts we’ve discovered and described about scripture and our universe come to mind. Let’s contemplate earth as a timekeeper, a direction finder, and a platform for successfully observing cosmic wonders.

Modern telescopes have a “tracking” feature. That is, they are able to keep a star or planet in view over a long period of time. Why is this feature necessary? Because we are “riding,” each moment of our lives, on a rotating sphere. Therefore, we are “riding by” stars and other celestial objects. As a result, they appear to be moving. But by changing the direction of its viewing angle, the tracking telescope is able to compensate and keep those stationary stars in view. There is one star in our northern hemisphere sky, however, which needs no such compensation: Polaris, the North Star. It is situated almost directly above the earth’s geographic North Pole. That pole locates the earth’s rotational axis. If we were able to view stars for 24 hours, night and day, they would all appear to revolve in a circle around Polaris once each day. Therefore, our rotating earth acts as a timekeeper. In addition, it acts as a direction finder for geographic north. If we know where north is, it is a simple matter to figure out east, south, and west as well.

The writer of Psalm 119 and writers of other passages exulting in the heavens may not have been able to explain real and apparent movements of bodies in our sun-centered solar system, such as the earth’s revolution around the sun and the daily rotation on its axis. But those details, along with other astonishing realities about planets, distances, and cosmic structure, were deduced by the Greek Aristarchus several centuries before Christ. Scientific error, sometimes related to faulty theology, crept in for many centuries thereafter. It fell to Copernicus and Galileo to rediscover basic cosmological truth only about five centuries ago.

As a Christian fascinated by science, I have found much in scripture to support and affirm my belief in God as the Creator of this cosmos. Scriptures affirm a beginning to our universe. It also speaks of its “bondage to decay” (the law of entropy). So does science. The Bible speaks of consistent patterns of operation of nature and the changelessness of nature’s laws. Our sacred writings are insightful, accurate, and inspirational. Science and theology are complementary realms. Stephen Jay Gould is famous for articulating the NOMA principle (non-overlapping magisteria), which states that science and faith do not overlap. But careful study of both the natural world and theology reveals significant overlap, thereby rendering both realms more meaningful.