Like you my mind and heart tripped over one another when I first saw the miraculous photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope. I felt like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opening a door and peering into another world, vast, beautiful, mysterious, and dangerous. Then I saw one where someone combined Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night with an image from the telescope (the opening image). Suddenly the power of science, the imagination of art, and the wonder of faith joined hands. For me the startling images merged science and faith.
Yearning for Wholistic View of Science and Faith
I rejoiced in this artistic, if unintended, unification of my brain and heart, a healing of the bloody divide between poetry and proposition, logic and love, science and God. In a world divided, I experienced the James Webb/van Gogh Starry Night not simply as a creative Photoshop image, but an assurance that faith and science overlap more than we can fathom, especially in the hands of an/the artist.
In the Past Faith and Science Were Linked
Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, not only because of his artistic genius and innovation. Van Gogh was a combiner of truths. In Starry Night van Gogh combines the unobserved with the observed. He artistically depicts swirling stars, one of humankind’s most persistent and sought after mysteries, while a small village nestles below with a church steeple reaching like a prayer into those stars, and “a large flame-like cypress, thought to represent the bridge between life and death” in the foreground. It’s a deeply spiritual, searching work.
It was natural for him to paint so holistically. The modern chasm between faith and science had yet to be quarried and unbridged. Blaise Pascal was a gifted writer, brilliant mathematician, and devoted Christian. Leonardo da Vinci was an inventor, painter, scientist, sculptor, man of faith, and more. None of this was questioned.
In our Time Science and Faith Are Divided
The anonymous writer for nasa.gov describes the images beamed back to us with no hint of art or faith. “These listed targets [the galaxies photographed] below represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered, and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations.”
In Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space Carl Sagan wrote, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” For many these images prove Sagan’s first and last point.
Yet Brother Consolmagno, astronomer, physicist, Jesuit priest, and head of the Vatican Observatory, holds a different view. “The science behind this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe.” He continued, “This is God’s creation being revealed to us, and in it we can see both his astonishing power and his love of beauty.”
Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Many viewing these photographs would hallelujah the father’s opinion. Myself included.
Star Gazing Stretches and Recombines Faith and Science
3000 years before the James Webb Space Telescope, David sat under the Palestinian stars and marveled:
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what are we that you are mindful of us,
human beings that you care for us?
You have made us a little lower than the angels
and crowned us with glory and honor.
You made us rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under our feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8)
David names the tension that is common in all of us and is a major thread in the faith versus science debate. There is mystery at the heart of both scientific searching and religious seeking. In this they share but struggle to admit. These images from billions of vast light years away illuminate our “obscurity.” How did we come to be? I’ve not spoken to anyone who hasn’t felt small when gazing across time at these miraculous photos.
Yet, many have admitted a sense of God’s love, and care, and closeness radiating from these pictures too. How could we be so loved? The timeless God is there and here. God traveled through billions upon billions of stars to reach us in the person of Jesus. That is love.
The Stars Speak Truth
This is the sensation the James Webb photographs produced in me and in so many. They are deeply spiritual and searching. The stars in fact appear to swirl, as van Gogh imagined them. They resemble a bridge between earth and heaven. They look as if God the Artist drew them on a living canvas, layered, moody, startling, and ancient. They are speaking truth to us as in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life or Madeleine L’ Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time.
For me these images did not merely merge the heavens and earth. They merged science and faith. To believe in one is not to discount the other. I saw once again what St. Augustine believed: “All truth is God’s truth.”
P.S. Since I have only an earth bound zoom lens, all of the photos above must be credited to NASA and the ingenious person who Photoshopped van Gogh to deep space.
With the topic above in mind you also might enjoy Sunday Psalm: God’s Word Is Life giving Art, Receiving the Mystery: How Not Knowing Brings Peace, and Why Science and Technology Can’t Save Us.