Astronomy through a Christian telescope

One of the motivations for Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that Christian faith makes a difference to all areas of life. It’s not just the ‘religious’ areas of our lives that are affected, but, in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’

But what does that mean for my own discipline: astronomy?

I’d like to attempt to answer that question by putting astronomy under the microscope (or the telescope!), looking at it from various angles. I’m drawing on a set of fifteen different ways of thinking about the whole of reality, known as ‘aspects’ or ‘modalities’, which were developed by the 20th-century Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (see Andrew Basden’s Dooyeweerd Pages for an excellent introduction). I hope this approach might be helpful to you in thinking about your own disciplines.

The first few aspects are relevant to the universe.

  • Quantitative. Astronomers love to count things, whether they are asteroids, planets, stars, clusters of stars, galaxies or clusters of galaxies.
  • Spatial. As well as counting objects, astronomers love to measure how big things are and how far away things are.
  • Kinetic. There is a lot of movement in the universe, from the movement of objects in the Solar System to the expansion of the whole universe.
  • Physical. Astronomers are also interested in physical properties, such as the mass of objects and transfer of energy, not least through electromagnetic radiation.

Does Christian faith make a difference to these aspects of astronomy? I don’t think Christian astronomers think very differently about the quantitative, spatial, kinetic or physical properties of the universe—even those (few) Christian astronomers who think the universe is just a few thousand years old. The significant thing, of course, is that we don’t claim that the universe is ‘nothing but’ physical.

But is this a problem? I think not. The natural sciences rest on foundations that could already be said to be Christian. Modern science arose in the context of beliefs about the orderliness of the universe, and our ability to understand it through careful experimentation and observation (given the noetic effects of sin). I don’t think Christian astronomers need to worry too much if their astronomy is not distinctively Christian, so long as their astronomy is faithfully Christian.

The next few aspects lead us to reflect on astronomers and what they do.

  • Biotic. Astronomers are human beings. They have regular patterns of waking and sleeping (except when observing!), and their working lives rarely span much more than half a century. This is enormously important because many astronomical phenomena take place over centuries, millennia or longer periods.
  • Sensory. Astronomers rely on the sense of sight, and they have feelings and emotions. At times, the work can be quite thrilling.
  • Analytical. Astronomers love to classify things, such as different types of stars or galaxies. They also make decisions about what to observe and what to measure.
  • Formative. Astronomy is at the cutting edge of technological innovation. And when observations have been taken, the data need to be processed into a useful form. Theories are then formed to interpret the data.
  • Lingual. Astronomers represent their ideas in papers, lectures and presentations at conferences. They give celestial bodies memorable names, like Comet 81P/Wild.
  • Social. With its large international projects, astronomy is a very social discipline. Astronomers work together, mentor junior researchers, hold experienced colleagues in high esteem, and spend many hours in teleconferences!
  • Economic. Astronomers spend a lot of time deciding how best to use limited resources. If we are going to make one new telescope, what should it be designed to observe? Which projects should be given time on telescopes?
  • Aesthetic. Astronomers strive to develop elegant, coherent theories, and to reach a harmonious consensus about them.

Perhaps a Christian approach to astronomy, viewing reality as multi-faceted, will give greater significance to all of these aspects than others might? We should rejoice that we are involved in research as whole human beings, and not attempt to become ‘objective’ machines, mechanically churning out our ‘research outputs’.

The remaining aspects take our attention to astronomy in society.

  • Juridical (justice). Funding agencies decide who should receive funding. Those who have received public funding typically feel that they ought (and want) to give something back to wider society.
  • Ethical (generosity). Astronomers generally do much more than they are ‘required’ to. Data, software and research findings are often disseminated to the public, free of charge.
  • Pistic. This deals with matters of confidence, trust and faith. Society places a certain value on astronomy and decides how much money to put into astronomical research, and which areas of astronomy are worth investigating.

It seems to me that these last aspects are where the greatest difference lies between a Christian and a non-Christian approach to astronomy in the West today. Our society can have very narrow criteria for whether something is worthwhile. With our obsession about consumption and technology, something is seen to be of value only if it gives us better gadgets, health or experiences, or saves us money. In contrast, a Christian view of astronomy can recognise it as having value in its own right. God made the universe, and he wants us to look at it, learn about it, and find our lives enriched by it.

It’s rarely easy to pin down how being a Christian makes a difference to your discipline, especially in the physical sciences. But Dooyeweerd’s aspects may help us begin to think about the question, and to appreciate the many different ways in which our faith can interact with our research.

Comments

Thanks for this! Are you aware of the excellent work of M.D. Stafleu in unpacking the work of Dooyeweerd in physics? His books “Time and Again: A Systematic Analysis of the Foundations of Physics” (Wedge, 1980) and “Theories at Work: On the Structure and Functioning of Theories in Science, in Particular During the Copernican Revolution ” (University Press of America, 1987) are veritable treasure troves. The second book (featuring quite a bit of astronomy, as the subtitle indicates) goes into quite a bit of detail, with entire chapters on each of several aspects.

And at the moment I am completing my chapter, entitled “A Reformational Perspective on Physics” for a new volume tentatively called “Academy Regained,” co-edited by Russ Kosits & David Koyzis of Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, possibly to be published by Wipf & Stock (2015?)

Thank you, Arnold, for the comment. Glad you dropped by! I’m aware of Stafleu’s book, “Time and Again”, but I haven’t got hold of a copy so far (hadn’t heard of the other one). I’d love to read them. Any particular insights spring to mind?

This is a very nice introduction to the major kinds of properties-and-laws displayed by the world around us, and true of us as well. One of the great strengths of a Christian approach to any science is that to takes all these kinds to be real and worthy of investigation. It need not dismiss any as illusory as do the various forms of materialism.

“Time and Again” is about the physical world in light of the first four modal aspects. “Theories at Work” is about science and how it develops, and its chapters roughly follow the outline of all fifteen aspects.

Thanks Bryan, I’ll look out for them…

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