art by Ben Horst

By Carl Helrich, professor of physics

There are certain images that stir our imaginations. The African-American poet, Weldon Johnson, gave us one of the creation when he wrote, “God stepped out on space and said, ‘I’m lonely. I’ll make me a world.’” We do not even want to dispute the concepts of space here; the image is too beautiful and truly gripping. And regardless of how we may want to interpret these words, that is what God did and is doing.
Rembrandt's "The return of the prodigal son"If we look at Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting of the return of the prodigal son, we see the creation again. This time it is the creation of new life within one human being, who has been lost. Rembrandt doesn’t depict the scene in glory and amid flashes of light from stars and supernovae, but in the quiet touch of a father’s hands upon a kneeling boy.
The image of God’s making of a new world is there, even if the portrayal is slightly different.
Neither Rembrandt’s painting nor Johnson’s words gives us the complete truth nor touches every part of us. Even taken together, these two cannot speak the totality of God’s truth to us. We are too complex as human beings and God is infinite mystery.
Saint Augustine knew that as long as we live we will continue to hunger for God and never be satisfied. Any image we have, any meager understanding we may gain, is good, but it is only one bit of understanding in an encounter with the Infinite.
Astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has described physics as motivated by a search for truth and beauty, since we believe in beauty much more than we ever believe in demonstrable truth. Lord Helrich quoteByron told us that truth and beauty are the same, which Chandrasekhar also affirms. But Chandra’s quest is to uncover that beauty and to find that truth in the form of the creation. Any pursuit of truth, is, in its essence, a pursuit of God, and the Holy Spirit is the source of that truth.
As Albert Einstein once said, “I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest is details.”
We do understand some of the details – as poets, as artists, as musicians and even as scientists. We catch glimpses of those thoughts in the world’s details. But we do not know the thoughts of God.
As Paul Tillich said, God is infinite mystery. God is not something to be understood or a problem to be solved. And there is a huge area that we do not understand. All we can expect to do, then, is to reveal the problem itself and, perhaps, to appreciate, from our perspective as human beings, what is involved when we brush against the Infinite.
What does it mean for God to interact with us? What do we encounter when we encounter God?
Truly, the search for truth and beauty is probably more important than the outcomes. Goshen College’s “Science and Religion” theme is a wonderful invitation to explore God’s thoughts in avenues which will be new – regardless of where we stand.
Theologically, we predicate our operations on faith with limited measurements. Scientifically, we must recognize that what we can know is limited by what we can measure. Of course, there is some competition within our minds about the intersection of these two subjects that sometimes seem to contradict, but if we have a division, neither human beings nor the church can benefit.
And while scientists should not pretend to have knowledge beyond what can be measured, we still believe in beauty.
As a professor and a scientist, I realize full well that such studies often only leave small impressions, and even the great impressions often are not realized until many years later. But, as a human being who has been exploring these things for some time, I can appreciate the type of opportunity for discussion and debate that exists on campus.
As young engineering students, my friends and I used to have discussions of Carl Helrich photoGod and the universe late Friday or Saturday nights when we had time to spend as we wanted. Our professors did think of truth and beauty, and some even thought of God. But an institute of technology would not have taken up this theme that combines such complementary and diverse disciplines.
At Goshen College, we have the opportunity to explore the avenues of truth, beauty and thoughts of God in conversations among and between faculty, students and staff in a concentrated and open fashion. Such a program helps us expand the dialogue and understand the joy inherent in the process of searching.
As the theologian Phil Hefner said, such investigations in religion and science are among the most important things we can be about.

Return to April Bulletin contents
Science and simplicity by President Shirley H. Showalter
Traces of God’s handiwork in the universe by Rachel Lapp
The best of times, the worst of times by Owen Gingerich ’51
Creating a community: General education guides discussion by Ryan Miller with Beth Martin Birky ’83
Science and spirit, hand in hand by Debra Brubaker ’79
Marrying science and religion, in classroom and home interview with Elizabeth (Miller) ’51 and Marlin Jeschke

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