Seeing God in the Stars
by Christine A. Scheller
Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is an astronomer, author, and speaker. She has been seeing God in the stars ever since she was a child. As an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, she co-discovered the comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff. As senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, she studies star-forming regions of our galaxy using radio, optical, and infrared telescopes. As director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she helps improve communication between scientists and faith communities. Dr. Wiseman talked to The High Calling about her personal views entwining science, faith, and discovery. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The High Calling: Do you view your work as an astronomer as a high calling from God? If so, how?
Jennifer Wiseman: Yes, I view the study of nature as a high calling, because we believe God is responsible for all of creation and that creation itself glorifies God. To learn more about it is in some way learning more about God and being appreciative of his wonderful work.
Because of your expertise in astronomy, you’ve been able to see spiritual implications in the fact that human beings are ultimately made of stardust. Can you describe this for us?
We now understand from astrophysics that all of the elements that make up our bodies and the familiar objects around us (such as carbon, iron, and oxygen) are produced inside stars. In fact, stars are little factories that turn hydrogen and other gasses into these heavier elements, and that’s the
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only way we know of that these heavier elements are produced. Then these heavier elements get dispersed out into interstellar space where next generations of stars and planets pick them up. So, in some sense we are entirely products of this beautiful process within stars. As a Christian, I can’t think of a more beautiful process for God to have blessed the production of the elements that we need for life than the beauty of stars. In fact, we are told that we shine like stars in the universe. So it’s a nice cycle there.
You’ve said that as you were growing up, your faith was nurtured by the consistency in word and deed of both your parents and your faith community. Why is this kind of consistency so important?
We’re all working to find a way of understanding the world around us that makes some sense in a world that often doesn’t make sense. I found that the loving nurture of my family and church, rooted in the gospel of Christ, fit well with what I observed and experienced, both the good and the bad. The gospel of Christ encompasses the reasons for both the good and beauty around us and also the pain and suffering. It does not ignore or deny the depth of suffering in the world, and so in that sense there is consistency, although there are many things I don’t fully understand.
You’ve also said that in college you didn’t experience the kind of philosophical crisis that some scientists do as a person of faith, but you did find it necessary to re-gauge your understanding of the magnitude of God’s creation. How did this increased understanding impact your faith?
My growing sense of the magnitude of the universe and God’s creation, in space and time and also in complexity, gave me a much deeper sense of appreciation for God. It was also, in some sense, a relief, because trying to cram all the majestic things we were learning from science about nature into a very limited picture of God was not satisfying. The unfathomable grandeur of the universe is much more consistent with the nature of the God that we read about in the Bible. Why wouldn’t a great God create a universe that is enormous in size, beauty, and complexity? It’s also amazing that he’s given us the scientific tools and ability to understand and appreciate it…