Moon Mission

As a child, I read a book about the Moon that said it was formed when a large, Mars-sized object collided with Earth around 4.5 billion years ago. Lots of debris was kicked up into space, which eventually collected under its own self-gravity to form the Moon. This theory is still the prevailing one today, and is supported by strong evidence.

I was captivated by this idea. So much so, that I ran excitedly into the next room to tell my mother about it. She listened patiently, and then with a bit of honest confusion, said “But didn’t God make the Moon?”

I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t factored that into my thinking in that moment, though it was something I believed (and still do to this day). But my mother’s reaction was understandable. She believed God made the Moon, and I appeared to be offering an alternative story which completely contradicted hers.

More recently, I have had the privilege to participate in public outreach events related to X-ray astronomy. We talk a lot about supernova remnants, the hot remains of the atmospheres of exploded stars. As families come up, I lay out the details of how massive stars burn by fusing lighter elements into heavier ones (like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.). I then describe how all of these elements get blown out into space by the enormous explosion at the end of the star’s life, and that they eventually get incorporated into clouds of gas and dust which form new stars and planets.

Finally, I finish up by saying something like this: “You, too, are made up of these elements, which means that billions of years ago, the stuff that makes you up was inside of a star!”

I am sure that for some visitors a similar question to my mother’s naturally arises—“Wait, but didn’t God make me?” I am fully convinced on the basis of strong scientific evidence that the process I just outlined is the correct account of how the heavy elements came to be. Yet, I still go to church on Sunday and weekly confess these opening words of the Nicene Creed to be literally true: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” But aren’t these two competing stories?

One obvious reason these stories appear to be in conflict is that we’ve been told to read the creation account in Genesis 1 as an essentially scientific account of how things were made in six 24-hour days; in other words, what you would have written down if you had been there, watching everything happen. This seems to be at odds with the collision theory for the origin of the Moon and the evidence that heavy elements were formed in stars over billions of years. But there are good textual arguments showing that this is not what the Genesis author intended to communicate, nor would it have been what the original Hebrew audience thought was being said. (But that’s a matter for another post; in the meantime, I suggest John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One for an excellent introduction to this subject.)

Creative processes

I’d like to zero in on another assumption: that if origins can be explained by a natural process, then God either wasn’t involved, or was less involved. We may even think God is “most” involved when he creates something out of nothing. But this raises a fundamental theological problem: If we turn God’s act of creating into a process which may operate in place of other possible processes (like interplanetary collisions), we have now turned God himself into a thing alongside other things, instead of the self-existing origin of “thingness” itself.

In his book Christ the Heart of Creation, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:

“If God is truly the source, the ground and context of every limited, finite state of affairs, if God is the action or agency that makes everything else active, then God cannot be spoken of as one item in a list of forces active in the world. … [T]his also means that God’s action is never in competition with any particular activity inside the universe.”

In other words, God’s creative action is the very ground out of which every cause springs. “A “God” who we can only recognize when something extraordinary happens is not the God that the Bible writers had in mind.”

So, Christians rightly speak of God as the creator of the Moon because he decided there was going to be a Moon in the first place, what it would be for (“signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and … to give light upon the earth,” according to Genesis 1:14-15, ESV), and by what physical mechanisms it would be formed.

There’s nothing unusual about this line of thinking for believers—for example, we understand the biology behind where babies come from, and we know we’re made up of atoms that at one ancient time were inside of a massive star. But we nevertheless can affirm with the Psalmist that “you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13, ESV). We can hold these two things together without contradiction because we know we are speaking about the same origin in two different senses.

The masks of God

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it like this:

“God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting. But He does not want to do so …. What else is all our work to God … by which He wants to give His gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the masks of God, behind which He wants to remain concealed and do all things.” (“Exposition of Psalm 147,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 14.)

This does not have to mean, as some would suggest, that only science describes the “real world” and religious faith is relegated to a purely subjective realm. For Christians, the Scriptures talk about that same “real world” which science describes so well.

My two-year old son has a book called Astrophysics for Babies, which describes in a fun way how the stars made the heavy elements and how those elements ended up in each of us. He also has The Jesus Storybook Bible, which begins with the story of God creating the world.

I am happy to read him both, describing these two sides of the creation story. And I look forward to him asking lots of questions about the God and the science behind our wonderful universe.

John ZuHone is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.