A window into worship
In the centre of Zurich, Switzerland, there is a large church (a “minster”) with unusual windows. Unlike a traditional stained glass window, these panes are decorated with very thin slices of colourful rock.
The rock is agate; a rock that forms in the cavities of existing volcanic rock as water leaches through and deposits silica. Chemicals that are dissolved in the water lend the rock an array of wonderful colours: pinks, blues, creams, greens, and reds.
As they sit in the church, the worshipper can gaze at the window itself. They might delight in the beauty of the colours on display. They might bask in the rays of sunlight that dance through these ancient bands. Or they might admire the craftmanship of Sigmar Polke, the artist who took the raw materials of the earth and crafted them into this decorative jigsaw.
Alternatively, the worshipper may pass through the church without ever looking directly at the window. They might be focussing on their prayers, or the sound of the music, or the lesson from the pulpit. And yet, the agate panes of the windows would be contributing to an environment that enhances the whole experience of stillness, prayer, and worship.
These windows give us an illustration of how the science of geology can interact with the worshipping life of a Christian. Just as the agate windows could themselves be a source of beauty, so the study of earth sciences can evoke wonder, awe, and praise. And just as the agate windows provide a fitting environment for worship, so can studying an earth science degree be a fitting environment for a Christian to honour and please the Lord.
A life of wonder, awe, and praise
A conversation that a geologist will soon become accustomed to goes along these lines:
Person: “what do you study?”
Person: “ah… rocks!”
The ability to keep a conversation alive after this exchange is a rare skill indeed!
All jokes aside, geology is an expansive science that covers a whole range of topics, and for the Christian it is full of the fingerprints of God. In the letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul draws a direct line between the observable universe and the invisible God who made it:
'For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.'
In other words, the believer with the eyes of faith has lots of raw material in the Earth Sciences to discover the character of God himself. Take the example of the Psalmist.
He looks at the vast Himalayas, those giants with roots deep in the earth’s mantle and peaks high in the clouds. He understands that of all things on the Earth they come the closest to illustrating just how big God is:
'You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour… who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength.'
The dramatic height of the peak above the clouds and the unsearchable depths of the ocean trench provides him with a picture of God’s righteousness and justice:
'Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep.'
But it would be a mistake to limit geology to the ‘big’ and ‘vast’. Tom McLeish writes beautifully about the ‘miners prayer’ of Job 28:
'Mysteriously beginning down a mine, following the miners as they ‘dangle and sway’ on their ropes, looking up at the earth from beneath, the author wonders that of all the creatures, only human eyes are able to see the inner structures of the earth in this way.'
He describes how this scientific endeavor of peering into the deep structure of the earth is an example of what it means to be made in the image of God. The miner can, in some small way, ‘peer into deep things’, because they are made in the image of a God who peers into the depths and sees things the way they are. He is the God of wisdom.
I wonder, then, how the conversation might go if our geology student might go on to describe their study of rocks as, in fact, the study of power, strength, righteousness, justice and wisdom?
A life of repentance, reconciliation, and witness
When compared with some of the other sciences, geology is relatively young. Of course, natural scientists have studied aspects of geology for millennia, but most would agree that it was not until the 17th century that geology became a science of its own. And, like any enthusiastic adolescent, alongside its history of marvels geology has its history of awkward mistakes.
The 2006 film ‘Blood Diamond’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio tells a painful story of civil war, corruption, and exploitation in Sierra Leone. The name of the film plays on the central device – a rare, precious and huge pink diamond, discovered and traded at the price of people’s lives.
Of course, geology itself is not at fault here. But just as the diamond in the film is used and abused by mankind with evil intentions, so geology has a haunted past of man’s exploitation of the earth. This BBC article strikingly visualises how the price of modern living is paid by the Earth’s scarred landscape, with previously lush green vistas ravaged into grey, contaminated wounds.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s penultimate chapter the Lord of the Rings trilogy is called ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. It describes how the once idyllic home of the Hobbits has been transformed into an industrial wasteland. No wonder this chapter didn’t make its way into the films!
It is commonly assumed that this part of the story is heavily influenced by what Tolkien himself saw as the sprawling industrial city of Birmingham engulfed the beautiful village in which he grew up. Long before our current climate of ‘eco anxiety’, Tolkien – amongst others – was bemoaning the unsustainable exploitation of our Earth’s resources.
It has only been in recent decades, though, that the ramifications of burning fossil fuels on our climate and planet has really come to our immediate attention. Leading climate scientist Sir John Houghton has described climate change as 'the biggest and most challenging issue that the world faces'.
The believer in earth sciences, then, not only faces some tricky ethical dilemmas but also much cause for lament. But the case could be made: who better than Christians – with all their rich theology of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation – to be at the forefront of pioneering geology to develop new and sustainable solutions that ‘steward’ our planet and it’s resources in the way God intended?
Tom Middleton and Bob White, in their booklet Being a Christian in earth science, write:
'Consequently, Christians in earth science have numerous important roles to play: in developing and conserving clean water supplies; in attempting to minimise human tragedies as a result of natural disasters; in working towards the sustainable use of resources; and in researching both climate change and mitigation technologies such as carbon sequestration.'
Build your life upon the rock
Let us return from the mountain tops and ocean trenches. Let us set aside for a moment the call to steward God’s creation with love and care. Let us return to a minster in Zurich. What did we learn from the agate windows?
We could gaze at them and in so doing discover something of the skill of the artist that made them. In like manner, a geologist has any number of reasons to sit in awe and wonder before their Maker. As one insightful student once said:
'Geology can simultaneously be intricate and tiny, and massive and incomprehensible. It’s the perfect picture of God himself!'
The agate windows also provided an environment for worship. Again, in like manner a geologist has any number of ways in which they can live out their discipleship in meaningful ways, as they build their life upon the rock of Jesus Christ and live seeking to love Him, love their neighbour and love His created world. Could there be anything more holy?
‘Being a Christian in earth sciences’ from Christians in Science
Tom McLeish article: 'What is science for?'
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