Not by proof, but persuasion

Linking science and faith, Gingerich saw God’s hand in universe’s design

Owen Gingerich tried out the telescope in Bethel College’s Krehbiel Science Center in 2004. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite Weekly Review Owen Gingerich tried out the telescope in Bethel College’s Krehbiel Science Center in 2004. — Paul Schrag/Mennonite Weekly Review

Owen Gingerich described himself as a professional scientist and amateur theologian. I met him in 2004 when he visited Newton, Kan., where he grew up and befriended my father in the 1940s.

A noted astronomer and scholar on the history of astronomy, Gingerich died May 28 in Belmont, Mass., at age 93. His worldview could be summed up as “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Or, as his obituary in The New York Times put it, he “was not shy about giving God the credit for a role in creating the cosmos he loved to study.”

A professor at Harvard University and member of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, Gingerich was a 1951 graduate of Goshen College, where a mathematics professor encouraged his interest in astronomy because “we can’t let the atheists take over any field.”

Throughout his career, Gingerich testified to the harmony of faith and science. His books God’s Universe (2006) and God’s Planet (2014) made the case that, as he told me in 2004, “it makes sense to believe in a universe with intent and purpose rather than one of incredible coincidence.”

In a time when Christians and people with a secular worldview often square off as enemies, Gingerich’s testimony as a scientist who saw the universe through the eyes of faith is instructive and inspiring.

My personal telling of Gingerich’s story begins in the 1940s, when his father, Melvin Gingerich, who was teaching at Bethel College, got to know my grandfather, Menno Schrag. (Melvin wrote book reviews for Mennonite Weekly Review, which Menno edited.) Their sons Owen and Robert struck up a friendship. Owen, the elder by four years, taught Robert to spot the brightest stars and learn their names: Arcturus, Vega, Betelgeuse.

Due to Owen’s influence, Robert became a stargazer. Thirty years later, he bought a hobby telescope and set it up in the back yard for his children — my sister and brother and me — to discover the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and the craters of the Moon.

The Gingerich family moved to Go­shen, Ind., in 1947, where ­Melvin would teach at Goshen College. Although Owen was a year short of completing high school, the college admitted him. He went on to join an exclusive club: high school dropouts with a doctorate from Harvard. He returned to Kansas 57 years later to accept an honorary diploma as the oldest member of Newton High School’s Class of 2004.

Gingerich’s career included a role in an infamous decision: the demotion of Pluto. In 2006 he chaired a committee of the International Astronomical Union tasked with defining a planet. Despite his panel’s recommendation to keep Pluto on the list of full-fledged planets, the world’s astronomers voted to downgrade Pluto to “dwarf planet” status, a decision still disputed by fans of the tiny orbiter.

Gingerich had a passion for Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer who promulgated the heresy that the Earth is not the center of the cosmos but orbits the sun. Did Psalm 104:5 not say the Earth cannot be moved?

“Very few people today would feel they have to accept a fixed Earth because of Psalm 104,” Gingerich told me. “And yet the church is still being torn apart on certain issues on the basis of a few scriptures literally interpreted.”

Gingerich used Copernicus’ “proof” that the Earth moved to illustrate the convergence of science and faith. Scientific theories and religious beliefs, he said, stand or fall on the same principle: whether they provide coherent and persuasive explanations for what people observe and experience.

“Copernicus had no proof what­soever that the Earth was moving,” ­he said in 2004. “The Copernican system was adopted not by proof but by persuasion that the concept of a moving Earth provided a more convincing explanation for the apparent movement of the planets. Coherence is persuadability. ­Christian faith is an example of that.”

Not by proof, but persuasion. This, to Gingerich, was the essence of honest faith and honest science. Science may not make room for God, for that is not its role. But a scientist may, and Gingerich was persuaded.

“If you use the phrase ‘leap of faith,’ it gives the impression that you are closing your eyes and hoping,” he said. “But it’s not a blind, irrational jump. Even when you can’t prove it, you decide that it makes sense.”

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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