October 31, 2014

In Their Own Words XX: Theology Describes Creator; Science Describes Creation

Having been born on February 22, 1969, I was born at the height of the Vietnam War, the end of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene and in the middle of the Apollo space program. All three would have a direct or indirect effect on my life. The war would affect family members of my parent's generation. The Hippies would affect the music my parents and I both listen to in terms of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Arlo Guthrie, The Who, Woodstock and the like. The Apollo space program would capture my imagination in a way neither the war nor the music ever could. It would push me on a course for the field of engineering and then later, in a transcendental way, theology. As I read over the lives of the astronauts and pioneers of the American space program I came to understand scientifically how we ended up on the lunar surface. When I looked into the hearts of the men that drove the program I found out why we went. Interestingly, I also found a kindred spirit in a man named Werner Von Braun. 

Von Braun was a man that was enraptured by engineering but also in love with God. It is as if his engineering drove him to God. It is not surprising to me that I still sit in awe of the fact that humanity was able to put men on the moon. It is even less surprising that I sit in even greater awe of the very same God that Werner Von Braun sat in awe of also. Men that are capable of believing in great things (like God) are capable of performing great deeds through God’s power in them. I pray that I might one day have just one iota of the influence or impact Werner Von Braun had on millions (perhaps billions) of people when he was involved with the American space program. My main quote for this post comes from Werner Von Braun and ironically it is in related to science/engineering and God.
“I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science.” ~ Werner von Braun

A surprisingly insightful comment from the man who would first reluctantly (by most accounts) aid the Nazis in their V-2 rocket program and then later willfully aid the Americans. His work with the American space program would produce the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969. Initially Werner had no interest in religion. He was known as the “Merry Heathen”. It is said by those that who knew him through the 1960s and 1970s that after he had arrived in America, he had begun to change subtly. They noticed during these years that a new manner began to surface in his conversations, in his speeches and his writings. There was a growing interest in religious thought. It appears that behind these changes that there was a Lutheran belief system being recultivated. Although he had little interest in religion as a youth, as he aged he developed a firm belief in the Lord. He was actually pleased to get opportunities to speak with peers about his Biblical beliefs.

Von Braun’s family had been present as ministers in the Lutheran church for several hundred years. Von Braun is also cited as saying that his interest in science and engineering began the day of his confirmation into the Lutheran church. To commemorate the occasion his mother had given him a telescope which would allow him to observe the destination of his rockets (Piszkiewicz 22-23). It also appears his voracious reading habit in youth and young adulthood included not only science and engineering books but also books from the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (a statesmen), Friedrich von Schiller (philosopher, historian), and Immanuel Kant (philosopher of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics). It is probably the latter of these three (Kant) that would drive Von Braun and his logical engineering mind to search out God through reason but find him inevitably in the realm of faith.

It is in religion or specifically the belief in a biblical God that both Von Braun and I both find the bridge between the vast complex world/cosmos around us and the greater plan embedded in our lives and the Creation. He (like myself) came to the conclusion that the world of technology like rockets, manned voyages to the Moon, atoms, stars, and even living organisms must somehow fit into some greater meta-narrative or overarching story/plan. Somehow all of this points to a greater system created by Someone greater than all the above elements put together. The only One capable of such a vast system had to be God. It was like Paley’s watchmaker analogy on steroids. Von Braun would say it this way…
"It is so obvious that we live in a world in which a fantastic amount of logic, of rational lawfulness, is at work. We are aware of a large number of laws of physics and chemistry and biology which, by their mutual interdependence, make nature work as if it were following a grandiose plan from its earliest beginnings to the farthest reaches of its future destiny. To me, it would be incomprehensible that there should be such a gigantic master plan without a master planner behind it. This master planner is He whom we call the Creator of the Universe . . . One cannot be exposed to the law and order of the universe without concluding that there must be a Divine intent behind it all. For me, there is no real contradiction between the world of science and the world of religion. The two are dealing with two different things, but they are not in conflict with each other. Theologians are trying to describe the Creator; scientists are trying to describe His creation. Science and religion are not antagonists; on the contrary, they are sisters . . . While, through science, man tries to harness the forces of nature around him, through religion he tries to harness the forces of nature within him . . ."

Because of these startling parallels drawn up through Von Braun’s dialectic it is not surprising to see him make this further shrewd statement founded firmly in science, morality and theology.
"Our knowledge and use of the laws of nature that enable us to fly to the Moon also enable us to destroy our home planet with the atom bomb. Science itself does not address the question whether we should use the power at our disposal for good or for evil. The guidelines of what we ought to do are furnished in the moral law of God. It is no longer enough that we pray that God may be with us on our side; we must learn again to pray that we may be on God's side”

From the early 1960’s onward, Werner talked often about his faith. He was publicly asked if he believed in God. His immediate responses would always be an emphatic, “Yes! Absolutely!” He was never ashamed nor annoyed by the question (Romans 1:16-17). He seemed grateful for the opportunity to formulate and describe the elements of his religious belief in disarming simplicity from such a complex and thought-out man. It is this very dichotomy that fascinates me about the man.

It is also interesting to note Werner’s ritual after a successful mission to space and safe return to earth. He was once asked by a reporter, “Dr. Von Braun, what did you think after you had given your final 'yes' a week ago?" His response? "I quietly said the Lord's prayer" 

I find it just as profoundly interesting that a man whose mission in life was to break the bonds of Earth’s gravity was interested in another frontier besides space and even life itself. Von Braun was a man of destiny. He used his trade and life’s work to glorify God later in life. With a deep-rooted interest in philosophy and religion, he saw no conflict between scientific knowledge and religious faith. He believed that natural sciences deal with creation; religion deals with the creator. Werner Von Braun believed the two are really complementing each other perfectly. 

In the end he believed in a world beyond our own where life would be life-everlasting. He is noted for talking about his end to others. He was known to have remarked the following about his physical death and departure from this world.
"When my journey comes to an end I hope that I can retain my clear mind and perceive not only those precious last moments of my life, but also the transition to whatever will come then. A human being is so much more than a physical body that withers and vanishes after it has been around for a number of years. It is inconceivable to me that there should not be something else for us after we have finished our earthly voyage. I hope that I can observe and learn, and finally know what comes after all those beautiful things we experience during our lives on Earth.
This philosophy is shown in his gravestone’s epitaph. On it he embraces the thing he tried to reach through the thing that he believed. Von Braun’s tombstone includes a piece of Scripture. He acknowledged the end result of the two overriding goals in his life: Rocketeering to space and his Christian faith.
Psalm 19:1 ~ "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."

The whole of Von Braun’s life and philosophy are further summed up in a single quote from Father John Bruce Medaris (formerly Major General) when he wrote the following: 
"His imagination strolled easily among the stars, yet the farther out into the unknown and unknowable vastness of Creation his thoughts went, the more he was certain that the universe, and this small garden spot within it, came from no cosmic accident, but from the thought and purpose of an all-knowing God."

Dare I say that this almost sounds like something the hippies from Haight-Ashbury would've said. We are stardust and we're all just trying to get back to the Garden. We're trying to get ourselves back to the way things used to be before the Fall and sin entered the world.

Piszkiewicz, Dennis, Wernher von Braun: The Man Who Sold the Moon, Praeger: Westport, Connecticut (1998), pages 22-23.]

Stuhlinger, Ordway, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space

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