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Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we worked through Psalm 139 in its entirety to follow and understand the flow and contours of the psalmist’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we explored verses 13-16 in more depth to unpack the psalmist’s theology of his own development in the womb, as well as ways in which these verses might assist devout readers in thinking maturely about scientific perspectives on, and discoveries about, a human’s origins and development.

For this post, I am delighted and honored to share with you a guest article by a friend of mine, and a neonatal nurse practitioner, Sarah Bylsma. Sarah shares with us her perspective on Psalm 139:13-16, a perspective that occurs for her at the intersection of her Christian faith, her scientific training, and her professional involvement in caring for newborns, including experience working in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Sarah, I welcome your voice here, and at this moment offer you my sincerest thanks.


“Faith and Science in Neonatal Practice: A Reflection on Psalm 139”
By Sarah Bylsma

First, a little about me. I graduated with a B.A. in Biology from Lipscomb University in May 2005. I then went to Belmont University and graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in December 2006. In January 2007, I began working as a nurse in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While working full time as a nurse in the NICU, I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama Birmingham from 2009 to 2011. I obtained a M.S. in Nursing with a Neonatal specialty in May 2011. I have been board certified as a neonatal nurse practitioner since September 2011. I currently work full time as a neonatal nurse practitioner. I am also a full-time mom to three little ones ages 5 and under. I have been a Christian since 1990, with evolving beliefs as my worldview has changed, but never questioning the existence of our God.

As I read Psalms 139, the author seems to insinuate three things in verses 13-16: (1) that God is creator, (2) that life begins in utero, and (3) that God knew every detail of that life the moment it began.

I believe that God is creator of all things. My education and experience have shaped HOW I view God as creator, but they most certainly do not change the fact that He is behind the existence of all life.

As a scientist and medical professional, I know that human life forms from two human cells, the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father. Once the egg is fertilized by a single sperm cell, a zygote is formed. The zygote will undergo mitosis, a process a cell undergoes to form two new cells. DNA, our unique genetic code, is replicated in this process. It is here in mitosis, as the zygote grows and divides to become an embryo, that the development of human life can first go awry. Errors during mitosis can result in chromosomal errors ranging from too many / not enough chromosomes to extra / missing pieces of chromosomes — all of which can create a wide variety of syndromes, cancers, and death.

Often, when embryos are created from cells with abnormal chromosomes incompatible with life, a mother will miscarry. This raises a question about life and its beginning. Is an embryo with genetic information incompatible with an earthly life still a life? Conception had occurred and genetic information exists, but no life will be formed. With my scientific knowledge, I believe that life begins in utero, but not at conception. My reading of Psalm 139 does not dispute this. The author understands that life began in his mother’s womb, and the scripture does not explicitly state a time-frame. I believe you would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in neonatology that would dispute that life begins in utero.

God knowing every detail of each life the moment it begins is different than God choosing every detail for that life. This is because God gives us choices (free will). You may be asking questions like: How does that play into embryologic development? What about when the formation of life goes wrong? If God is creator, how can that go wrong? No one chooses how our babies are formed in utero, right?

God has given us free will, and that freedom to make our own choices can and does affect others. This includes the developing fetus. Sometimes these can have devastating effects on the fetus. As Daniel pointed out in Part 2, the psalmist clearly understood that the mother and father played a role in the human-making process. Their role is not just one of providing the cells to be fertilized, but also to create an environment in which proper development can occur. The psalmist describes being knit together in his mother’s womb. Choices help determine the kind of knitting that occurs.

Daniel has already discussed how the materials used in the knitting process affect the end result. Embryonic development and postnatal health is most certainly affected by the parents’ individual choices and environmental factors both before and while the mother is pregnant. Choices from our past can impact our bodies or the environment, which in turn impact embryonic development. The mother and father’s choices (both before and during pregnancy) on lifestyle, nutrition, drug use, sexual activity, etc., can alter fetal development. For example, sexually-transmitted diseases, particularly when acquired during pregnancy, can be especially harmful to a developing fetus.

It’s clear that bad choices can have an effect on development. But there are other choices that can impact it also, such as age at conception: older mothers have a higher chance of chromosomal errors. Sometimes we do not know why something goes wrong in the development process. There are many intricate steps involved in creating a human life, and thus many places for the process to go wrong. Research has shown us that unknown diseases, illness, hormones, and genetics can all impact a growing fetus. Despite all of the scientific advances, sometimes we do not know why the process goes amiss. Sometimes the process is going normally but gets interrupted, resulting in premature birth.

So we know that embryological development can go wrong, regardless of how it goes wrong. In my line of work, I see so many ways in which the development went awry or was interrupted. I don’t always know how it happened or why. It is our tendency to see these as abnormalities and imperfections, something to be feared and less-than-desired. How can God create a life like that? But I see God in these babies the most. I watch these babies grow and mature, and I know their lives still have purpose and meaning. I see God in that baby who is missing parts of his brain, who can still walk and talk and amaze healthcare professionals with his progress. I see God in that premature baby born 4 months too soon, who through medical advancement and technology is able to grow and develop into a perfectly healthy infant.

Occasionally I see babies that do survive but have severe lifelong and debilitating complications. Why does God allow these babies to survive? WE see these as imperfections, but to our God they are perfect, just like the rest of us. Their lives have purpose, even when we fail to see what that is. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s eyes.

Often I see these babies live and thrive, but sometimes, they don’t make it. Sometimes, they are simply born too early. Sometimes, their development was affected so greatly that life outside the womb isn’t possible. The complexities of human development sometimes allow life to persist in utero, but not after birth. Why does God allow these lives to exist throughout the duration of a pregnancy, but not long enough to have a life on earth? I have struggled with this question. I have shed many tears over the losses of a life gone too soon. I do not have the answers. Even while writing this, I have spent hours and hours thinking about it, trying to come up with an answer. Science can answer many questions about life, but sometimes…often…you just need to have faith and know that our God has a plan, even when we do not understand it.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 2)

Continued from “Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 1).”


In Part 1 of our exploration of Psalm 139, we worked through the psalm in its entirety, pausing enough along the way to think with it about its theology and its prayers. In this post, we camp out a little longer at verses 13-16 to begin exploring how this psalm might open up ways to think theologically and scientifically about the same dimension of life. It has been my own experience that this passage provides a helpful lens for a person of faith to see certain kinds of scientific insights and claims.

First, we set Psalm 139:13-16 in context. The psalmist has proclaimed how wondrously and extensively God knows him (139:1-6), and how God is present everywhere the psalmist could hope to go (139:7-12). He goes on to pray these words on which we will direct our focus for thinking theologically and scientifically:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

God forming. The psalmist credits God with forming him in his mother’s womb. The verb translated here as “formed” (qānāh) is used elsewhere to describe God as “maker” of heaven and earth (Gen 14:19, 22), but also to describe a woman “producing” a baby (Gen 4:1). Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Of course, the psalmist knew this. We have no reason to think that the psalmist had no mother and father who made a choice to try for a baby. We have no reason to think that it was not his mother’s body that formed him from start to finish. (1) The mother forming him and (2) God forming him are not mutually exclusive ways of talking, but are two dynamic and different ways of seeing the same event: the origin of the psalmist. God is responsible for the origin of the psalmist, but so are his mother and father.

In response, we learn that a theological view of origins does not exclude a natural view of origins. As we are beginning to see, neither does a theological view of agency exclude a natural view of agency. (1) God acting and (2) nature acting are two legitimate descriptions of the same event — for a person of theological belief, at least.

God knitting. Several aspects of knitting make it an apt metaphor for the psalmist’s development in utero. He does not say which aspects are and are not part of his choice to use the metaphor, but we can still think through it. For starters, knitting takes time: it does not yield an instant result. Knitting is a process: each maneuver relates to the ones that came before and influences the ones that will come after. Knitting uses available materials: the final outcome (its shades, patterns, durability) depends on the properties of the material itself, as well as how that material is knitted together.

Even though it is God that the psalmist here credits with knitting him together, he certainly knew that his mother’s body did the knitting. He would have known that a baby’s development takes time and is a process. He also would have known that the mother and father played parts in supplying and working with the material, though we do not know for sure how he thought it worked out step by step. Some biblical language and evidence from other ancient cultures indicate that some people in antiquity thought that the father supplied the material, and the mother incubated it as it grew (Lamoureux, 2008, pp. 138-42). It is possible that the psalmist thought in these ways.

We might wonder how the psalmist would respond to the ability to learn more about how babies were knit together in their mothers’ wombs. Would he resist knowing more about the time, the process, and the material, or would he welcome such insights? And, secondly, why might he respond one way over the other?

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

This well-known verse expresses the psalmist’s wonder at himself as a creation of God. Perhaps it is the things that make him unique — his individuality — that elicit his wonder here: how set apart he is from every other human creation (Goldingay, 2008, p. 634). Then again, mention of his “inward parts” (literally “kidneys”) in verse 13 may show that he simply marvels at how all the unseen physical components of his body function. However much or little he knew about the unseen workings of his body, he knew that a lot had to go on, and go on properly, for his life to keep going. The fact that unseen things of such importance worked properly for him was, in his case, cause for him to pray out of wonder and gratitude.

What we do not know is how this psalmist thought about occasions when a human body does not work the way it should. What we do know is that we, as readers of this psalm, have to wrestle with this very complexity. (I would not assume that the psalmist didn’t wrestle with this issue.) To put the question pointedly: Is every human body “fearfully and wonderfully made,” regardless of how well it functions? And, to address the theological concern lurking here: What does a not-fully-functioning body suggest about the God who is credited with forming and knitting it? How should we think about God’s design and workmanship in such cases?

For now, we continue following the psalmist as he describes God’s relationship to his earliest development. Now, God is not so much forming and knitting, but watching:

15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

The psalmist expresses the way in which he, like every other baby, developed out of plain sight from everyone, except for God. The making, the weaving, the “unformed substance” — God watched the whole thing come together. As we intimated earlier, we also wonder here how the psalmist would respond to discoveries that would enable him and other humans to watch (and even take photos and videos of) this hidden, secret process unfolding? Would he resist or welcome such abilities, and why would he respond one way over the other? And how might he receive knowledge gained by such means?

It is also interesting what the psalmist says about the location of development. He knew that he was knit in his mother’s womb (v. 13), so why mention being woven “in the depths of the earth” (v. 15)? As one Old Testament scholar (Goldingay, 2008) suggests: “There is a sense in which earth is our mother, so our mother can be spoken of as if she were the earth. It is from the earth that humanity is made (Gen. 2:7). A converse way of thinking has us returning to our mother’s womb when we die (Job 1:21)” (p. 635). The psalmist relates his own biological origin to the earth itself.

[16] In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

The psalmist seems to suggest that God knows (and has written down) how many days the psalmist will live. Indeed, each day of his is “formed for” him. He does not elaborate, and thus does not answer all of our (understandable) questions about predestination. One thing is for sure: the psalmist has a very big God in view here, a God whose sovereignty extends to intimate details of individual lives. Perhaps also the psalmist ponders an intimate connection between the development process and a person’s total life:

“There is a sense in which the person’s shaping in the womb also determines the person’s life. It decides how clever they are, how strong they are, what weaknesses they have, and so on, and how long they will live. Environmental factors and personal decision making enter into the outworking of this, but they cannot evade the constraints of what goes on before birth” (Goldingay, 2008, p. 635).

Psalm 139 and Scientific Knowledge

Along the way in this treatment of Psalm 139:13-16, several questions have arisen that I draw together here for a condensed look at how the psalm might relate to scientific knowledge. What I am pressing for here is for devout Bible readers to think carefully about their posture toward scientific inquiry, discoveries, and claims. To be clear, I write what follows from a positive, welcoming view of science and what its modes of inquiry have taught us.

1. Origins. Psalm 139:13-16 addresses the origin of the psalmist from a theological point of view. The psalmist knew that he had a natural origin as well. Is there a necessary reason why learning more about the natural origin of babies would be a threat to the psalm’s claims about God? — Only if one takes a very closed, limited view of God. Is there a necessary reason why describing the origin of babies in natural terms should take away from believing that God still relates to that origin somehow?

2. Agency. Psalm 139:13-16 focuses on the agency of God. The psalmist knew that his mother and father were agents in his origin and development. Is there a necessary reason why devout Bible readers should feel threatened by descriptions of the world that stress the agency of nature instead of the agency of God? Is there a necessary reason to feel threatened by people detecting natural patterns and looking for natural explanations according to natural causes? Many Christians seem confused when science proceeds without invoking God’s name, but that is not the job of science.

3. Development. Psalm 139:13-16 uses metaphors that imply time, process, and materials. Is there any necessary reason why it is a threat to learn with greater precision about the amount of time, the specific processes, and the materials involved in the development of babies? We have in view here, for instance, such sciences as embryology and genetics. If Christians join the ranks of those who receive and benefit from knowing more about embryonic and fetal development, then are they being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike, find inconvenient, or find disorienting for previously-held beliefs? The same types of scientific inquiry yield both kinds of results, the ones that people welcome and apply, and the ones they reject.


Are Christians being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike?


There are certainly more questions we could ask, but these three should provide an adequate framework for developing the wisdom needed to think theologically in response to some kinds of scientific findings. I hope you are finding Psalm 139 as rich and fruitful for the science / faith relationship as I do. I think that many biblical authors, had they lived in our day, would have taken a healthier, more well-thought-out view of science than many Christians today who use the authors’ words to take unfruitful postures toward science. It is not that science gets a free pass, or that Christians should not pose any questions to science, but instead that Christians may need to read their Bibles more slowly and carefully when deciding how to posture themselves in relation to scientific knowledge.

I am pleased that a friend and neonatal nurse practitioner has written a guest blog for us for Part 3 of this series on Psalm 139. If you find this post helpful, please like it on Facebook and share it with others. Please do the same with the blog as a whole. Lastly, you can make comments on this, or any, post to express your thoughts.

References

Goldingay, J. (2008). Psalms 90-150. Psalms (Vol. 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Lamoureux, D. O. (2008). Evolutionary creation: A Christian approach to evolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Conviction and Complexity 3

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 2.”


God is always more than we think we know about him. He is inexhaustible. The Bible is much more than any of our current views and interpretations of it. It continues to speak to people of vastly different beliefs and perspectives, to reveal surprises to receptive readers, both delighting and challenging them. These convictions about God and the Bible govern my approach to science / faith relations, and I commend them to you in these relations as well.

Truth. I believe in the ultimate harmony of all truth. I may or may not be able to see or hear that harmony at any given moment, but I suspect that each of us seeks it out, to bring coherence to the complex dimensions of our lives. Truth is complex, and the pursuit of truth is complex. Different people have legitimate parts to play in seeing and clarifying truth, even as different tools are needed to understand different dimensions of life.

Science reveals truth. As I understand it, “science” is both a process and a result. It is a way of seeing the world, exploring it, analyzing it, and testing one’s grasp of it. It is a way of knowing. It is also a result: the data, the findings, the analyses, the conclusions. In my own engagements with science, I have tended to focus on natural sciences (e.g., geology, biology), as opposed to other fields of study (e.g., social science, political science).

Faith reveals truth. In addition to studies of the Bible and life experiences, the writings of Karl Barth, an early- to mid-twentieth-century Swiss theologian, have taught me much about faith as a way of knowing, especially in his work on St. Anselm. In effect, Barth argues that one cannot fully know the Christian faith until one commits to it and tries living life as a disciple of Jesus. Only then can one know what it is like to see the world and experience it as a follower of Jesus. Only then can one discover whether there is truth in Jesus’ teaching, for example, to love one’s enemies. One cannot try to establish that truth from a different position in relation to Christ. One must love one’s enemy to know if the teaching of Jesus is true. In this and analogous ways, faith is a path to truth.

Science / Faith. Science and faith both reveal truth, and they are both legitimate paths to truth. Some (not most!) scientists and science supporters are inclined to dismiss faith as a legitimate truth pursuit. Now, to be sure, I have witnessed versions of faith that I would consider illegitimate, but one should patiently seek the wisdom to discern good and bad forms of faith, and not dismiss all faith just because some people live theirs rather poorly, or even just fail to articulate their faith in ways one finds compelling.

I also cannot help but wonder, when there are such lashings out at faith, if these reactions stem from frustrations or pains that are not immediately obvious on the surface? Maybe it runs deeper and is more personal than we sometimes realize? Complexity.

On this note, do not buy into stereotypes of scientists. For a more factual, scholarly study of what scientists really think about religion, read Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford, 2010).

On another side, some people of faith dismiss science, even if they claim to support science. Such believers often support a redefined version of science. That is, I have not seen any Christian in my context think of himself or herself as “anti-science.” In my experience, no one wants to be “anti-science.” Instead, some Christians redefine “science” and make their own judgments as to what does and does not count as real science. Convenient.

Many Christians simply do not understand science: how it is done, who is actually doing it, what the results really are, and how to make sense of it. This lack of understanding does not prevent some Christians from forming strong opinions about science, however. A word of caution to Christians who handle science, however: if you misrepresent what science really is and does, is this not a violation of our shared command not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16)?

Real Christian faith has nothing to fear from science. After all, if God is more than even our best and hardest-earned thoughts about him, and if the Bible is more than even our best and hardest-earned understandings of it, then what should people of faith be afraid of? Does God disappear if the earth bears record of things we did not know happened? Should the Bible be tossed in the garbage can if we find that a formerly-clear interpretation is now inadequate, and we find ourselves pushed to read it again?

Christian responses to science should be carefully thought out and provisionally enacted. I might be wrong. You might be wrong. Being wrong may deliver a blow to my ego, but it does not mean that truth is not real, or that my pursuit of truth was not worth it. The relationship is far more complex than this. Truth is far more complex than this. By all means, let people of profound faith explore science / faith relations. Let them proceed with conviction, but let that conviction include the commitment to understanding the complexity of life, of our world, and of what it takes — and whom it takes — to understand our world more faithfully and more truly.

Conviction and Complexity 2

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 1.”


I could describe here my science / faith relationship in terms of specific topics and what I think about them (e.g., climate change). Some blog posts will do this, I am sure. I have come to realize, however, that I have core convictions and assumptions that guide and govern how I think about scientific topics. Everyone has such convictions and assumptions, even (especially!) those who deny that they have them or pretend to be objective in the matter. Here, I offer a glimpse into convictions that guide my science / faith relationship.

God. I believe in God, but I also believe that God is always more than what I think I know about him (I adapt the Bible’s masculine pronouns for God without believing that God is male as such). This belief means that any number of experiences may change my view of God. My understanding of a Bible passage may change my view of God. Contemplating people’s experiences of suffering or claims of healing may change my view of God. And, more to the point here, scientific findings may change my view of God.

Lest this sound like spineless, conviction-less, wishy-washy theology, I contend that true faith admits when it is inadequate, and especially when it has crammed God into something smaller and more manageable. This, of course, is the sin of idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything….” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)

In my experience with Christians, many Christians carry around with them their images or likenesses of God, even if those images have been carved in their minds. If such images influence the way we relate to our world, then they function as idols. God is no idol. He is always more than what we think we know about him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)

The Bible. I have always believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but what these terms mean has changed as I have learned more about the Bible. In my experience, many well-intentioned believers confuse inspiration (how God has related to the production of a biblical writing) and interpretation (how a passage should be read, understood, and appropriated).

Before I ever considered how to read the Bible in relation to scientific findings, I found my interpretation of various biblical passages changing in light of rigorous studies required of college Bible majors and graduate students. In short, my church tradition’s way of reading the Bible turned out not to have exhausted what the Bible actually contained and conveyed. To my dismay and delight, the Bible was much more than what I knew or expected.

This has continued to hold true in my studies of science / faith relations. Some people (some Christians and atheists alike) read the Bible with kindergarten-level maturity. Still, I am repeatedly pleased to find people, when pushed by scientific findings, going back to the Bible to see if there is more to it than they had imagined. Lately, I have seen not just biblical scholars and theologians doing so, but even scientists and agnostics. Again, if we will look and listen, we will find complexity in people’s science / faith relationships.

In the future, I will have more to say about how I read the Bible in relation to scientific findings. For now, I continue to find in the book of Isaiah a helpful way of thinking about our attempt to hear God’s word when we read in the Bible a collection of passages that were not, originally, written to us, but still have something to say to us:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)

Whether God’s word (spoken or written) accomplishes our purpose in the science / faith relationship or not, there is the claim here that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose. The Bible may have for us messages lurking we had not considered because we had hastily committed ourselves to particular interpretations of particular passages. In this complex relationship, my conviction is that the Bible has much more to offer than we often give it credit.

Lastly in this section on the Bible, I contend that changing one’s reading of the Bible in light of scientific findings is not a case of giving up on the Bible, but rather a case of keeping the Bible. It is not a case of losing faith in the Bible’s truth, but persisting in one’s belief that it does, and will always, have truth to convey to us, and that its truth cannot so easily be snuffed out. Some Christians can be made to feel that their change of interpretation is a loss of faith, when, in fact, and quite to the contrary, their change of interpretation is a clear sign of the perseverance of their faith. They keep holding onto these texts for a reason, and their faith may be greater as a result.


To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 3.”