A Force Beyond Our Understanding

A discussion with professor of theoretical physics Stephen M. Barr suggests that science and faith can coexist.

By Adam Hunter, New York, New York

As appeared in

That day in 1963, 10-year-old Stephen returns from school to his family’s Manhattan apartment, and before long is squabbling with his older brother.

“Why are you spouting this garbage?” his brother snaps. Little Stephen speaks up. “’Cause they told us in science class. You can’t create something outta nothing. So how could God make the universe? You just think that ’cause you’re a dummy.”

“Stephen, come here,” his father calls from the bedroom.

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Stephen’s father puts down the book he’s been reading and tells his son to take a seat. An assistant dean at Columbia University’s engineering school, he’s a man of science. That’s why Stephen is surprised by what his father says next.

“Many smart people in history have looked at the beauty and order of the universe and have believed there must be a mind behind it. What made the law that matter can’t be created or destroyed? If there’s a law, why can’t there be a lawgiver?”

And in that instant, with that single question, the cosmos opened up for Stephen M. Barr.

Today, Stephen is a professor of theoretical physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware; a researcher into grand unified theories, CP violation and baryogenesis; and well known among his colleagues as one of the discoverers of the Flipped SU(5) scheme of unification.

If you’re not sure what any of that is, you’re not alone. Stephen works in one of the most rarefied fields of science, picking up where Einstein left off in the quest for a “theory of everything.”

But Stephen is also the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, which argues that modern scientific discoveries not only are compatible with religious beliefs, but help us understand some of the great mysteries of faith. He agreed to answer our questions about the nature of the universe.

Why do many people believe science and faith can’t get along?

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Some people have the false idea that God is in competition with nature. If something can be explained naturally, then God had nothing to do with it, and if God did, then it must be supernatural. That’s completely wrong.

There’s a wonderful quote from the theologian John Calvin: “Whithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory.”

Monotheism cleared the way for scientific discovery. The Bible taught that the sun, the forces of nature, living things, weren’t gods themselves, but masterworks of God. The universe thus came to be seen as a great work of engineering.

But don’t modern scientific discoveries weaken the argument for a creator?

Let’s take the big bang. Up until about a hundred years ago, all the evidence seemed to point to the universe having had no beginning.

As I once argued to my brother, the amount of energy in the world never changes. If it never changes, then whatever energy is here now must have always been here, so the universe couldn’t have “started.”

In the twentieth century, along came Einstein’s theory of gravity, and astronomers found that the universe is expanding. That led to the big bang theory, proposed by a physicist who was also a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître.

None of this is to say that the big bang proves the strict biblical doctrine of creation, but the fact that the universe had a beginning in time does kind of make one think.

Modern Physics and Ancient FaithOrder a copy of Stephen’s book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2006, University of Notre Dame Press).

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