Many today tell us that the rapid advance of modern knowledge is giving man mastery of the world and that mastery of the universe is just around the corner. They imply, therefore, that man is self-sufficient. This viewpoint had begun to pervade our thinking well before the Russians launched Sputnik. And now that we have emulated them and have even orbited men, the feeling is becoming general that we have begun to master the universe itself. As a result, some think that we no longer need God and that he should therefore be dropped from our lives. Not only is this the Communist view; it is also that of many sophisticated Western thinkers.

But what would the world be like if we should succeed in eliminating God from consideration? A comparison of the West, which was deeply influenced by Christ, with that part of the world which was not influenced by him answers the question. The two worlds are not the same. The non-Christian world thinks differently about right and wrong, about the sanctity of life, and about the place of women in society. Without detailing such differences, let us simply note that the Christian idea of right and wrong derives from the concept of sin and is absolute; that the Christian view of life comes from the concept of the equality of all persons before God, as does also the Christian view of women. The non-Christian views on these subjects are based essentially on the idea of the tyranny of the stronger. Those in Western civilization who advocate the elimination of God overlook the fact that our very freedoms are part of our Christian heritage.

A position often implied and sometimes openly expressed is that every scholar knows man to be self-sufficient and that no real scientist believes in God any more. This is simply not true. Consider some evidence, beginning at my own institution of learning.

A few years ago a conference of M.I.T. faculty and religious leaders was called to discuss the best ways to meet the spiritual needs of the Protestant and Orthodox students on the campus. A number of professors attended. But what was particularly significant was which ones attended. At M.I.T. there is a category of distinguished faculty members known as Institute Professors. Three such professors had been named to this top honor at the time of the conference. Of the three, two took part in the conference. A year or so later, one of them gave the baccalaureate sermon, in which he took his stand as a professing Christian before the graduating class and attending faculty. Obviously it cannot be said that these Institute Professors are able to believe in God because they do not meet the standards of real scientists. On the contrary, they are leaders in their fields; all of them have pulled out of their fertile brains ideas that have created new fields for other scientists to follow.

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Some Who Believed

The generalization that scientists do not believe in God will not bear scrutiny, for some of the greatest scientists have believed. A seventeenth-century example was Sir Isaac Newton, who was such a pious man that he always doffed his hat when God was mentioned, and who wrote extensively on the Scriptures. Newton was clearly no run-of-the-mill scholar; on his work all physics rests, and even Einstein needed it as a start for his own great work. In the same century as Newton lived the French scientist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. One of the greatest mathematical minds of all time, he was a profound Christian; his Pensées, one of the world’s great books, is a landmark in Christian philosophy.

A modern example of a world-renowned scientist who was a believer was John von Neumann of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. It was he who led in the development of the high-speed digital computers that have so changed the course of present-day science. All mathematicians know him for his great contributions to pure mathematics, and in 1956 he received the $50,000 Enrico Fermi award for his basic scientific contributions. A Nobel Laureate is also among the believers—Professor Victor F. Hess, who in 1936 received the Nobel prize in physics for his discovery of cosmic rays.

These scientists happen to be among those who, in addition to being first-rank scholars, have made their religious convictions publicly known. But there are many more who have not made them known. After all, only occasionally in science does an opportunity arise for a man’s convictions to stand revealed. In my own field of crystallography I know most of the several hundred internationally prominent scholars; yet save for a few instances when I was present for a revealing conversation, I have not learned their individual religious or anti-religious feelings. Nevertheless I can name some Christians among them who would not object to being counted. One of Switzerland’s greatest crystallographers, Werner Nowacki, is a Christian, as is Spain’s greatest authority in this field, José Luis Amorós, and also one of America’s leaders, José Donnay. And J. H. Robertson, a well-known Scottish research scientist, is a Christian. I once heard Robertson, a Presbyterian, and Amorós, a Roman Catholic, argue a religious point; each spoke as a dedicated Christian and each was proud of his faith. England’s leading woman crystallographer, Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, is a Quaker. She is a professor at the University of London, a fellow of the Royal Society, and vice-president of the International Union of Crystallography, and she was decorated by the Queen for her outstanding scientific work.

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A curious fact is that Russia’s most distinguished crystallographer, Academician N. V. Belov, is a believer who can no longer practice his Orthodox faith because Russia has banished God. Belov knows more about symmetry and, with his students, has determined the arrangements of atoms in more silicate minerals than any other man on earth. And is it not significant that, even in Russia, there is a believer among the greatest scientists? One is reminded of the biblical statement, “I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18; Rom. 11:4).

Are there advantages for a scholar in being a Christian? As a scientist, I believe that there are immeasurable advantages. Consider a small boy who wants an answer to a question. Ordinarily he will go to his parents. Later, when he is in high school, he may go to his teacher for an answer. Still later, in college, he may approach his professor. If one day, however, he finds himself a professor and a question arises that he cannot resolve, then what is he to do? Perhaps he can obtain an answer from an authority greater than himself. But suppose that he himself becomes an authority in a specialized field, and there arises something in that field which puzzles him. What can he do to get an answer?

Fortunately the Bible gives us a method for such a problem: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jas. 1:5). This marvelous invitation encourages all of us, scientists included, to approach not just a higher authority but the Highest Authority, the One who designed the universe, the interrelations of which are a part of what the scientist seeks to know. There is only one price for this service: one must believe the invitation. Anyone who believes is invited to ask and is assured an answer.

Asking implies prayer. Prayer is a way of getting in personal touch with the Creator of the universe, by which is meant not only the physical universe but also the logic with which it is put together. The judgment with which a man handles the knowledge of the universe and its logic is called wisdom, and James invites us to improve this judgment by going to the Ultimate Authority. But this invitation must not be construed as a blanket promise that any prayer will be answered according to the petitioner’s desire. If two persons have a contest—say, a wrestling match—and both pray for victory, it is difficult to see how both prayers can be answered as the petitioners wish. There may at times be two answers, one of which may be “No.”

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The Maze In Perspective

But Christians have another great promise that will help them even when the answer is “No.” This one is stated in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Here we learn that no matter how bad things appear to be, they happen for our eventual benefit if we love God. Only the Creator of the universe could fulfill this promise; yet a simple analogy may help our finite minds to understand it. If you are required to make your way through a maze, the path must sometimes be what seems a retrogression instead of an advance toward the goal. Only someone who sees the whole maze in perspective can direct you with certainty through it. God is in exactly this position, because he sees the whole, because all things are present before him, and because he sees the end from the beginning.

The Bible records many examples of this principle. A classical case is that of Joseph, who said of his brothers’ selling him to the Ishmaelites: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

But to return to the subject of prayer, although the answer to a particular prayer may be “No,” nevertheless we are promised that a request for wisdom is generally answered. But is this really true? Can one depend on it? By experience I have found that one can, and I am sure that my experience is not unique.

On occasion I have invented theories. Now a theory never occurs to its author in complete and final form; it commonly arrives as a sudden flash of basic ideas that must be explored and developed. These nearly always present knotty problems. A number of these situations that have presented themselves to me have appeared to be quite beyond my powers to resolve; yet since the theories came out of my own imagination, I could hardly expect to consult someone else about them. But all such problems exist in the logic of the universe God created. Thus I knew for a certainty that I could get help from God, and whenever I asked for this help I received it.

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One case was remarkable. I had struggled for days to resolve a curious dilemma in which I obtained different answers by two different routes. Finally I remembered to pray for wisdom, and while I was in the very act of framing my request to God, the solution came to me in wordless form. It seemed a fulfillment of Isaiah 65:24, “… before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” To be sure, this verse is taken out of context, but it is very much like what Christ tells us so directly in Matthew 6:8: “… your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”

Receiving wisdom is, of course, only one of the benefits God gives the believer. But one does not serve God primarily to obtain benefits. No one can be persuaded to serve God if he does not believe in God. If he does believe, then serving God is a natural consequence of being part of God’s family, and the earthly advantages are wholly subsidiary to the family relationship.

Does the scientist need God? Can the scientist afford to ignore this shortcut to knowledge of the things that his curiosity drives him to study? Many do ignore it, but many believing scientists have found God’s promise of wisdom to be true.

Martin J. Buerger is an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a world-renowned scientist in the fields of crystallography and mineralogy. He has been chairman of the faculty and director of the School of Advanced Studies at M.I.T. This essay condenses a commencement address given at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, Long Island, New York.

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