John Glenn Saw No Conflict Between Faith and Science
by Pastor Paul J. Bern
STS-95 crew member, astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn poses for his official NASA photo taken April 14, 1998. Photo courtesy of NASA via Reuters
For by Him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1: 16-17)
The passing of American hero John Glenn this past week has given me cause for reflection. When I think of heroes, Jesus Christ is the first person that comes to mind. Since he has saved us all from our sins against God and each other, Jesus is the obvious first choice. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another example of a hero that I can think of, the late president John F. Kennedy is yet another. I can think of still more examples from the Bible, such as St. Stephen from the Book of Acts chapter 6, Joshua and Caleb from the Book of Joshua, and the apostle Peter, to name a few. And then there is John Glenn. As an American astronaut he gained heroic stature when he became the first man to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7 in 1962. Previously, he won five Distinguished Flying Crosses in World War II, and years later went on to become a U.S. Senator from Ohio.
Perhaps less well known is that he was a man of deep Christian faith. This past Thursday, when he left the bounds of earth one final time at age 95, he passed into the arms of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He was one of the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program at a time when space travel was extremely risky. He said he prayed every day during that time. Those prayers were needed on Glenn’s historic first orbits in space. During the return on February 20, 1962, Glenn’s heat shield was thought to have come loose and many believed it might fail during re-entry, which would cause Glenn’s capsule to be incinerated in its fiery descent. Glenn was instructed to take manual control of the capsule and described “a real fireball outside” as he re-entered the atmosphere. Thankfully, his and many other prayers were answered when he splashed down safely in the Caribbean.
Shortly after his flight, he delivered a sermon, “Why I Know There is a God,” that described his enlarged perspective on God as a result of the mission. In his message, he marveled at the size of the universe. “Our galaxy is some 100,000 light years in diameter. This makes us realize how difficult it is to visualize the tremendous scale of the universe beyond our solar system. The limits of the telescopically observable universe extend at least two billion light years from us in all directions,” he told his listeners in 1962. Then he expressed awe at discoveries from the microscopic level. “Come back to what we know of atomic particles, the smallest particles known. Atoms have a great similarity to our solar system in that they have electrons rotating about a nucleus in regular patterns. Now what is the point I am making?” he asked. “It is the orderliness of the whole universe about us, from the smallest atomic structure to the most enormous thing we can imagine. Could this have just happened? Was it an accident that a bunch of flotsam and jetsam suddenly started making these orbits of their own accord? I can’t believe that. This was a definite plan. This is one big thing in space that shows me there is a God. Some power put all this in orbit, and that power keeps it there.”
John Glenn may best be remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest explorers, the first American to orbit the Earth and, later, the oldest man in space. Glenn also will be remembered for his long career as a U.S. Senator, representing his home state of Ohio for 24 years as a moderate Democrat. But less well-known is the fact that Glenn was an elder in the Presbyterian Church who saw no conflict between his beliefs in God and in science. He told The Associated Press last year he believed scientific discovery – including evolution – should be taught in schools. “I don’t see that I’m any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that’s a fact,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s less wondrous and it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.” And in a space-to-Earth news conference during his second space flight at age 77 in 1998, Glenn told reporters his view of space only strengthened his belief in God. “Looking at the Earth from this vantage point, looking at this kind of creation and to not believe in God, to me, is impossible. To see the Earth laid out like that only strengthens my beliefs,” he said.
From high above Earth, John Glenn saw the face of God. He was not alone. There is something about the beauty of space, Earth and the universe that touches many people’s spirits. Logic-oriented scientists and daring pilots turn spiritual, some even evangelical, after their space flights. Glenn and most of his Mercury astronauts strongly testified about how faith helped with their groundbreaking flights. John Glenn summed it all up while in orbit. “To look up out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” Glenn said in a Sunday news conference, responding to a reporter’s question. “It just strengthens my faith.” Glenn said recently that evolution should be taught along with all other types of scientific discovery, and this view does not contradict a belief in God. He went on to say that recording the scientific changes that occur over time due to evolution fit comfortably with his view of God as Creator.