In 2015, I had the opportunity to speak with the bright young minds at The Geneva School of Manhattan during their weekly chapel about the intersection between science and faith. The following is an adaptation of that speech. As a designer at the American Museum of Natural History, I spend my day making things. I make things like...
+ apps for your phone about the biggest animals in the world + books about tiny fish that glow in the dark + guides about dinosaurs that used to live in New Jersey + online games about underwater volcanoes off the coast of California + invitations to fancy parties that take place unader the big blue whale + billboards of giant spiders that you see on the street and on the subway + and videos that fly to distant worlds faster than the guardians of the galaxy
I get to make a lot of really cool stuff all day! And no two days are exactly the same. There's always something new and exciting to learn at the museum. But design is more than just something you hang up on the wall or look at on your phone. Design is really about storytelling.
Stories like this one from the Book of Genesis…
In the beginning there was nothing. Nothing but the silence of an infinite darkness. And the breath of the Creator fluttered against the face of the void, whispering, “let there be light.” And light was, and it was good. The first day. And then the formless light begin to take on substance and shape. The second day.
And our world was born: a beautiful, fragile home. A great warming light nurtured its days, and a lesser light ruled the nights. And there was evening, and morning, another day. And the waters of the world gathered together and in their midst emerged dry land. Another day passed.
And the ground put forth growing things. A thick blanket of green stretching across all Creation. The waters too, teemed with life. Great creatures of the deep that are no more. Vast multitudes of fish, some of which may still swim beneath these seas. And soon the sky was streaming with birds. There was evening, and there was morning. A fifth day.
Now the whole world was full of living beings. Everything that creeps, everything that crawls, and every beast that walks upon the ground. And it was good, it was all good. There was light and air and water and soil. All clean and unspoiled. The plants and fish and foul and beast, each after their own kind, all part of the greater whole, all in their place, and all was in balance. It was paradise. The jewel in the Creator’s palm. And the Creator made Man and by his side Woman. Father and Mother of us all.
That is a really amazing story from a long time ago. But exactly how long ago did Creation take place?
Scientists use tools like telescopes and satellites to figure out the age of the universe and and the age of the Earth… and they say that the universe was created 13 billion years ago, and that the Earth was created 4 billion years ago. But there are some people who say that the story of creation happened in exactly seven days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. That’s a big difference... is it 13 billion years or 7 days?
Well as someone who works in a museum, I'm often asked if I can work in a place that teaches science and evolution and also believe in God and the creation story. And the answer is YES! I think that science and faith can go together if you can look for the bigger picture. So what’s the bigger picture? Well, it turns out that most bible scholars agree that the Creation story is more complicated than it seems. The Book of Genesis is filled with something called allegory. Allegory is a story with a hidden meaning. What do you think the hidden meaning could be?
When I work at the museum, I'm around a lot of scientists. They spend their day doing research: they ask questions and look for evidence. So that's what we're going to be today: scientists looking at the Book of Genesis so we can uncover the allegory—the hidden meaning—in this incredible story.
Something important that we know about the Book of Genesis is that the stories weren't written down at first. Writing hadn't been invented yet… there wasn't even an alphabet! Instead, the stories were shared as spoken word. That means they had to be memorized. How many of you have to memorize something for school? What's the easiest way to memorize a story? Well you could put it into a song or poem! It definitely helps if it rhymes too: "Do you like green eggs and ham? Yes I like them Sam I am."
Let's take another look at the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Here's how it's organized: On the first day, God did something, and it was good. On the second day, He did something else, and it was good. On the third day, He did another thing, and... it was good too. And so on. Guess what? This first chapter of Genesis is a song with verses and a chorus! Every time God did something, that's the verse; and then the chorus in response says "and it was good." We can imagine what that song might sound like sung by our favorite band!
So the story of Genesis was shared around campfires after dinner with the whole family gathered around. Parents would teach the story to their children, and those children would grow up and teach it to their children, and each generation would memorize the story and pass it onto the next. Before long one of those kids was named Moses. You might have heard of him! By that time there was an alphabet, and so he decided to write down this story that he heard growing up, so the whole world could read it. And that's the amazing adventures we can read about in the Book of Genesis, written by Moses himself!
I have a lot of friends who come visit me at the Natural History Museum. It's one of the best things about working there: showing all the awesome things that are on display to my friends and telling the cool stories about them. And hopefully... if I tell a story well, it can be just as memorable as the Creation story that Moses wrote down. As a designer, the one really important thing that I do at the Museum is to tell a really good story.
One of my favorite stories is about the giant blue whale that hangs in our Hall of Ocean Life. It's a full size adult female blue whale, the largest animal in the world. She's as big as a city bus! When the hall opened 40 years ago, scientists didn't know very much about blue whales. And so the model that was hanging in the Museum was based off a whale that washed ashore and died. She was all gray and lumpy. Her fins were drooping and her eyes were bulging out. Back then, that was the only way scientists saw these huge sea creatures. Scuba gear hadn't been invented yet so you couldn't study whales up close underwater.
Well 30 years later, I started working at the Museum, and we finally updated the Hall of Ocean Life and the model of the blue whale. We made her slimmer because we know that whales swim like torpedoes in the water, and repainted her a nice deep blue. We even added a belly button because whales are mammals and all mammals have belly buttons! You can come visit me at the Museum and we’ll look up at the blue whale together and find her belly button! But for all that scientists know about blue whales today, they are still one of the biggest mysteries on Earth. We don't know why they sing underwater or what they're singing about; we don't know much about the ancestors of whales; and we don't know where they go for most of the year.
I think a little mystery is a good thing! It leaves room for you to use your imagination and come up with creative ways to look for answers. Maybe one of you will grow up to be a scientist who discovers some amazing thing about blue whales! God wants us to have a little mystery in our lives too. There's so much more about God that we don't know. He is bigger than we can ever understand.
That is the hidden meaning in the Book of Genesis! It doesn't matter if the story of Creation took 7 days or 13 billion years. God is so big and beyond our understanding that He could have created the world in a blink of His eye, or really slowly over millions and billions of years through time and space. It's a beautiful mystery! And that’s why I think that science and faith can go together. All you have to do is look for the bigger picture.
I think we can celebrate scientific discoveries that are made about the natural world, like the story of the blue whale. And I think we can also celebrate just how crazy big God is and how He created everything around us. He moved the stars and galaxies into place; He raised up the oceans and the creatures in the sea; He moved the mountains into place; He filled the air with clouds and birds, and He introduced His finest creation: you and me.
God loves each one of you so much. He created everything around you: the food you had for breakfast, the subway you took to school, the books you read in the library, the birds and trees in Central Park, the moon and stars and galaxies that you can see at the Museum, and He created you and me. He created every single thing, all because He loves you! Isn’t that amazing? We get to be part of God’s story today and everyday.
We can all be like scientists who go out into the world and make discoveries about God’s Creation. You can discover something new about God. And you can be a storyteller too! Just be brave and share the stories that God puts on your heart.