Using Astronomy in the Pulpit

Encouragements and cautions on preaching the wonders of the heavens

By OREN C. DURHAM, Research Scientist, Abbott Laboratories, North Chicago, Illinois

Every one, whether he stands behind the pulpit or sits in front of it, recognizes the value of appropriate figures of speech  and well-selected illustrations. A sermon needs seasoning as much as an egg needs salt, and astronomy has always been a ready source of salty rhetoric. While it is true that for illustra­tive material Jesus drew more freely on the plants and birds than on celestial facts and phe­nomena, many other preachers and prophets of old frequently referred to the heavens. In dis­cussing the resurrection, Paul called attention to variations/ in the color and magnitude of "celestial bodies" in order to stress the differ­ence between a natural body and a spiritual body. Daniel could think of no better illustra­tion of the lasting influence of successful re­ligious teachers than the steady shining of the stars. Solomon described the church-bride as "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners."

But several Bible writers, particularly Moses, Isaiah, and David, are not satisfied with an occa­sional simile. They find in the heavenly bodies and their motions a source of personal inspira­tion and a revelation of the wisdom, love, and power of God comparable to that found in the Inspired Word. Isaiah goes so far as to advise those who have doubts or discouragement to study astronomy. He preaches a whole sermon from a sky text, even as Jesus did from a mustard seed or a clump of wild lilies.

One might go still further. Many of those who read these lines have visited a modern planetarium, such as the one in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or San Fran­cisco. Those who have followed the lectures at such an institution will testify that some of the speakers give a most eloquent presentation, in which they completely submerge themselves in their subject. The lecturers on the Adler Planetarium staff quote the Scriptures and omit all reference to evolution, maintaining a spirit of reverence throughout.

Many a listener experiences the same inspira­tion from these programs that he finds in quiet communion with the Creator under the open sky or in a church. I can readily see how a preacher, who might be present at one of these first-rate planetarium programs, might wish to borrow the speaker's equipment and methods and adapt them to the work of the gospel. Ad­mittedly, there are wonderful possibilities in temporarily detaching an audience from the familiar little speck of dust on which they live, but perhaps there are pitfalls also. Of both these we shall speak briefly.

The threefold message itself has a basic astro­nomical aspect. The first of the trio of angel messengers, in announcing the judgment hour, called loudly for men everywhere to return to the worship of the forgotten Creator of "heaven and earth." The thought seems to be that the world, the solar system, and the uncounted galaxies furnish not merely a badge for their Author's identification, but a strong incentive to worship Him. (See Rev. 4:11.) An imagi­native preacher, in using the seventh verse of Revelation 14 as a text for a sermon, would surely enlarge on the idea of intelligent appre­ciation of the glory and handiwork of God as glimpsed by the lay observer and particularly as revealed by modern astronomical research. To me the text not only suggests such exegesis ; it demands it.

Astronomy a Pillar to Support Sabbath

To make sure that this concept is correct, we need only examine the argument that is used to rationalize the Sabbath commandment—"Re­member the Sabbath day, ... for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth." So, the more we know about the miracles wrought at crea­tion and sustained ever since, the better we shall know the Creator, and the more meaning His unique time monument will have for us. Surely the handiwork which the Master Craftsman Himself rated so highly, deserves more than a passing glance from those for whom it was de­signed and who seek to give Him glory. Yes, astronomy is a pillar that supports the Sabbath message fully as well as the judgment message.

Suppose the evangelist is trying to emphasize the fulfillment of Daniel's time-of-the-end prophecy by reviewing the increase of knowl­edge in modern times. It would be unfortunate indeed if, in addition to stressing knowledge of the prophecies as a sign, he should confine his citations to the recent discoveries in electricity, chemistry, and aerodynamics without mentioning in some detail the marvelous success that has attended man's efforts to reach out into the depths of space. The discovery of helium in the sun before it was isolated in the laboratory, was no mean achievement. The fabrication of a telescope capable of revealing ten million stars for every one visible to the naked eye, is as truly a fulfillment of increased knowledge as the radio or the airplane.

Many a preacher who is aware of these possi­bilities is still reluctant to announce an illus­trated sermon on astronomy. He feels much as David did when he was urged to use Saul's heavy fighting equipment, which he had not proved. The wise preacher does well to hesi­tate before purchasing a set of telescopic views of cosmic wonders which he has never taken the trouble to see for himself, or about which he cannot speak with the authority of the lecturer at the planetarium. The slides might easily tempt him beyond his depth in a decidedly deep pool, where the danger is not so much to his own prestige as to the cause that he represents. A superficial presentation will cause his better-informed listeners to say in their hearts, "This man began to build and was not able to finish. He promised more in his announcement than he delivered from the platform. Probably his whole line of merchandise is shoddy."

Desirability of Astronomy in Theological Course

On examining the standard theological course offered in oui- colleges, I was surprised to no­tice a great lack of astronomy and other natural sciences, until I learned how difficult it is to persuade ministerial students that they need to study the sciences. Only one of our colleges is properly equipped to teach astronomy, and even there the courses are elective for theologi­cal students. Answers to my inquiry indicated that most of our ministers begin preaching to this generation, that has made a god of science, with no more than a tissue smattering of book facts about the physical universe of which we are all a part. So those who later decide to rein­force their pulpit presentations by formal ap­peals to astronomy must educate themselves as they find time and opportunity. Seeing their need, some have done this very thing.

A novice in natural science should pick up the threads deliberately. The successful preacher does not become skilled in presenting the truths of the written Word in six weeks, or even in six months. Nor is it only a matter of time. Be­hind his many years of intensive Bible study there is a personal relish for revealed truth and beauty. Jeremiah delved so deeply into the written Word that it became the joy and re­joicing of his heart. This suggests the degree of application necessary before one may rightly divide the riches of truth from any other source. The preacher-student should read many chapters in the open outdoor Bible, and take time to meditate on what he has read before picking a text from its pages. The perusal of poetical and factual articles and books about the sky is not enough—no more so than a de­pendence on commentaries in studying the Scriptures.

Useful Instrument for Ministerial Kit

But how shall the busy beginner begin? By reading a book, listening to a lecture, visiting an observatory, or gazing at the sky from his own yard? Always by first being inspired ! I know how it happens that one very successful young minister can preach from such outdoor texts as, "Last night I watched Polaris," or, "Yonder above the oak is a cluster of stars that helped Job to get well." On a crisp autumn evening more than a decade before his ordination, an acquaintance asked him whether he knew any­thing of the sky. He admitted that he did not, but courteously listened and looked while his host pointed out some interesting celestial objects. Something that was said fired the imagination of the minister-to-be. His eyes were opened not only to a new means of per­sonal culture, but to a useful implement for his kit. He may not become an authority on the scientific aspects of astronomy, nor buy exten­sive sets of lantern slides, but when he lifts up his eyes on high, he finds something that he can give to the multitude.

I feel that it makes little difference how the inspiration comes, who drops the seed, or how ; but I have some definite convictions about cultivating the tender plant after it is sprouted. It grows best out of doors, and it thrives on curiosity. The Bereans searched the Scriptures daily to see whether the things Paul taught were so ! They had a healthy, persistent curiosity, even though they were only amateur Bible students. Suppose a wide-awake preacher who has never had the opportunity to study astron­omy, chances on the following :

"But it is in its moons that Jupiter contains the greatest telescopic treasure for the amateur. The four that are visible run a merry race with each other around the planet and change their respective posi­tions from hour to hour and night to night. They aren't hard to identify with an ephemeris, and they can be followed for hours as they speed in front of Jupiter, throwing their shadows on the planet, vanish behind its giant disk, or plunge suddenly into its deep shadow. Binoculars will pick them up."1

What would be more logical than for the reader to accept these statements as a challenge —to close the book and push right out of doors with a pair of field glasses to see for himself whether these things are so ? If he has no binoculars and does not know where and when to look for Jupiter, he will not rest until he can borrow or buy an optical instrument, and lay hands on an ephemeris that will give him the schedule of events in the sky.' This procedure is vastly more satisfactory than to wait for an opportunity to visit a large observatory and stand in line for an hour in order to enjoy a half-minute glimpse of a single object.

Such a visit, or even a specially arranged interview with a professional astronomer, may be very desirable at a later date, but not until the learner has mastered the rudiments of his subject. Far better if he secures his own simple tools of research that allow him to look often and long and thoughtfully. The binoculars should be at least eight power, but if only opera glasses are available, they should not be de­spised. An excellent book has been provided for those who wish to begin with opera glasses.' But if the price of a pair of good binoculars is spent on materials for making a telescope, the yield in astronomical satisfaction will be ten times as great.

The construction of a telescope that will magnify a hundred or a hundred and fifty times is not a difficult or expensive task! Patience is the main requisite. Doctors, merchants, high-school students, housewives, and a number of preachers have made good optical instruments at home. Indeed, it was a preacher's enthu­siasm that resulted in the first book in the English language on amateur telescope making. Fortunately, the pioneering in this field has been done ; all we now need to do is to reap the fruits of others' labor and ingenuity.

But it is not necessary to own high-powered instruments. Perhaps, after all, the greatest value of the telescope in the hands of an ama­teur is the incentive it furnishes for original observation. It gets the owner out of the easy chair. Without any such aid, one may now enjoy an acquaintance with the stars, constella­tions, and planets much more intimately than was possible for David. Our technical reference books ' are better than anything he could have had. But it is advisable to watch the date on the title page. Many important things have been discovered in the forty years since the late Lucas A. Reed wrote his inspirational "Astron­omy and the Bible."

From the very beginning of his interest in the open book of the heavens, the amateur observer who has already had platform experience will find himself using astronomical illustrations in his sermons. He will, of course, quote David and Isaiah, Newton and Shapley, but he will not depend wholly on the fine things others have said. He will have his own experience to tell. Then if he finally decides to use lantern slides,' the presentation will be a natural one. But he will no more think of promising a lecture on astronomy, as such, than one on chemistry or botany. He will still stick to the gospel, but the message he preaches will shine in a new and appropriate setting, and will not be obscured by a mountain range of dry statistics. He will not parade his knowledge, for he will realize how little he knows, compared with what he hopes to learn. Nor will it occur to him to use astronomy to prove things that can be proved more effectively by some other means, or that do not need proving at all. Thus astronomy will have taken its proper place in his pulpit.


1 "New Handbook of the Heavens" (McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1941), p. 72.

2 "Observer's Handbook" (Royal Astronomical So­ciety of Canada, Toronto). 25 cents.

3 "Astronomy With an Opera Glass," Garrett P. Serviss (Appleton, New York, 1895).

4 "Amateur Telescope Making' (Scientific American Publishing Company, New York, 1928).

5 Bartky, "Highlights of Astronomy" (University of Chicago Press, 1935). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, markets lantern slides. A free catalogue of their slides can he obtained upon request.

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By OREN C. DURHAM, Research Scientist, Abbott Laboratories, North Chicago, Illinois

May 1943

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