Between the Lines of Your Chemistry Text
Ray Lewis, Spring 2016
I have heard almost nothing but complaints about Chemistry classes at Vanderbilt. Gen Chem is just a stupid weed out class, Orgo is impossible, Physical Chemistry is otherworldly challenging… there has not been too much love for this discipline here and even less appreciation for its meaning to us. Your chemistry teacher may posit a questionable consideration: chemistry is beautiful, and you ought to recognize it as such. And as much as I agree with that sentiment, I want to offer a greater epiphany to be had through the lens of Chemistry: What can we learn about the Christian God and His plan for Creation?
One thing that is important to know about God is that He is everywhere, and therefore we can use all creation to learn about Him. My hope is that this article will help you, the reader, to develop a more discerning scientific eye as you investigate God’s creation. In turn, what is important to know is that this is not an empirical proof of God’s existence. That is not the purpose of science, and I will not try to mold it as such. Instead, let us recognize that God’s design of the world is very intentional, and His nature is reflected in our nature. We CAN get to know God through science. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Religion and science are opposed, but only as a thumb and a forefinger are opposed. For only with both can we grasp everything.”
An easy premise to accept is that God has everything to do with Chemistry. God has everything to do with everything, does He not? As Christians, we seek to develop an acute understanding of how God has carefully shaped every aspect of existence. As the first chapter of John says, “All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be.” Humans have created buildings, roads, and all sorts of technology, but all matter, creative enterprise, everything can be traced back to God. All of science, all of the physical laws and everything else that governs natural phenomena is commanded by Him. Therefore, we can begin to appreciate the ways God has domain over the laws of Chemistry, and the ways that every electron, proton and neutron interacts.
Saint Paul says “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).” Does this sound familiar? Ionic, covalent, and intermolecular bonds alike—all governed by chemistry, and therefore by God—hold all matter together! The parallelism here is a fantastic sign of God’s role in our lives. Chemical bonds are dependable; molecular bonds display predictably powerful forces holding all matter together, and contain large amounts of potential energy. These bonds are not strong on their own accord, however. This is a strength that comes from God, abilities granted to the forces of nature by the Creator of the universe. And in the same way, none of us are strong on our own accord, for own strength and ability is also endowed to us by our Creator.
This is a beautiful reality which also serves as a frame to view the rest of this topic. The Christian God actively participates in the dynamic chemistry of our world, and once we understand this, we understand an array of wonderful revelations, giving us a peek into the mind of God as He created the universe.
Take a look at the Periodic Table of the Elements. After hundreds of thousands of hours of research and experiments that spanned the lives of the greatest Chemists to live, we have constructed an organized table relating every discovered element by property; groups organized by increasing number of protons, periods organized by increasing energy levels. Electronegativity increases towards fluorine, atomic radius increases towards radium, and dozens of other chemical properties are logically organized in various trends extending in every direction across the table. Each element that exists is intricately tied together in stunningly complex ways. So much time and care was invested in the discovery of this chemical design—how much more care, therefore, do we think was invested in the actual design of chemistry itself?
Much like the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry are not location-dependent. The laws reach every corner of the universe as we are aware of it, on all scales and in all forms of matter. Here, we can begin to see how the complexity of the Periodic Table, for example, bears a beautiful simplicity. As we inspect the makeup of everything we see, everywhere we go, everything is all fundamentally connected, and literally so!
Atoms, broken into protons, neutrons and electrons, truly are all ‘stuff’ and therefore are fundamental. Gases deep in the core of the Earth greatly differ in physical appearance from all waters on the Earth, which in turn is much different from the clear air below the dome of the sky (Genesis 1). However, the fundamental makeup of each of these natural substances contains a simple atom with eight protons and six valence electrons: oxygen. Rocks, food, skin, plastics, wood, and so many other items of an infinitely long list are objects that surround us and each serve unique purposes, and appear completely different. But the chemical backbone for each substance is a simple carbon atom, intricately drawing a line of similarity between so much of creation. See what God has done here? All of the universe is inextricably connected in this way.
But the best part has yet to come.
“[For on the sixth day,] God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’…so God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:26a, 27-29)” What happens when God uses the means of chemistry, which he created and used to make all other creation, to institute a profound expression and object His infinite love?
Us. We get us.
And who is us? ‘Us’ is everyone, every human being who has ever walked the face of the Earth. That same number of people are made in the image and likeness of God, and the same number of people are created with the same chemistry as each other and the rest of the universe. I think that is where we can begin to see some of the beauty of God’s design by putting the human body under a metaphorical microscope.
Here are a few points to know about me before we continue: as a Chemical Engineer, I have always been a math guy and a problem solver, which clashed with the study habits needed to succeed in high school biology. I could never commit my interest to biology, especially since I found biological systems illogical and random. My appreciation for chemistry was fulfilled during my sophomore year at Vanderbilt, when I took Organic Chemistry and realized how naturally occurring chemical reactions draw beautiful parallels to each other. As tedious as they were, I found the logic of drawing the mechanisms of electron transfer to make sense and, more importantly, an accurate representation of what TRULY happens on the molecular scale. Each atom on their own was great, with particular properties and statics, but chemistry happens when the atoms interact to form a molecule, greater than its part’s sum. The arrows drawn in mechanisms were not drawn between atoms, but their bonds, and here I realized these bonds were what truly were important for chemistry as a whole. My grade in the class was poor, but my passion for the discipline grew.
Then I took a Cell Biology for Engineers class during Fall 2015. The veil of a cynical high school chemistry student dropped from my eyes and I saw human physiology through a new lens: the lens of Organic Chemistry. And how beautiful this was; just like the Periodic Table, the systems of the body were all interwound in impossibly complex ways, with nucleotides and proteins at the smallest levels avoiding hundreds of millions of errors to guide the activity of every corner of the body. But this is not just biology at work… this is chemistry at work! The same rules of electron mechanisms, intermolecular bonds and ionic activity govern the body’s systems. The human body is an incredible display of chemical beauty in ways so complex beyond what we see in the rest of the non-living universe. Discussed earlier is the immense amount of care with which God created the universe and the chemical makeup of our world. As we consider the complexity of a human being’s biological makeup, how much more care then must God have invested into our design, into our creation?
As I furiously scribbled notes in my caps-lock handwriting to keep up with the rapid slide changes, I was astounded at what I was learning and my prayers to God during that biology class reflected as much. How could all of this beauty and complexity happened by chance? How could the coding of DNA have been established by chance rather than intelligent design? How could the chirality of so many organic molecules align perfectly to create optically active mixtures in living organisms? What were the chances that the properties of water break convention in such perfect ways to promote life?
What I realized is this, informed by Acts 17:25b: “Rather it is He who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.”
There is a trend to all these biological and chemical properties. No, not a periodic trend like electronegativity or atomic radius. Rather, God wired chemistry to promote most precious gift, one that He breathes into us: life. Water expands when it freezes so life an exist at the bottom of the ocean. DNA corrects transcriptional and translational mistakes to ensure that the life it programs can be sustained. The aforementioned chirality (ways that individual atoms of a particular molecule arrange relative to each other) of extremely complex molecules is organized randomly in nonliving substances but Even apoptosis, which is programmed cell death, occurs so the organism at large can live effectively. All these activities, all these occurrences, are laid in place and directed by chemistry. The laws of Chemistry did not ‘evolve’; therefore, the tendency to life has always existed. And as science ponders the wonder of this property of chemistry, Christianity offers and wholesome explanation for its presence: that chemistry (and its properties) were specifically designed by a loving, caring, and creative being. The beauty and the trends of chemistry affirm what we are told in the Bible: God is life-giving. God is good. God is loving. And He cares for us, infinitely so, as He designed the chemistry of life, of our lives.
What we learn from the chemistry within us does not end with an introspective reflection—rather, it is a call to change and even one to action. The chemical similarities we all share, because of their origin, must direct us to the common ‘bond’ we have: that being our image and likeness, our reflection of the Trinity and God’s perfect plan of creation. Clichés like “it’s what’s on the inside that matters” and “deep down we are all the same” are tired phrases but for good reason—they ring truth, a truth echoed by our chemical nature and a Truth echoed by the voice of God as existence began, a voice coming from a mouth that also breathed life into the world through chemistry. And although this call is a common one, I think its an attitude we do all need to work on adopting consciously. If we do indeed understand that fundamentally we are made of the same ‘stuff’, that we all have incredible complexity programmed into our being and, therefore, incredible love and care has been bestowed upon us, then how could we possibly not love our neighbor in the same way God loves us?
Truly, science and religion are opposed like fingers—and the love intertwined with chemical design not only teaches us ‘how’ or ‘why’ we work but ‘what’ to make of ourselves, or how we are to look externally towards God in appreciation for His Creation. The chemistry of the world is complicated but beautiful, just as the Christian God is. The stakes are raised when we realize, in turn, how much more God grants to the human race. The evidence of this is found within our bodies, governed dynamically by the laws of chemistry. And since we are made in His image and likeness, our chemistry also signifies the greatest calling we have; we recognize how all men and women reflect the beauty, the image, of the Creator Himself, and to let this Truth motivate our outward expression of love towards others.
Clergy members of Society of Jesus have a variety of expressions but the most holistic is this: “to seek God in all things.” We have much to learn about ourselves and about God through all things, tied together by chemistry, lifted in meaning by our origin. The misery in a chemistry class might seem inescapable at times. But those invisible particles point us to something much greater.
They point upwards.