Portraits of Christians – David Brewster

david-brewsterYou’ve probably never heard of David Brewster, but you’re likely familiar with his most famous invention: the kaleidoscope. Sadly, I no longer have my childhood kaleidoscope to share a picture of here, but the video segment on how high-quality kaleidoscopes are made, at the end of this post, is probably more interesting than a picture of the cheesy toy I grew up with anyway. However, despite the phenomenal success of his invention as a toy, this Portraits series deals with scientists, not toymakers. Called “The father of modern experimental optics”, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Brewster certainly qualifies. And yet… he was also a Christian! If you’ve always heard that science and Christianity are mortal enemies, then keep reading. And maybe check out the other scientists in this growing “Portraits” series.

Sir David Brewster was born in Scotland in 1781 and lived until 1868. His parents recognized him as a prodigious learner after he built a telescope at the age of 10, and they enrolled him in the University of Edinburgh at the age of 12 to study for the ministry. But although he did preach after graduating and being ordained as a minister in the Established Church of Scotland, his severe nervousness before crowds led to him pursuing his true calling: in the lab.[1] Brewster contributed much to our knowledge of the polarization of light. In fact, lasers and polarized light microscopes both take advantage of the Brewster angle, the critical angle at which light reflecting off a transparent medium is 100% polarized (it’s 90° to the refracted ray if anyone reading is remotely interested). He also invented the lenticular stereoscope and a binocular camera. He was a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica on many scientific articles, as well as editor of the 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia. Brewster worked hard to popularize science and in 1831 helped found the British Association for the Advancement of Science to help promote scientific networking and growth in Great Britain.[2] Another way I was familiar with his work prior to research for this post (besides my toy kaleidoscope) was my exposure in college to something he discovered: the photoelastic effect. This is a pretty neat phenomenon where the stress in certain materials changes the way light refracts through them, resulting in different colors in areas of different shear stresses. This was used in my engineering classes in college to clearly demonstrate the effects of stress concentrations, and in fact, was just used at a seminar I attended recently for that same purpose.  He also invented the polyzonal lens for lighthouses in 1811 (commonly called a Fresnel lens after the French engineer/physicist who first outfitted a lighthouse with a similar design in 1822).

So Brewster was a scientist, but was he really a Christian? Brewster wrote the following to a friend in 1828:

Your education and the example you have had to copy will, I am sure, guard you against those presumptuous and sceptical opinions which scientific knowledge too often engenders. In the
ardour of pursuit and under the intoxication of success scientific men are apt to forget that they are the instru­ment by which Providence is gradually revealing the wonders of creation, and that they ought to exercise their functions with the same humility as those who are engaged in unfolding the mysteries of His revealed will.[3]

Again, to that same friend:

“You will find that a life of science has in it no superiority to any other, unless it is pursued from a higher principle than the mere ambition of notoriety, and that demagogue or a philosopher differ only in the objects of their selfishness. As you will now have experienced how unsatisfying even the pursuit of knowledge is when insulated from higher objects, I hope, if you have not been fortunate enough to begin the study earlier, that you will devote yourself to the most extraordinary of all subjects, one which  infinitely surpasses the mechanism of the heavens or the chemistry of the material world, the revelation of your duty and the destiny of man as contained in The Bible — a book which occupied the best hours of the manhood of Newton, of Locke, and of Euler.”[4]

The Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour recounted to Brewster’s daughter after his death the following:

We were glad to have Sir David Brewster at the Dundee meeting of the British Asso­ciation, as a noble advocate of Bible truth in opposition to the scepticism of the men of science of the present day. To see a philosopher like him, of world-wide
reputation, vindicating the inspiration of God’s word, and humbly receiving the truth in the love of it, was most encouraging…”[5]

And of course, his last words, as quoted by his daughter:

Jesus will take me safe trough… I shall see Jesus, who created all things, Jesus, who made the worlds; I shall see Him as He is;… Yes; I have had the Light for many years, and Oh! how bright it is! I feel SO SAFE, SO SATISFIED.[6] (emphasis in original)

His daughter recorded much, much more of his steadfast faith in her biography of him – too much to even pick and choose from here. But let me close with a brief summary of that life story. Brewster never saw legitimate science as conflicting with the revealed truth of the Bible. He was a brilliant scientist who was also staunchly opposed to the growing skepticism of his day. And he believed not only that his science was part of his service to God, but also that science was something that could lead men to God. The creation reveals the Creator, for “all truth is God’s truth” (St. Augustine). Sir David Brewster understood that well. Do you?

And for those inquiring minds, below is a segment from “How It’s Made” on the making of a kaleidoscope. Enjoy!

[1] Margaret Maria Gordon, The Home Life of Sir David Brewster, 1870, pp. 56-58.
[2] A. D. Orange, “The Origins of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1972, pp. 152–176. www.jstor.org/stable/4025289. This Association for advancing science (still operating, by the way) was founded by the Reverend William Vernon Harcourt, a clergyman scientist (much like Copernicus) and, like Brewster, a Fellow of the Royal Society.
[3] Letter to James David Forbes, dated December 19, 1828, as found in Life and letters of James David Forbes, p. 42.
[4] ibid, p. 60. Letter dated February 11, 1830.
[5] Gordon, Home life, p. 387.
[6] ibid, p.

Giving an Answer

The Apostle Paul Explains the Faith to King Agrippa, his Sister Berenice, & Proconsul Festus - by Vasily Surikov, 1875
The Apostle Paul Explains the Faith to King Agrippa, his Sister Berenice, & Proconsul Festus – by Vasily Surikov, 1875

Ever been on the hot seat, so to speak, having to try to answer questions under pressure? Some may thrive under pressure, but most of us would rather do without that. I had to deliver an engineering presentation to a room full of colleagues recently, and I was definitely more nervous about the potential questions that might be asked afterwards than about the presentation itself. You can rehearse a speech or slideshow until you have it memorized, but questions from others are unknowns that are hard to plan for, aren’t they?

I was talking with an atheist friend who mentioned that he didn’t like discussing religion with me because he could never come up with good responses to my questions or assertions. Not that I’m some expert in philosophy or science or debate – far from it! But there are some serious holes in the atheistic worldview that it doesn’t address, issues that it tends to gloss over in the rush to attack Christianity. I simply ask about those, or state how I think Christianity better explains some aspect of the world than atheism.

That aside, the main thing I want to look at today is this: is not being able to reply to objections to your worldview a good reason to avoid discussing it? Understand, this applies to anyone – atheist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, anyone. Atheists often like to accuse Christians of having a “blind faith” and defining faith as “belief in spite of the evidence”.  But what precisely is the atheist with no answer to objections to his view holding on to? Simply his faith, or trust, that his views are correct based on the understanding  he has. And there’s nothing wrong with that, to that extent. I generally trust my airline pilot without needing to check his logbook or follow him on his preflight inspection. But if a fellow passenger raised an objection that the pilot appeared drunk when he boarded, my trust in our pilot would become a blind (and possibly misplaced) trust if I chose not to investigate this new information. Likewise, if we choose not to investigate when we’re presented with objections, not to ask questions and seek answers, then that willful ignorance is the very blind faith the atheist decries in others. Objections should instead be motivation to dig into the issue, study it, and decide what is actually causing the lack of satisfying answers.  Is there good support for our view that we’re simply unaware of, or can’t remember under the pressure of the moment? Or can we not give a good answer because our worldview itself lacks a good answer? That’s an important distinction. We’ve all been stumped at times. While our inability to answer a question is always an indication of the limits of our own knowledge, sometimes it is also an indication of the limits of the worldview we’ve chosen. For instance, the Ptolemaic (geocentric) model of the universe was reaching the limits of objections it could answer when Copernicus came along. Its answers were becoming more and more ad hoc, with more fixed spheres, and epicycles, and eccentrics, and equants being added to make the model match observations. Copernicus’ geokinetic view put the earth in motion and explained (better) the non-uniform motion of the planets.

So I would ask my atheist friends: what better explains the fine-tuned universe, or the origin of life and it’s extreme complexity and apparent design, or the existence and transcendence of morality? Is it a worldview with a free agent (God) capable of design and moral prescriptions? Or one without? Which view is more ad hoc? Don’t feel obligated to respond under pressure, but do pursue those answers. Don’t dismiss the objections of Christians or ridicule them without actually looking for answers to those questions. To criticize without being able to offer a solution is the realm of armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers. Don’t be that person. Do seek to understand the objections to your view. For instance, can you state the opposing side’s objections in your own words such that they would agree that that is their objection?[1] If not, you may not really understand their objection in the first place. This is how people (on both sides) just end up talking past each other, never actually addressing the issues raised by their opponents. In closing, if you don’t like blind faith in Christians, then don’t put your own faith blindly in a worldview that doesn’t really answer – and can’t answer – many of the most important questions in life. Be as critical of atheism as you are of Christianity.

[1] Hat tip to Peter Kreeft for reminding me of that bit of wisdom through his books Summa Philosophica and Socratic Logic.

Mission Impossible?

endless-debate-norman-rockwellI was talking with an atheist friend the other day, and he made 3 interesting statements in the course of our conversation: 1) that he considered himself open-minded, 2) that there was nothing that a religious relative of his would ever be able to say that would convince him Christianity were true, and 3) that the two of us would probably never agree on either religion or politics, so there wasn’t much point to discussing them. Setting aside the oddity of saying one is “open-minded”and yet there is nothing an opponent can say to change one’s mind, let’s look at the 3rd statement.

Is dialogue between opposing sides pointless? Or worse, a Mission Impossible scenario with little chance of success and almost guaranteed failure? Can people of opposing views never come to agreement, except to “agree to disagree”? I would certainly hope not. What a disappointing world that would be if we were all condemned to continue in our set ways, with no hope of ever being able to exchange wrong beliefs for true beliefs. We all have wrong beliefs about different things at different times in our lives. But the act of learning often involves correcting those wrong beliefs and replacing them with truth. So it seems to me that if human learning is possible, then it is possible to change our beliefs. And if that comes about by another person sharing new knowledge with us that convinces us of its truthfulness, and it’s simultaneous incompatibility with our current beliefs, then we have the potential to genuinely benefit from our dialogue with an opposing view.  As Thomas Aquinas said, “there is no greater act of charity one can do to his neighbor than to lead him to the truth.”[1] Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft instructs future debaters reading his logic textbook that, “the aim of both parties must be simply to seek and find the truth,” and “The essence of the Socratic method is this logical cross-examination of an idea, following the argument wherever its inner logic takes it. Thus the impersonal laws of logic become a ‘common master’ rather than either person mastering the other, and the argument is not ‘me vs. you’ but ‘us vs. ignorance’; not ‘we are not together because we differ about what is true’ but ‘let us try to find the truth together.'”[2] This does require humility, on the part of both sides, as it requires both to be willing to admit that we might have been wrong before, which most people (myself included) don’t like doing. The alternative, though, is possibly continuing in error, which isn’t very satisfying either, if we’re honest. But when the discussion is about the very existence of God, the cost of error is potentially much greater than simple dissatisfaction. If eternity hangs in the balance, then there can be no topic with more serious consequences or more far-reaching implications. If there is even room for debate, then it behooves one to not simply dismiss the question as a pointless topic.

So is it pointless to discuss these matters? It can seem that way, particularly when tempers flare. Yet with humility and honesty on both sides, sensitive discussions can be exceptionally fruitful. “But,” you might ask, “what about when that attitude is absent on one side?”  While that makes it more difficult, I don’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. And I say that having been that ungracious, defensive, “difficult person” in the past. I’ve also been the person getting steamrolled and losing the debate in spectacular fashion. But even then, it was never pointless. We tend to learn more from our failures than our successes, and those failures motivate me to be diligent to show myself a workman not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15], always speaking graciously [Col 4:6], and better prepared the next time to give a reasonable and respectful answer for the hope I have [1 Pet 3:15].

Let me close by saying that talking about a “point” to a discussion entails a goal or purpose. If the goal is to “win” the argument, then there will be a combative or aggressive stance from the beginning that may sow the seeds of its own defeat, so that even winning that particular battle may lose the war. But if the object is pursuing truth together, as Kreeft suggests, then there can be no losers. And if that pursuit of truth leads to The Truth [John 14:6], whether immediately, in the course of discussion, or years later from a seed planted in loving debate, then  “winner” doesn’t even begin to describe the outcome for the one rescued out of the fog of unbelief. And that outcome makes even Mission Impossible odds worth taking on. After all, our God deals in making the impossible happen.[Matt 19:25-26]

[1] As quoted in Socratic Logic, by Peter Kreeft, (South Bend: Ignatius Press, 2010), p.346.
[2] ibid., p.350.

The Secret to Greatness

Alexis_de_Tocqueville SketchThis is the 240th year of my nation’s independence. From those humble beginnings in 1776, America quickly became “great”. This anniversary also took place amidst a dismal train wreck of a presidential election year here. Among the many sound bites and slogans thrown around in the course of the national election, was one suggesting that we “make America great again.” As slogans go, it’s good; it’s short, catchy, memorable, and just vague enough for people to make out of it what they want to hear. But if America was once great, and we desire to make her great again, perhaps it would behoove us to look at what made her great the first time.

Alexis de Toqueville was a young Frenchman who wondered that same thing in 1831 when he arrived in the US. America and France presented an interesting contrast. While both had gone through revolutions during the previous 60 years, and both resulted in the formation of a republic, France’s revolution was a blood-drenched anarchic nightmare compared with America’s much more orderly (and stable) quest for freedom. So Toqueville came to America, selecting “the nation, from amongst those which have undergone it {democratic revolution} in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and if it be possible, to distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable” to his French people. [1]

What did he find? While there is a beautifully stirring quote popularly attributed to him summing up how America’s greatness is not found in all her various resources, but rather in her churches, I’ll refrain from quoting that here as it is, by all appearances, a false attribution. Nevertheless, the last sentence of that misquote, does, I think, hold a kernel of truth in it. It goes like this: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” If the candidates in a representative form of government like ours are reflections of the people, then it may be safe to say at this point that we have “ceased to be good,” and may never be great again, in spite of hopeful political slogans.

When it comes to “greatness”, might I suggest that we take a lesson from engineering design? No product or process can be expected to excel if it is used in ways contrary to its design intent. The highly-engineered sports car will likely disappoint the driver that attempts to take it off-roading. In my own field of structural design, the heavily-reinforced concrete underground shelter that is ideal in a tornado may become a water-filled coffin in a hurricane’s storm surge. The two events have different requirements, and the optimum solution for one may be counter-productive in the other event.

Our nation, this grand experiment in liberty and self-governance,  was designed by, and for, a peculiar citizenry. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[2] We are a nation designed to exemplify the truth and grace of God in this world, and we will not return to any kind of meaningful greatness until we return to fulfilling our design. As we have denied the Christian foundations of our nation, and rejected the Christian doctrines that established us and made us “a city on a hill”[3] and a light to the nations, we have slid further and further from true greatness. We would do well to remember the proverb that tells us that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” [Prov 14:34] True greatness will not be obtained from any political savior, regardless of the political party or ideals they represent. No matter who wins this election, America will continue toward becoming just another name in the history books of another broken and bygone nation if there is not a transformation of her people. Political change is always short-lived, and often today’s revolutionaries become tomorrow’s conservatives fighting to preserve what they fought for against the newest batch of revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the “status quo”. If you seek for salvation in political, economic, or cultural change, you will only find yourself in a depressingly vicious cycle. Only God provides the inner transformation of man, at his core, that stops the cycle and provides stability to an individual, and consequently, to a nation of transformed individuals. Until we address the “heart” issue at the heart of our national sickness, we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while we continue to sink.


[1] Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Introduction, Location 503, Kindle Edition.
[2] John Adams, “Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts”, 11 October 1798
[3] John Winthrop (Govenor of Plymouth Colony), “A Modell of Christian Charity”, sermon delivered c. 1630. The phrase is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, by Jesus (Matt 5:14).

Portraits of Christians – Nicolas Copernicus

Astronomer Copernicus - Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.
Astronomer Copernicus – Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.

Today I’d like to add to my previous series looking at examples of great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were Christians. We seem to have this stubborn notion in our modern minds that  science and religion are mortal enemies. The atheist mantra is that religion equals primitive, backwards superstition, while science is gradually replacing it in an ever onward and upward march to a rational utopia. Or so I hear… And yet I read the writings of many of the “fathers” of science, and I see a very different picture. Today, let’s look at Nicholas Copernicus, often called the “father of modern astronomy.”

Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a canon (a church administrator/lawyer) at the Frombork Cathedral in East Prussia (modern Poland). He also wrote a memorable treatise on currency devaluation [1], and oversaw the defense of Olsztyn during an attempted invasion by the Teutonic Knights in 1520. However, Copernicus’ name would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books had not a young protestant math professor named Rheticus convinced Copernicus the Catholic to publish his life’s work. And so the 6 volumes of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres were published shortly before Copernicus died in 1543. This proposed the idea that the earth moved and was not the center of the known universe. This is commonly known as the heliocentric view, although geokinetic might be more appropriate, as Copernicus focused more on the earth’s movement than on the sun’s centrality in his magnum opus. While the warning on the title page  of “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,”  is certainly justified, there are a few passages relevant to our purposes amidst all of the spherical geometry.

Speaking in the introduction about the worth of pursuing astronomy, he states, “For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and good? For would not the godly Psalmist [Ps 92:4] in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?” [2]

I’ve come across several atheist memes that try to lay claim to Copernicus and treat his book (which includes the quote above) as the beginning of the end for belief in God. But, I ask you, does the above quote from the man himself sound like anyone opposing God? On the contrary, Copernicus argues that astronomy draws us to worship God all the more. In fact, talking about things “established in the finest order and directed by divine management” sounds like a taste of intelligent design and the fine-tuning argument a few centuries early.

What made Copernicus pursue this lifelong quest? He tells the Pope in his book’s dedication to him, “I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.” [3]He then did a literature review, found some precedence for an orbiting earth, and proceeded with an investigation, open to that possibility in spite of what the great astronomer Ptolemy had said 1,400 years before.

It proved to be a long, tedious, detailed investigation crammed between his normal daily duties. He really was “moonlighting”. Not giving up, he wrote, speaking of the difficulties he encountered in his investigations, “Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters.”[4] Spoken like a true Christian.

“But wait!” the skeptic will say. “The church banned his book because of their narrow-minded opposition to the truth.” Let’s look at that. It is true that the Roman Catholic church put On the Revolutions on the Forbidden Books list, pending “correction”, although that was not until 73 years after it’s publication. During his lifetime, Nicholas was encouraged – no, prodded – to write his book by his good friend Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno. Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, had written to Copernicus as early as 1536, recapping the salient points of Copernicus’ “new cosmology” and encouraging him, “with the utmost earnestness” to “communicate this discovery of yours to scholars”.[5] Cardinal Schönberg did not see heliocentrism as contrary to Scripture. Who might see Copernicus’ views as a threat to the church? Copernicus tells us in his dedication (again, to the Pope) that “Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it.” [6] Hmmm… it seems that Copernicus thought, and was willing to say directly to the Pope, that only those distorting Scripture would see any fault in his work. He continues, “Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands.” [6] This should come as no surprise that Copernicus would believe his theory to be a contribution, rather than an overthrow, of the church. All truth is God’s truth, both the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of the world around us.  Therefore, true knowledge of the world around us contributes to our understanding of its Creator.

In July 1543, 2 months after Copernicus’ death, his friend Bishop Giese wrote to Copernicus’ young disciple Rheticus and mentioned a “little tract” Rheticus had written, regarding which, Giese said, “you entirely correctly defended the earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” [7] Bishop Giese also wrote a treatise (now lost) called Hyperaspisticon,  “upholding the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Bible, if read properly.” [8] But, as Copernican historian Edward Rosen laments, both works failed to survive [their] passage into the clutches of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[9] What’s interesting here is that in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, this Catholic bishop and Protestant professor could both agree that Copernicus’ theory did not conflict with Scripture.

What can we say about this alleged dispute with the church? Simply that Copernicus’ disagreement was with Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer, not the church. Many in the church, along with most scientists in the world, both before Copernicus, and for 2 centuries after him, rejected Copernicus’ theory and accorded to Ptolemy infallibility that is simply not the domain of any man. That is always a recipe for disaster, particularly for the church, who should know better than anybody that no one is perfect but God alone. But as for Copernicus, he was a indeed a Christian, a faithful servant of his church, and a model scientist.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monetae_cudendae_ratio, accessed 2016-10-30. His premise was basically that bad money (i.e. devalued, or inflated) drives good money (with intrinsic worth, like bullion coins) out of circulation, either abroad or through  hoarding by the citizenry. This is actually still a very timely work almost 500 years later.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions: Complete Works, Volume I, translated by Edward Rosen, 1992, Book 1 Introduction, p. 7.
[3] p. 4.
[4] ibid, p.8.
[5] ibid, p. xxi.
[6] ibid, p. 5.
[7] ibid, p. 339, notes for page 3, Line 38.
[8] ibid, p. 342, notes for page 5, Line36.
[9] ibid, p. 343, notes for page 5, Line 38.