Features, Headline

Stars, planets and aliens: All in a day’s work for this theologian

Stars, planets and aliens All in a day's work for this theologian
Rev Prof David Wilkinson

If you look at Rev Prof David Wilkinson’s CV, the first thing that strikes you is that he is both a scientist and a Methodist theologian. Many Methodist pastors have had very different careers before becoming pastors, but for Rev Prof Wilkinson, the change in career trajectory came immediately after he had obtained his PhD in astrophysics from Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Read on to see what this year’s speaker at the AldersgateSG 2023 lectures has to say about how the study of stars, planets, and the universe has informed him of the Creator God and affirmed his faith in Jesus.

Methodist Message: Why did you make such a seemingly drastic change from astrophysics to theology?

David Wilkinson: Well, it was never because I fell out of love with science. I’ve always loved science. I became a Christian at the age of 17 just before I started my physics degree. My interest in science and my Christian faith grew together. But alongside that was a call that I could only describe as a vocation to Christian ministry. That is, I felt that God was calling me to Christian leadership in a way that would not be fully encompassed by continuing as a professional scientist.

As I prayed and read my Bible, and talked with other Christians, this sense of Christian leadership was important. What I didn’t expect was when I became a Methodist pastor and led a church in Liverpool, many of the science questions started to come back into my life, as people asked me, “How can you be a scientist and a Christian?”, “How do we read the first chapters of Genesis?” or “Is there other life elsewhere in the universe?” I found that these questions were part of local church ministry, they were part of ministry to those outside the church who are fascinated by these questions. And slowly, I found that there was a space that God had given me to explore some of these questions. I’m still excited by science. I’m still excited by Christian ministry. And most of all, I’m still excited by my Christian faith.

MM: What were some of the reactions from your friends or family when you made the decision to study theology?

DW: That’s a very good question. The reaction from my friends and family were very mixed. My parents were lovely Christian people. They were Methodists.

But they were really disappointed when I first said that I was going to leave physics because they thought that I should become a great professor in a university. And they thought that by becoming a Methodist pastor, I would not fulfil the kind of role that they’d always envisaged for me. Some of my friends within certain churches were quite negative as well. They wondered whether the zealous faith they saw would be knocked out of me, or whether I’d become too liberal in my theology.

But there were people who were most positive about it—my fellow scientists, some of whom were Christians, many of whom weren’t. Many of them were fascinated by some of the big questions, like: Where do the laws of physics come from? Why are they universal? Why are they intelligible? A lot of my colleagues who wouldn’t be part of faith communities were fascinated by these big questions and saw that there was a role for theology to explore these questions alongside physics.

MM: Your parents’ prayer was answered though—you did become a great professor in a university! What would you say to someone who is struggling to reconcile science and theology?

DW: The first thing I’d say is sometimes you can’t get the answer to every question. Sometimes, you just have to say, “I don’t know. And I’m going to leave it to the Lord.” Not every question—this side of new creation—has an easy answer to it.

The second thing is I have taken great encouragement from theologians and scientists far ahead of me. When I don’t know the answer to some questions, I take comfort knowing that professor so- and-so has thought that through both as a scientist and as a Christian. I’ve been guided in some of the lack of answers to my own questions, by others who are distinguished scientists and Christians, of which there are many.

The third thing is the core of the Christian faith—Jesus. Often, within science and theology, people get into arguments for proving or disproving God. And those arguments are often about the nature of the natural world, or what started the universe. Whatever unanswered questions I might have, I’ve come back to the importance of Jesus, that God has spoken of God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And that means I can explore the universe knowing that at the heart of it is the God who reveals himself in Jesus.

MM: How has your knowledge of astrophysics helped with the Great Commission?  Have students become believers because of what you shared, what you taught?

DW: A number of folks over the years have become Christians. Now, of course, you never quite know how people become Christians because the main role in that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to witness that which we have received, to pass on what we’ve understood. You’ve also got to be careful with a teaching role, that you don’t force people into belief because the relationship between a student and a professor is always a power dynamic.

I’ve been asked, “How can you be a Christian and a scientist at the same time?” At that point, I can tell the story about how I became a Christian at the age of 17. Many people think science and religion are in conflict with each other, but it’s much more of a dialogue, a conversation, a bit like the one that we’re having now. We might not get to the end of all of our questions or our conversation. But we’re beginning to listen to each other, and learn a bit more. And by the grace of God, a number of people have come to faith, some of whom have come from very antagonistic positions about Christianity. Now, if I’ve been able to contribute a little by talking and witnessing to what God has done in my life, I’m thankful for that.

MM: Is there is anything you wish God could reveal to you?

DW: One is about God’s extravagance as a creator. People often ask me, “Why did God create the universe so vast with billions of stars, billions of galaxies?” That’s a lovely question to ask of God about his artistry in creating the universe.

The most serious question which I don’t have an answer to, is why in this beautiful creation, do we experience evil, suffering, war and poverty. Now part of the reason for that I understand is because of human beings turning away from God in selfishness, and our own selfishness, or sinfulness as Christians call it, causes pain to others as we grasp power, fortune or fame. But I think there are just some things in this universe that don’t have an easy answer.

MM: Your wife is also a Methodist minister. What’s it like to have two Methodist ministers living under the same roof?

DW: I’ve been given a gift of Alison as my wife, she is my minister. I attend her church. She preaches far better than I do, but in a very different way. Our children, Adam and Anna, are also involved in Christian ministry and they’re both preachers as well. In fact, you really should have invited to Aldersgate the other three Wilkinsons. I’m the one who fills in when the other three aren’t available!

God calls us in lots of different ways. There is no one template for how you preach or how you lead a church. And that’s the joy of being in the body of Christ. Sometimes the church is very good at affirming pastors, and saying, you’re following the call of God. What we need to be better at is to say to science teachers, engineers or technologists, that’s your ministry, we affirm it. Thank you for serving God as scientists and technologists.

To find out who Rev Prof Wilkinson’s favourite sci-fi character is, and whether he thinks aliens exist, follow our social media channels @methodist.sg

Join us at the AldersgateSG 2023 Lectures, where Rev Prof David Wilkinson will be speaking about Star Wars, Star Trek & Exoplanets: The Search for God in a Universe of Aliens. For more information, visit https://aldersgate.methodist.org.sg.

Lianne Ong is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photo courtesy of David Wilkinson