A (scientifically accurate) hymn of praise

Stained glass in Chartres Cathedral (photo by Guillaume Piolle, via Wikimedia Commons).

I once debated a young-earth createvangelist, who actually used — as a point of evidence that evolution and Christianity can’t coexist — the fact that there aren’t any hymns about evolution.

At the time, my response to this rather silly (but admittedly, original) argument was that there also aren’t any hymns about gravity or germ theory or cellular mitosis, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

If only I had known about the work of one David Lee, I might have offered some actual counter-evidence to my opponent’s claims. Lee’s 2012 hymn, “In chaos and nothingness,” not only refers to evolution in praise to God, but also tackles other scientific topics as vast as galaxy clusters and as small as the helical structure of DNA.

In an email to me, Lee explained:

One of the major things that subconsciously shapes our faith is the choice of songs and hymns we sing on Sundays. I strongly suspect that the effect is deeper than we realise, and affects a larget subset of our congregations than we realise, including those who wouldn’t call themselves musical.

As a keen church musician (although the day job is IT for scientific research), I noticed that we didn’t seem to have any songs or hymns that simply took modern science (for “modern,” read “Darwin onwards”) for granted, as a given. So I wrote one. It got its first known “outing” in this year’s Hymn Society annual conference, and (I understand) is about to get a second at a church music summer school in Ireland.

Here are the lyrics to Lee’s wonderful hymn. You can click through to the main link to find the suggested tune for the words.

1. In chaos and nothingness, you of unnameable Name
spoke into the emptiness, fanning dark energy’s flame.
Your Spirit was hovering, racing and shaping the birth
of galaxy clusters, of sun and the moon and the earth.

2. Your voice pierced the darkness, your Word blazed your light on the world;
whole continents drifted while aeons and ages unfurled;
and coaxing the DNA helix to double and bind,
your Spirit breathed origin to every species and kind.

3. O Lord, where were we when you laid the foundations of earth?
When morning stars harmonised song, when the oceans burst forth?
When you played your dice, when you planned that through chance life evolved?
In mere mortal span, still your mysteries remain unresolved.

4. So where then is wisdom, and can understanding be found?
Yet heavens are voicing your glory: in Christ is their crown.
Invisible God, given visible image, you came,
breathed order and life: Jesus Christ, Name above every name.

Transcendent and immanent, God ever three, ever one:
we praise you and worship you, Father and Spirit and Son.

Lee told me that the text and music is free to share or even use in a typical church service. The hymn’s copyright, explained in greater detail here, primarily applies just to commercial reproduction or broadcast use.

He also dropped the names of a few pretty heavy hitters — also quite active in the intersection between faith and science — who appreciated the work.

By the way, almost at its completion, I ran drafts of it past David Wilkinson, Principal of St. John’s College, Durham (Ph.Ds in both astrophysics and theology), and N.T. Wright (who had been my Diocesan bishop in Durham). They both liked it, suggesting a couple of minor points for attention, which I applied before I put it on the website. More recently, after we tried it at the Hymn Society, the hymnwriter Timothy Dudley-Smith (“Tell out, my soul”; “Lord for the years”; etc.) bounded down the steps (he’s a mere 87 years old) and headed straight for me. I was looking forward to a high-quality critique of poetic fault, rhythmic misdemeanor, scansion error or similar (he’s brilliant in that regard); instead he said how much he liked it!

So if this song helps people to open their eyes to a God who is rather bigger than Ken Ham’s little closed box, I’d be happy!

See Lee’s commentary on the hymn here and a program note here.

Tyler Francke is the founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached here.

  • Darach Conneely

    What’s wrong with using the beautiful metaphors of creation we find in Genesis?
    I’m not a geocentrist, I don’t believe the sun moon and planets move around the earth embedded in crystalline celestial spheres, but I still live to sing Crown Him With Many Crowns with it’s:
    “Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time,
    Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime”

    • I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with that. I also don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with writing new songs based on new thoughts about God and new knowledge of his creation derived from the scientific process. Both can be beautiful expressions of truth 🙂

  • Larry Bunce

    “In Chaos and Nothingness” reminds me of a hymn that came out in the late 60s, called, “God of Concrete God of Steel.” “God of Concrete” was sung to the tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth.” (Tune name “Dix.”) All three texts praise God using imagery from everyday life. “For the Beauty of the Earth” was written in 1864, and uses images from nature. “God of Concrete” was written in 1968, and uses image from modern life, including rockets and satellites.

    “In Chaos and Nothingness” is the most abstract of the three, in spite of (or maybe because of) using the language of contemporary science. It does speak directly to those of us who believe in theistic evolution, but it would be sure to offend many who don’t. I can’t imagine a Christian congregation, other than in an” experimental” service run by college students, where its use would not create a firestorm.

    “For the Beauty of the Earth” has always been one of my favorite hymns, but I grew up with it in the Methodist church. Its use of imagery from nature gives a timeless quality to it that I find appealing. Others may find that imagery boring. (An inventor’s nightmare would be to have built a successful time machine, only to be transported into a forest 100 miles from Philadelphia in July of 1776.)

    I am as worried as anyone about keeping Christianity relevant to the modern world, but find something unsettling about hymns with too many references to contemporary life. Christianity’s strong point is its long tradition. While we might like to have their fervor, we are not Roman slaves practicing a new religion while hiding in catacombs. The key seems to be the tradition of Christians being in the world, but not of the world.

  • Darwin Bloise

    I totally read this with a rap beat in my mind. Been listening to too many Epic Rap Battles Of History.

    I think I’m off topic. What I mean to say is that this hymn is pretty awesome.

    • Hey Darwin! Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked the hymn. And, just as an aside, a rap battle about Christianity and evolution would be totally off the charts awesome.

      • Larry Bunce

        Psalm 96 says, “O sing unto the Lord a new song,” and Psalm 150 says, “Praise Him with timbrel and dance.” Hallelujah translated into modern English would come out “woo-hoo.” The Bible apparently does not say, “thou shalt maintain dignity in the presence of the Lord.” I wonder how many Bible literalists have learned how to play a timbrel in church. (The timbrel was introduced into Europe during the Crusades, and renamed the tambourine.)

  • Alan Christensen

    This reminds me of the hymn by Joseph Addison:

    http://www.bartleby.com/101/433.html

  • Kevin long

    There’s also Ray Bradbury’s “Christus Apollo: a cantata celebrating the eighty day of creation and the promise of the ninth.” This was set to music by Jerry goldsmith, but I think it was only performed once or twice. It was written in 1969 in the heady excitement after the first moon landing. Lyrics are here. http://onefracturedfairytale.blogspot.com/2007/11/christus-apollo-by-ray-bradbury.html

  • Peter

    Wow, the argument the person used (that the lack of hymns about evolution shows they can’t coexist) shows us how illogical he/she is. I bet they pulled it out like a trump card. Gotcha! In the same way YECs pull out the “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” card.

    • The argument was one of a list (I think he might have had 10) of supposed “reasons” evolution is incompatible with Christianity. The list was reachy from the start, but by the time he got to the hymns one, I think he was downright desperate.

  • Scientific Songs of Praise

    Hi there! You may also enjoy some of our scientific hymns, over on scientificsong.com or http://www.youtube.com/scientificsongsofpraise