Mark Ralls: The scientist and the theology student

During his morning runs with a fellow student in Germany, a Christian ponders his friend the atheist’s question: When did life begin?

My running partner was sneaky. As we ran past the beautiful cathedral in Bonn, Germany, he’d get in the mood to talk theology. And for him, all theology could be boiled down to just one question: When did life begin?

I had come to Germany to study theology and was spending the first four months at a language institute. One of my fellow students at the institute was Chong Ru, who was from China. Because we both liked to start the day with a run, we became fast friends.

Chong Ru was stocky, with a round, youthful face. He looked more like a junior varsity wrestler than an astrophysicist, but at 26, he was already near the top of his field. Unlike me, Chong Ru was no mere student. He had come to work alongside Germany’s most accomplished scientists at the Max Planck Institute.

We were quite a pair! The scientist and the theology student. The genius entrusted with a $10 million telescope and the idiot who blew up a beaker in 10th-grade chemistry class. The committed atheist and the Christian.

But there we were every morning, running side by side through the streets of Bonn. Chong Ru was sneaky, because he always waited until I started to get winded before asking his question, placing him at a distinct advantage for the friendly debate to follow. I would pant a paraphrase of Genesis 1: “God created the heavens and the earth.”

And in response, I would receive a full-blown lecture that touched on the Big Bang and other theories I couldn’t begin to understand. Chong Ru was in such great shape that he never paused to catch his breath, even as he explained in meticulous detail that there was no room for God at the beginning of time.

As we rounded toward home, he would return to his original question -- “So when did life begin?” -- to see if I had changed my mind. And I would counter with another breathless paraphrase of Genesis: “Life began as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep.”

Chong Ru would shrug and shake his head good-naturedly, as if to say, “I really must find a new running partner!” But as we parted, he always added with a smile, “See you tomorrow morning.”

When did life begin? That’s a tough question. As a Christian leader, I often refer those who ask it to Genesis, but I usually warn them that they may find the answer unsatisfactory. You see, whoever wrote Genesis didn’t set out to be a scientist or a historian. He spoke in metaphor. In the beginning, he said, God was already there, hovering like a mother hovers over her child, hovering over nothing at all. And somehow from this nothing, God created something. And from that something, God shaped our world and proclaimed it good.

That’s not science, and it’s not really history either. It’s poetry. And what it says is that life begins with God. But it also tells us more than this. It says something significant -- something unexpected -- about who God is.

I have received a little help from a German word I learned years after Chong Ru and I ran together: Ursprung. We usually translate that in English as “origin” or “beginning,” but those are poor substitutes. They’re not strong enough. They’re not dynamic enough.

Ur means primal, and sprung means leap. A primal leap. I like that! If we read that back into Genesis, it suggests that God is doing something risky -- something that might be costly for God. A primal leap. I think that’s right. I think creation is a leap of faith -- God daring to place his faith in us.

I imagine the first moment of creation this way: God -- with arms open wide -- bungee jumping into nothingness. Creating on the way down, and then blessing all that now is on the way back up.

That’s a ridiculous thing to say, I know, but no more so than the popular notion of God tinkering with the stars like some distracted watchmaker. Throughout Scripture, God is more likely to be depicted as the Creator who dives in headfirst, throwing caution to the wind, holding nothing back.

When did life begin? According to the poet of Genesis, it all started with an ecstatic, exuberant outpouring of love. And the best part is this is not just what God did in the first moments of time; it’s what God does in every moment.

In the days of Noah, God leaps into our midst and leaves behind the promise of a rainbow; in the days of Moses, leaps again and leaves a covenant in stone. In the days of Jeremiah, God comes again and places this covenant on our hearts.

And God’s greatest risk -- God’s most costly gift -- is in Jesus. This time, God leaves nothing behind. God gives all God has. Body broken. Blood poured out. For us.

This too is a kind of creation. It has the power to transform, to create something new. The poetry of Genesis shows us not what God did but who God is. God is always with us and for us. And that means that each moment is a new beginning.

I wish I could go back to just one of those mornings when Chong Ru and I would run together.

“When did life begin?” he would ask. If I could, I would give him a more thoughtful response. I would say, “Life begins now. Because in this moment -- the one you and I share -- God is with us and God is for us.” I would say, “Chong Ru, it’s just that simple and just that complex.”