H2O - or Water of Life?
A Scientist's Thoughts on the Christian Faith

Professor Lothar Weber


Professor Weber was born on 24th July, 1944 in Langenöls in Silesia. He attended the Martin Luther School in Marburg/Lahn (Germany) where he graduated (obtained his "Abitur") on 4th March, 1964. After his service in the army, he studied chemistry at the University of Marburg from 1965 to 1970. In July 1970 he received his diploma in chemistry. The experimental work for his thesis was accomplished in Inorganic Chemistry from 1970 to 1973. In the year 1973 he received his doctorate at Marburg. In 1974 and 1975 Professor Weber carried out postdoctoral studies together with Professor Barry M. Trost at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA. His "Habilitation" was performed at the University of Essen (Germany) in 1982 with a study on the Organometallic Chemistry of sulfur compounds. Since 1988 he has been Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Bielefeld (Germany). Professor Weber is married and he has two children.

Original version by Prof. Lothar Weber. Translated from the German by Phoebe Indetzki, Cologne, Germany.

The theme of this essay is this: H2O or water of life?

On reading such a title one is bound to ask oneself what the little word or is doing in this context. Who are the two rivals here?

Anyone who has ever studied a little chemistry will know that H2O is the chemical formula for water. A title along the lines of H2O is the water of life would seem a lot more reasonable. Even the biologists would agree with this. Yes, it is true: 'Organic life is inconceivable without water. Several spineless fish consist of up to 97% water, and even human embryos in the first few months consist of around 93%.' On the other hand, human beings are constantly shedding water through the skin and kidneys. With healthy people, the body gives signals before the loss reaches dangerous levels - through thirst.

But my essay is not titled H2O is the water of life but rather H2O or water of life.

What do I mean by this? Remaining with the thirst principle, allow me to ask a question: have you ever felt a thirst for life - a signal from your inner self, thirsting for something that will make life worthwhile - something which is essential for your life - essential because it has to do with the essence of life? I have! If we are honest with ourselves, we have all felt such thirst.

The entertainment industry is well aware of the fact that people are looking for more in life, and swamps the market with various offers. The Germans in the Rhine area have even invented the three 'tolle Tage' (wild days). The imagination knows no bounds! And yet, if we are still honest, we will have to admit to ourselves that such fulfillment is generally only temporary - and the thirst for a genuinely fulfilled life is never quenched completely. Thus my question H2O or water of life? For I now mean the inner life.

Where can we find this elixir for the inner man? Here the Bible - God's word, which has many wise things to say about the human race - shows us a way. Here we read, namely, that God knows all about our thirst for life - moreover, that he desires to quench this thirst so thoroughly that we will never thirst again. God's answer to man's thirst for life - and here I mean purposeful, fulfilled life - is not some special sort of drink, but rather a person: Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Son of God, who has torn down the barriers to God's heart, enabling communion with him, and who claims: "I am the water of life! He who comes to me will never thirst again!" This offer is exciting! A really original idea for once!

But what can it mean for me? How can I act upon it? H2O - an essential ingredient for our organism, for our biological life - no question about that, we can accept that without problem - but to call Jesus the water of life for the inner man, for the soul - such an assertion is difficult for many people.

How do the two ideas fit together? When I used the word or in the title of this essay, did I perhaps mean: either biology, chemistry, science - or, an alternative, and incompatible with the former, faith in Jesus Christ as the only one who can give me real purpose in life? How can a scientist, who is modern and educated - and I am an enthusiastic chemist - believe in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, and also believe that Jesus is the only way to God's heart?

Many contemporaries struggle with this concept. I, however, have no problems accepting this, and would like to explain why. Let us together first of all think about the essence of science. In the beginning was man, bedded into an environment full of variety and mysteries - and in the beginning was curiosity, the questions how and why. Why does an apple fall to the ground? Why do living birds fly upwards, whereas dead birds fall to the ground? Why do we have day and night - summer and winter? What principles lie behind it all? The seeker then normally researched the phenomena which interested him with the methods at his disposal, and formulated the results thus obtained according to his own background and in his own language.

Already we see that man has made use of a number of prerequisites: method, background and language. Already he has been involved in a great scientific process - a process which does not appear to function independent of human beings. Let us accept the general rule: science is nothing other than occupying oneself with a certain area of knowledge (in research, teaching and application); and the most basic instinct, which motivates the scientist, is the hunger for more knowledge and understanding. In the following explanations I would like to limit myself to the sciences of chemistry and physics, simply because these are the areas I know best. Chemistry describes in general the properties of materials, of what they are composed, and how they change, whilst physics deals with states and changes in state. When a chemist approaches a problem, say, the question of analysing the properties of a new substance which he has prepared, he is generally probing into mother nature herself. That is to say, he conducts experiments. In doing so, he uses methods and experimental procedures which either he himself or others have already developed. This says nothing as to whether these methods and experiments are right, or whether they will finally give him an intelligible answer to his question. Methods and instruments generally tend to be only as clever as the man who developed them.

From a series of experiments, the researcher gains results, which he then tries to put into a meaningful context. In his interpretation, he tries to find elements which repeat themselves, which show similarities or patterns, or which follow certain laws, and he formulates his results accordingly. But even here, I would like to point out again, the individual background, the history of science and even contemporary trends play an important role. And, surprisingly, there is another factor: namely, the belief that there are laws in the first place behind the phenomena which are being studied.

W. Stegmuller expressed this in the following terms: You do not have to remove knowledge to make room for faith. Much more you have to have faith, in order to be able to talk about knowledge and science in the first place. We are dealing with apriori prerequisites (basic principles, axioms, premises), whose validity cannot be proved, but which are recognised by convention. To repeat: there is no such thing as unprejudiced, neutral, super-human science. We must be clear about this. Let me be more concrete. Probably all of us have asked ourselves at one time or another why stones, which we throw up into the air, fall back down to earth again instead of disappearing into space? And why don't the Australians fall off into space? From our perspective, they should be glued upside down to the surface of the earth!

In the 17th century, the Englishman Isaac Newton was already concerning himself with this problem. If I want to pull something towards myself, I need to exert force. So much was obvious. Think of tug-of-war: the side which exerts more force pulls the opposing side closer. Newton christened the force exerted on the falling apple gravitation. He discovered that gravitation is affected by the mass of both objects which are attracting each other. Where the mass is great, the attraction between the two objects is also great. Newton also discovered that gravitation is also affected by the distance between the two objects. If the distance is great, the attraction will be small, and the smaller the distance, the greater the attraction. Newton described his observations in the mathematical language of his day and constructed thus the theory of gravitation. This theory has repeatedly been tested and proved to be true. No experiment has ever disproved it, and thus Newton's theory of gravitation has become a law of nature.

But let us examine more closely the content of Newton's theory - particularly the areas where it neither can, nor intends to, offer answers. The phenomenon of gravitation is clearly described in Newton's law, but why masses should attract each other - the underlying reasons for the principle of gravitation - remains incomprehensible even today.

  1. The effect - the attraction - is observed.
  2. The cause is defined: mass.

The principle of cause and effect was complete. This is the case with many physical phenomena: one is content to pinpoint the links between cause and effect, and to describe this with the help of a theory (in the form of a mathematical formula.) Many scientists can then test this in different places and at any time.

Another scientific criteria comes to light: reproducibility. Measurements, observations and results must be comprehensible. Should a contradictory result emerge, even once, the theory is disproved and must be rewritten. You will accept that a theory must be easy to test and prove. Should the theory constantly withstand all tests, it becomes a law of nature. A simple example illustrates this well: the sentence 'All swans are white' is not proved true by my discovery of a white swan, but is disproved immediately should a black swan appear on the scene. And here I would like to add a personal remark: the theory must be reproducible and provable when all the prerequisites for the test are closely observed by the tester. Such reliable, verifiable, and never disproved results are then utilised in technology.

It is reassuring to know that the aeroplane I fly in will land safely, just as it has always done (providing it has been kept in working order, the tanks filled, and is flown correctly.) To take this a step further: at the turn of the century, physicists, their minds overflowing with the progress of knowledge and affected by materialism, were filled with pride. This trend is shown clearly in the following small anecdote. Whilst in grammar school, Max Planck told his physics teacher proudly that he also intended to study physics. This teacher tried to dissuade him by assuring him that the entire realm of physics would shortly be exhausted. "There will be nothing left for you to research, Planck. We've already discovered the theory of heat, and traced acoustics back to mechanics, and even the theory of electricity is largely attributable to the mechanics of electrons. We do still have a few problems understanding light, but by the time you've finished your studies, these problems are bound to have been solved." This was the schoolmaster's reply.

Yet things turned out very differently. Planck refused to be discouraged, and studied physics. And he was the very man who laid the experimental foundations which led to the capitulation of classical physics and even the principle of cause and effect. Planck discovered that light itself has both wave and particle properties, depending upon which experiment was carried out. To be more precise: he observed that in one experiment, light was better described as consisting of particles, whereas in a different experiment, it could be understood better as a wave. Einstein formulated this concept in mathematical terms, expressing it thus: that each particle is equivalent to a wave of certain energy, and that conversely each wave can be attributed to a particle of the same energy. These particles, or bundles of energy, were named quantum. This was a difficult concept for the accepted scheme of thought. It was no longer possible to work with the either/or principle, which had coloured classical physics, - in fact, this was proved wholly wrong. The either/or principle of traditional physics has been replaced in microcosm with the both/and principle. Not one after the other, like a manic-depressive, but both at exactly the same time. The hitherto valid and unbroken logic of classical physics, with its principles and laws, had reached its limits. In order to correctly describe the microcosm, the atoms, and, in addition to these, chemical bonding, a completely new logic, with new basic principles and axioms, was necessary. The results could often be expressed only through mathematical formulae. Their significance could barely be illustrated in any other way.

I would like to give one very impressive example of this. Scientists had long been aware of an experiment, concerning the transmission of light by hydrogen atoms. When a sample of hydrogen gas in a tube receives an electric high-energy spark, the hydrogen molecules absorb energy which causes the production of hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen atoms are excited; that is, they contain excess energy, which they release by emitting light of various wavelengths to produce what is called the emission spectrum of the hydrogen atom. If the light is passed through a prism it is scattered, producing only a few lines, each corresponding to a discrete wavelength, the so-called line-spectrum. We all know that a rainbow is produced when sunlight is dispersed by raindrops (which act as prisms). This rainbow contains all the wavelengths of visible light. In contrast to a line spectrum, this is called a continuous spectrum. In 1913, a Danish physicist named Nils Bohr was able to interpret the line-spectrum of the hydrogen atom for the first time, and he used the models of classical physics to do so. Without being able to prove his model, he proposed that the atomic structure is similar to a miniature solar system. Just as the planets circle the sun in their various orbits, so the negative particles, the electrons, move around the positively charged nucleus of the atom - like miniature satellites. With hydrogen atoms, there is a single electron, circling on the inner orbit around the nucleus of the atom. This is the most stable state, since opposite charges attract each other. If energy is absorbed by the atom - such as is the case when it is excited by a spark - the electron is forced into a more distant orbit, in a so-called excited state. In doing so, it absorbs energy. When it then falls back into its favoured and more stable ground state, in close vicinity to the nucleus, this exact amount of energy (needed to propel it to the more distant orbit) is released, and dispatched as a light quantum. Using this accepted model, Bohr was able to interpret the whole scope of lines of the hydrogen spectrum, and calculate the correct amount of energy involved.

However, Bohr's model was not a fact of nature, but a model created by human beings, and it contained serious errors. Bohr - who was an intelligent man - naturally recognised these errors. He was fully aware of the fact that a rotating electrical charge is equivalent to a current which causes the emission of electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation, however, is a form of energy which impoverishes the atom. Thus the electron's orbit ought to move closer and closer, and finally cave into the nucleus of the atom. And yet this does not happen! This caused Bohr to formulate further hypotheses to support his theory, which in turn were even harder to rationalise than his basic model of the atom as a pseudo-solar-system. Classical physics had openly failed to describe the hydrogen atom consistently and in its entirety, using the classical principles and logic, and the error was not due to mother nature, but lay rather in human thinking. The error lay in the comparison of electrons and planets, for which scientists can consistently predict the exact location and momentum, in other words, their energy and direction.

What do we learn from this? The scientist, in order to interpret his results, first of all creates a model, a concept, in other words, a premise, in which he places his confidence. Observations and results merge on the grounds of these concepts to produce a theory, which must then stand the test of an objective examination.. Should the theory be disproved - convincingly contradicted - it must shift for a new set of principles and a new theory. Should the theory stand up to all examination, it finally becomes a law of nature. Thus our reason summarises the visible world and the phenomena found in it. Our reason is searching for truth.

Thus we arrive at that little word or in the title of this essay: to the true and living God, who - often imperceptibly - influences our existence - and yet with whom we hardly know how to deal, and who throws up so many questions for us. Many people call upon reason and scientific enlightenment, which they claim make it impossible to believe in the God of the Bible. And there I must stop you and ask: dear friend, what scientific enlightenment are you referring to? The classic physics of last century, which brushed aside the claims of the Bible as being unthinkable and impossible, and incompatible with its own insights, and yet itself failed so miserably in understanding the physical truth of the microcosm?

Referring to this debacle, the scientist and philosopher Jordan used a double negative in 1952 when he said: "The new (physical) insights negate the old representation of nature, which in its own turn had, despite all philosophical pretexts, however discerning they might have been, denied God. In emphasising this double negative, we indicate the decisive factor in the case today, without admitting more than even an unprejudiced atheist would do, who knows and understands the condition of current science. His atheism, which in 1900 he could justify by pointing to the entire realm of science, is nowadays merely a personal belief."

And now I ought to slowly come to the core of the matter! This is my claim: God inhabits a world, a truth, which cannot be defined by reason, nor with the logic of cause and effect, and yet which is of immense importance for us, and which ultimately decides nothing less than our final destiny, whether we are saved or lost for eternity. That is what the Bible claims. How do I then discover what's what in this world, what has validity in God's eyes, and how I can and should act upon this? I am a scientist and so even in this realm, I advance in a systematic manner. I ask myself the question: how can I find out what my position before God is, and how can I make contact with him? How can I experience his parental love for me - and everyone who has a child will know what it means to be a mother or father: it means that your heart burns with love for your children, that you love them more than anything else in the world. And the same methods come in to play. I need basic assumptions and principles, in which I place my confidence, before I conduct my first - note this well - my first experiment. The basic assumption, in which I, as a scientist, place my faith, and which I cannot (initially) prove, is this: the living God has revealed himself through his word, the Bible, and this book contains the truth - even though many will doubt this assumption right from the start. Basic principles can be disclaimed only when they are disproved, and not when they are uncomfortable.

Alright, if we accept this, we can begin performing the experiment. One more word in advance: who decides which fuel is best for your car? You - wanting to save money, and would preferably fill up with the cheapest option - water - or an ambitious economist, who says, "Try ether or alcohol. That's cheaper. Or rather, try benzene. The content of carbon is higher, so more energy is produced in the combustion process!" And yet we all know that such a question is ridiculous. A car cannot drive on water. At best it will merely go to rust. The engine would explode with ether, and benzene would char the plugs and vents, etc. An experienced driver would quite rightly throw the following reply at me. "The type of fuel needed is determined by the manufacturer of the engine, and you would be crazy to vary it. You can't go buying a new car every day!"

What more can I say? That's a pretty intelligent answer, because it shows that the man has grasped something very basic: namely that the manufacturer is the one who determines the optimal fuel for each unique life. The Bible gives him a name - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, the father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And if this is so, and here I must be adamant, then he has also given us both the method and the logic by which every man can, unarguably and convincingly, experience this. To this end he has given us directions for our experiment - as would every serious scientist who knows that his evidence can withstand all investigation, and invites everyone, who is seriously searching for the truth, to put him to the test.

Or how about another illustration to illuminate the matter. If you want to remove a screw from the wall, you are hardly likely to use a hammer, but rather a screwdriver. And conversely, if you want to put a nail into the wall, you will hopefully reach for the hammer. It is, as we see, a matter of using the appropriate tool, the appropriate method, the appropriate directions for the experiment. And if I want to grasp the truth about God, then the Bible will direct me to the appropriate tools. It says "We must, in faith, be open to God's commands and promises, in order to experience His presence in our lives." If you want to know whether you can get along with another person on a daily basis, you will never find out by merely theorising about the matter. Nor will you find out by using a stopwatch or a tape-measure. There is only one proven method: you have to take time to be open with that person, to enter into their way of life, expose your own self to the other person - this procedure is admittedly both exciting and risky at the same time, and yet there is no other way! And I know that this is the only way to find out whether the Bible really is God's word to me, whether the promises hold, whether the comfort of the cross really comforts, and whether the resurrected Christ really is capable of healing broken lives, whether he really can offer me purpose and stability.

Let me illustrate this with an example. It is a sunny morning, and we are standing on the shore of the lake of Galilee. Jesus has just, from out of a boat, preached a forceful sermon to the large crowds, and now he turns to meet Simon's need. Simon has been fishing all night without catching anything, and his family will have to go hungry. He is tired and frustrated - at the end of his tether - a feeling we have all experienced, I am sure. Jesus turns to Simon and says, "Sail out a little, and throw your net out, so that you can make a good catch." Simon Peter flares up, as he is in the habit of doing. On the tip of his tongue are the words: "Master, I'm the professional here. How can you - a travelling preacher and a carpenter - tell me how to fish!" But suddenly his protestations and arguments cease. The only sentence he manages to say is, "Since you say so, I'll have a go!" Then Simon Peter makes the greatest discovery of his life. In the light of his Lord, he becomes aware of his own, sinful heart, and has to recognise that it is incompatible with the living God. He can only stammer, "Leave me Lord - for I am a sinful man. Go away, I can't take your holy presence!"

And now comes the incomprehensible, really wonderful part, for Jesus accepts precisely those people who are crushed beneath the weight of their own broken lives, and who long for God. These people are attracted to him with great force, because it was for them that he left his glorious throne in heaven, and came to the deepest misery of the world below - to seek and to save that which was lost. Would Simon Peter ever have had this recognition if he had argued with Jesus, instead of saying to him, "Since you say so?", as the historical-critical text-analysis of modern theologians would have done? It would certainly have been a most interesting argument with many scientifically valuable thoughts. Whole libraries might have been filled with theses and clever books about such a discourse. And yet one thing is sure, dear friend: Simon Peter would never have got closer to knowing Jesus personally. Let me say it once more, clearly and without misunderstanding: it is well worth while taking hold of God's promises and getting to grips with the living God. You will experience wonders!

Copyright © 1997 Lothar Weber. Used by permission.

Professor Lothar Weber: lothar.weber@HRZ.Uni-Bielefeld.de