“Why Believe in God When There is Science?”
In mid-August, Newsweek magazine ran an article about Presidential candidates and science. Turns out Charles Darwin’s great great grandson, Matthew Chapman, is on a crusade to get the presidential candidates to agree to be part of a debate on science. Some of the hot button issues of our day, “from Iran’s nukes to global warming, Internet security and reproductive politics,” involve a number of scientific questions.
When Charles Darwin set sail from Plymouth, England in 1831, and arrived in the Galapagos Islands he saw the great diversity of the species there. The journey led to the theory of evolution, but it wasn’t until proponents of evolution went through major battles with Christians, including Presbyterians, such as GA moderator candidate William Jennings Bryan, that evolution was broadly accepted. However, in developing his idea Darwin did not attack religion. After all, he is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Evolution is just one of many examples where science has had conflicts with religion. The church imprisoned Galileo for heresy for his scientific ideas. For modern post enlightenment humans, we too often view science as providing more answers relevant to our lives and faith in conflict. Mary Eddy’s Christian Scientism was panned as inherently anti-science. If you have seen the movie The Martian you know Matt Damon’s character “sciences” the heck out of things rather than relying on his faith. And sometimes Christians’ misuse of science gives religion a bad name. Like the curriculum decisions of Christians on too many school boards or the Christian groups in Pennsylvania which read the September lunar eclipse to mean the world would end this past Wednesday.
Yet religion and science do not have to contradict. For they have different purposes. Studying science and religion can lead one to more deeply appreciate the other. Indeed, science and faith complement each other in important ways. Just as they were intended to. Let us pray. Loving God, you have given us minds to think and hearts to feel. Help us to use both together to better understand and grow closer to you. Amen.
There is an old story, and oldie but a goody, about two men on a camping trip. One was a simple but practical man and the other a true intellectual, with multiple degrees and academic credits to his name. In the middle of the night the simple man woke up and gave the intellectual a nudge and said, “Look up in the sky and tell me what you see.” “I see millions of stars,” says the intellectual “And what do you think about from that?” Asked the simple man.
The intellectual said, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies, meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow and theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and we are small. What does it tell you?” The simple man responded, “It tells me someone has stolen our tent!”
At the root of our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is this idea that the natural world and religion not be in conflict.
Paul wrote to combat the spread of Gnosticism, a belief system in the decades shortly after Christ’s life. Meaning the “intellectual ones,” Gnostics were “too cool for school.” It was a Greek philosophy which held that the matter of the world was corrupt. They believed in God, but believed God did not directly create the natural world; that it came from another emanations. They did not believe that nature or Jesus reflected God. They looked down upon Christians as simplistic and backwards.
Gnostics held that one’s faith should help them transcend this corrupt natural world and that there was special knowledge of the world which only they had and that intellectual knowledge alone would save them.
Today there are some who reject religion as simplistic or argue they are in conflict.
Paul rejected this false choice. He wrote that the laws of nature reflect God’s nature and that all things were created and redeemed through Christ. Ta panta in Greek, all things, every creature. All are precious to God. Paul believed that to praise God meant to honor creation and to be in awe of nature means to see the hand of God.
Theologian Donald McKim writes that there are two revelations of God. General revelation of God in nature. Specific revelation of God in Christ. Science explains one. Scripture the other.
John Calvin described nature as a mirror in which to behold God. That God invites us to behold Godself through seeing the created world. Yet Calvin believed our human eyes are not sufficiently clear-sighted to discern what nature represents of God on our own. Instead, we need faith and scripture to help us understand. Calvin believed faith assists us in seeing and understanding the natural world as glasses would. Far from being in conflict, nature, and religion complement each other.
The Bible does not tell us how God made the world. Genesis and John include a general order of creation which I believe is consistent with a big bang 14 billion years ago and with evolution. Yet the Bible is not a science book, but the Bible does tell us why certain things happen. That God makes all through him and all things come together in Christ. Is anyone in charge out there? Does life have meaning? Is there a future for us and our world? Religion answers questions science cannot.
Paul and Calvin agree that what science and nature tell us is necessary for living in the world, but not sufficient for salvation. For the good life, the abundant life, the truly joyful life, comes in the choices we make and from the values of faith. For example, nature tell us the most basic instinct of humans animals is self-preservation. Christianity teaches that those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will gain it. Something sacred can be found in sacrifice. Grace is found in giving.
The values of Christ can help redeem creation to return it to the joy filled living that occurred before the fall when God made creation and declared that it was good.
Theologian Karl Rahner said there were two kinds of church members – summer and winter Christians. Rahner wrote that summer Christians search for a God’s glory, while winter ones search for the mercy of God. Summer ones believe in miracles, while the winter focus on injustice. Summer Christians like upbeat hymns, and the wintery like minor keys. Summer folks relate best to the resurrection, but the wintery relate best to the cross.
If we read further in the book of Genesis as Pat introduced the creation story, we get to the fall of humanity. In a way we are all Fall Christians. Left to our own devices, humans to often do not do right by our natural world or each other.
I tend to view Bradley Hills as somewhere in between summer and winter, new kind of Fall Christian. We care about the presence of God, but also about the needs of the world. We celebrate the creator and walk with each other in dark values. We are a joyful community of friends, but we ask hard questions about the needs of the world. We might be a new kind of fall Christians.
We need fall Christians to see the value in them both winter and summer and to bring them together. Much like the work of Christ in Paul’s letter is reconciliation of the world and God in Christ. Fall Christians may be able to find connections between things which seem to contradict like science and faith.
During this season we have been talking about understanding God better, I have come to believe that science and religion go together because they both ask important questions.
I have found that too many of us fear that if we are too scientific in our inquiry we will be guilty of something, like doubting God. But when we ask hard questions about the universe we do not show a lack of faith in God. Asking hard questions shows a desire to grow. God is the author as well as the answer to our hardest questions about life and the universe. If we dare to ask deep, bold questions about the universe, eventually those questions will lead us to God.
We might get nervous that our study of science might lead us to doubt and doubt might undermine our relationship with God. Doubts don’t worry God. As with fall coming between summer and winter, doubts help link deep problems and faith. Doubt contains both faith and challenge, wrapped within an appreciation of mystery.
Let your faith and the understanding of God revealed in Christ and scripture help guide your reflection on God’s revelation in nature. Seeing what nature and scripture teach about each other leads us to see God in sunsets and the spirit in mountain hikes. Let your understanding of science impact your faith. For we understand from them together that God is in charge. That life has meaning. That redemption is coming. That we are responsible to God for caring for the earth and creation.
When we doubt, we should include God in our questions. Tell God about them. Pray about the questions. See God as behind the rhythms of nature, and nature’s amazing beauty will lead you to God.
Religion has more certainty about the sovereignty and presence of God than we might realize. In fact more and more scientists are confessing that their study of the universe leads them to faith.
There is more mystery in science than meets the eye. Science can change. In pre Copernican astronomy humans were quite comfortable with the idea that the earth was the center of the universe. Calvin and Luther condemned the idea that the sun was the center of the galaxy. Talk with any physicist and they will tell you the more we discover about the universe the more we realize we don’t know. Talk with any chemist and they will tell you biochemistry is just scratching the surface of its potential. Talk with any doctor and they will tell you that Mother Nature has more to do with the cycles of illness and wellness than the medical arts.
I have spent much of the past several nights sleeping on a pulled out chair in the pediatric unit at Suburban hospital. At Suburban I was a long time listener, first time caller so to speak. I visit folks there frequently, but when one of our four year olds came down with double pneumonia this week I became a concerned parent.
As I lay on the chair next to Ellie’s bed, frequency awakened by her coughs, machine beeps or medical personnel visits, I stared up at the ceiling. I thought about the thin line between science and faith in such moments. When you are staring at a hospital ceiling at midnight you are forced to take a leap of faith. You are putting your trust in medicine, and expertise that is beyond the understanding of most of us. Even more so, if you understand the science you are placing your trust in the predictability of the creation. That the medicine will work for this next person the same as it did for the last. Eventually you have to put your trust in the spirit. My daughter has a serious respiratory infection. The word pneuno in pneumonia means breath or spirit. That is what is lacking when the lungs are filled with bacteria.
What was not lacking in the fight of this four year old was spirit.
As I lay there I thought of the last time I slept right next to Ellie. Last August I bought an REI base 6 tent and one night the week after Vacation Bible School we all went camping in the backyard. It was a clear night but a hot one so we removed the tent cover, opened the vents and looked up at the open sky. As we looked up my children, who had learned a lot of songs here the week before, began to sing Spirit of the Living God. “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God. Fall afresh on me.” You know you are seeing God around you when you are learning about the Almighty from your children.
The kids were particularly interested in teaching me the hand motions from camp, which was difficult as it was dark. But with the tent open we had enough light from the stars in the heavens above to illuminate their hands. And by star light, Ellie and the others taught me the hand signs for spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
The science which gives us understanding of the stars and nature, and the spirit which helps us understand faith, need not be in competition. Neither science nor religion explains everything. Both have some certainty and some mystery. The secret is that science and religion are two sides of the same coin. They complement each other. They can illuminate our understanding of life. They can help the spirit fall afresh on us. Together they can lead us closer to God. Of that I have no doubt. May it be so. Amen.