Holy Mess (2): Science & Faith

. 10 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
to Worship, Psalm 8
Genesis 11.1-9
Matthew 2.1-12
week, as we laid the groundwork for this series of messages, we acknowledged
the great conundrum that – even though we know we are wrong about a few things
in life – we believe each of our opinions, individually, to be correct. And we
went on to learn from John Wesley and the great odd couple of the Old Testament
that it is possible for us to be united in heart, even when we are not of one
mind. Today, we’ll be exploring some questions around the intersection of
science and faith. In the coming weeks, we’ll address human life, human
sexuality, church and state, and judgment. You will disagree with me, at least
once, over this series of messages. I don’t have the “final answer” to end all
discussion. In the church, we offer Jesus, not answers, not miracles. It is my
hope that we move through these controversies and grow in love with Jesus and
one another, despite all our differences.
are a number of intersecting points for science and faith, among them:
  • The
    future of what it means to be human, particularly as we continue to learn how
    to “improve” ourselves cybernetically. Philosophers are already giving courses
    in “the post-human”. And particularly as we continue to discover the
    implications of the human genome, and the impact that has on the biblical
    phrase “the image of God”.
  • Appropriate
    limitations to human action on scientific knowledge. Should we inject growth
    hormone into livestock or genetically engineer food crops to be immune to
    herbicides? Should we do research on embryonic stem cells, or only adult stem
    cells? Should we develop artificial intelligence that could take over the world
    and enslave or destroy the human race? (It does make for great movies!)
  • The
    question of origins. Creation? Intelligent Design? Evolution?

these three areas, we will take a little time to focus directly on the last
matter, on origins.

however, let’s introduce the Scripture passages and consider them through the
lens of science and faith. The first story comes from the book of Genesis and
is a traditional story that answers the question: “Why do we speak different languages?” It is an important
passage for understanding a theology of the city, but only when paired with
biblical visions of the city of God. And, it is the first grand technological
project of the human race. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower
with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we
shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gn 11.4). As a
project, it has two fatal flaws. First, its express purpose is in disobedience
to God’s creation mandate to human beings to “fill the earth” and care for it.
They do not want to fill the earth. They have no interest in discovery and
exploration. They want to stay in one place. The second problem with this
technology project is that it is all about pride: “Let us make a name for
ourselves.” It was pride, after all, that led to the very first disobedience,
the serpent selling the lie that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gn 3.5). Just because we can
build a tower to heaven does not mean we should. Just because we can eat the
fruit and know good and evil does not mean we should. (I know more than enough
about evil, personally!) Just because we can engineer a better human, clone,
use growth hormones does not mean that we should. The Babel story warns us
against the combination of human pride with technology and science. A little
humility is called for.
      The second story, of the wise men from the
East, is a story of scientists seeking Jesus. To our ears, as we read this
story, it sounds a bit more like some exotic astrologers, the kind of folks
that show up as the quirky, sometimes comedic characters in movies and stories.
Think Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost,
or Professor Trelawny in the Harry Potter stories. When we don’t take them
seriously, we miss out on the fact that they were at the leading edge of
astronomy in their time, brilliant men who devoted their lives to science. And
in their devotion to science, they met Jesus. We also forget that for a long
time, astronomy and astrology were not as separate as they are today. Johannes
Kepler, the great astronomer who pioneered the three laws of planetary motion,
also wrote horoscopes – and supported his family by doing so.
is an unfortunate fact that, far too often in history, the church has declared
war on science. There is, of course, irresponsible science (like Babel). For
that matter, there is plenty of irresponsible religion (like the Crusades, the
Inquisition, and human slavery). Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and
Johannes Kepler upended the conventional scientific conclusion that the moon,
sun, planets, and stars all orbited the earth as the center of the universe.
They proposed, instead, that the earth orbited the sun. It was a monumental breakthrough,
one more example of what Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project,
calls the “self-correcting” work of science (58). But the church, which exerted
significant power in Europe, refused to embrace this change. The church had concluded
that the vision of an earth-centered universe was exactly what the Scripture
described. After all, the Bible speaks of “the rising of the sun”, which seems
to put the earth at the center. The fact that this is patently a figure of
speech meant nothing at the time, and these great scientists were branded as
heretics, taking their lives into their hands and putting their families at
risk. Kepler’s work and fame may have contributed to his mother being tried as
a witch. She was released without conviction but died a year later.
      Alister McGrath, who began his career in
molecular biophysics and now writes and teaches theology, who began his faith
journey as an atheist and is now an Anglican priest, who embraces evolutionary
theory and the biblical creation accounts, quotes St. Augustine, who pastored
and wrote in the dying days of the Roman Empire. Augustine, in writing on
Genesis, had some remarkable wisdom to share about science and faith.
matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy
Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without
prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in
headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in
the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it. (Also
cited by Collins, 83)
years after Augustine, when Copernican theory was being argued, the church had
forgotten his wisdom. Neither our faith nor the Scriptures are violated by this
scientific breakthrough. But if we set up an either-or, we are in danger of
falling. And, even worse, we set up a false and unnecessary barrier to faith.
false barrier to faith is, personally, my greatest concern with and grief over how
the church has dealt with the creation-evolution debate. Too many people who
are outside the faith have concluded that it is not possible to follow Jesus
and subscribe to the theory of evolution and that evolution disproves the
Bible. The major reason they make that conclusion is that too many of us in the
church have shared those same assumptions. Yes, evolutionary theory can support
an entirely materialistic and atheistic worldview. And Christian faith is
certainly in opposition to such a view of the world. However, evolutionary theory
– just like the Copernican revolution before it – does not necessarily require
someone to deny faith. Why should we tell scientists like Kepler and Charles
Darwin, both of whom at one point were headed toward the priesthood, that they
cannot be faithful disciples of Jesus and faithful scientists at the same time?
30 years ago, I was in my freshman year at Bible College. The science course
was focused on creation science as a better explanation for origins than
evolution. We spent time on some of the observed gaps in evolutionary theory –
missing links in the fossil record, macro- versus micro-evolution, and all that
evolution cannot explain about the development of the first life forms – the
jump from solitary amino acids to single cell life forms is still a mystery. We
looked at the improbability of spontaneous life and the improbability of a
universe like ours randomly developing. We talked about the idea that God
created human beings not as infants but as adults. They looked thirty years
old, but weren’t a day over a day. So, couldn’t God make the earth with an
apparent age? And, wouldn’t a universal flood have a similar geological impact
as the Ice Age? At that time in my life, it all made sense.
      But we never heard the wisdom of Augustine.
Simply pointing out the gaps in evolutionary theory does not hold up over time.
We keep finding new missing links in the fossil record and the controversy over
macro-evolution has disappeared with the results of genomic research. I only
expect more and more of the gaps to be filled in over the years to come.
doesn’t evolutionary theory conflict directly with the biblical account? That
depends, to a great degree, on how we read it the Bible. Augustine suggests
that Scripture, particularly Genesis, contains passages that “can be
interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith.” Jesus is
the one who teaches that. In the context of one debate, Jesus responded to a question
by asking, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10.26).
      Part of how you read a text is by paying
attention to what kind of text it is – a love letter, a poem, a news report, a
word problem for math class. What kind of text is the creation account in
Genesis 1? It is, in my opinion, not a science text. Therefore, I do not need
to read it like a science text.
      It tells us that God is our Creator and
that we are made “in God’s image” – that we have something essential in common with
each other and in common with God! It tells us that the pinnacle of hard work
is not success but rest – “on the seventh day God rested” – and that the
beginning of every day is with rest – “there was evening and there was morning,
the first day”. It tells us that there is both darkness and light. It tells us
that all God has made is GOOD – that our bodies are good! No, I do not believe
that it is a science text. But, yes, it is most certainly TRUE.
      You may find yourself disagreeing with me,
you may object to reading Genesis in this fashion. We are still brothers and
sisters, we can still be of one heart. My hope is that we do not reject today’s
“wise men from the East”, that we do not erect barriers to keep them from
finding Jesus through science. Alister McGrath began as an atheist and now
teaches theology as an Anglican priest, making almost the reverse journey with
which Charles Darwin struggled. (Darwin made statements that described himself,
alternatively, as an agnostic and as a believer in God, if not in Christian
faith (Collins, 99), but he lacked in his era models for embracing both
evolutionary theory and Christian faith.) Francis Collins, director of the
Human Genome Project, began as an atheist, is now a committed follower of
Jesus, and speaks of evolution as “settled science” along with gravity and
relativity. Please feel free to disagree with them and others like them. And
please do not prevent anyone from finding Jesus.
Collins tells his personal story and reflects on evolutionary science and faith
in the wonderful book The Language of
God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
In the book, he also quotes
from other scientists as they address or approach questions of faith from the
starting point of evolutionary theory. To my knowledge, and unlike McGrath and
Collins, none of these three claim to follow Jesus. But they all directly
address questions of faith from their perspective as evolutionary scientists:
Hawking, whose personal story is now being told in the movie Theory of Everything, and who speaks of
himself as an atheist, nevertheless writes in his book A Brief History of Time:
would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just
this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us
(cited in Collins, 75).
Darwin, in his conclusion of The Origin
of Species,
is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been
originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that,
whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being evolved (cited by Collins, 98-99).
and agnostic Robert Jastrow comments, in God
and the Astronomers,
about the “limits of science” to get to the initial
moments of the Big Bang (Collins, 66).
this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain
on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the
power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains
of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over
the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting
there for centuries (cited in Collins, 66).

today’s scientists reject the pride of Babel and follow the star, or the Big
Bang, or quantum mechanics, or human evolution, and find Jesus. For that
matter, may today’s disciples of Jesus, may I, reject pride and devote
ourselves to the humble worship of our Lord. “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is
your name in all the earth” (Ps 8.1).
On your note sheet, I have a few
assignments for you to consider:
for us as we have these conversations, to honor our differences and to stay
focused on being united in the love of God. Pray that your heart will be open to
discern a brother or sister in those with whom you disagree.
you are interested in more of Francis Collins’ personal story, read his book The Language of God.
the Genesis creation stories (Genesis 1.1 – 2.3 and Genesis 2.3-25 and listen
for what they teach us about being human.
a friend!
S. Collins. 2006. The Language of God: A
Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
New York: Free Press.
McGrath. 2009 May 8. “Augustine’s Origin of Species: How the great theologian
might weigh in on the Darwin debate.” Christianity
Electronic version. A selection from the book A Fine Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.
J. Sulloway. 2005 December. “The Evolution of Charles Darwin.” Smithsonian. Electronic version obtained
December 2005.