I’d Like to Believe, But…What about Science? A Sermon on Psalm 8 by Rev. David Clark
A few months ago, someone asked me, “How can you be part of the church, when you know…science.” She was playing devil’s advocate, but the presumption was that faith and science inherently conflict. Some choose up sides who believe those on the other side are misguided fools. You see how well that is working in politics. I’m team religion. You’re team science. Let’s hate each other and talk past each other. There’s got to be a better way.
I got to thinking about the science question and lots of other hard questions that keep people from feeling like there is any room in the faith for them. I’d like to believe, but there are so many Bible versions how can you trust any of it? I’d like to believe, but what about all the horrible things Christians have done? I’d like to believe but how can a good God allow so much suffering? What about other religions? These are the kinds of subjects I thought it would be good to address head-on. At some point, we have to find some answer for ourselves about this stuff.
We could spend weeks and weeks on any of these topics, so this is a survey series to get you thinking about your own faith and also hopefully help you provide some helpful explanations to people who ask you, “How can you believe when, you know…”
An important aspect of this series is to realize that we are a big tent church. Lots of people have lots of different beliefs. We aren’t one of those churches that say, “Here is how you have to believe to be a real Christian.” That approach cuts across our church’s DNA. The idea is to show you that there is a range in what people of faith believe. You may have thought of yourself as believing things that are outside of the tent when in fact you are probably right in the mainstream and there is room for you.
It’s important to talk about this stuff because 1,000 young adults leave not just the church but the Christian faith every day and surveys say that the number one reason isn’t that it’s boring, but that it conflicts with a scientific world-view. There is sort of a weird pipeline going on. All these megachurches are great at drawing young people in with their praise music and small group ministries. But they also insist on a very literal reading of scripture and interpret it as being against science. So those young people leave and believe that all Christians have to offer.
Why do so many people believe science and faith are at war with each other? Is it true? The main theme of what I want to say today is that there is only a conflict if science and religion are talking about the exact same thing. They’re not. Science is concerned with the physical–what can be detected and measured. Faith is concerned with the big questions of our relation to the unseen, how to live life, how can we treat each other better, what gives life meaning, how should we treat each other. Science is concerned with the measurable. The subject of faith deals with things that are not measurable—hope, beauty, encouragement, joy, steadfastness, standing up for others, finding inner peace.
As Rev. Walt Marcum says in an 8 part sermon series on Science and Christianity, Science http://www.hpumc.org/sermon/creation-cosmology-and-evolution/#video
and faith are two windows to interpret our reality. We need both—the physical questions and the more philosophical ones that science cannot answer.
There are three big sticking points for people in trying to fit both views together. The Big Bang, Evolution and miracles. We only have time for one of those today, but I’m going to do two and leave miracles for next week when we talk about the Bible.
The Big Bang. There are voices that say one must interpret everything about the Bible very literally, including the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Maybe you are amongst that camp and that works for you. You are okay saying it happened in six days that are just like our days, things happened in the order it says, etc. The world is much younger than scientists say. There is a museum dedicated to the idea that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. Okay. Cool. But for many people that just doesn’t compute. Can you believe in the big bang and God?
Interesting factoid. Georges Lemaître is the astronomer and physicist who first theorized about an expanding universe. He was also a Belgian priest. When he first told Einstein about it, Einstein blew him off but Edwin Hubble found evidence confirming it and years later Einstein came back to Lemaitre and admitted his mistake.
Biblical scholars point out that the creation stories are not written as science textbooks. That would be anachronistic. Modern cosmological science came about when? And the Bible stories found their form in the 6th century BCE. The purpose was not to provide a literal step by step scientific account but to make a number of faith claims including that behind what we see in nature is an originator who is the source of our being.
The form was poetic. A responsive song for worship. In Genesis 1, you hear the refrains. God said let there be, there was, and God saw that it was good. These lines keep repeating and echoing. It’s problematic to take poetic statements and make them literal. Write a love poem and then have someone read it literally. Your lips are rubies? Rubbish! Rubies are minerals formed under certain pressures in the earth’s crust and they do not grow on faces. I reject your poem.
Genesis 1 is a poetic love song of a community of faith expressing love of the word, each other and the power that brought it all together. It’s absurd to try to apply modern scientific tests to bear on a poem about trust in something beyond our physical senses.
The final form of Genesis 1 was a song of praise to God that has a deep message to the community of faith that isn’t about how the world got put together. It got fashioned around the time the Jews were exiled in Babylon. Scholars say it looks like what they did was reinterpret the cosmology that many cultures had already assumed represented how the world and heavens were structured—with water beneath the earth and in a firmament dome above the earth. But the Jewish writers put their own spin on it. The Babylonians and other Middle Eastern cultures had their own creation myths that have striking similarities to the Genesis story.
But Genesis 1 comes along and says the sun and the moon are created by Yahweh. In the Babylonian religion, the sun and moon were gods. Genesis is saying, our God created their gods.
In other religions, humans are created with the sole purpose to be pawns—fighting tools in wars between the gods. But in Genesis 1, humans are created out of love and valued for their own sake, not merely instruments to be used in a war against other gods. In this picture, there is only one God who is loving and creative not a god at war against the others. It’s a whole different way of seeing the nature of humanity from anything else at the time.
In other religions, only the king is made in the image of the gods and that gave the right for kings to make everyone else bow in subservience to the king’s will. But in Genesis—everyone—man and woman! is created in the image of God and has their own irreducible inherent worth. Genesis 1 has an agenda—but it is not what we would recognize as textbook science.
The idea was to distinguish the Jewish culture from the surrounding stuff everyone was hearing. Genesis says, here is our culture’s experience of the divine–not to be ruled by a person, but to see we are created by forces of love for our own benefit. Science and faith are only in conflict if they are talking about the same thing. And here they clearly are not.
If you were to say to the authors of Genesis 1, “I believe in an expanding universe, so I reject your account.” They would look at you like kittens were crawling out of your ears. They might say, so you think the Babylonians are right that we should worship the sun and moon? Or that human beings are part of a war. Or that the rulers of the world are simply better than everyone else and have the right to do as they pleas to others? Besides didn’t you hear that bit about things happening in stages. First, there is stuff in the cosmos, then plants and then creatures then humans late on the scene. It’s not that far from how you picture the world and we came up with it only using the tools of our observation.”
But right after you get through the creation of humans in Genesis 1, things start getting created again in a different order. There were two creation poems whose details about the mechanics of how things were created and in what order contradict each other, but that wasn’t the point.
In Genesis 2, you have this wonderful image of Adam being fashioned out of the earth. Most creation myths have humans birthed by the gods or vomited out, stuff like that. But here you have the insight that we are intricately of the earth, of its substance, connected comprised of the same elements. There is no conflict with evolution to say somehow, we came out of the same stuff as the rest of the planet. Amazing. The translation of Adam from Hebrew into English is tricky but basically, it means man of soil, not so much a first name of a single individual but an expression of our connection to creation–to earth. Something we’d do well to pay attention to before we ruin it. Something we say in our liturgy when someone dies. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We entrust those we love to the creator’s care and trust they are cared for by their creator even in death.
Genesis 2 is concerned with questions of explaining their world. Why don’t snakes have legs? Why is there pain in childbirth? Why doesn’t the world go smoothly as God would have it? Because we use our free will to go against nature. We refuse to live within limits. Their questions weren’t about evolution, but about why things get screwed up.
Most mainline Christians including the UCC have statements that say there is no conflict with the big bang or evolution. Physics and evolution are the mechanisms or processes by which God creates.
The question of if the universe just happened as a matter of chance and developed in just this way or if there is a purpose and design to it is a matter of faith. It cannot be proven or disproven by science. The National Academy of Science says there is no inherent conflict between science and the Christian faith. In a 2009 survey of scientists by the academy, nearly half of our scientists believe in a higher power or God.
Many scientists have come to faith by seeing just how amazing and beautiful the universe is. That there is such elegance in mathematical forms, fractals, the improbability of how it all unfolded to include us. Like the writer of Psalm 8. We look out and are amazed. If the force of gravity were just a fraction of a degree stronger or weaker the universe wouldn’t have come together as it has.
In trillionths of a second after the big bang, there was slightly more matter than antimatter and that is why anything exists. There was more positive than negative. Maybe that energy is God. The first most basic thing about the universe is there was more positive charge than negative that brought energy together and made E=MC2 possible.
There is just so much we don’t know. I love when they talk about the uncertainty principle in Quantum physics or in astrophysics how most of the matter in the universe is dark matter, they know it must be there, but they don’t know how to detect it or figure out what it is. Faith and science both teach us a degree of humility. I love to watch scientists joy when they say, “We thought Pluto was going to be a rocky lifeless uninteresting lump, but when we got there, we found out we were all wrong.” They love it. New stuff to explore. New questions to ask.
Michael Dowd a scientist/theologian says reality is God. Evidence is scripture.
Others affirm God is in all, through all. What there is–is God. But we personify God, who is spirit and all in all because we need something to relate with. Sort of like how my 5-year-old grandson relates to Alexa in our house. Doesn’t quite get what the Internet is, but can say, “Hey Alexa. What’s the biggest object in the universe and she will say an gas cloud that stretches more than 200 million light-years across.”
Our faith says Jesus is the personification of what it is to live a godly life. We look to the way he lived to see how we can get better, how we can live authentically. To stand up for others, to sacrifice, to love, to help and live with integrity.
Jesus says God is love. You don’t believe in God? Don’t believe in love?
Some have gone a bit too far on both sides. Richard Dawkins and the new atheists making wild claims that they have disproven God. They can do no such thing. It’s a philosophical belief they have that there is nothing beyond the measurable, physical. They haven’t proven there isn’t, one can’t do that scientifically.
Similarly, on the religion side, some have gone too far with Intelligent Design. They are basically trying to discount evolution as a theory as a means by which God created biological life and saying that an intelligent design behind it all is a scientifically sound theory. Most scientists reject what they are doing because it isn’t really science they are making faith claims disguised as authentic science.
We need a faith perspective to ask a set of questions science cannot answer. A faith perspective about who we are how we can relate to the things of the world we cannot see. If we just went with science without a moral framework horrible thing happen. Natural selection? How about a master race? Do what is best for the most people? What if it violates minorities? Faith develops a guide based on things that aren’t necessarily measurable—hope, joy, dignity, opportunity, contemplation compassion, generosity, fairness that point the way to a good life, a meaningful life.
We need both perspectives of science and religion to answer the different kinds of questions we have. So go find a young person and get them back in the fold. Maybe it’s the younger version of you who wrote all this off a long time ago. Welcome back. Amen.