THE PARTNERSHIP OF FAITH AND SCIENCE IN THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH
An essay based on the sermon series, “A Faith of Heart and Mind,” preached by Pastor Richard Jorgensen, United Redeemer Lutheran Church, Zumbrota, Minnesota
Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Genesis 2: 4b-3:24
John 1:1-4, 14
The Bible writers are greatly interested in creation, but their interest is a matter of wonder, awe, and the worship of the God who is both beyond creation and the Lord of creation, and not so much in a “how-to manual” of the nuts and bolts (or atoms and molecules) of the making. The writer of Psalm 8 expresses this awe and worship when he says,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of us?
We limit the depth and the scope and the beauty and the truth of the Bible’s witness to the God of creation when we try to make the Bible into a science textbook.
And we do our children a deep disservice if we give them the idea that they must choose between the Bible’s story of creation or science’s explanation. They are not enemies. Faith and science are partners in the search for truth.
There are two accounts of creation in Genesis, written by different authors, with different names for God, and different literary styles; there is one in the book of Job, and one in Hebrews. In the first creation story in Genesis, the creative method used by God is simply the word: “Let there be….”
In the second Genesis account the creative act is not accomplished by a word, but by a very hands-on process, God forms a man out of dust, God plants a garden.
And in the book of Job we have an account, narrated by God himself, in which the means of creation are described in terms of carpentry and engineering. A measuring line (or chalk line) is used, a cornerstone is set, and the sea is held back by gates and bolts. When we continue reading in Job, we learn that God pours rain out of giant waterskins and keeps snow ready in great storehouses.
Now we might ask, which of these three should be taught in our science classes: The one where God creates with a word? The one where God creates with his hands? Or the one in which carpentry and waterskins are used? The answer, of course, is none of them. Genesis and Job are not science books. (I happen to believe that these creation stories should be taught in our public schools: in humanities classes or English classes – along with other great cultural stories – but not in science class.) They were written centuries before the scientific method was developed. They are deeply concerned with the truth – a truth that is not anti-science, but is deeper than science. The language of Genesis and Job, to borrow a phrase from Jesus in John’s gospel, is the language of “spirit and truth.”
The scriptures have no interest in presenting what we have only recently come to understand as “scientific fact,” but rather the spiritual truth of faith, which is a different (and deeper) sort of truth. Perhaps it is expressed most simply and concisely by the writer of Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” This is a spiritual statement of faith, affirming “that” the worlds were prepared by the word of God. Not “how.”
The Big Question
And of course we don’t know the “how” of it. As creatures of the created universe, when we seek to understand what there was before creation we stand looking into what the Apostle Paul calls a “cloudy glass”—and so do our friends in the world of science (or the scientist in each of us). The brilliant physicist Lawrence Krauss, in his book “A Universe from Nothing,” sets out to describe how quantum physics is all we need in order to understand how the material world came into being out of nothing. However, when one reads his book, one discovers that he doesn’t really start with “nothing.” When it comes to the question of what there was before there was something, people of faith and people of science stand together in mutual wonder at the mystery. They stand side-by-side peering at that cloudy glass.
As it happens, I think there is an answer to this question (“what was there before…”). The answer is “God.” This is the answer my faith provides. Faith, which is defined in Hebrews as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But it is a faith supported by reason. For centuries, thinkers both secular and theological have proposed that the material creation would, by necessity, need to be brought into existence by an “agent” that is not material (the “unmoved mover,” in the words of Aristotle), a power that, uncreated and eternal, initiates the creation of everything. Thus, both my faith and my reason agree that this non-material agent is “God.” (See “post-script” at the end of this essay.*) This is where I start in congenial debates with skeptical friends. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “We’re still a thousand miles away” from the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s a different discussion—a matter of faith. In a conversation about the question, “Is there a God?” the place to start is not with Jesus, but with those age-old questions: “What was there before there was something?” and “Why is there something and not nothing?”
“By Scripture and Plain Reason”
Another important way that we apply reason to our understanding of scripture is to acknowledge that the Bible (as all great literature) brings its truth to us sometimes in literal terms and sometimes in figurative or metaphorical terms. A statement such as, “David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years” is undoubtedly intended to be understood literally. But when we read Jesus’ statement, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” we will miss the deeper spiritual lesson he is teaching us if we get side-tracked by taking it literally rather than figuratively.
Back to Job 38: If we assigned our Sunday School kids to figure out how big the bolts are on the gates that hold back sea, or how large are the waterskins that hold the rain, or if we took high school kids on a field trip to search for the cornerstone of the earth or the gates of the sea, we would be on a wild goose chase, because we are here dealing with the figurative language of poetry and metaphor, figurative language that teaches us the truth about God’s relationship with us and with creation and with eternity.
And when we come to the question of which parts of scripture to take literally and which to take figuratively, how do we decide? We use our minds! That is not to say that we’ll always agree with each other, but we use our minds. At his trial for heresy in 1521, Martin Luther, when asked to retract his writings, replied, “Unless you can convict me by scripture or plain reason, I will not retract anything.” “Scripture and plain reason” is a pretty good motto for how we approach the Word of God. And it is why education and the life of the mind continue to be important to the Lutheran community of the church.
And we are not alone in our respect for learning. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism (who also lived about 500 years ago, when some in the church were upset about teaching that the earth revolves around the sun), said, “We want our scientists to pursue whatever the keenness of intellect will allow, and let us not follow some fanatics who choose not to believe what they don’t understand.” In fact, said Calvin, “Science is not only pleasant, but useful: it unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.” This is a good way to think of science: A kind of “third testament” to the wisdom and wonder of God.
Galileo was condemned by the church in 1633 for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun. The Roman Catholic Church lifted its condemnation of Galileo… in 1991! This is incredible; it is the church—any church—at its worst. Let us not make the same mistake in condemning evolution or cosmology out of ignorance – including biblical ignorance. And the Word of God doesn’t need our protection anyway. To quote one of my teachers, “We can put the truth out on the street and let it take care of itself.” (Today we have a new word for a religious group that feels the need to protect scripture. Our newspaper headlines call them “ISIS.”)
A Sense of Past and Future in our Minds
The word of God teaches that we are born to be intellectual searchers – questioners. (And even allows us to be doubters!) You might say we are born “scientists.” Ecclesiastes puts it quite simply: “God has put a sense of past and future into our mind, yet we cannot figure out everything that God has done from the beginning to the end.” It’s what makes us human: to use our minds in the search for knowledge. To try to “figure it out.”
Part of that God-given searching quest to figure out the past and future includes what we have come to call science, including the science of cosmology, evolution, and human origins. Evolution, especially, has been greeted by many in the Christian church with over-reaction based on ignorance. If the church had reacted with both faith and reason to Darwin 150 years ago as Calvin did to Copernicus 500 years ago, we would be on much more solid ground today in terms of the connection between faith and science.
A chief expression of this ignorance is the mistaken idea that evolution is a theory of creation, which it isn’t. I liked the way that Orwin Rustad, a member of my former parish, put it. Orwin – a graduate of St. Olaf, a founder of River Bend Nature Center, and for many years teacher of biology at Shattuck School – said simply, “Evolution is not a theory of creation, but of organic development.” Which it is – and a good one. Like the theory of gravity, it’s the best scientific thing going for explaining the natural world, and it should be taught fully and completely in our high schools, as it certainly is in college. Including our excellent church colleges. It is not a threat to faith.
I am grateful that my confirmation pastor taught us fifty years ago that there is no conflict between evolution and Genesis, and that our faith does not rise or fall on whether there was a literal Adam and a literal Eve. That’s about all he said on the subject, but it was enough to prepare me for all those science and theology classes that awaited me in college.
Ironically, some Christians are in agreement with some so-called atheistic scientists (of course not all scientists are atheists). That is, they both agree that if evolution is true, then it proves that there is no God. Of course it proves no such thing. It is simply a scientific explanation of physical development.
As the great evolutionary scientist (and agnostic) Stephen Jay Gould has written: The study of science goes as far back as the beginning of material creation, but no farther; science, by definition, has nothing to say about what there was before there was something, about whether there’s a purpose to creation, or about whether there’s a God. These, according to Gould, are not scientific questions. At the point of ultimate beginnings, scientists, philosophers, and people of faith come together in mutual humility. As the physicist Robert Jastrow has put it: “The scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason alone has scaled the mountain 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!”
It’s a waste of spiritual energy for Christians to see science as the enemy, and it’s a waste of intellectual energy for scientists to see faith as the enemy. They are partners in the search for truth.
As an aside: Trying to turn Genesis into a science textbook also blinds us to the fact that the story of the man and the woman and the talking serpent hasn’t so much to do with creation as with good and evil, and with the brokenness of our relationship with God – a brokenness based on our human rebellion: We are the man and woman; ours is still the sin of the Garden—the original sin: I don’t need God, I can be God. This brokenness is not God’s idea but ours. God’s idea is reconciliation – to have us back.
Genesis means beginnings. The “beginning” that the beautiful spiritual language in the book of Job and the opening chapters of Genesis describes only hints at the ultimate creation of everything out of nothing. What these books are more interested in is the beginning of God’s saving relationship with humanity.
It is a saving relationship that began when God created the world in love, with a word: “Let there be….” And it is a saving relationship that is completed when that word of creation became a man—a man dying on a cross. “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” A truth that we embrace and explore with our hearts and our minds. Let there be light.
*Post-script: My favorite joke.
After years of trial and error, a team of scientists had at last been successful in creating life in their laboratory. They uncorked a bottle of champagne and engaged in a round of congratulatory back-slapping. The chief scientist called the raucous gathering to order and said, “I guess the first thing we have to do is let God know that he’s no longer needed.” They all agreed, and deputized a young member of their group to deliver the message. The scientist made an appointment with God, and was ushered cordially into God’s office. “Yes, my son,” said God, “what can I do for you?” “Well, er… Mr. God, sir, you see, it’s like this…, we scientists have created life now, so, well, you’re no longer needed; you’re free to go.”
“I see,” said God. “Well, that may be, but, just to make sure, I propose we have a man-making contest.” “Certainly,” said the young scientist.” “You go first,” said God. “All right,” said the scientist, as he bent over and scooped up a handful of soil. “No no no!” said God; “You get your own dirt.”
You may find these books helpful. (If you select just one, I recommend Finding Darwin’s God.)
The Language of God, by Francis Collins
[Collins, a geneticist, is Director of the National Institutes of Health]
Rocks of Ages, by Stephen Jay Gould
[Gould, a Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, died in 2002]
God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, by John F. Haught
[Haught is a professor of theology at Georgetown University]
God and the Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow
[Jastrow, who died in 2008, was a physicist, cosmologist and NASA scientist]
Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller
[Miller is professor of Biology at Brown University]