"United in Wonder"
February 14, 2010, Psalm 8, Psalm 19:1-6
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
My middle school science teacher died last month. As my classmates reminisced on line about this man I realized for the first time that his methods were somewhat eccentric. One thing we all know how to do more than 30 years later is light a bunson burner. And all of my classmates can make a little rocket with just a match, a bent paper clip and a piece of aluminum foil. As one classmate recalled our exploits in Science Club, she observed that liability laws must have changed a lot since the ‘70s!
Mr. Meister also opened the class to a debate between Creation and evolution. As I recall he allowed several days for this. I remember that the Creationists were on one side of the room and the rest of us were on the other. Jeff Goodale recalls that he and John Weisler positioned themselves in the middle. Dean Franks and I were the only ones I remember on the Evolutionist side.
I do not remember much from this debate from more than 30 years ago. I do remember that one classmate pointed out that in the last 100 years there have been a lot more breeds of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club, which means that when Noah built the ark there may have been a lot fewer species that he'd had to round up and care for. The only thing I remember saying was that in Genesis it says Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. To me, this did not seem possible before Geritol was invented! And by disproving this item from the Bible-I thought I had shown that the Bible was completely discredited.
The debate ended with something of a concession on the part of the Evolutionists. Dean Franks said that we had taken that side because we knew there would be fewer of us, so we would get to talk more!
These recollections came at a good time for me. Last month I was deciding whether to participate in "Darwin Sunday." Last autumn I received an email from a man who used to work at UW-Oshkosh, who now serves Butler University in Indianapolis who organizes an annual Darwin Sunday. Each year this administrator encourages churches to hold events, or worship services, at which the compatibility of science and faith is presented. Darwin Sunday is observed on the Sunday closest to the birthday of Charles Darwin. We have done this in the past, though not every year. When this gentleman was working at UW-Oshkosh, I exchanged what diplomats would call "frank" emails with him. I am of the strong opinion that a person who is working for a government institution, like a state university, should not use state resources, including his time and computer, to organize or encourage churches to do anything. That's a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause, as I understand it. I also pointed out that organizing churches-and he was seeking to organize all kinds of faith communities, not only Christian churches--was a lot like herding cats. His effort was unconstitutional and impractical, as I saw it. Now he's at a private institution, so it's only impractical and I wish him well!
When I was in 7th grade, debating Creationism v. Evolution I faithfully attended Sunday school at Westminster Presbyterian Church, along with many of my grade school classmates, all of whom were on the other side in the debate.
It really wasn't a debate at all. In fact, the sort of conversation that we call debate about Creationism and Evolution today can hardly even be called a conversation. It is certainly not a dialog. To me, it's a lot like a debate between ballet and algebra. Both exist in their own spheres of study and discipline. Each has its own integrity and traditions. Do we seek to make ballet and algebra compatible?
I am frankly puzzled by the dispute between Creationism and evolution that appears in the media today. There was a local effort a few years ago to add something like Intelligent Design to the high school biology curriculum in Oshkosh public schools. One of their arguments for this was that evolution is "only a theory." When non-scientists hear the word "theory" we think-"something that has yet to be proven," something like my theory is that taking Bowen Street south to Otter is a better route to the Westside than my wife's theory that taking Bowen to Irving is better. [I have to admit, that in this case, my wife's theory was superior! Her route takes almost a half mile off our trip]] To scientists "a theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomenon; thus a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer." [Florida Science Standards] To a scientist a theory is accepted and proven, though subject to change and modification. Think of the Germ Theory of disease as an analogy. Several hundred years ago, before microscopes were invented and germs discovered, there were other explanations for the cause of diseases. As humans have learned more, as we have invented better and better machines that help us see and analyze the world around us, we have created new theories that explain what causes disease. Now we know diseases are caused by germs, viri, prions and parasites. And we may find other causes of disease as we learn more and more.
The effort here in Oshkosh to add the "theory" of Intelligent Design to biology instruction was an indirect way to introduce a religious worldview where it, in my opinion, does not belong. Science is science. Faith is faith. Algebra is algebra. Ballet is ballet. Each has its own integrity, and none needs one of the others to support or validate it.
I am not the snide 7th grader I used to be, who smugly believed that finding an error in the Bible meant it had no value. Now I'm the snide Presbyterian minister whose faith is not threatened in any way by what science is revealing about the world around me. My faith is not even threatened by what scholars who look closely at Biblical texts find out, or theorize about scripture. There is an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Milwaukee Public Museum now and I am excited to go there to see what people are literally pulling out of the ground and analyzing. Maybe some of their findings will show that the words of the Bible as it has been passed on to us for the past several thousand years are different from what was originally believed. Maybe the work of archaeologists will confirm the texts. The God I believe in is strong enough to withstand the findings of scholars and scientists. In fact, my faith in God is strengthened when I hear of scientific breakthroughs. Paul Lakeland said it this way, "If the truth of the gospel knows no limits, then the gospel can and must be reconciled with the best science and most profound thinking available." [Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes]
One of my classmates wrote this sentence in an email to me following our science teacher's death, "Someone told me once that science is God's way of revealing the universe to us." I am so thankful for that one sentence. It says what I believe more concisely than anything I have ever heard that God and science can not only co-exist, but strengthen one another. And I really like that the sentence says that God is still revealing the universe to us. Or we could look at the same phenomenon from a human point of view, that humans are still dis-covering the universe. We have been doing this for thousands of years. We have been looking around and marveling at creation. We have been stunned and humbled by the vastness of the universe and our tiny part of it. The writer of Psalm 8 said it this way...
When I look at the 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 them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little
lower than God
and crowned them with glory and honor.
A literalist can point to this text and say, "Look, God has fingers! And God's fingers made the heavens, the moon and the stars. I believe that word for word. And it says that God made Adam from the ‘dust of the ground.' [Genesis 2:6, NRSV] God used His fingers for that too! It's in the Bible, it is literally true!" And you know what? This is America, and we are free to believe that word for word. But personally, I believe these words speak truth at a different level. Even that they speak-or point to--a truth that we can't put into words. But I'm gonna try: that the God would made everything that we see, also cares for little ol' people like you and me. It leads me to believe that God is so vast, powerful, so beyond description that God is able to create the universe-and still look at each tiny bit of it as precious and beloved.
Last March I was in Louisville for a Doctor of Ministry class that met Wednesday through Friday. I planned to stay through the weekend because my predecessor in this pulpit, Jane Larsen-Wigger was being honored at a banquet as an outstanding alumna of Louisville. So I had a weekend in Kentucky. I spent Saturday at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. It was more than 100 miles to the museum and as I drove from Louisville I was annoyed with myself. I had set aside a day to visit a place that I knew would irritate me and I would hate. And, you know me, I was going to spend money for admission to this place that I knew I was going to hate. I expected it to look like the Branch Davidian Compound. I was quite surprised to find a thoroughly modern museum. There was a large parking lot that was filled with minivans and church buses. Mine was the only hybrid there that day. [See, it's possible to be a Christian and believe in human-produced global warming too]] When I paid my admission I found that I could pay a little extra and see the "Snakes Alive" exhibition. I did and it was worth it. The man putting on the exhibition was a herpetologist. He loved snakes and all other reptiles. The wonder that he had for Creation was contagious. He passed around snakes, lizards and geckos. He said "Turtles prove that God has a sense of humor." I got my picture taken holding a 70lb yellow boa constrictor named Chicita. As I was posing for the picture, someone asked, "What does it eat?" And he said, "See that empty chair over there?" I felt pretty brave until then. I found that I was not at all irritated by his presentation. In fact I wished my sons had been with me. This man loved the beauty of creation and he was eager to share that love. He began by asking "Did you ever think of God as an artist?" He talked about God as a Creator, a creative Creator. God could have made only one kind of tree, or flower or bird, or reptile, but God filled the earth with variety! The only part of his presentation that I did not find entertaining was when he said that he believed in natural selection, but not evolution. He said that animals can lose traits, but not gain them, so apes can never become human beings. It took me a while to understand what's at stake in that statement. It is widely believed, even proven by scientific theory, that chimpanzees and humans descended from a common ancestor. Some people argue that such an understanding is in conflict with what the Bible says about the creation of species of animals and of human beings that's found in Genesis. And some further argue that to be a follower of Christ, one must accept what Genesis says about the origins of humanity literally. The herpetologist's faith was based on his interpretation of the Bible. I am a believer in the same Lord and Savior, but I have made a different choice.
I understand that scripture was written by people who have a completely different worldview than I do. While I use a word like "sunrise," I understand that it is really the earth that is moving around the Sun. The Psalmist wrote "In the heavens he [God] has set a tent for the sun...its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them..."
Now what happens to my faith if a modern astronomer comes along and proves that the Sun does not really travel from one end of the universe to the other, that it's really a fairly small star...in an ordinary galaxy...? Is the Bible disproven and discredited by this discovery? Not to me. I see that God's truth is communicated in ways beyond the literal meaning of these words. In fact, as you'll see in this morning's affirmation of faith, we have an obligation to approach scripture with an understanding of literary styles and historical context.
So when the psalm also says, "The heavens are telling the glory of God...day to day pours forth speech...There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard," I do not dismiss these words as non-sense, a literal impossibility to my modern mind and worldview. No, I am obligated to approach these words, guided by the Holy Spirit, as pointing to and revealing a truth about God, and God's regard for creation that goes beyond what words, whether uttered or stifled, whether heard or unheard, can express. Wanna hear about job security? It's my job to try to express what is completely unexpressible. Every week! It's my job to remind everyone that God's love is so vast, so strong, so flexible, so extraordinary, that the God who spun the whirling planets, also cares for each of us! Thinking these things fills me with awe and wonder! And being filled with awe and wonder leads me to recognize the vastness of my Creator and my tiny, tiny place in Creation! I can try to express those feelings with poetry or prose or dance or music or visually. But I will never be able to express it completely.
Wednesday morning I was walking my 8 year old to school. This is my favorite part of the day. I spotted a sundog in the sky. I was not at all surprised because sundogs are caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals high in the atmosphere. You may remember how cold it was Wednesday after Tuesday's snow. I pointed this out to David and said that the sunlight got all jumbled up by passing through the ice crystals. "The sunlight got refracted," I said. "It's the same thing that happens..." "I know, when there's a rainbow," he finished my thought for me.
My sense of wonder is not changed or diminished because I understand a concept like refraction. Just because I have a name and an explanation for something does not make it any less fabulous. For me, a scientific understanding of something is another reason to be grateful to our Creator.
And I think about the enthusiastic herpetologist I spent an hour with last year. I am pleased that we are both able to look at Nature, and have the wonders that surround us every second point us toward the Living God. Who is still creating, still revealing ...whose wonders we mortals are still discovering.