On Science and Faith
June 22, 2014, Psalm 8, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2
I want to tell you about Chuck Olsen this morning. I met Chuck when I was serving my first church in Mankato, Minnesota. Chuck was a retired farmer and he was a guy who had to be busy. After he retired from farming he started volunteering with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He was part of a group of about a half dozen retired men who worked on Habitat projects almost every day. Now Saturday was the big day for Habitat, that was when groups would come in and put on siding or shingles, but Chuck and his group called “The Old Fudds” kept things going during the week, so that groups could come on Saturday and have a good, satisfying experience. He worked behind the scenes and didn’t want any credit or recognition.
Chuck had an interesting personality quirk. He always wore button-down shirts and always had a case for his glasses stuck to the front of his shirt. Whenever he needed to see something he would pull his glasses out of the case, put them on, then hurriedly take them off and put them back in the case. I assumed he was vain, or self-conscious about wearing glasses. I asked him once why he did that and he told me that people should use glasses as little as possible. That using glasses weakened one’s eyes and wearing them was a crutch. Vision deteriorates because people wear glasses. One is much better off exercising one’s eye muscles, Chuck said. I had never heard that. And I had been wearing glasses since I was ten years old. I got to thinking about this. I asked an opthamologist who was a member of my church if this were true.
Not a word of it! Vision is affected by the shape of one’s eyes and how much and how we use our eyes has no effect on vision. The strength and clarity of our eyesight varies as we age and grow and the shape of our eyes changes. Chuck’s theory about vision was completely wrong.
The next time I saw him I told him what my friend the eye doctor had told me. He didn’t care. He believed his theory and continued to whip his glasses on and off, hundreds of times a day.
This is America. I believe people should be free to wear their glasses any way they want. Chuck’s choosing to do this was, in my mind, the same as his liking music I do not like or rooting for a sports team different from the ones I am loyal to. In my terms Chuck has the right to be wrong.
This is a long-standing belief for Presbyterians.
The Book of Order contains this idea: “We consider the rights of private judgment,[in all matters that respect religion,] as universal and unalienable; We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.” [BoO, F-3.0101b] Presbyterians made this statement about the time the United States Constitution was adopted, when we were the most powerful and influential religious group in the new nation. Now I know Chuck’s belief about vision is not a religious statement, but I’m using it as an analogy.
The Book of Order takes this idea a step further when it says,
“In perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government;...that in the exercise of this right they may,... err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the right of others, but only make improper use of their own.” [BoO, F-3.0102]
In my terms, this means that churches have the right to be wrong. I am not harmed when a church makes a decision that I disagree with, unless I am a part of that church.
Thomas Jefferson said the same thing
“[I]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
No one was harmed by Chuck Olsen’s misconception. He didn’t break anyone’s leg or pick anyone’s pocket. But suppose Chuck decided that the University of Minnesota’s Medical School should instruct its students in his notion. Suppose he went to the state legislature and persuaded it to pass a law mandating the teaching of his misconception. This sort of thing happens on a different scale on different issues in the United States all the time. And the line between what is appropriate advocacy and inappropriate imposition of one’s beliefs on others, is fluid and constantly being redrawn.
In the United States we have a Supreme Court whose job it is to interpret the Constitution. The Constitution is an old document, but also a living document, which means as times and circumstances have changed, the interpretation of the Constitution has also changed.
Christians have the Bible, which is also a living document. It’s even older than the Constitution and it is always being reinterpreted and reimagined. God is alive, which means God is changing. We are alive which means we are also changing. So we must always be ready to interpret, grow, change and adapt because to love God and to seek to serve Christ and follow the Holy Spirit is to be in a lot of fluid relationships. And I believe that there is an infinite number of ways people can be faithful Christians. The moment someone says to me, “This is the one true way,” I start to get nervous. And followers of all faiths can be rigid and dogmatic, Christians included.
There are groups of Christians who believe that the earth is only about 6,000 years old and that the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a should be read literally, and is the only way that Creation should be taught to children in public schools. Now, if you read a little past the first half of the 4th verse of Genesis chapter 2, you’ll find a different creation story for humanity, so before you’ve read three chapters the Bible will have contradicted itself…but try getting someone who believes rigidly in a literal reading of the Bible. Good luck.
My freshman year of college I took an anthropology course called “Myth and Symbolism.” It was spring quarter and my only class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so sometimes I chose to study anthropology in the centerfield bleachers of Wrigley Field. I remember two things about this course: first, there was a really odd, creepy guy who would sit next to me sometimes. He drew elaborate pictures in his notebook, but also followed the lecture and discussion and periodically looked up from his drawing to contribute to the discussion. Some of you know this guy, Steve Albini. He went on to produce Nirvana’s last studio album.
The other thing I remember about this course was once one of my classmates asked the professor if anyone in the cultures whose myths we were studying really believed the myths, you know, literally. The professor replied, “There is always an occasional kook.” I have carried that sentence with me ever since.
For the most part, people of all cultures understand the stories of their origins in non-literal ways—and they always have. In fact, when we try to talk about the origin of anything the only kind of language we can use is the language of myth. That means that when I talk about the Big Bang and how cosmologists imagine the universe emerging from an infinitely dense core of stuff where time-space-matter-and-energy were all crammed together before exploding billions of years ago with a force and direction we continue to study and detect I am using the language of myth.
There are groups of Christians who believe that the first part of Genesis should be interpreted literally. They are free to believe this. As a Presbyterian and an American I affirm their right to believe this. I affirm their right to preach that message in their pulpits and teach it to their children. I hope this belief makes them kinder and more Christ-like people. I even stand by their right to stand of street corners and share this message or put out leaflets. I wish them well and ask that they allow me and believers of all other types the same freedom. We’re not picking any pockets or breaking any legs, to return to Thomas Jefferson’s imagery.
But I find it embarrassing when they try to have their interpretation of the first myth of human origin in Genesis taught in the science classes of public schools. That’s going too far. And I am not alone in being embarrassed by people who hold this interpretation. John Dominic Crossan, a prominent New Testament scholar said this, “My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” Dr. Crossan contends that people who interpret Genesis literally have actually taken a step back from how Christians understood this myth more than 1,000 years ago!
And here’s the part that truly makes me crazy: I have heard people tell me that a literal reading of Genesis should be taught alongside evolution in biology classes because “Evolution is only a theory.” That’s accurate. In the true scientific sense, evolution is only a theory. It stands alongside other theories. The Theory of Gravity, for example, which explains how bodies are attracted to other bodies by their mass. Oh, and here’s another--Germ Theory, which explains how some diseases are caused. When a scientist uses the word “theory” that shows a very, very high degree of confidence. This is not a mere hypothesis or conjecture, this is a theory that has withstood testing and experimentation and so far, has withstood scrutiny. I want to ask the lady who sought my signature on a petition outside the public library a few years ago, what other theories she wants the schools to add to their curricula. Perhaps there’s another explanation for why apples fall from trees that I am unaware of.
Two prominent, church fathers, argued against reading the Creation stories in Genesis literally. In the 3rd century Origen—that’s the man’s name, it’s not spelled the same or “origin”-- “opposed the idea that the creation story should be interpreted as a literal and historical account of how God created the world.” [http://biologos.org/questions/early-interpretations-of-genesis]
Augustine of Hippo, who lived in 5th century, wrote at length about how damaging it was to the Christian church when Christians tried to convince non-Christians that the first chapter of Genesis is literal and factual. This is a long quote, and the man gets little steamed, you might say, at his brothers in Christ. But remember, this was written almost 1,600 years ago!
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about animals, shrubs, [and] stones…and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, …talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." [http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/91/]
Well, that was bracing, wasn’t it? Isn’t it stunning that Christians were embarrassed by people who took the Bible literally 1,600 years ago, just as many of us are today? Really, the face of Christianity presented in modern media today is people suing school districts to force “Creation Science” to be taught in public schools, and people picketing the funerals of soldiers who have died in combat because they argue that war is God’s judgment on the United States. It’s easy for people who never go to church to think that all Christians are bigots who deny established science when it deviates from their interpretation of scripture. Open-minded churches that encourage questions and tolerate ambiguity simply don’t make the news. A few years ago I heard this wonderful new acronym: NALT which is short for “not all like that.” Not all Christians are _____ and you can fill in the blank any number of ways.
Here’s one way I find myself completing that statement, “Not all Christians are threatened by the wonders of modern science.” This Christian in particular finds my faith deepened and strengthened when modern scientific discoveries reveal new wonders. Cosmologist Carl Sagan said, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it’s a source of spirituality.”
And don’t get me started on the wonders of modern medicine! Or how technology like audio-loops helps lots of people hear—and participate in--this morning’s worship service! Who could oppose or be threatened by such things? That just doesn’t make sense to me!
I really believe that the beginning of faith is wonder. Another word for wonder is “awe.” Another word might be "curiosity." That’s the emotion that I feel when I hear the words from Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Have you ever had that experience of looking at the stars and marveling at the One who created them? To me Creation is not less special when I imagine the Big Bang. I mean, who made that? God did. And God’s ways are beyond understanding. They’re mysterious and that’s a good, vast truth for us to hold onto!
I asked one of my sons when he was six, “Why do I love you so much?” and he answered, “Because you do!” Why does God loves us so much that we are surrounded by beauty and wonder? Because God does! And God has made us stewards of God’s mysteries. You know what a steward is? We use the word around here when we don’t want to talk about “fundraising” or “money,” we talk about stewardship. But what a steward does is to take care of something that he doesn’t own. Stewards take care of and manage other people’s stuff. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that he is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. He’s not a solver of God’s mysteries, but a steward of them. One who looks after them and maintains them. Here’s Paul the one who more than anyone else spread the gospel of Jesus Christ—what does he do? He takes care of God’s mysteries. Part of that is being curious and confused and overwhelmed by the marvelous Creation in which we live, and part of it is recognizing and accepting the powerful grace that God sends to humanity in Christ. Just accepting that grace, and maintaining the mystery of the depth of God’s love are acts of faith. Live in and have faith in God’s mysteries. Amen.