I knew a student who was a very sharp guy, an excellent student who went on to graduate school. He once told me that he was a young earth creationist. This isn’t the sort of thing you just announce out of nowhere, and it seemed both odd and kind of out of the blue. He spoke as though science could not be trusted, yet this was someone in a scientific field who lived and breathed the world of science. But from his church background, I know that this is what he had been taught; as far as he knew, this is what Christians believed.
Are science and faith enemies or friends? Or is the best we can hope for a kind of uneasy coexistence?
Let me tell you a bit about my background when it comes to all of this. At my high school, one of the best teachers was Gerald Kirkman, who taught chemistry. Chemistry was a tough class and I did well, and Mr. Kirkman told great stories, so I decided to take advanced chemistry. It was an 8 am class, but four days a week we had to come at 7 am for the lab. Largely because of Mr. Kirkman, I decided to major in chemistry in college. I enjoyed chemistry, especially organic chemistry, and as a senior I was president of Phi Beta Chi, an honorary society for students in the sciences – Phi Beta Chi standing for physics, biology, and chemistry, although at some point they had decided (probably on a split vote) to also allow engineers to join the organization.
The sciences were all housed on the southwest side of the campus. On the north and east sides of the quad were the humanities. A bit further to the northeast, you would find the college chapel. At Evansville, the sciences and religion were literally in different spheres, almost in different worlds.
For some students, when it came to science and the humanities, the twain never met, but some of my favorite courses were electives – economics, history, political science, religion. It may be obvious that I didn’t stick with chemistry; I wound up going to seminary. The weird thing is that with my undergraduate chemistry degree I was actually better prepared for theological education than some of the students who had majored in religion in college. A background in science taught me to think analytically and solve problems and reach conclusions based on observation and data. That kind of background was helpful in interpreting a Biblical passage or comparing the theology of, say, Luther and Zwingli. It also turned out to be useful preparation for pastoring a church with more than our share of chemists and other scientific types.
The scientific method permeates our western understanding of truth. This is the case whether you are in natural sciences like biology, social sciences like psychology, more applied fields like engineering or business, or trades or technical fields like plumbing or cosmetology or auto mechanics. We depend on what is factual and provable and rational and observable.
This is largely true of religion as well. This same rational-minded approach can often serve a person well in matters of faith, but faith involves something more. Faith involves relational truth. You can’t measure or calculate things like love or grace. Faith involves revelation. It involves mystery. Things do not always fit in neat boxes. Now to be honest, things do not always line up in neat boxes in science, either. (Some of you can attest to that.) And part of the scientific mindset is the idea that new data may come along and disprove what had long been believed to be true.
As people of faith, the question for us is whether truth is truth, or whether truth in science is a completely different animal from truth in religion. Maybe the question is whether we are to put religious truth over here and scientific truth over there, much like my college campus.
The British naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859, setting forth his theory of natural selection –what came to be known as evolution (even though that word only showed up once in his book.) While generally accepted in the scientific community, in time there was opposition from many in the religious community who felt that Darwin’s theory contradicted the Genesis account of creation. In the U.S. this came to a head in 1925 with the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, when a school teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in the local high school.
The trial brought a great deal of publicity to the issue, and contributed to what was called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in several American denominations. One of the outcomes was that in 1932, a group of churches left what is now the American Baptist Churches to form the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.
Well, the Scopes Trial was 88 years ago, yet in some ways it seems that not a thing has changed. State legislatures are mandating the teaching of creationism or barring textbooks that teach evolution. And if you go to the state fair, in the Varied Industries Building, you will find a display for the Regular Baptist Churches of Iowa with pictures of dinosaurs and information about how the world is really about 6000 years ago. This is still very much a current issue.
Two weeks ago there was a debate on evolution vs. creationism featuring Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye the Science Guy. It was held at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a kind of theme park for young earth creationism. I didn’t watch the debate, although I saw a couple of clips from it and read about it. It seems to me that it was not really a debate about evolution. To have a debate, the opponents have to agree on what it is they are debating, and Bill Nye and Ken Ham were debating entirely different things. For Ken Ham, the debate was over whether the Bible is to be believed. For Bill Nye, the issue was the future of science education in our country and whether we wanted to be a country in which science and research do not really matter.
What I think they were actually debating was epistemology – the question of “How do we know?” Bill Nye argued that we know because we use observation and reasoning to get at answers. Ken Ham argued that we know because God told us through the Bible.
I have some background in science, but I am certainly no expert and know very little about the science surrounding evolution. But I disagree with people like Ken Ham on religious grounds. I disagree with those who argue for a literal six-day creation of the world because I think it is a gross misreading of scripture.
The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is lyrical and poetic and powerful – and it includes baseball (in the big inning!) It tells us that God is the creator of all life, creator of the cosmos, and gives a sense of the beauty and breadth and the goodness of creation, and of our place in creation.
If someone were to read these words for the first time and be asked to explain what the passage was about, they would not say that this is a scientific description of processes surrounding the beginnings of life on earth. They just wouldn’t. This was never intended to be a scientific play-by-play of how creation went down.
I always wonder if those argue that this is a literal description of creation are familiar with the Bible. Because in chapter 2 of Genesis, we find a second account of creation, and it is different. Rather than human beings being created last, man is created first, then plant life, then animal life, and finally woman is made from man. These accounts cannot both be literally true – but then they were never intended to be. Taken together, the point is that God has created this world and we are called to be stewards of God’s good creation. People like Ken Ham are missing the point.
The argument is made that if the Bible cannot be trusted on this, it cannot be trusted at all. But viewing scripture in this way is extremely arrogant. It assumes that Genesis was written not for those living at the time the book was written, but that it was written for those of us living close to 3000 years later. How would our ancient forbears have heard these words? It would never have occurred to anyone that the story of creation was meant as way to date the age of the earth.
I don’t want to get hung up on the word evolution, but it seems to me that the Bible can be understood as an evolving understanding of God’s work in our world. Change is evident in the way people understand God and approach God. The New Testament understanding of faith and salvation is different from the Old Testament, and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus leads to a reevaluation of the faith of the community. This continues to happen in the early church and through Christian history.
For much of Christian history, science was seen as understanding God’s ways in the world. Someone studying plants or animals or geology would be studying natural theology. There was no differentiation between science on the one hand and religion on the other; in fact, theology was called the “Queen of the Sciences.”
But that began to change in time, and those days are now long past. What helped to change things is the way the church reacted to scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. Based on his observations, Copernicus came to the understanding that the earth was not the center of the universe, and in fact the earth revolved around the sun. Knowing that this might cause an uproar, Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his book. And sure enough, it was condemned as heretical. As far as church officials were concerned, scripture clearly taught that the sun revolved around a motionless earth; in the book of Joshua there is even an account of the battle of Gibeon in which God kept the sun from moving in order to give more daylight and allow Israel to win a battle.
Nearly a century later, Galileo came to the same conclusion as Copernicus. He was forced by the Church to recant his belief that the earth orbited the sun, and he was on house arrest for the rest of his life.
This was not one of the Church’s better moments, and the Church should have learned from this that it is not a good idea to deny or to condemn those who believe what can be learned through investigation and observation. And it is best not to understand the Bible as a science textbook. Copernicus lived 500 years ago, but apparently a lot of us are slow learners.
Can a person be a Christian and believe in evolution? Certainly. If the universe is billions of years old, Jesus is still Jesus.
On the scientific side, Bill Nye noted, “Around the world there are billions of people who embrace the facts and process of modern science, and they enjoy their faith. By all accounts, their faith enriches their lives. These people have no conflict with their faith and science.” And Charles Darwin considered it “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.”
On the side of faith, it is not simply a modern understanding that Genesis is not meant to be understood literally. St. Augustine, the pre-eminent theologian of the Church, authored a 5th century treatise titled On The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In it, he had some choice words for those who would one day be known as creationists. He wrote,
Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens… about the motion and orbit of the stars… about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, 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, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense 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.Writing more than 1500 years ago, Augustine hit it right on the head. Rejecting science in the name of Biblical literalism makes us look foolish and turns people off from Christianity.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the 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 on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Instead of arguing about the relative merits of science and religion, what if we saw the value of each – not only in general terms, but the value to one another? What if religion reclaimed the idea that science is a way of understanding the world that God has created, a way to appreciate the incredible world around us, and that through science we can better know what is, so that we can work toward what can be and what should be? And then look at all of the areas in which our scientific knowledge threatens to outrun our ethics, where what is possible runs ahead of what is good and right and . When it comes to genetics and medicine and weaponry and nuclear energy and environmental degradation and global warming and artificial intelligence and a whole host of current issues, how much does science need the wisdom and ethical grounding that faith can offer?
Science attempts to answers the how. Faith attempts to answers the why. Both can suffer from a lack of humility. Both need to be open to new understanding, new truth, new possibilities.
Back in college, I took courses in science and I took courses in the humanities. But one of the very best classes I took was an interdisciplinary course taught by a chemistry professor and a religion professor working together.
At the heart of human experience is both the rational, observable world in which we take measure in hours and grams and kilowatts and dollars and atomic numbers and genus and species as well as the ineffable, mysterious world around us that consists of that which cannot be easily measured: grace and peace and hope and love and and mercy and forgiveness and wholeness and salvation. All of this is a part of our world, all of this is a part of God’s good creation, and all of this merits the concern of those who would follow Jesus. Amen.