Tuesday, August 27, 2019

By Request: “A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - August 25, 2019

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

Can I talk about Fred Borgen this morning?  Would that be OK?  Fred is one of the most positive and encouraging people that I know.  And he has a tremendous interest in people.  You will often see him speaking to students after the service.  He is especially interested in vocation and careers.  I have noticed him putting students in contact with people out there who are working in the field that they are studying.  Fred was into social networking way before there was an internet.  Aside from the cat videos, Facebook is almost superfluous to Fred.

His interest in people is a good thing because as most of you know, Fred is a psychologist.  His professional interests include personality and college majors and careers. 

This is all background for today’s sermon, believe it or not.  Our sermons this summer were requested by church members.  Worshipers had the chance to drop their ideas into the sermon suggestion box.   I’m operating on the theory that at least one person in the church will be interested in each sermon.

The suggestions were given anonymously, except for one (although a number of people have come forward to ‘fess up).  One slip of paper just said “Borgen,” but I knew which one.

Here is Fred’s suggestion: “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  While my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, I would not describe myself as a scientist or a chemist – that’s where the question mark in the sermon title comes from.  But Fred, with more respect than I deserve, was calling me a scientist.  Now I will say: it’s an intriguing subject.  I took Fred’s suggestion as really asking for both something about my personal experience – of the journey from chemistry to ministry, and something about the relationship between the two – between science and faith.

Gerald Kirkman was my high school chemistry teacher.  He was a big athletic guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.  He played college football at Indiana State and was a PE major, not taking it very seriously, until one day an assistant coach pulled him aside and said, “Kirkman, you are a decent player but you are not going to make a career of this.  You are a smart guy and you need to find yourself another major.”  (No offense to any PE majors out there.)  That assistant football coach was also Indiana State’s head basketball coach, a guy named John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA championships.

So I can say that Johnny Wooden had an influence on my life, because Mr. Kirkman decided to become a chemistry teacher.  He was a great teacher and was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association.  North High School offered a second year of chemistry, Advanced Chemistry.  We had to come in an hour early, before school started, to have time for the labs.  Mr. Kirkman was a great guy and I loved it.   

I went to college in my hometown, at Evansville, and majored in chemistry with a minor in environmental studies.  I did well and became president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in town. 

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in campus ministry and began to feel a call to ministry.  And eventually that was the path I took.

I don’t think it really occurred to me that the scientific approach to life, if there is such a thing, could not mesh with a spiritual approach to life.  And in fact, I felt like I was better prepared for seminary than some of the students who had gone to Christian colleges and majored in religion. 

A background in chemistry helped me to think analytically.  It helped me to ask questions, to consider possibilities.  And if someone were so inclined I would encourage them as a pre-theology student to major in chemistry or biology or a similar field as a good preparation for seminary – and to take some psychology and sociology and religion courses along the way.

I also remember as a seminary student coming home and preaching at my home church.  Sitting there in the congregation was my chemistry professor and research advisor, Dr. Beckman.  Some of the chemistry faculty felt like I had squandered a promising career and kind of disowned me the spring of my senior year, after I had applied to seminary.  I think this was Dr. Beckman’s way of giving her blessing on the choice I made.  A progressive Presbyterian who came to hear me preach as a then-Southern Baptist seminary student, she had this sense that faith and ministry and science could all be toward the end of making for a better world.

Years later, after coming to this church, I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities.  My thesis project involved university congregations.  Basically what I was doing was Sociology of Religion – a scientific approach to a question about faith communities.

I’m kind of embarrassed by talking about myself so much this morning, but I guess you can blame Fred for that.  But it strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church - we have students and professionals in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, plant science, agricultural science, forestry, food science, animal science, dairy science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with all kinds of engineers.  And then we have social science people in our church as well, including Dr. Borgen.

With all of these sciences represented, the question may be, which is the highest science?  Which is the most “sciencey” science?  You might think of a progression from less exact to more exact sciences – from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics.   But centuries ago, one science stood above all others.  Do you know what it was?  It was Theology.  Theology was known as the Queen of the Sciences because it dealt with ultimate matters.  And sciences – discovering natural phenomena, solving mathematical equations, working out the laws of physics – science was understood as thinking God’s thoughts after God. 

Well, it has been a long time since theology has been thought of as the Queen of the Sciences.  But some today go so far as to see faith and science as opposed to one another.  This view comes both from secularists who see no place for matters of the spirit and from religious fundamentalists who see science as the enemy. 

The Tom Troeger hymn we sang, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” speaks of the way that science and faith need each other and complement each other.  The hymn ends, “Blend, O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course; till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, the Source.”

Now, there are a number of folks here today more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  I found myself thinking about Bob McCarley.  For those who did not know him, Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department chair at Iowa State.  Five years ago, on the Sunday before school started, I sat with Bob and Jenna at a table during fellowship time.  I remember Bob having this engaging conversation with a new student.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  I looked up something I shared at his funeral.  I was talking about some of his family’s memories of Bob and I shared this:

Kyanne (Bob’s daughter) told about one of those epic family trips.  They made a palette in the back of the station wagon and the four kids would lie down and go to sleep, but one was supposed to ride shotgun and keep Bob awake.  One night Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  Talked to her about chemistry.  He described the intricacy of molecules and the beauty of the way things worked and fit together in the universe.  He said that the world was so beautiful and so amazing, there had to be a higher power.

That is a chemist looking at life from a faith perspective.  And interestingly, for Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.

His views were essentially captured by the Psalmist who wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  If the ancient world had known what we know, the writer could have just as easily written, “The atoms are declaring the glory of God and the molecules proclaim God’s handiwork.”

Our bulletin cover artwork this morning is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  It captures the wonder and awe of the stars in the sky.  At its best, science and art and faith all involve wonder.  Science is about being open to new possibilities.  There was an article in the Des Moines Register recently about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research. 

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  If you are new to Iowa, this means riding your bicycle across Iowa for a week with thousands of other people - and eating lots of pie.  Alberts was on a tandem bike with Cathy, a Parkinson’s patient.  The ride was intended to bring attention to the need for funding for Parkinson’s research.  But Alberts and Cathy stumbled onto an important finding: Cathy’s physical abilities improved after a day of pedaling, and then improved more after another day.

Alberts knew exercise was important, but how important was driven home to him on RAGBRAI.  On a tandem, Cathy was forced to go at his speed, which was significantly faster than hers.  On the bike, Cathy didn’t feel as stiff.  She was pedaling faster, and her brain function was better.  As she wrote postcards and mailed them to her family from across Iowa, her handwriting became more legible.  “It was a serendipitous discovery,” Alberts said. “Science can happen anywhere, even in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Science is about trial and error, about experimentation and observation.  It is about paying attention.  And it involves being willing to change your assumptions.  Basically, if you are doing science right, one needs to have humility.

There is something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was a physicist looking at subatomic particles, and the Uncertainty Principle says that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time.  You can know exactly where something is, or you can know exactly how fast it is going, but you can’t know both at the same time.

I think it is awesome that science has a principle about uncertainty.  Isn’t that beautiful?  And my goodness, that certainly translates to faith.  There is plenty that we don’t know.  There is plenty we are not quite certain about.  And an approach of humility is essential in faith, as in science.  The notion that the way I interpret the Bible, the way I understand the world, the way I think about life and about God might need to change, that there just might be room for growth, that the Spirit might speak to me, that God might lead me in a new way, is essential to faith.

Our scripture this morning is the story of creation.  God painstakingly creates the world, working all day, calling it quits for the day, looking over what had been created and calling it good.  The light, the dark, the waters, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, fish and sea life, wild animals and cattle and creeping things of every kinds, and finally human beings.  Human beings, created in the image of God.  And then God said that it was very good.

It is a wonderful, powerful account of creation.  It is beautiful and poetic.  God takes great care with this creation and God regards it all as good.  It tells us that the universe and this planet and all that is in it is created by God and loved by God.  It gives us a sense of our place and our value in this world.

I don’t know about you, but I do not read the story of creation and think, “Oh – this negates carbon-13 dating.”  To me it would be ludicrous to read this and understand this as a 21st century science text.  Instead it inspires wonder and joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging in God’s world.

Science can answer the question of how, but we need faith to answer the question of why.  Science can collect data and tell us what is, but faith has something to say about what should be.  And so science and faith need one another.

Faith that ignores the world out there is shallow.  We need the very best scientific understanding, just as we need the guidance of spiritual understanding.  When faith tries to control what is true in the realm of science, it is never a good thing.  The earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the Church has a history of condemning people who did not believe those things, based on its understanding of scripture.

The world of science also needs the influence of faith.  We need sensitivity and concern.  We need compassion and integrity toward the end of applying science to help build a better world.

Think about all of the issues our world is facing:

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Clean water and equitable water distribution
  • Natural disasters like flooding and wildfire and our response and prevention
  • Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
  • Artificial intelligience
  • Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
  • Genetics
  • The use of scarce resources and protecting the environment
  • Energy policy
  • Policies around natural areas and land use
  • And looming over all of these, global climate change
In every single instance, science and faith need one another to address difficult issues.  We don’t inhabit a world of the spirit, with another natural world out there.  It is all one world.  It is all God’s world.  And God said that it is good.

Too much religion is concerned solely with individual salvation.  Which is important - and very much a part of our Baptist tradition.  We need lives committed to Jesus Christ.  But when we are committed to the way of Jesus, we cannot ignore the world out there – the world that God loves.

These are some thoughts from a scientist, of sorts, viewing the world from the perspective of faith.  Or maybe they are the thoughts of a person of faith viewing the world from the perspective of science.  Or maybe the two are pretty well the same. 

The word religion literally means to bring back together – re–ligio (think ligaments).  Re-ligamentize.  Your religion is the way you make connections with God and people and the world out there – the way it all holds together.  At its best, our religion brings together scientific understanding and the power and understanding of our faith as we serve God and Love our neighbor and God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.


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