Saturday, July 22, 2023

“A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - July 23, 2023

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

On your Summer Sermon Request line, the request for today is “A favorite from the archives – for those of us who missed it the first time.”   

Well, the archives go back pretty far.  I could have chosen a sermon from 25 years ago, but the sermon that came to mind was more recent - it was actually from the time I asked for sermon suggestions a few years ago.  Back then, the suggestion slip read “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  It was signed simply Borgen, but I knew it wasn’t from Dianne.  This was Fred’s doing.

As most of you know, Fred is a psychologist and much of his professional work focused on personality and vocation.  I have watched Fred countless times talking to students after the service.  He was especially interested in their majors and more than that, where their lives were heading.  

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and when Fred suggested this topic, he was really giving me more respect than I deserve.  I would not describe myself as a chemist or a scientist – that’s where the question mark in the title comes from.  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 the academic side of things too 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 – that’s the way things worked back then.  His name was John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA basketball championships.

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.  I was president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers in the research division at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical and nutritional manufacturer in town.

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in the Baptist Student Union 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 they 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.

It strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church – in recent years we have we had professionals and undergraduates and grad students in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, plant science, forestry, food science, nutrition,  animal science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with just all kinds of engineers.  And then we have plenty of social science people in our church, 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.”

I know that plenty of you are more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  (We have actual chemists here in the sanctuary and on Zoom.)  I think about Bob McCarley.  Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department at Iowa State.  He also served as our moderator and trustee and Sunday School teacher here at First Baptist.  Nine 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 here for the first time.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  

I remember a story I told at Bob’s funeral.  His family was on 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 Bob and Jenna’s daughter Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  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.  For Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.  

His views were 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 some time ago in the Des Moines Register about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research.  It is especially timely as RAGBRAI starts today.  

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  For anybody out of town on Zoom who may be unfamiliar with RAGBRAI, it involves riding your bike across Iowa for a week along 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 more 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, you have 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 how fast it is going, but you can’t know both exactly.

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.  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 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.

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 there were times when the Church condemned 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.

I think about some of the issues this world is facing:
•    Clean water and equitable water distribution
•    Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
•    Artificial intelligience
•    Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
•    Genetics
•    All kinds of public health issues
•    And looming over all of these, global climate change, which exacerbates other issues like extreme weather and habitat destruction and income inequality and so much more

In each 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 will be concerned about the world out there – the world that God loves.

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 love God, love our neighbor, and love God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Dave. You have written many wise words here.