God & Science – September 1, 2011

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:1-4 NLT).

“He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist (Acts 17:24-28a NLT).

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:11-13 NLT).


We are going to spend the first part of our semester together looking at questions that people of one of the fastest growing “faiths” in our country ask: atheists and agnostics, those who believe God does not exist at all and those who are unsure whether God does or does not exist. Our topics will center on those questions thinking atheists ask, and frankly Christians and everyone alike, have from time to time.

Today we will explore the connections between God and science; next week as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we will explore the times when religion goes bad and religious wars and violence. Towards the end of September we will explore the Bible’s disturbing passages, how we deal with God & suffering, and finally we will explore the case for God. There is no way we are going to cover in depth all these issues; they could be a college course in and of themselves. My hope in asking some tough questions is to help you to grow a deep and examined faith, a faith that grows through doubt and asking questions, one that is able to sustain you in the years and decades ahead.

Because there is nothing wrong with having doubts and questions. Alfred Lord Tennyson said “There lives more faith in honest doubt than half the creeds.” If we have doubt that means we are struggling to grow in some area of our faith and that means we will actually grow; struggling is a form of growth. Martin Luther said “Only God and certain madmen have no doubts.” Luther had a great way with words, very pithy and to the point. When you are bored, Google some Luther quotes and I think you will be amazed at just some of the stuff he said. And last, but not least, CS Lewis, a great thinker/writer/author of the 20th century put it this way: “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified we were believing what is clearly not worth believing. If doubt is answered, our faith is grown stronger, it knows God more certainly, and can enjoy God more deeply.” Through our journey together, may we look doubt in the face and believe what is clearly worth believing.

It is appropriate, and not planned actually, that one week after you sat here, officially hearing that we are building a brand new science center, that we discuss the relationship between God & science. You chose to attend or to work at a University that has as two of its core values: faith & learning, faith & science. From an institutional standpoint, we believe these two do not contradict one another; in fact they can complement, support and even enhance one another: faith leading to a new perspective in science and science helping to lead to a deeper faith.

I believe that as well and even had a phase where I entertained a career in the sciences. In high school my top three science classes were, in order, chemistry (I enjoyed developing chemical formulas and making chemicals that might explode), physics (I remember a notable experiment where we proved the Doppler effect by running the teacher’s old GMC Jimmy down a main road and laying on the horn) and biology (I despised insect collections; sorry Dr. Patrick). Yet my very first and one true love is astronomy. I strongly recommend you take the class here from Dr. Farney as it is quite entertaining as most Dr. Farney classes are!

I’ve never been one of those folks who has seen or experienced a deep conflict between science and faith. I’ve enjoyed learning in science classes and especially as I’ve looked up to the stars admiring and standing in awe of what God has done and made in the universe. Our image this morning is the Orion Nebula. When I look at M42 situated 20 light years from earth knowing it is a stellar nursery, making new stars and maybe even planets, formed from hydrogen and other trace gases, maybe a supernova, I stand in awe of what God has made. There are some people who study science and see the absence of God in it but I see just the opposite. Science teaches us the mechanics, how and why things work in our universe, but faith teaches us about the mechanical engineer who designed all the systems we have today. When I look up into the night sky, I can’t help but think God made the Orion Nebula and saw that it was very good!

Today there is an anti-science vein running through our society and in some Christian circles. The new atheists, as they are so-called, have picked up on this and are responding to it in almost an evangelical manner, meaning they want you to become atheists as well. Two books I checked out this summer: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins & Letters to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Dawkins in particular is an evolutionary biologist by training and as he watched his life’s work kicked out of certain classrooms, he fought back. I’ve seen Sam Harris interviewed before and he, like Dawkins, are very bright and smart gentlemen. They cannot possible see how anyone could believe the earth is only 6,000 years old and not see the facts of evolution around them. As such, they see faith and science to be completely incompatible while, as you might guess, myself and the University you attend disagree.

Both science and faith have changed, have developed, and have evolved over the past centuries. For example, the church did not do well with the notion that the earth revolves around the sun advocated by Galileo; in 1616 the church declared that this view was heretical and Galileo abandons support for it. Yet his quest for truth made him write his most famous work about it and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. This quote of his is one of my favorites: “‎I don’t feel obligated to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

One hundred years ago, sitting in your science class, you would have been taught that the universe is eternal. This means the universe has always been here and will always be here. Then a French priest postulated this idea that the universe had a beginning, that everything started as mass no bigger than a dime, and expanded outward from that moment and continues to expand to this day. Scientists were leery of it as first as it smacked too much of Genesis 1 where God said let there be light and there was light. But the theory is now widely accepted today. We’ve adjust our scientific theories as our understanding of our universe has evolved.

Christian theology, our understanding of God, has also changed and adjusted through the ages. There have been periods of history, still people today, who believe God sends good things to people that do well and bad things to people who act poorly. God sends rain to those who do well and lighting and destruction to those who do poorly. We seem to have a built-in need, hard-wired for justice, and this is one of the ways people try to make sense of it. One of the folks running for president said this week that the earthquake and hurricane on the east coast were God’s judgment for how our government is being run and now is trying to backpedal from those comments because many people are asking: is that really how God works?

Yet we know through science that storms and rain comes as the result of pressure systems coming together; that earthquakes happen when the plates in the earth move; and that tornadoes and hurricanes form when conditions are correct. Not to mention that Jesus tells us both the good and the evil get sunlight and rain. In another story, when Jesus’ followers, looking at a blind man, asked Jesus who sinned so this man would be born blind, Jesus said that’s not how it works. We’ve adjusted our understanding of God to say it is perhaps more likely that the natural disasters might in fact by necessary for the earth to regulate itself properly and that God might in fact be even more loving than we originally thought, not sending destruction each time we mess up. The words of Jesus and science have helped us advance how we view God.

One of the more hotly debated topics today in the realm of faith and science is the conversation between creation & evolution. This stems from the first few chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, where we have poetry describing how the world and everything in it came to be. Those that call themselves creationists believe God made the world in 6 days as described in the Genesis 1.

There are variations among the creationists; some are young earth creationists who believe the earth is 6,000 years which is found when you take all the dates in the Bible going backwards. It should be noted that the creationists theorize when Adam & Eve and Noah may have occurred as there are no dates mentioned for them. There are also old earth creationists who believe the earth is as old as science says it is but do not believe in evolution. Intelligent design also falls into this camp allowing for some designer but jettisoning evolutionary theory and does not name who the designer might be. This group as a whole lifts the Genesis story to the level of historical and scientific fact while disregarding all the scientific evidence of the age of the earth and evolution as incorrect.

On the other side of the spectrum you have varying degrees of evolution from those who say it was a completely unguided process over billions of years to those who allow for a guide to those who name of the guide as the God of the Bible, the God of the Christians. A famous believer in theistic evolution, Francis Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project over the past decade, started a foundation to encourage the education of evolution and faith together. These folks as a whole take seriously the scientific evidence and to varying degrees either completely write off the Genesis account or take a different reading than a literal account.

Many scholars today would say Genesis 1 is not an historical account of creation but epic poetry that teaches us theology, how God works, and something about humanity’s place in the universe as well. It is originally written in Hebrew and you notice the poetry even in English as it repeats things like God said let there be light and there was light and it was good. God created humans and it was good. Biblically speaking, you have more evidence to say that this poetry, not a scientific account of creation, but a 3200 year old poem that shows us what people that long ago taught about God and about each other.

I think for many creationists to give up a literal reading of Genesis 1 means God is somehow less powerful and they feel like the Bible loses its power if everything is not taken absolutely literally. The logic follows if Genesis 1 isn’t literal then does that mean the whole Bible is just a story a metaphor? We will discuss how we interpret the Bible in the weeks ahead but you need to understand the Bible is not one book but a collection of books of poetry, of story, of history, and of songs. You need to know what you are reading to apply it correctly to our world today.

You rightly get the sense that I personally would fall into the theistic evolution camp, saying it is likely a form of evolution but that it was guided in some sense by God as revealed in Jesus Christ. However, I’ve got friends who would debate me to the twilight hours of the morning to say that it is, without a shadow of a doubt, literal creation as described in Genesis 1. They’ve been to the creation museum in Kentucky and do all they can to support their position.

In both disciplines, in the pursuit of God and in the pursuit of science, there must be an acknowledgement that we see through a mirror dimly, we do not always have the full picture and things evolve, things change, both in theology and in science. What we know 100 years from now, even 10 years from now, may change how we understand the universe and help us see God more clearly. Paul wrote those words to a church that was fighting about which spiritual gifts, which talents they had, were the best. In the midst of a passage typically read at weddings, we read the atypical part that explains to us that we grow the years and that we need to acknowledge we only understand the world and God partly. We will get things right and we will get things wrong; we favor some perspectives over others; we all have certain tendencies. We need to grace and love and patience to one another as we have divergent views on this and many other topics, as love is what we are called to do in the Scripture! We are called to model love to one another in all things, a love that is much more respectful than the discussions we see on the national stage today.

The other passage found Paul speaking to the intellectuals in Athens (by the way you all in college are the intellectuals of today!) and in the midst of his message, he points out an altar they have setup to an unknown god. Paul describes the unknown god as the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who made everything. God made everything we see and it is in God and through God that we find our purpose and our being.

Even though God made everything around us, God is not far if we honestly try to seek God out. As Paul is speaking to the intellectuals of his day, he does not tone down the message of Jesus, speaking about Jesus’ resurrection and perhaps our ultimate resurrection from the dead as well. While God & science do complement each other that is not to say we may have some divergent ideas as the core tenet of Christianity centers around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not really a repeatable scientific principle!

Yet I still believe you can indeed be a successful and devoted scientist and be a Christian in our world today. You do not need to check all your scientific knowledge at the door nor do you need to check your faith when you go into the lab. For me, as I see the vastness of our universe, understand the perfect and exact conditions that allowed life to develop in our world, to see just how perfectly our bodies, the atoms, work together to support life, the more we understand just how complex we actually are and the universe is, I can’t help but be led to worship the God who made us so wonderful and so complex.

I do know for many atheists they would like hard scientific proof that God exists but if Paul is indeed correct, that in God we live and move and exist, that God is everywhere, we might miss the forest for the trees, we might miss what is right in front of our faces. It might be a little like this story. Now I need you to use your imagination on this one: There are two cells talking in your body, an older and a younger cell. The younger cell is having a hard time believing that you exist. The older person believes beyond a shadow of a doubt there is a human being. The younger cell argues that we don’t need the human being hypothesis anymore; cells seems to be spontaneously generated, we know about DNA, mitochondria and the process of mitosis  The younger cell does not see any evidence of a human with arms and legs and eyes and a mind. The younger cell gets so frustrated with the older cell’s belief he cries out “If the human being would just come down here, be one of us, the human being could explain it all to us and prove beyond a shadow of any doubt that they exist.”

We draw our very life from God and when we ask for God to show up when God is everywhere, I think God might laugh at us a bit. Why can’t God just show up? In fact we Christians believe God did just that through Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. It is him we worship, it is him we model our lives, it is him we remember and seek to follow today. Let us pray together…

*Some elements borrow from Adam Hamilton’s message of the same title


3 thoughts on “God & Science – September 1, 2011

  1. Brandon, for whatever it is worth, neither of the creation accounts in Gen 1 or 2 are written in poetry. Admittedly, it is difficult within the Hebrew Bible to isolate what is and is not poetic, but Genesis itself is very clearly narrative, as is essentially the entire Pentateuch. Moreover, Gen 1 and 2 do not show the usual signs endemic to biblical Hebrew poetry; yes, repetition is a part of it, but not repetition as you describe it. A better way to think of it is thought rhyme; successive lines parallel one another in thought, not in literal repetition.

    Genesis 1 is best described as “myth,” and while that term has some unfortunate baggage associated with it, being mythic does not eliminate aspects of truth. Ask any of my students from last semester: history and truth are not synonymous. The first two chapters of the biblical text reveal this in a most potent way.

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