Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Is Science the Enemy of Faith?

From August 20, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

For the next three weeks we are going to be looking at three questions. Three simple questions, at least simple in the terms that they are brief, and only require a yes or no answer.  Today, “Is science the enemy of faith?” And then in the following weeks: “Can God save non-Christians?” and “Will God forgive me for anything?”

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I think it’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions. Why? Because these are questions that some people outside the church are asking. Often assuming the question has already been answered. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?”

Millions of people assume they know what you believe, what I believe, simply because that’s the impression they get from other Christians.  If we don’t actively engage and correct these misperceptions, then we encourage them. I want to share with you a story about Jenny, a member of a church in Arizona.  It’s told from the perspective of her pastor, Eric Elnes. It beings with Jenny saying something a little odd to her pastor.

“I’m tired of being a Christian butt,” Jenny exclaimed with obvious exasperation.

I thought this was rather unusual language coming from a high school choral director and member of my congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s not her choice of words but the sentiment that surprised me. In the past few years, I have only seen Jenny get more excited about her faith, not less. When Jenny first cautiously started coming to my church, she had not actively participated in a church for over twenty years.

She considered herself “spiritual but not religious.” “I have a problem with organized religion,” she had told the friend who originally invited her. “Not to worry,” her friend said. “My church is more like disorganized religion. [Through her involvement in the church Jenny had] her personal “Great Awakening” about Christianity. Since that day, she has been like the Energizer Bunny of spiritual exploration and discipleship. She has rarely been immersed in less than three or four small groups. She has helped with our teen mentoring program and assisted in our outreach to homeless families. Jenny almost never misses a Sunday worship experience and sometimes helps lead it.

So you can imagine my surprise when Jenny used Christian as a modifier for butt. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “I mean,” she replied without hesitation, “I’m tired of having always to qualify the word Christian when I tell people I’m going to church. I might as well say I’m radioactive. They get a surprised look on their face and say, “Not you, Jenny. You don’t seem like the Christian type.” So I find myself throwing in more and more buts all the time: ‘I’m a Christian, but . . . but . . . but . . .Why should I have to explain to people, ‘I’m a Christian, but I don’t think [people who are gay] are evil.... I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men . . . but I’m concerned about poverty . . . but I care about the earth . . . but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for eternity . . .’?”

If we ignore these questions and aren’t proactive in asking and answering them, then we may simply remain a “Christian, but.”

So let’s dive into the first simple question: Is science the enemy of faith? In 2011 the Barna Group published the results of a study surveying young adults about their perceptions of Christianity and the church. 3 out of 10 young adults feel that that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”  1 out of 4 young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.”

Are you familiar with the “Jesus fish?”  How about the Darwin Fish?  How about the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish?

Is it any wonder people think science and faith aren’t compatible. So let’s put this to rest right now. Is science the enemy of faith? No. No, science is not the enemy of faith. Not in any way shape or form.  But don’t trust my word, let me walk you through a Presbyterian understanding of faith and science.

Let’s start in the beginning, literally in the beginning with Genesis 1:1.

1In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Our understanding of faith and science is rooted in Genesis. In the belief that it is God who created the universes, it is God who is the power behind all of creation. Now in the Presbyterian church, we don’t necessarily mean that God created the universe in six 24 hour days, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. We understand that in Genesis, what we are reading is a poetic origin story, not meant to teach us scientific cosmology or scientific truth, but a different kind of truth. Truth about God.

And we believe that these truths are complementary not oppositional. We see science as running parallel, alongside theology.  That is to say, that theology is a way of talking about God, a way of trying to learn more about God, about us, about God’s world and the relationships between God, us and the world.  What is God like, what are the characteristics of God, what kinds of things does God do.  Who are we? What did God make us for? How does God expect us to act in the world?

For centuries in the Christian church, science has been seen as answering a different set of questions, but still related to God. Randy read from Psalm 19 a moment ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.

A Christian understanding of science understands the knowledge and discoveries learned through science illuminates the universe created by God.  So the more we learn through science about the world, nature, the universe, ourselves, the more we learn about God.  Think of it like learning about an artist by viewing and studying their artwork. By examining their handiwork, the techniques they use, the subjects they paint or draw or sculpt, the materials they employ. All of those things give you clues to who the artist is.

From early on in Christian history, the Bible was not seen as the only source of truth given to us by God.  In the 5th century, there lived a man named Augustine. He was a theologian and writer from Northern Africa, and one of the most influential people in church history.  He cautioned Christians not to elevate claims about the natural world found in Scripture above human reason and experience. He was worried that doing so would make Christians appear ignorant, and cause people of faith to be scorned and laughed at.

John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians in our Presbyterian tradition, taught that reason, mathematics, and science were gifts from God bestowed on us, and to not use them would be a slap in the face of God.

More recently, in 1947 the Presbyterian Church put out a paper on science and faith in which they said:

There is no conflict between religion and science.  Each new discovery demonstrates the infinite wisdom, logic and consistency of the omnipotent Creator. 

A Presbyterian paper from 2016 says:

Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time.

We have a long Christian tradition of valuing science as a God-given source of truth to which we are called to apply our God given minds, and powers of reason and observation.  But, it would be dishonest to say that the Christian church and even the Presbyterian church has always lived up to this.

You may remember that the findings ofGalileo and Copernicus were both denounced by many Christian authorities, including the Pope, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.  They all felt that the finding that the earth revolved around the Sun, that the earth was not the center of the universe, was heretical and must be wrong because parts of the Bible indicate that the sun and the heavens rotate around the Earth.  As Martin Luther said in reference to Joshua chapter 10, where God, working through Joshua, stopped the sun in the sky: “He ordered the sun to stand still and not the Earth.”

More recently in Presbyterian history we have William Jennings Bryan, most famous for arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” trial.  Bryan was a Presbyterian elder, who almost became moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In his time as a Presbyterian, he tried to get the denomination to cut off funds to schools that taught evolution.

We’ve had a long history of respecting science as a partner to faith and theology, but we have not always lived up to that ideal.  As Presbyterians, we not only believe that science informs our faith, we believe the reverse is true, that Christian faith can inform science.  Not in the sense, that the Bible teaches scientific truth, but in the sense that science needs moral and ethical guidance and constraints, and that theology and faith can be a valuable conversation partner in this area.

Have you ever seen Jurassic Park? It’s the movie from several decades ago where someone thinks it’s a good idea to take DNA from fossils and use it to bring back dinosaurs.  What could go wrong?  There’s a famous line from the movie, spoken by Jeff Goldbloom’s character:

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It is common sense to most people that just because science has enabled us to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.  Swedish Fish flavored Oreos, may just be evidence of that (confession: I think they are kind of tasty).  How to use what scientific discoveries make possible, is not a question that can be answered through science alone.  Science created the atomic bomb, but science couldn’t tell us when to or not to use it.  Science has enabled us to live longer, and prolong death in new and unheard of ways. But science cannot tell us whether life is worth preserving at any cost, or with extraordinary measures, or when quality of life should be weighed against length of life.

Surely Christian faith is not the only source of wisdom in these matters, but for the millions of Christians around the world, our faith must not remain silent in these matters.

A 1982, Presbyterian study paper state:

Theology and natural science though oriented to different “objects”—theology to God, science to nature—have common concerns. If they are to be effective and directed rightly, they ought not only recognize one another’s importance, they ought consciously to be in dialogue with one another and even depend upon one another.

Furthermore, as Christians we are obligated by God to use our minds, our intellects, scientific pursuits and discoveries, to serve God and the world as best we can.  In Genesis, God gives all of creation to the care of humanity, and to ignore what science tells us about caring for our environment, is to turn our back on how God created us and what God created us for. To deny the truths found in science, that help us to exercise care over creation, is like being given a shovel to dig a hole and deciding to use our hands instead.

To recap. Science is not the enemy of faith. Christians can and should embrace the knowledge and truths science bring us to help us serve God and others as best we can.  What we do with the capabilities that science provides is a question that science alone cannot answer, and should be determined by moral and ethical considerations, which Christian faith has a lot to day about.

I want to close this sermon with a short video from Mayim Bialik, who you may know as Amy on the Big Bang Theory, or Blossom from years ago. She is an actor, but she also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and a self-described “Modern Othodox Jew.”    In this video she talks briefly about her thoughts on faith and science.

I’m with her. Understanding that there is a force that underlies all of this “beautiful chaos” and understanding the proper relationship of faith and science makes me a better Christian and a more complete person.

Is sciene the enemy of faith? No.