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"How can we understand our faith in relationship with science?" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on August 4, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“How can we understand our faith in relationship with science?”

Isaiah 40:12-14

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

August 4, 2019

(Summer Sermon Series)

 

I was a good student who generally enjoyed school and was willing to do my homework without a terrible amount of whining.  And, I had a lot of really great teachers of all different subjects growing up here in Racine, including one first rate US History teacher (who may or may not be here this morning). But like all students, I had my favorite subjects and the ones I didn’t like as much.  In high school, I felt lukewarm about biology, struggled my way through chemistry and absolutely detested physics.  In one of those great ironies of life I’m now married to a physics teacher.   So, when I got to college and had much more flexibility over my studies, I avoided all science to the best of my ability.  I had friends who fought their way through organic chemistry classes and engineering and perhaps even enjoyed lugging their huge science textbooks around campus.  But I was so happy to have a full slate of music and humanities classes.  By the time I got to seminary, there weren’t even science friends around to be made anymore.  There was the occasional seminarian with a science background, but most of us had been happy humanities folks who now were pleased with course catalogs filled with ethics, theology, history and pastor classes.  Not a biology, chemistry, or physics class in sight.    

 

I imagine this experience to be true for lots of you as well – a life where you made a choice between science and the humanities and then whichever side you found yourself in, in an ever-diminishing presence of the other as you furthered your education or career. 

 

“British historian C. P. Snow designated the division between the “arts” and the “sciences” as “The Two Cultures.” Our loyalties are divided between the “humanities”—such as literature, the arts, philosophy, and theology, on the one hand, and the “sciences”—physics, engineering, biology, medicine, and business, etc., on the other. The two sides of ourselves and our civilization acknowledge one another but have little real conversation.

 

Although (there are interdisciplinary places where this isn’t true), by and large, the representatives of the “two cultures” pass as ships in the night, blinking their presence to one another perhaps, but failing to read one another’s signals or tune their radios to one another’s wavelengths.”[1]

 

But when it comes to specifically faith and science, it seems worse than just ships passing in the night and instead is just an open conflict.  Every time you turn around in the last few decades there’s a magazine cover talking about the war between religion and science or a new book by a scientist claiming there is no God or a religious person condemning some new scientific theory. 

           

But it hasn’t been just the last few decades really. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “In the ancient world, religion and science were little more than two ways of being curious.  The truths each of them told were assumed to be divine truths.  The world was not yet split into “sacred” and “secular” realms.  The definitive divorce came in the sixteenth century, when Copernicus guessed that the earth circled the sun instead of vice versa.  For the first time, the truth that could be observed in the real world conflicted with the truth revealed by God in scripture…ever since then, it seems, science and religion have been engaged in a head butting match.”[2]  Plenty of bad blood between the two.  And of course, there were all the excommunications and executions of scientists for heresy that certainly got things off to such a bad start.

           

So, both have a long list of complaints with the other.  Which brings us to today where many people have chosen a side and retreated to that spot from which they have no intent of budging. 

 

My sermon last week addressed the primary fear of people of faith which is that science contradicts God’s word in the Bible.  This is what happens when people read the Bible literally. But, if, as I suggested last week, we understand the Bible as a collection of wisdom, stories, history, metaphors, allegory, poetry, prayers and hymns, and not a science manual, then we can don’t have to see the two in conflict, but can instead see them as two different kinds of wisdom about the world. 

 

So, how we read the Bible is a vital part of the way we understand science and faith to interact with one another.  And removing the lens of biblical literalism can help people of faith not to fear science or view it as the enemy of faith.  But I don’t think we should stop there.   I’d like to believe science and faith can not only not be enemies, but that they can and should be in dialogue with one another, to allow each to shape and influence the other, and that is not only worthwhile, but imperative for a healthy faith. While there are many reasons for this, I’d like to focus on two.

 

First, the separation of faith and science causes us to have to live within two realities.  “First, there is physical reality—first because it is the one you can see and touch—which depends on science for everything from medicine to e-mail.  Then, there is spiritual reality—beyond sight and touch—which depends entirely on God.  The first reality relies on reason, which wants to know how gravity works and why plants grow.  The other reality relies on faith, which knows it will never find answers to all its questions.  The first reality is governed by discernible laws of physics, while the second is governed by the inscrutable will of God.”[3]

           

The problem with having two realities is that one of the fundamental principles of Christianity is that God is one.  And “if God is one, then how can reality be two?  If God is the origin of all that is—earth, moon and stars, as well as spirit, soul and consciousness, then how can science (which means to tell me the truth about physical reality) and religion (which means to tell me the truth about spiritual reality) be enemies?  …  If God is truly one and truly God of all, then how can truth be divided?” (and what’s more…)  “How can we speak of human origin or destiny without taking into account the biological mechanisms of life on earth?  How can we speak of human meaning or purpose without pondering the actual structure of the universe?”[4]

           

If we believe in a God who is one, who is creator of all and source of all life, but we try to keep our faith separated from science, then we go against our very understanding of God – we basically cause a separation between the Creator and the created.  We hold God apart.  But, if we believe God created this world and we trust it is good, then all we can learn about the world ought to bring us into closer relationship with God and help us to understand the unity of God.  A dialogue with science is imperative to this better understanding.

           

Secondly, another important principle of the Christian faith is that we have been charged with the care of God’s creation. In Genesis, “we are commanded to dominate, subdue, cultivate, and care for nature, which means we are free and even ordered to learn about it and to handle it rather than simply to admire it or to be dominated by it.

 

[And to care for nature, for the creatures and peoples of the world, we need science.  Science touches every aspect of our lives:] housing, food, heating, health, education, commerce, transportation, the utilization of natural resources, and the preservation and enhancement of life, [as well as the problems we have like:] pollution, the energy crisis, over-population and hunger, or war.”[5]  Different kinds of science can help us with solutions to all these things and more. The possibilities for creating a better world greatly increase the more we understand the world and science is a major way we come to understand the world. 

 

But that said, it is important to acknowledge, “Science is not neutral. It, like all human and natural phenomena, is subject to sin and thus to distortion… It can be used positively or negatively, productively or destructively. From a Christian point of view, it is used responsibly when it is used in promoting the welfare of the whole of humankind, the planet, and the universe. It is a welcome power when it is utilized for the benefit and for the survival of life.”[6]

 

There are plenty of ways science can be used to our detriment.  “Science makes possible machines to save human energy, and the result is the energy crisis. The demand for the production of energy and machines causes the environmental crisis. The extraction of materials from the earth and their remanufacture that supports the standard of living we think necessary are having devastating consequences—the pollution of the ground, water, and air to the point that life itself may be endangered. Science makes possible labor-saving devices, and the effect is unemployment. It encourages mechanized agriculture, and the outcome is surplus agricultural workers who leave the land and their communities and inundate our already overcrowded cities, overtaxed housing, water, sewage, police, and energy resources. Science’s promise of welfare for the masses via mass production produces massive social dislocation. Science promises riches for everyone, and only the few become wealthy—and that often at the expense of the poor whose numbers, on a worldwide scale, increase rather than decrease.”[7]

 

So, yes, science offers tremendous good, but it comes with the need for responsible, ethical and faithful monitoring.  We need science to help us solve the problems of today, but science needs people of faith to ask difficult questions about how we best put what we learn into action. Science needs thoughtful discussions on topics like: just because we can do something, does it mean we should?  Or, is better efficiency always better?  Or, how do we stay mindful of the consequences to human life and nature in the excitement of new discovery?  And perhaps especially, what would God think about how we should use the different learnings we gain from science?

 

And just as people of faith ask these questions, we should be open to what we can learn from scientists, not just how to use the science.  Scientists can not only help us to solve the challenges of our time, but can challenge us to think harder about our faith - to take on its complexities with an attitude of curiosity instead of fear.  Scientists can model for us the benefits of how doubt can act as an impetus to seek new knowledge and how questions and hypotheses can lead us to deeper, wilder places.  Scientists give us examples of how we can all put God’s gift of curiosity to work. 

 

Pope John Paul II said, “Science and Faith can draw (each) other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”[8]

 

So, how can we understand our faith in relationship to science?  “Faith and science (should) complement one another. Faith gives us hope for survival, survival in the sense not only of life but of an acceptable level of life for everyone, and the motivation to achieve conditions for that kind of survival. Science provides the tools, intellectual and material, to get on with what we have to do.”[9]     

So, may we do our best to never separate the Creator from the creation, but give thanks for all the ways God gave us to explore and deepen our relationship with this beautiful world.  And may we do our very best to care for creation with all the many gifts and tools at our disposal – asking good and thoughtful and faithful questions to make sure we care for ourselves and all of creation, especially its most vulnerable people and creatures.  Amen.



[1]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

 

[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Luminous Web: Faith, Science and the Experience of Wonder. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2017.

 

[3] Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Luminous Web: Faith, Science and the Experience of Wonder. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2017.

 

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Luminous Web: Faith, Science and the Experience of Wonder. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2017.

 

[5]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

[6]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

 

[7]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

 

[8]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

[9]The Dialogue Between Faith and Science. March 16, 2010.

 

 
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