science / God

Something not many people know about me is that I went to a STEM-focused high school. It was called the Math Science and Technology center, and to get in you had to write an essay. Mine wasn’t very good, and my confidence in my math skills was already waning as my pre-high school progressed.

At some point I received a letter – I was on the waitlist! 

This wasn’t awesome news, since my older brother John had already been in the program for a couple years, and he was flourishing in all subjects STEM-related and otherwise. But it wasn’t terrible either, because there was still a chance that I could join my immediate family’s new academic tradition.

Finally, a week before school started, I came home from soccer two-a-days to another letter: 

I WAS IN! 

Outwardly I was rejoicing, since I now had the chance to prove myself in the classroom. Inwardly, I was terrified. But, as I settled into the program, I discovered my academic reality was mixed – some classes came easier, some were more difficult. It was a half-day program, so for the first couple years, we met in our own classroom at the local university, Ferris State. Under the guidance of caring educators, we explored advanced algebra, evolutionary biology, and chemistry.

Later, when we left the safety of our high-school-only classroom to plug straight into college courses, I would discover the beauty of genetics [nailed that class with a B+] then grind to a halt in my math career [D+ in calculus!]. I did okay in chemistry and physics, but I really struggled because of the mathematical aspects of each of these classes. My academic performance was a mixed bag.

The time I invested at the math and science center was ultimately profitable, even though math was a nightmare. It was four years of learning about a world that I would [and will] probably never be a part of – four years of walking in someone else’s shoes, to borrow Harper Lee’s phrase. And it was four years of fascinating [though occasionally incomprehensible] classes [in chemistry, I couldn’t name a chemical compound to save my life].

Amidst my journey, I distinctly remember learning in biology about the intricacies of Darwinian evolution and humanity’s descent from primates. During the lecture, one of my classmates, a Christian, raised his hand.

“Mr. Williams, what about those of us who believe God created the world and the universe?” 

After a hush fell over us, Mr. Williams fumbled some kind of generally unhelpful response. At that moment, it felt like there was a massive dichotomy between the world of science and the world of spirituality and faith, with pretty much all of it going back to two chapters in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, where it talks about how God created the heavens and the earth over six *days* [Hebrew word here is yam which has a few interpretive options including season or time].

Though I had not come to any conclusions on the interplay between faith and science when I was 15, I did know several families at my church who took the Bible literally when it spoke of God creating in six days.

I also had [and still have!] a delightful aunt who earned a PhD in geology from Brown, and from what I could tell she was a practicing Catholic with a real, if maybe sometimes hidden, love for Jesus. She was clearly taking that yam word figuratively.

So what was the answer? Was I to side with the young earth people or with contemporary science? 

When I got to college, the answers felt like they could be within reach. My university, Spring Arbor, saw no inconsistency between faithfulness to both mainstream science and the relevant biblical texts. Even so, I kept thinking back to the handful of folks at my church who were taking Genesis 1-2 literally. It was a strange cognitive dissonance to live with since I didn’t feel like the most qualified person to determine the age of the earth.

Slowly, for reasons both within me and outside of me, I kept moving gently toward a faith that was less focused on mental assent to various positions or ways of thinking and more on concrete practices that shape my body, my heart, and also my mind – just not only my mind.

By the time I had entered seminary, I was pretty sure Genesis couldn’t be a literal text. I had learned how other historic figures, even from ancient times, had read it. Many interpreters, even before modern science, read Genesis as a beautiful poetic narrative about the cosmic power of the God of Israel, Yahweh, and this God’s careful ordering of the world and the universe. Of course there is much more – it also elevates humanity to a special place in the world, and creates a Spirit-breathed narrative of human departure from God’s perfect way.

Yes, there were also many minds within the church who saw no reason not to take the text literally. But there was also no modern science at that time!

Anyway.

Strangely, it was well after the advent of modern science that Christian fundamentalism in the West directly challenged Darwin’s vantage point of evolutionary theory. This culminated in the 1925 Scopes trial, a highly publicized trial pitting modernists against fundamentalists. Fearing Scripture would be rendered void or untrue in what it intends to communicate to us, fundamentalists emphasized their belief that God’s truth as expressed in the words of Genesis is higher than human truth, while Christian modernists insisted evolutionary theory and biblical truth are compatible.

From my vantage point, that’s a brittle faith. Imagine a faith that depends entirely on the entire Bible being literal! I’m not making this up; it’s a real thing

So, all of that said, I recently found a really great science curriculum for the youth group I pastor. It’s actually very easy to access, and it’s totally free. The Templeton foundation supported Luther Seminary in a project that sought to help younger Christians integrate their science-based education with their faith in a saving Jesus, a powerful and good God, and a guiding Holy Spirit. We spent three Sundays in September on the connections between faith and science.

Why is this so important?

God wants us to be free! I adore Eugene Peterson’s  Message translation of the Bible where he renders Matthew 11:28-30 as follows:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

There is an invitation here toward a life that is light, a life that is free, and yet also filled with purpose. By the way, it’s Jesus inviting us, and it’s a call to not only live freely and lightly, but also to walk with Jesus and work with him. So we don’t leave behind any of the desire for intellectual growth, vocational passion, or relational work. But we do get to do all of this freely – and lightly as well, a term that imbues me with a feeling of peace.

God wants us to be free! We even get to live life *in Christ* according to Colossians 2:6-7, and we are also rooted and built up in him. We grow into our faith, slowly making sense of all things in light of the hope we have through the good plans God has for the world both presently and eternally.

And this leads to the freedom of integration.

Being free, to me, means being spiritually and intellectually integrated. We don’t leave our faith behind when we encounter the wide world of science, but instead our love for God motivates us to lean into science! Modern science helps us know how to better care for the planet, our bodies, our minds, our families, and it confirms a host of teachings from Scripture – like why loving our neighbor scientifically makes for a better world and better people.

Maybe you find yourself thinking, “why do I need science to confirm the obvious positive aspects of human caring?” Well, others may be thinking, “why do I need Jesus to tell me what science so clearly confirms?”

I don’t have all the answers here, but I do have my own story. Over my brief lifetime I have found Jesus to be supremely motivational in a way scientific facts cannot be. Jesus confronts the myth of redemptive violence and interrupts the chaos of human history with inexplicable peace. I observe the natural world and I, just like the Psalmist 3000 years ago, the heavens certainly seem to proclaim the works of God’s hands! I have experienced the direction of the Holy Spirit and have journals full of answered prayers – like, literally. I have seen lives turned around, and I know countless people who share similar experiences.

Honestly, there are plenty of things to be skeptical about, but I think it’s also wise to foster a courage that allows us to doubt our own doubts. We can plunge into the mystery that is our unfathomably large cosmos with a deep sense that we are not accidental or meaningless, just tiny observers in God’s great big world.

For me, the sciences help me see God more deeply, more clearly. From what physicists can tell, God apparently took about 13.8 billion years to carefully breathe the cosmos into existence, beginning with a powerful and still-echoing bang. This may be obvious to some, but at one point I realized how much more work it would take for God to take so long! Why create through evolutionary processes? I don’t know, but it sure is interesting, isn’t it?

Image result for gran telescopio canarias
the world’s largest telescope, Gran Telescopio Canarias, located on a Spanish island of La Palma photo courtesy of mapio.net

Science, with all its intricacies and theories, pushes me deeper into my faith. Likewise, my faith propels me toward a deeper interest in science. It’s enduring freedom to become fascinated, geeky even, at the beauty of the world and the power of the Creator.

During our recent discussions in youth group on science, we were blessed with the presence of two professionals in their fields – one biologist trained at Colombia and Stanford and one astro [and particle] physicist trained at Caltech and, [surprise surprise] Stanford. Each individual brought a wealth of knowledge and scientific insight, yet a robust love for Jesus and a profound value for the mission of the church.

They poured into the youth who I pastor by putting on full display the freedom that they have in Christ and the deep insights they have about cells, blood, dark matter, and the size of the universe. They also shared how they had experienced God working in their lives, and the limitations of science.

Both guests, steeped in the hard sciences, gently referenced how they did not have scientific answers for why they had experienced profound insights and guidance from the Holy Spirit. They spoke of how they had to deal with the way they had been directly affected by a living, active God and the saving power of the Son, Jesus.

Any faith/science dichotomy there may have been in the group was, at the very least, challenged.

Now I don’t know exactly where you are in your experience of science or within the Christian faith, and I certainly wouldn’t want to make you feel inferior if you believe the earth is young, say 6,000 or 10,000 years old. Who knows, maybe the mainstream scientists are wrong. If so, we will eventually find out. For now, the science is pretty solid that confirms an old earth.

This controversy really isn’t a concept I dwell on very often. I’m not the physicist, the botanist, the geologist, and I have had far less training in the sciences than many. I simply trust the conclusions science comes to as a whole will self-correct, that the theories will keep strengthening, that the details and nuances become clear.

Amidst all of this human activity and throughout all our questions, disagreement and wondering, we have a good and powerful God at work not only in the cosmos, not only in human history, not only in the saving work of Jesus at his death and resurrection – but also within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I honestly don’t know why the many trillions of cells in my body are working so effectively every single day, but I am made aware of the goodness of God because of this bodily experience. I don’t know why there aren’t more problems in the world, why good things happen so frequently, why we get to live lives of love and compassion. But I am doing my best, God helping, to be grateful for these things.

Wherever you are in your journey in faith or in the sciences, here are my prayers for you and your community. I pray this for myself also, even as I type:

May we in God’s grace, discover wholeness.
May we, in God’s grace, experience enduring freedom.
May we, in God’s grace, move toward intellectual integration.
May we, in God’s grace, grow greatly in your mind and your heart alike.
May we, in God’s grace, be propelled by an enduring fascination with God’s world.
May we, in God’s grace, discover Jesus’s love for you then extend it generously to others.

***

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4 thoughts on “science / God

  1. Great post for discussion. Thorough and well thought out. Thank you.
    From the Church that held Galileo in contempt for many years, St. John Paul II is quoted as saying, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
    To limit one with the other is limiting God’s creation and stifling God’s creative genius. My God, the Father of Christ my savior, is a both/and God, not an either/or God!

    Like

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