Thursday, September 26, 2013

Science and Faith

Let me give you a little glimpse into a typical conversation with people I meet. A "get to know you conversation" often goes something like this. The person asks me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a pastor and they ask how long I have been a pastor. I tell them how long and that I used to work in a molecular diagnostic lab in the Alberta Children's hospital before that. Then they ask about my education. I tell them I have a Bachelor's degree from Alberta Bible College, a seminary Master's degree from Regent College, and a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology. About that time the person usually gets an odd look on their face and they say, "Wow, that must mess with your mind!" or "Wow, that is quite a wide divergence of careers!" or "Wow, how do you bring those two worlds together!" or "How do you deal with the conflict between the two?" It is assumed that there is something impossible about bringing together faith in God and an understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology. Some of you reading this may think that as well; or, at least, you may feel that it is impossible to bring together science as it is taught in most universities and the faith of your church.  Yet, if God has created the entire universe, why would we be hesitant to use scientific methods to explore the universe he has created?

I became a science enthusiast before I became a God enthusiast. In school, I loved all the sciences. I studied hard and learned much about each of the sciences. I became a Christian at 15 years of age when my interest in and knowledge of science were already well ingrained. When I became a Christian it never occurred to me that bringing together science and faith would create any difficulty. Eventually people started asking me questions about how I brought the two together and I was able to begin to answer from my science and faith perspective.

Now, some of my initial responses were naive; the truth is, bringing together contemporary scientific findings with our ancient faith does sometimes require adjustments to our contemporary theology. If we can trust at least some of the science of our day, how does it connect to the theology of our day? Does it? Should it? How important is it to have a holistic picture of the world?

Many people are wrestling with these questions. Allow me to suggest a few places where faith and science interact with one another. In astronomy, one of the big pushes right now is to find life on other planets inside of our solar system or outside of our solar system. What will it do to our theology if we discover life on another planet? What will it do to our theology if we discover intelligent life on another planet? Also in the area of astrophysics, we must ask how we understand God's will for end times in light of the fact that a large asteroid could strike the earth with catastrophic results.

In the area of biology and food, how does our faith speak into the fact that researchers in Holland have successfully grown in the lab enough raw bovine meat to make one hamburger? The hamburger cost £250,000 and did not taste very good but this is just the beginning of this process. Does our theology affect this? Does this affect our theology?

There are numerous other science and faith questions that we could ask but of course one of high interest is how science relates to our understanding of the creation of the universe that we read about in Genesis 1-3. There are a number of approaches that have been taken on understanding creation in light of contemporary science. One approach is to largely disregard science and think strictly in terms of the text of Genesis. For one such example, we can look to an address given by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in which he said,

The universe looks old because the creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man. By our understanding that would’ve required time for Adam to get old but not by the sovereign creative power of God. He put Adam in the garden. The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole. . . . it looks old because it bears testimony to the affects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. I would suggest to you that the world looks old because as Paul says in Romans chapter 8 it is groaning. And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin. . . . I would suggest to you that in our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.

The other end of the continuum looks something like agreeing with everything that rationalistic philosophers and scientists say as we abandon the Bible all together. Neither of these extremes is appealing to me.

The comic strip, Non Sequitur, portrays the battle like this:


(Click on the image to enlarge the comic strip.)

Does that seem familiar? Why does it have to be antagonistic? We should not fear the findings of science. Truth is truth and all truth is God's truth. God is not surprised by our scientific findings. Now, we must distinguish between science that is done well and science that is not done well. We must distinguish between science that is objective and science that is done in a way that could skew the results or the interpretation of those results. Still, good science is God's science. We must also distinguish between theology that is done well and theology that is not done well.

When you want to pursue this further, try this: read Genesis 1 and 2 and 3:1; jump to Genesis 6:1-8; then read Genesis 11:1-9 and Genesis 12:1-5. What do you notice? Did you catch the stylistic differences in the writings in the first 11 chapters and chapter 12? Literary scholars suggest that Genesis 1-11 are more ancient, more poetic in their style. Genesis 12-50 have a more historical and prosaic form.

So, if we allow that Genesis 1-11 may be largely poetic, this tells us that it is written in a way that teaches the big picture and teaches big lessons about the fact that God did create the universe and gave humans a special place in that universe. It does not necessarily teach us how God created the universe; nor how he created humans; nor how he endowed them with his image.

If we allow that we may not have many details on how God created, but that he did indeed create, we are ready to look at some contemporary science that suggests how God made the universe, life, plants, animals, and humans. We can look at DNA sequences and other science and look for similarities and differences we see between species. This is a good starting point for deeper discussions. If we trust the science, which I would suggest there is plenty of good science we can trust (well thought, well documented, well controlled, peer reviewed), then we can ask questions about how the science might affect our understanding of how God created. It will then inform our theology about our God and his creation. There are some theologians that are working hard on this dialogue right now. Are we ready for the hard scholarly work and relational engagement this will require?


1 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/tough-questions-christians-face-2010-national/why-does-the-universe-look-so-old/

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