Creation Spirituality: At the Intersection of Science and Faith (II)
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Proverbs 2:1-5, 3:13-18, Psalm 139:1-8
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a Christian … but you could be. Earlier in our summer sermon series on creation spirituality, we explored the intersection of science and religion. Though some see the two as incompatible, absolutely different ways of understanding the world, many do not. One way to make that distinction is by describing science as the what, where, and how, and religion as the who and why. Science observes the world, plumbing its depths, ascending its heights, going boldly into its far reaches. Religion, on the other hand, is not a way of observing the world; it’s a way of interpreting the world, of sussing out the meaning of observable data, and finding in Nature not “proof” of God, but witness to the Incomparable Designer of it all.
This appreciative view makes a virtue of curiosity and promotes questions and doubts and dialog as practices that nurture our spirit. Central’s mission statement describes holding faith and reason in creative tension … which we believe will yield “fresh understandings of fidelity to God.”
And that’s pretty much where I left things in that first sermon (and I confess I felt more than a small dollop of pride that we are not like those benighted anti-science churches, creationists, flat-earthers and the like). But you, O Central people, don’t settle for neat conclusions. You came back at me after that sermon with more questions and additional insights. One person told me about a paper she’d written in high school in which she correlated the order of creation as outlined in Genesis with the order of creation according to the Big Bang and evolution to suggest the order was the same. Clearly, she concluded a Biblical “day” wasn’t 24 hours, but the account of the origins of the universe, and earth and its inhabitants in it was true. Another person loaned me a book called The Science of God thoughtfully proposing that scientific knowledge and biblical wisdom actually converge. You pushed me with questions such as: What happens if a religious belief is compellingly challenged by scientific fact? How does science explain miracles? and Doesn’t science also depend upon interpretation — for example, no one can dispute that the largest chunk of ice in recorded history just broke off of Antarctica; but there are different views on what that means. Is it the result of global warming, or simply a cyclical phenomenon? Don’t we understand even “facts” through a particular lens? And more than one of you were concerned that in contrasting the purposes of science and religion, I fell into a “separate but equal” perspective that could be as disastrous as it was on the law in the Jim Crow South; that is, the implication that science operates in the “real” world; religious faith in the “spiritual” realm and seldom the twain shall meet. It seemed good to continue our exploration (and by the way, I love it that you engage with sermon topics. Thanks!).
Let’s start as we always do with Scripture. Of course the Bible says nothing of science; it was written long before science was a thing. But that doesn’t mean the people of biblical times were ignorant and naïve. In both Old and New Testaments, people are called to live with a kind of moral logic; observational knowledge leading to righteous behavior. They attributed Light to the creative power of God, rather than [mathematical formula for light], but they clearly saw light as a good thing, something necessary for life. Living without self-awareness and understanding is called “foolish,” in contrast to living with wisdom. Think of the story Jesus told of two people: a wise one who builds a house with a solid foundation on rock, the other foolish one, who builds a house on sand. Only one would stand the test of storm and wind.
The book of Proverbs most explicitly defines “wisdom” as an integration of religious faith and this moral logic. It’s something that must be pursued and cultivated (or discovered and tested?). I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to why “wisdom” is personified as a woman. Hmmmm. Our text comes from two brief portions in the second and third chapters. The writer portrays God speaking these words: Listen for God’s Word to you.
My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures — then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God … Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.
To pursue wisdom is akin to living mindfully. It is to broaden the days’ work beyond the satisfaction of one’s needs to figuring out what makes life meaningful, how to live well, and why things are the way they are. If the ancients didn’t have electron microscopes and quantum mechanics to assist them, they used observational powers and repeated experience to note, for example, the fleeting, impermanent beauty of the flowers of the field that wither in a day; or draw out the conclusion that a brilliant red sunrise warned the sailor of troubled waters on the sea of Galilee. And like us, they pondered and struggled with perplexing questions that yield no easy answers: How can we resolve political conflict without war? How can I live peaceably with neighbors not of my tribe or kin? Why do bad things happen to good people — and the bad guy goes home with the prize? What is life for? Why do birds suddenly appear every time you draw near?
Safe to say, the ancients didn’t know as much as we do today; but they did know as well as we do.
Perhaps that recognition is the first step toward integrating science and faith in our own day and time: not simply to consider the two as parallel lines with different origins and different destinations. What if we were to pursue moral intelligence as comprehensively as factual knowledge? What if we were passionate about keeping ethical practices apace with the breakneck speed of new learning? Science has given us nuclear power; but something more is required to use it wisely and for constructive purposes. Climate science has become politicized, but what if instead of simply relying on our news outlet of choice to interpret the facts, the church probed them from the perspective of our Divine mandate to be righteous stewards of the earth? What if we pursued meaning as hungrily as information? What if we were bold to witness to the truth we claim in church in the public square — that God loves each person without exception, unconditionally, eternally, and that this reality clarifies the responsibility we have to care for one another? What if we were bold to demonstrate the truth we claim in church to others, especially those on the edges — that you are not alone, you belong, you are part of the family?
Science and faith have much to learn from one another. Einstein said it this way: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Pope John Paul II amplified it: Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. And Blaise Pascal, brilliant seventeenth century mathematician, summed it up poetically: The heart has its reasons, that reason knows nothing of. We learn truth not only by reason but by the heart.
Instead of dividing the world into things that science can do and things that religion can do — even if we acknowledge the importance of each, maybe a better way is to see the world as one and celebrate both science and religion as gifts to understand it wholly … and understand it as holy, exquisite gift from the One who created and rules it in love. The more we read — whether from the Book of Scripture or the Book of Science — the more we realize the deep, embedded meaning of the universe and human life. A rocket scientist can live by faith in God’s love extended to us, revealed to our minds through the witness of Scripture to Jesus Christ, and confirmed in our hearts by the living Spirit. And so can you and I. The last word today belongs to the Psalmist, who marveled at the inexplicable universe and the unknowable God … and who nonetheless staked his life that God was with him. May his words help us see the intersection of science and faith is everywhere, in every one of us.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the Realm of the Dead, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well … How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them — they are more than the sand; I come to the end –I am still with you.