Sermon on Faith and Science

Below the fold is a written version of John’s sermon from Sunday, May 14, 2017, on faith and science. My foundational texts (not directly referenced in the sermon but read and commented upon during worship) were: Psalm 19; 1 Colossians 1:15-20; and John 1:1-14.

Sermon on Faith and Science by John R. Collins

An author by the name of Neal Wooten, who grew up on a pig farm on Sand Mountain in the northeast corner of Alabama, tells the following story:

I grew up on a small farm in a small town and attended a small high school. Looking back now, I realize my entire world was pretty small. But we had a giant of a science teacher. His name is Terry Niblett and he was larger than life.

His classroom was adorned with fish tanks full of various critters like frogs, insects, turtles and always plenty of snakes. He was the king of field trips and the master of classroom experiments. We boiled water in paper cups, created a human chain of static electricity and lost more than one set of eyebrows to cool explosions that set off the fire alarms. He was a genuine science buff.

One day he divided the class into several groups for a mock discussion about how our solar system was formed. Some were to defend the Big Bang, some argued it was an exploding star, and others claimed it was a collision of huge objects that ripped portions away from the sun to form the planets.

As the debate progressed, suddenly a girl stood up in defiance. She was noticeably upset with tears streaming down her face. “Why are we discussing this?” she cried, her voice trembling. “God created the entire universe.”

What happened next has stayed with me forever. Mr. Niblett, this logical man of science, spoke softly as he addressed her concerns. “We know He did, sweetie. We’re just trying to understand how He did it.” [1]

Unfortunately, it appears that not everyone grew up with that kind of experience.

Pastor Geniese Stanford of University United Methodist Church in Salina recently gave a 24 item United Methodist Values Inventory to students at Kansas Wesleyan University. More than half had some difficulty with at least one of the following three statements:

  1. I recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world.
  2. As science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.
  3. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible.

I’m concerned about that because the official stance of the United Methodist Church affirms those three statements word for word:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology. We recognize medical, technical, and scientific technologies as legitimate uses of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world. We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced. In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.” [2]

Now, in popular culture, the institutional church is often portrayed as conservative and reactionary while young people (like most college students) are considered more open-minded and easy going. So why did college students have trouble with three statements that the stodgy old United Methodist Church and most other Christian traditions affirm so readily?

As far as Pastor Stanford could tell, the answer was rooted in religious upbringings that viewed science with hostility at worst and indifference at best.

But that begs the question why did what they learned growing up differ so much from what the church officially teaches. That takes a little bit of explaining. The short answer is that in the here and now the larger “Christian Culture” has outflanked the church itself.

It wasn’t always so. Since the time of the early church, Christian theologians have used the term “plundering the Egyptians” for taking the best parts of the larger culture and putting it to use for Christian purposes.

The term “Plundering the Egyptians” is based on Exodus 12:35-36, in which the Israelites are finally leaving their slavery in Egypt for the promised land:

The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians. (NRSV)

As near as I can figure out, Irenaeus of Lyons first applied the term to the practice of taking the best of the larger culture and put it to Christian purposes. He was the first but not the last, it was taken up most famously by Augustine of Hippo and is still widely used by the church today.

And as science became part of culture, Christians began to take the insights of science and use them to better understand their faith and John Wesley was one of the most enthusiastic practitioners. For example, he not only experimented with electricity, but he also wrote a book titled: The Desideratum: or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful (1760) about the use of electricity in the field of medicine. And in 1763 he first published the multi-volume work: A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation; or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy. (Note: Isaac Newton labeled his studies of nature, not science but “natural philosophy.”)

According to historian and theologian Albert Outler, John Wesley was fascinated by the latest scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, and he had complete confidence that every advance into scientific truth would reveal, in Wesley’s words “the wisdom of God in creation to the eyes of faith.” [3]

Albert Outler: Wesley was “always supposing that whatever was true would help to illuminate God’s glory in and through his creation.” An expression of the widely accepted sentiment that “All truth is God’s truth.” [4]

This idea that the existence of God is revealed in the world and the universe around us is known as natural or general revelation. It’s not God’s fullest revelation, God’s most complete revelation was in the life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus Christ; but natural revelation is indeed from God. It cannot tell us how we should live, but it does point toward the God who created heaven and earth.

Scripture is the ultimate authority, but scripture is neither incompatible with nor threatened by science. This is not a new or unique way of looking at the issue. This viewpoint was nearly universal from the time of the early church, through John Wesley’s time and until the rise of Fundamentalism between 1909 and 1915.

Fundamentalism was born of some Christians’ fear of the modern world. It was an attempt to hold the line of a Christian worldview they felt was under attack. The idea was that you find the core truths of Christianity, the “fundamentals,” you draw a line around them in the sand, and you defend them at all costs.

There were five fundamentals. I can agree with the first four traditional ones, but not the fifth one, which was new:

  1. Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sin
  2. the reality of miracles
  3. the virgin birth
  4. Christ’s bodily resurrection
  5. The inerrancy of scripture as taken literally.

As the Theologian and Church Historian David Bentley Hart succinctly puts it: Inerrancy “went far beyond the traditional Christian belief in the divine inspiration and truthfulness in scripture; it meant that every single event reported in the Bible was historically factual, every word recorded therein literally true and every apparent contradiction unreal.” I’m not alone in rejecting inerrancy; this new doctrine “was contrary to almost all of Christian tradition, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.” [5]

As Adam Hamilton notes science and faith need only conflict if we insist on a literal and inerrant reading of all of scripture. [6] And so a conflict was born that had not existed before. But it’s not an unavoidable conflict. I know of no serious student of the Bible who took it that way for the first 1900 years of Christian history, and there is no need to take it that way now.

And if faith won’t pick a fight with science, science won’t pick a fight with the Christian faith because while individual scientists may or may not believe in God, science itself is agnostic; neither believing or unbelieving. Science does not assert nor deny the existence of God.

Science is a tool and like most tools, it can be used for good or evil. We don’t need to avoid or resist science, but as Christians, we do need to help guide and direct it in order to prevent its misuse.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his 1964 Nobel Lecture:

In spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers [and sisters]. …

This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern [hu]man[ity]. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. [7]

The solution to this serious predicament can be found in a hymn written by Charles Wesley for the first Methodist school:

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, that all shall see. [8]

We must pray for it and then work for it, all the while remembering that God created the universe and we’re only trying to figure out how God did it. With that understanding, our faith need not fear reason, our scriptures need not fear science and we need not fear anything. Amen.


NOTES

[1] Neal Wooten, “Science vs. Faith,” The Huffington Post, February 07, 2014, accessed May 14, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/neal-wooten/science-vs-faith_b_4745686.html.

[2] The United Methodist Church, “Social Principles: The Natural World—Science and Technology,” The United Methodist Church, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-natural-world.

[3] Albert Cook Outler, Evangelism and Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1996), 76-77.

[4] Albert Cook Outler, Evangelism and Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1996), 79.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith (New York: Quercus, 2015), 323.

[6] Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 188.

[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” Nobelprize.org, accessed May 16, 2017, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-lecture.html.

[8] The United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries, “Come, Father, Son, And Holy Ghost,” Discipleship Ministries, accessed May 16, 2017, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/come-father-son-and-holy-ghost. The quoted passage in its entirety is found on the pdf available on this web page.