For the last two weeks I have tried to lay a foundation on which we could build a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and modern science. Two weeks ago we talked about the breakdown in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the traditional authorities – how feudal politics had been replaced by the uncertainties of democracy, static understandings of biology had been eroded by Darwin, simplistic understandings of the human psyche collapsed by Freud, the authority of the church undermined by Luther, and the certainty of the Bible compromised by Higher Criticism. One reaction to crisis is to rigidly proclaim there are certainties in life, and from this reaction sprung Biblical Fundamentalism, which asserts that every word in the Bible is literally true, inspired by God, and authoritative for life. I proposed a middle way of understanding the Bible, which recognizes that the Book is a richly layered tapestry of history, law, poetry, and story, all of which must be read with their own integrity. I also suggested that the Bible is a window through which we see God, and not God itself, so, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we always listen for the Word in, under, around, and through the words. Last week we looked at the difference between the Greek worldview, which carves reality up into often opposing categories of material and non-material reality
Today let’s think about the leading edge of the war between fundamentalism and American culture: the argument between modern geology and biology, which believes that life on earth has evolved by adaptation over enormously long periods of time, and Creationism or its more generic companion, Intelligent Design, which believes that life as it exists was created by purposeful design by an outside force, God.
In the ancient world, people believed that the world was itself a living organism with the qualities of divinity. To understand the world, you did not dissect it to discover how it worked – you learned its purpose and use. Furthermore, to dissect the world for experiment was a dangerous thing to do, because the world was divine. This worldview persisted into the Middle Ages.
It was in fact the rise of Judeo-Christian theology that gave birth to modern science. God and the world were not the same thing, Jews and Christians said: in fact, God had created the world and stood outside it. The world was a good thing – God had created it to be enjoyed – and believers were encouraged by the Bible to use their senses to explore and discover this wonderful gift of God. This separation of the world from the being of God, added to the affirmation of the senses as the means to know truth, gave people like Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century the freedom to begin to dissect the world and its pieces to learn how it worked. Bacon is the real father of modern science, which defines truth by whether it can be observed empirically – through the senses -- and repeated. There are many, many ironies about the supposed conflict between faith and science, and this is the first: modern, empirical science proceeds from Christian theology and its distinction between Creator and Creation.
Modern science, then, is about observation, predictability, and repetition. This is an absolutely – to make a pun – fundamental point. If something cannot be observed, if it cannot be predicted, if it cannot be repeated, then modern science cannot claim it is true. So Darwin’s observations about fossil data and adaptation were combined with other observations into a pattern: the theory of evolution. A scientific theory is not a guess – it is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers.
Now, any of you who are expecting me to trash Darwin are going to be disappointed. I am neither a scientist nor the son of a scientist, but scientists are virtually unanimous that the observable evidence in the world points to life adapting over enormously long periods of time. That’s the apparent empirical reality.
The question is, is empirical – observable, testable, repeatable, predictable reality – the only reality? There are some people – some of whom are scientists, who would say so. But, can you prove, or predict, or empirically test love? Can you test or prove or dissect beauty? Or sorrow? Or envy? Or joy? They are real. So perhaps not all reality is empirical, scientific reality. The insistence that all reality, all truth, must be empirical is a heresy – taking a part of the truth and treating it as if it were the whole.
The task of science is to explain how things work. It cannot explain why the world exists. That is the task of theology. Just as science has its authorities – empirical observations repeated by detached researchers – theology has its authorities as well. But with the larger crisis of authority I talked about two weeks ago and a few minutes ago, there’s a debate about what our authority for faith is and how it is used.
Biblical fundamentalists, we’ve said, insist their authority for everything they believe is the inerrant, literally inspired words of the Bible. Therefore, if Genesis 1 says that God created the world in a particular sequence, or in a specified time frame, or created plants and animals in their present form, then that must be literally true. How, then, do we reconcile that conviction with the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary? Well, Creationists do that in many different ways, some of which are remarkably gymnastic. My concern with Creationism and its twin sister, Intelligent Design, is not scientific, but theological.
Many people view Christian fundamentalists as highly irrational. The irony is that fundamentalism, which is only about one hundred years old, relies not upon a claim the Bible makes about itself, but upon a rational argument. If this word is not literally true, fundamentalists claim, then this sentence, and this paragraph, and this chapter, this book, and, indeed, the whole Bible, may not be true. If the Bible is inspired by an infallible God, then every part of it must be infallible as well. Aside from the fact that reasoning’s not Biblical, this is a deeply flawed argument. It assumes there is only one kind of truth – literal truth. Indeed, empirical truth.
Thus the second irony of fundamentalism, especially with regard to the Creationist debate. When fundamentalists contort scientific evidence to try to make it fit the Biblical story, they’re embracing the same heresy as bad scientists who say that the only reality is literal reality. Unless the world was created in this way, say the fundamentalists, then the whole Bible is questionable, and our faith has no foundation. That’s a rationalist, empirical argument that only holds if there’s no other form of reality. But what about poetry, beauty, metaphor, allusion, and parable? What about love and joy and peace and hope? They can’t be touched or proved, but aren’t they real, too? Or does inspiration only count if it is literal? That’s the argument of an empiricist.
Science tells us how the world was created. But it can never tell us why. That’s the work of faith. What terrifies me about the Creation vs. Evolution debate is that some Christians seem so obsessed with how the world was created that we’re no longer talking about why it was created. To use a Biblical image, we are selling our inheritance – helping people encounter a God who loves them and wants them to live the abundant life – for a mess of empirical, scientific cabbage. Thinking unbelievers are looking for a connection to a world beyond what we can see and touch and reason. Science can’t make that connection; if we don’t, then it makes no difference what else we believe.Can God make the world in six twenty-four hour days? Of course. Can God make a virgin give birth, change water into wine, raise the dead, make the sun stand still, heal a leper, and enable people to walk across water? Of course. Blindfolded, left handed, behind the back, in God’s spare time.
If you believe God made the world in six days, that’s absolutely fine. But if you believe it took six billion years, that’s fine, too. Neither our salvation nor the fate of the world hangs on that conviction. So whether we are Creationist Fundamentalist or Darwinian Scientist, let’s not waste another moment arguing how we got here when the whole world is literally dying to know why.