Part of the focus in our “Doubt, Deconstruction & Redemption” Series this year has been to make space for faithful Christians to ask hard questions that deserve to be asked and thoughtfully answered. Two big types of questions both Christians and non-Christians often ask are:
“How does Christianity fit into a world full of other religions? Is Jesus really worth following amidst so many different religious founders through the centuries?”
“What is the relationship between science and faith? How do the scientific discoveries of the last 400 years resonate or clash with the claims of Christianity?”
This is Part 2 of our SOUNDINGS series addressing those two questions. Part 1, on world religions, is HERE.
Today, we are sharing a sermon Bill gave back in 2008 on the ways scientific discoveries could and should interact with, and even deepen, our faith. He draws upon numerous sources and stories to make his case and answers a few of the most pressing questions we face in this arena. We hope you’ll be blessed by reading or listening to this helpful reflection!
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.“
If you have ever had significant doubts about your faith in God, or are in the middle of them, congratulations! You’re in good company. The Bible is a book that doesn’t hide the humanness of its heroes, or their doubts. It is full of people who, one way or the other, doubted God in some significant way.
A shortlist from the Old Testament would include Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, Job, and others. Then in the New Testament, we have this: After three years with Jesus, after all the miracles, after all the teaching, after the crucifixion and resurrection, after the post-resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, STILL among the 11 disciples, we read in Matthew 28:17— “and when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” In other words, it wasn’t just Thomas among the apostles who had trouble believing what they were seeing at first.
From this, we can glean some encouraging truths very quickly.
- The presence of doubt does not negate the ability (or impulse) to worship.
- The presence of doubt does not mean the absence of faith.
- The presence of immediate doubt does not remove the possibility of ultimate rock-solid faith that can go the distance, even to martyrdom.
Oswald Chambers says that “doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking.” One could perhaps say that, in fact, squarely facing our doubts is required for a rock-solid faith.
It was in the mid-90s, in the middle of an 18-month trip around the world, asking all my big questions in spite of their possible conclusions, that I encountered this encouragement to doubt from Os Guinness. His words have encouraged me to ask big questions ever since:
“If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith grows stronger still. It knows God more certainly, and it can enjoy God more deeply.”
In other words, doubt examined is our friend, and leads either to jettisoning that which is found wanting, or to an examined belief that is much stronger for having asked the questions. I would hasten to add this aggressive posture is quite different from unexamined doubts that over time have the effect of atrophy and eventually paralysis.
If we have doubts, we must doubt boldly, pray much, read widely, talk to those we trust, think hard, come to our conclusions, and then live those with integrity and abandon. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We might also say that an unexamined faith is hard to live and very hard to sustain.
For this reason, I’m grateful for Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. He encourages us to ask some tough questions and bring our minds to them in pursuit of a deeper faith. And the of his big questions is on Science vs. Faith. For too many people, the findings of science become a barrier to the faith they’ve known or been taught. And that’s a shame. To get into this, let’s remember a fact, correct a fiction, and challenge a false dichotomy.
It is a fact that many of the world’s most influential scientists, historically and currently, have been deeply Christian in their faith and in some cases whose Christianity deeply drove their science. Among them would be Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Mendel, Kelvin, and many others. Closer to our era would be the likes of John Polkinghorne, Michael Heller, Frank Tipler, and Francis Collins. Interestingly, studies show that you find more of these people of faith in hard sciences than soft sciences. Interesting. Nonetheless, that there have been and are many scientists who are people of deep faith is a fact.
The prevailing notion that the overwhelming majority of scientists today do not believe in a God, or an Absolute Being, is a fiction. Sparking much controversy, the journal Nature published and The New York Times reported on a study done in the mid-to-late-90s that more than 40% of the surveyed scientists in our day believe not just in a God, but in a God who “actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray ‘in expectation of an answer.’” That percentage does not include those who believe in some sort of Absolute Being who exists but does not communicate or answer prayers, which would be another large portion of today’s scientists. It is interesting these results almost duplicated the same findings done in an identical survey in 1916.
The ongoing dispute of this survey and various interpretations of it are handled extensively in Keller’s book, and it’s worth your time to read them in Chapter 6. Simply, most scientists today believe in some sort of Divine Mind that has enabled some sort of order in creation and the universe. Keller concludes his thoughts on this point by challenging the false dichotomy between science and faith:
“Even though the concept of warfare between science and religion has much popular credence, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we have to choose between the two, or that if you want to be a Christian you will have to be in conflict with science. There is no disjunction between science and devout faith.”
In other words, science vs. faith is a false dichotomy.
The notion that science and faith were opposite and mutually exclusive realms in antagonism with one another began in earnest during the Enlightenment and picked up an immense amount of steam in America in the early 1900s, when the debates about evolution were raging. In many Christian circles, this eventually led to a sort of litmus test for orthodoxy around one’s thoughts about how the world was made and man created.
In those circles of my hometown, Wheaton Illinois, in the early 80s, how one answered the question “young earth vs. old earth” would get you branded as “conservative” or “liberal.” I asked my mother-in-law about her former church, a large evangelical church in Indianapolis, as to whether or not a person could question the more traditional teachings on creation, to which she said, “Sure, if you wanted an argument!” This inability to interact with the questions that science poses to faith only enhances the false dichotomy between science and faith.
And the more you read of contemporary scientists across the spectrum of disciplines who are accomplished, decorated, respected, AND deeply Christian, you hear the same plea—faith and science are not only not discordant, they exist in harmony. Held together, they sing songs of praise in worship to God our Father and His Son Jesus Christ. So says Francis Collins, who headed the team which successfully mapped all 3 billion letters of the human genome.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2007, Colling spoke of the voices that argue that the scientific and spiritual worldviews are incompatible. “But,” he says, “I am here to tell you that these different ways of finding truth are not only compatible, they are wondrously complementary.” He went on to say “Being a believer enables me to see scientific discovery in a whole new light. In that context, science becomes not only a means of discovery, but of worship.”
All the Christian scientists I’m quoting today are ridiculously accomplished, respected in their fields, and honored. John Polkinghorne, the British physicist, is also an Anglican priest, and says,
“I stand before you as somebody who is both physicist and a priest, and I want to hold together my scientific and my religious insights and experiences. I want to hold them together, as far as I am able, without dishonesty and without compartmentalism. I don’t want to be a priest on Sunday and a physicist on Monday; I want to be both on both days.”
For those of us who aren’t physicists or priests, we could say I want to learn more about the way God made things and praise him every day.
Another scientist/priest is Michael Heller, a Polish Catholic who was awarded this year’s Templeton Prize. His field is cosmology, the study of the universe. According to Wikipedia, that inerrant resource, his current research is concerned with the singularity problem in general relativity and the use of noncommutative geometry in seeking the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics.
He says, “I am frequently asked how I can reconcile science and religion. When such a question is posed by a scientist or a philosopher, I invariably wonder how educated people could be so blind not to see that science does nothing else but exploits God’s creation.”
Collins, the geneticist, looks through powered microscopes and speaks of DNA as the ‘language of God.’ Heller, the cosmologist, looks at things further than the Hubble Telescope can see, and says ‘the language of God is mathematics.’ And both of them say that knowledge gained through science leads to praising the source of all knowledge and creator of all things… God. Here they echo America’s prolific theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who believed the scientific discoveries of his day (and Newton’s in particular) opened the door to see the “regularity, harmony, and beauty” of God. Johannes Kepler, the profoundly influential 16th-century mathematician and astronomer, believed that “the chief end of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God.”
Science to discover, God to worship, and knowledge to use.
Knowledge once discovered not only gives us insights into how God made things, but also enables us to accomplish his purposes of creation and redemption for the common good. Take medicine as a simple example of this. The more we understand how God made the human body, the more we are able to be his agents of healing. Praise God for doctors and nurses and the knowledge base they work with!
And yet, in certain cases, the more we are able to be vessels of God’s power, the more he is able to heal in ways that science has yet to understand. Recently, some folks from our church, St. Brendan’s in the City, went on a mission trip to India. I would hasten to say these are normal people, like you and me, and there they were unexpectedly called on several occasions to lay hands on the sick, and pray for their healing. And on several occasions, people were healed! How did that happen? Maybe one day we’ll know the details, but it won’t change that it was the power of God that did it, through the power of prayer.
It could be argued that science and faith need each other. Pope John Paul the Great argues:
“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… We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.”
Both Heller and Collins, and others, agree. Science tells us how, religion tells us why, and– I would add– faith enables a living, loving relationship with the Who.
In some cases, science can lead certain people to the Who as well. Science can lead to faith. In my research for this sermon, it became almost laughable to encounter again and again scientists who were convinced atheists who came to faith in Jesus, and sometimes precisely because of their science. Frank Tipler is such an example. He’s a mathematical physicist, and a controversial one at that, as he has sought to apply the laws of physics to the concepts of immortality and Christian doctrine. As complex as that sounds, his conversion story is by his own account, relatively simple to explain. He was an atheist, and his study of physics led him to Christ:
“When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”
As striking as that is, the story of Antony Flew is perhaps more so. We can praise God that Flew became a Deist! A philosopher and for 50 years one of the world’s leading atheists, in 2007 he published his book entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. What changed his mind was scientific advancements, particularly DNA science, and the logical progression of his own thought which led to the inability to ascribe to luck the conditions needed to create life. While Flew is as of now still a committed Deist, and the afterword of his book is a dialogue with NT Wright about the resurrection of Jesus. Who knows? Pray for him.
The insight from Robert Jastrow, founder and longtime director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, is a description of what happened to Flew, and has happened to many:
“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning, God created heaven and earth… [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Of course, science will not always lead a scientist, or anyone else to faith, particularly if they are unwilling or unwanting in the first place to see God. It’s been well observed that the reason an atheist cannot find God is the same reason a thief cannot find a policeman. A person’s presuppositions are of great influence when they approach these questions, and those presuppositions in and of themselves are acts of faith. There is no such thing as a person who doesn’t have faith. It’s just a matter of what a person’s faith is in. And as much as presuppositions matter– perhaps more so– a person’s predisposition matters. CS Lewis, another former atheist, observed, “For what a person sees and hears depends not only on where they are standing, but also on what sort of person you are.”
We’ve covered a lot… there are a lot of great scientists who have faith in Jesus Christ, science vs. faith is a false dichotomy, they need each other and work best together, science rightly understood leads to praise and can even lead to faith. At this point, it would be the right time to invite you to stop reading, walk out the door, sit outside in the sun, contemplate the fact that that light traveled over 90 million miles to kiss your face, let the heat remind you of the enfolding embrace of the presence of God, and be with him.
But before we can do that, there are some sharp questions to at least touch, for they are likely in our minds, or should be, and these questions matter too.
What about miracles?
If you believe in a God who intervenes in the affairs of humans, miracles are not that hard or even illogical to believe. But let’s narrow the question and look at Jesus. Our Epistle this morning, Colossians 1:15-17, tells us that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, by whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth. All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Jesus is the creator and the sustainer of all things. Jesus knows, and knew, how things work, and he knows and knew how to fix them, and he knows and knew how to manipulate them for his purposes. Jesus, fully human and fully God, not only had the authority to do miracles, he knew how to. At least, that’s the opinion of Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy. Willard writes,
“At the literally mundane level, Jesus knew how to transform the molecular structure of water to make it wine. That knowledge also allowed him to take a few pieces of bread and some little fish and feed thousands of people. He could create matter from the energy he knew how to access from God’s realm, right where he was. He knew how to transform the tissues of the human body from sickness to health and from life to death… and so on… All these things show Jesus’ cognitive and practical mastery of every phrase of reality: physical, moral, and spiritual. He is not just nice, he is brilliant.”
And, he is God, with all authority, power, and knowledge.
What of the conflict between evolutionary science and the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2?
Well, it will be a conflict if we read Genesis 1 and 2 as we would a scientific textbook, as do some Christians with a high view of Scripture. But it is very possible to have a high view of Scripture and not read these chapters this way. Whenever we approach the Bible to find out what it is saying– when we do exegesis– we seek first to understand what the author meant to say, and to do that, we must understand the genre of the particular text— that is, its literary form. There are many different genres, different forms of writing, and this is of course true of the Bible. You read a text differently according to its genre—whether it is poetry, prophecy, apocalypse, history, eyewitness narrative, epistle, etc.
The early chapters of Genesis are among the most tightly and conscientiously structured and highly patterned in the whole Bible. You can see this in the English translations if you’re looking for it, and it is abundantly evident in the Hebrew. Genesis 1 is not seeking first to describe the science of how creation happened– the mechanics in fine and complete detail– but rather seeks to display who created it and why. And that point shines clearly through— In the beginning, it was God who created everything, and creation had order and design, and it was good. God’s very good and masterpiece creations were human beings, in whom his own image could be seen, and mankind was to take care of all that God had created and be in perfect relationship with God and with each other.
A person can have a very high view of Scripture and not feel constrained to interpret Genesis 1 as a literal chronological account of creation. Now, many Christians don’t take this view, and many Christians do take this view, including Tim Keller in his book. This view does not imply that the whole Bible ought not to be taken literally. Again, one has to take into account the genre of what is being written, and the author’s original intent. So for example, when Luke writes at the beginning of his Gospel that he is intending to write a factual and orderly narrative of the life of Jesus, that’s what he does. And it’s the greatest story ever told, the True Story that makes everything else make sense, including creation.
Maybe you’re a person who doesn’t accept the story of Jesus as fact. If you struggle to embrace Jesus as God, and certain assertions of science are among the reasons why, that’s OK. Your questions are valid. But I would say, ask those questions with much greater intensity than you have, and expand the field of possibility for your answers. And along the way, simply ask God to lead you and show you.
If you’re a Christian who finds yourself struggling to embrace Christianity wholeheartedly because of nagging questions that scientific discoveries have raised, the same is true for you— your questions are valid. But the encouragement is the same too. Ask your questions with more intensity, and commit yourself to get the answers. But do so with the knowledge that science and faith may not be as incompatible as you’ve come to believe.
For those bothered by the assertions of this decade’s crop of evangelistic atheists, don’t let them bother you. While there are some good reasons to pay attention to what they assert and work with it, at the end of the day, CS Lewis sums it well when he writes, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell.”
For all of us, make a point in the next month to read a good book exploring the relationship between faith and science, like Francis Collins’ The Language of God, or pick up a National Geographic for the purpose of praise. In the next week, make a point to take a long walk outside, with eyes wide open to recognize the handiwork of our Creator God and let his canvas lead you to worship. And today, make a point of letting each person you see lead you to contemplate in them the image of God who created them.
If you’re a person whose vocation is to work in the sciences, I offer you a blessing: May what you see in the laboratory lead you to praise in the sanctuary.
It seems right to close with this Psalm of praise: