August 23, 2015

Religion and/or Science?!?

Rev. Pam Serdar


Psalm 8


            When Bishop Ough visited us last week, and he heard that I had invited you to give me topics for the summer sermon series, he said, “that was brave—I’m not sure I would have done that!” Sometimes it does feel like going where angels fear to tread, but I am enjoying it, and I hope you all are too. I love to hear your comments after, too!

I admit that I am quite easily moved. When we were on the women’s canoe trip in early August, we got to experience the sight of a huge swarm of mosquitos being eaten by a graceful dance of large dragonflies that continued for the better part of an hour. It looked like an aerial acrobatic ballet, and we were awed by the grace and wonder of it all. Now I know that what we were watching has a scientific explanation—we had not seen mosquitos for most of the trip because it was incredibly windy with 35-mile-an-hour wind gusts. Since mosquitos can only fly about 1.5 miles an hour they were pretty much grounded until the last evening. The winds died down, and the mosquitos started to swarm, most likely hungry after several high-wind-warning days. The dragonflies were hungry too, though, and they fly about 60 miles per hour. They eat dragonflies, so we were simply witnessing a feeding frenzy. But the beauty of these large dragonflies darting and whirling and never crashing into each other as they flew back and forth and up and down in a space maybe 25 feet in diameter at 60 miles per hour. Truly awe-inspiring. Ancient peoples might have called it a miracle—sending dragonflies to rescue us from the mosquitos. Not sure the mosquitos thought so—awe is often a matter of perspective.

            On the other hand, I once knew a man who told me that the only thing he had ever seen that had impressed him was the Grand Canyon. As one who weeps over dragonflies and lilacs, baby’s fingers and autumn leaves, and yeast making bread rise, I mourned for him that he was overcome with awe only once in his life.

          From Wikia, “In his 1982 book Critical Path, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that if we took all the knowledge that humankind had accumulated and transmitted by the year One CE as equal to one unit of information, it probably took about 1,500 years, until the sixteenth century, for that amount of knowledge to double. The next doubling of knowledge from two to four 'knowledge units' took only 250 years, till about 1750 CE. By 1900, one hundred and fifty years later, knowledge had doubled again to 8 units. The speed at which information doubled was getting faster and faster. The doubling speed is now between one and two years. …

When plotted on a graph this “The Knowledge Doubling Curve“ looks like a J curve (see diagram) but the curve is not smooth. Certain key events have been like thresholds. The invention of writing, then of printing (first in China then later in Europe) were significant thresholds. The printing of the Bible was an important precursor to the emergence of Quakerism in 17th Century England, which led to Quakers coming to the new world, which led to…. The invention of the World Wide Web, … allowed for exponential increase in the speed of knowledge doubling, and IBM predicts that ….recorded knowledge will very soon be doubling every 11 hours, if it isn’t already.

The problem with our thinking about this is that for some, we have come to a place that for our knowledge to increase, it means that God’s mystery (or we might call it, what we take on faith) decreases by the same amount. God gets smaller as or knowledge gets bigger. This pits science against faith, and some folks think that they have to choose between one or the other, desperately cling to faith or to science in spite of new information, or let go of one as they increase in knowledge of the other.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we have misunderstood what faith is. Faith in God is not like believing in fairies or jackalopes. Faith isn’t about believing in a literal 6 days of creation, even if you allow for “days” really being eons long. Faith isn’t about believing in evolution or not. On the other hand, science isn’t about how we seek justice. And science isn’t about how we love our neighbors.

Faith is about whether I am willing to put my whole trust in God. Faith is about if I will live my life in accordance with loving my neighbor. Sometimes belief (head knowledge) and faith (heart knowledge) over lap. For example, I believe in gravity, and I have faith that it will keep me from flying off the planet. I can read the story of the day being lengthened by God so that the Hebrew people could prevail against the Amorites in Joshua 10, and know that that would require the earth to stop rotating and then gravity would fail, and then, well it wouldn’t be good. I don’t take that as a science lesson on gravity, but a theological lesson about the perceived passing of time in battle and pulling off a victory that seemed impossible—and giving God the glory for inspiring and strengthening the people on to victory. Another biblical example: the demons—however you define demons--in the Newer testament stories believe in Jesus as the embodiment of God; they name him that way before the disciples get it. But they don’t turn their lives and their living over to God. They don’t walk in the way of Jesus, working for healing and justice and peace. We can translate that in modern terms: I know people who say they don’t believe in Halloween. I have to say I believe in Halloween—I see it celebrated before my eyes, it is a real holiday in this country. That doesn’t mean, however, that I trust in it in any way other than that is usually a great excuse to dress up and buy candy.

            For me, part of the conflict between science and religion is that we get belief and trust and knowledge and how we live our lives all up in a tangled knot. Some folks feel their faith is threatened if the Bible is not literally “true” in the sense that all the events could have been videotaped. We forget the knowledge curve—remember that the curve starts at one unit in the year 1 Common Era (or AD). Knowledge doesn’t double until about 1500 years later. The Bible was canonized (the leadership decided what was in and what was out, hopefully being in tune, at least partially, with the Spirit) around the 4th century. There is no way that the people of the time could have compiled it having any concept of the knowledge we have today, whether it be in physics or biology or chemistry or any other field. Science, as such, was not even a thing at that time in the way we know it today. The leadership wouldn’t have recognized the significance of such writings even if they had been available. Example: pollution of the earth or overpopulation would not have been mentioned because the technology to pollute on any kind of scale and the possibility to procreate to the numbers of people we have today would have been completely unimaginable.

            Some say that the Bible is literally God’s word, and thus, for example, even though science says the earth orbits around the sun, the Bible names the earth as the center, with the sun rotating around it (that is why Joshua in Joshua 10 commands the sun to stand still; he didn’t know it already does). Some would say we are just being misled by science and the earth really is in the center of the universe and is flat. Likewise with the dinosaurs—some say that is either a trick being played on us, or humans lived when dinosaurs did, and the earth is less than 10,000 years old. But the Bible isn’t the fourth member of the Trinity, and this kind of fundamentalism is a modern issue, a result of the Age of Enlightenment. The Bible wasn’t fact-checked against science before the last few hundred years because we didn’t have the tools to do it. Which, for me, is a reminder that the Bible was written by human beings to record their experiences of God, filtered through their human bodies and lived experiences, when they were filled with awe, or filled with anger, or filled with hope, or yearning to be out from under the yoke of an oppressor. They were looking for a way to be in the world that would bring about the best for them and their community in the oldest writings, and later for the whole of humanity and creation. The Bible was never meant to be a science text book, and science has never meant to answer questions like “Who is my neighbor? How many times should I forgive? Why is there so much evil in the world? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

            Some might say, “If the Bible isn’t literally true in the way we understand scientific truth and historic truth today, why use it at all?” For me, I understand the Older and Newer Testaments as written to set humanity on a trajectory towards justice and love. For example, a Jewish person prior to Jesus time was considered righteous if that person forgave someone 3 times. When Peter asks Jesus (Matthew 18:21-22) how many times he should forgive, Peter suggests 7 times. We see growth in Peter’s suggestion, since like the number 3, the number 7 has significance in Hebrew theology—7 is a perfect number, a complete number, a bigger better number. Peter made a pretty good guess! You remember Jesus’ answer though, is 77 times or 70 times 7 (depending on the translation), but either way, the understanding is that you forgive as many times as the person transgresses, and definitely that you don’t keep count on a spreadsheet. (And if that is how humans should live, then that would be a minimum threshold for God to relate to us.) It’s an infinite theology of growth and change in life, whether it be spiritual or mental or bodily or emotional.

            God isn’t threatened by our scientific endeavors. Scientists are often just as awed looking through a microscope or telescope as I am looking at an iridescent beetle. God is probably more worried that we use our technology and science in ways that benefit creation and all its critters, human and otherwise. Destruction of this amazing planet and all upon it is not part of God’s dream for us. Fouling our own nest is not a way to give praise to God. Finding more and more lethal ways to destroy each other and the planet doesn’t bring glory to God. God is more worried about how we use our discoveries than the discoveries themselves. For example, is it love of God and neighbor to spend billions of dollars on developing more deadly weapons when millions of people are starving in the world? Is it love of God and neighbor to reserve healthcare for those who can afford it? Is it love of God and neighbor to move low-skilled jobs overseas and then complain that people aren’t working? Does love of God and neighbor include war? I know war is in the Bible and I also know that in the older testament, God is said to command war and even to destroy all that lives on the conquered territory. Remember what I said about a trajectory, though. Jesus doesn’t stand for violent uprising, to the disappointment of many of the Hebrew people of the time.

            I do believe scientific discoveries that tell us how the earth and human beings came about. I love the poetry of Genesis 1 that God speaks the earth and all of creation into being, and I believe it too. I love the earthiness of the second creation story of Genesis 2, which, by the way, is in a different order of creation than Genesis 1. And I sleep very, very well holding all of these things in tension. I, like the biblical authors, have my moments of awe and inspiration that may not hold up to modern scientific methods. I appreciate what science has done to make folks able to live healthier lives, or to peer back in time with carbon-dating, or speculate about life on other planets. And so I continue to delve deeper into the spiritual things, and the scientific things, and shout and whisper, Alleluia, You are truly an awesome God!