Faith and Science
Sermon manuscript (final revision) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, August 30, 2014
Science is the pursuit of information about what is and of the skills to change the world. Science is the source of the periodic table, the geologic column, improved crop yields, medicine, airplanes, and smart phones.
Faith is a vision of how things ought to be. Faith is an enduring source of compassion, the pursuit of justice and peace and our reverence for the primacy of love and life.
Science helps us increase crop production. Faith tells us to share the technology and our own increase. Science gives us medicine. Faith challenges us to make it available to everyone. If we squelch science we are robbing the world of the tools for doing good. If we squelch faith, we are robbing the world of moral and spiritual vision. Both faith and science are gifts from God. We honor God when we encourage the pursuit of both.
I nearly became famous in the summer of 1971. I was building a fence around a hundred acres of scrub oak and eroded grass land in northern Mississippi. In places the clay was so hard that the tractor mounted auger we were using would simply spin on the surface. We'd have to dig the holes by hand with a digging bar and posthole diggers. We would dig a section then come back the next day to set the posts.
One day early on, as I prepared to drop a post into its hole, I noticed a critter in the bottom of the hole. I pulled it out. It was a shrew. Dead. I presumed starved to death because shrews have to eat all the time and there were no worms in the bottom of this clay-lined hole. At lunch I carried the shrew back to the trailer and got out my Peterson's Guide to North American Mammals. Nothing quite matched. I didn't think too much of it. Maybe it was an immature.
The next day, I found another shrew. It looked just like the first shrew. Again, I pulled out my Peterson's Field Guide, but I could not match up my shrew with any of those in the Field Guide. I found a third shrew. It looked just like the other two.
At this point, I started to get excited. Was it possible I had found a new species? No. Not possible. But just maybe. On the weekend I took my specimens home and gave them to a church member who was on the faculty of the biology department at the University of Memphis.
When I got back to town the next weekend, I called him. (This is in the days before cell phones.) He reported back to me that I was correct. My shrews were not in the Peterson Guide. However, it was not a new species. It was a rare, obscure species no one had studied, so almost nothing was known about it. But it did have a name. It had been catalogued. Still, the department would be happy for any more specimens I could provide.
I was thrilled. It was exciting to be part of science, to be part of the enterprise of expanding our knowledge of mammals.
Confronted with a dead shrew in the bottom of my post hole, my first questions were scientific questions: What is it? What does it eat? What kind of habitat does it live in? (The ground cover and soil type determined whether I would find shrews in my holes or not.)
But after my initial excitement about being part of science, other questions intruded. What about the poor shrews? How much pain and suffering in the shrew world could be justified by human scientific curiosity? How high a price for knowledge could I justify? Once I had the specimens the biology department wanted should I put sticks in the holes to serve as ladders so shrews could climb out?
These are not science questions. They are questions of faith—values, morality, compassion. We are not fully human if we don't ask these questions.
The title of my sermon today is Faith and Science. I'm not going to try to give us precise definitions of the terms. Instead I'm going to explore the respective neighborhoods associated with these words. I see both as divine gifts. To be fully human we must live in both neighborhoods.
Let's leave my shrews for a minute a look at a Bible story that illustrates the difference between faith and science.
One day Jesus and his disciples were walking along. They saw a beggar who had been born blind since birth.
"Rabbi," his disciples asked him, "why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents' sins?"
(John 9:2. NLT. Accessed through BlueLetterBible.com)
These are obviously questions of faith or religion. And Jesus gave the disciples a religious answer:
"It was not because of his sins or his parents' sins," Jesus answered. "This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.
[John 9:2-3,NLT. Accessed through BlueLetterBible.com]
Having said this, Jesus began mixing science and faith. He stooped down, spat in the dust, then with his finger spread the mud paste on the man's eyes. Then he told him, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam.”
Jesus' action grosses us out. Yuck. But in that culture spittle was regarded as therapeutic. And the spit of a miracle worker was a common vehicle for the power of healing. So Jesus was doing what a healer would do in that culture. Jesus was practicing medicine, doing applied science.
The man picked himself up and headed off to the spring. Jesus and his disciples kept walking the other direction.
The man got to the spring and washed the mud off his eyes. Then when he opened his eyes, he could see! The spit and mud worked! It was fantastic!
When he got back to his old neighborhood, pandemonium broke out. People shouting and hollering. How could this be? This guy had been blind for decades. They had never seen anything like this. How did it happen, people asked.
“Well,” the formerly blind man said, “The preacher named Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to go wash my eyes in the Pool of Siloam. When I did, I could see!”
The neighbors were thrilled and a little nervous. This healing happened on the Sabbath and routine healing was prohibited on the Sabbath. So the neighbors and the healed blind man headed off to talk with some conservative religious experts—they were called Pharisees.
The religious experts quizzed the guy. “Tell us what happened.” So he told them.
The experts thought for a minute, then they began arguing. Some of them said, with grave and sober demeanor, “This man Jesus cannot be a man of God. No godly person would heal on the Sabbath.”
Others said, “But how could a sinner do such miraculous signs? He must be a godly man.” The gospel reports there was a deep division of opinion among them.
Then the Pharisees again questioned the man who had been blind and demanded, “What’s your opinion about this man who healed you?” The man replied, “I think he must be a prophet.”
Notice how this story flips back and forth between questions of science and questions of faith. What happened? That's a science question. How do we know that this is the same man who was born blind?These were questions of fact and observation. They are the kinds of questions a scientist would ask.
What kind of shrew is it? How long is it? How much does it weigh? What does it eat? How long can it survive in a hole without food or water.
Then came the question of faith: What do you think about the man who did this? The formerly blind man gave a statement of faith. “He is a prophet.”
This movement from science—concrete knowledge of the world—to faith—visions of purpose and meaning, obligation and morality is an essential element of being human.
Our Old Testament reading illustrated this. Consider the stars. What does the grand sweep of sky and stars say about the place of humanity and the power that brought us into existence and sustains our lives? Dogmatic atheists insist the meaning of that grand, expansive vista is that there is no meaning, no purpose. Believers insist the meaning of the stars is that infinite power cares about us and intends to do us good.
It is important that a denial of meaning and purpose in the universe is a statement of faith, not a statement of science. Science cannot even ask a question of meaning, much less answer it.
When we come to church and celebrate faith, we are offering one another a vital human service that cannot be provided by any form of service. We are worshiping. We are supporting one another in the grandest human enterprise possible: we are affirming that life—even suffering and pain—have a beautiful purpose. The blind man who declared his healing had been done by a good man, by a prophet, by a person who represented the purpose of God.
And we declare that the beauty of the world, that instances of love and compassion, that our drive for peace and justice—all this is an expression of the highest intent in the universe, the purpose of God.
The religious leaders did not appreciate the blind man's interpretation. They did not approve of his faith.
“The healer cannot be a good man!” the religious leaders insisted. “A prophet would not do such a thing on Sabbath. The healer broke the Sabbath. He must be a sinner.”
The man refused to get sucked into their religious arguments. He retreated to science: “Here's what I know. I was blind and now I see.”
The religious leaders got really annoyed. They tried arguing with the man. “Tell us again just how it happened.”
“Look, I told you already.”
When the religious leaders could not persuade the man to change his story, they kicked him out of the synagogue.
In this story we see the interplay of faith and science. In the end, the science was incontrovertible. A man had been blind for years and now he could see. His healing happened in connection with the activity of a man named Jesus. When the information of science—observable, demonstrable facts—conflicted with the faith of the religious leaders, they did their best to get rid of the inconvenient fact: They kicked the guy out of the synagogue.
We can see that the religious leaders were foolish.
Right now some leaders in the Adventist Church are attempting to repeat this strategy of the Pharisees. Over the last hundred years the scientific evidence of an old earth has become increasingly compelling. Adventist scientists have wrestled with this evidence. And some of them have been quietly pointing out this evidence. In response, some Adventist religious leaders are trying exile these scientists. They figure if they can get rid of most of the scientists in the church, we can keep our historic religion unchanged.
To outsiders, these church leaders look a lot like the Pharisees in John 9.
On the flip side there are strident voices in the world claiming that science is sufficient to answer all questions. Some atheists even go so far as to argue that questions that can't be answered by science are not important. This is just as foolish as the Pharisaical attempt to deny the scientific facts.
In the story of the blind man, the scientific questions were not the most interesting.
An un-credentialed rabbi spat in the dust and rubbed the resulting mud on a blind man's eyes. When the blind man washed the mud off at the Pool of Siloam his blindness was cured.
Are you sure the man who can now see is the same man who had been blind for years?
This is all true. There were witnesses. But all this is merely set up or context for the most interesting question of all: What about this healer? How do you explain the healer?
Even in the Gospel of John, this question is understood to be a question of faith. And for 2000 years people have been wrestling with THIS question. It's completely outside science. But if we don't ask it, that would be evidence of our own diminished humanity. It would not be evidence of higher intelligence.
Faith and science ask and answer different questions.
My daughter spent this summer at Rosario Marine Biological Field Station doing research on a sea creature called an isopod. They were barely into the summer when Shelley and her partner, JoAnna Cowles, made a scientific discovery. Current literature says this species of isopod grows to a maximum size of four centimeters. Shelley and JoAnna found one six centimeters long. The complete life cycle of these isopods is not known. Shelley and JoAnna observed babies.
When I visited Rosario, Shelley and Joanna showed me their isopod hotel. Each isopod had its own room, bathed in a constant flow of fresh sea water. I could almost see the smile on their faces. (Well, not exactly.)
Everything I've told you up to this point is scientific—well, except the part about smiles on the isopod faces!
But next comes something utterly non-scientific. At the end of the research instead of dumping the excess isopods on the ground or in the Sound down the beach from the isopod hotel, the women transported the isopods several miles and returned them to their native habitat. Why?
It's an expression of faith, an expression of a value for the natural world that is completely outside the realm of pure science.
Obviously many scientists care deeply about the critters they study. Returning unneeded specimens to their native habitat is standard practice. But the value that drives that kind of behavior is outside the realm of science. Science can answer the question what is likely to happen if an isopod is dumped into salt water that does not have eel grass growing in it. But science cannot tell us we ought to put the isopods in a place where they are likely to thrive. That kind of respect for the life and well-being of a little sea critter comes from faith.
To return to the shrews in my postholes—there is no scientific reason to worry about shrews falling in holes I've dug. Science can tell me how many hours a shrew can go before it starves to death. Science can tell me what shrews eat. Science cannot tell me whether or not I should put sticks in my holes so shrews can climb out and not starve. Science can measure all the specimens I could collect. Science could not make a statement about the value of the life of a shrew.
Or a statement about the value of the life of a human being.
A few years ago a couple of my friends got into a debate about the relative value of religion and science. One of them, a devotee of science, said “If you care about the hungry people of the world, you won't waste your time preaching, you'll give people a science education. It's scientific advances that led to the increase in crop production and the reduction of starvation over the last fifty years. Science feeds people, not religion.”
It was an interesting point. But only partially true. It is true that it is science and technology are the tools that people have used to increase crop production faster than the world's population. But science carries no imperative to share that increased food production with hungry people.
It is faith that teaches us compassion for shrews who fall into post holes and for humans who find themselves in hungry places.
Science is one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding and managing our world. Science gives us medicine and food. It also gives us bombs and IEDs.
It is faith that teaches us to use the tools of science for good. The religion of Jesus calls us to do all in our power to make the world a better place. Science is an indispensable tool in carrying out that mission.
Faith supplies the vision of what that better world looks like.
Faith teaches us to join with God in dreaming of a world beyond pain and suffering, a world where injustice and death has been replaced by harmony and life. It is faith that insists that love is the highest value, that love, in fact, is the best, highest description of God and his universe.
Let us aim for that perfect blend of science and faith that will make us skillful and effective in shaping the world according to the vision of God.