Note: the following was originally delivered as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 26, 2015.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5
One of the questions I get most when a new friend finds out I’m a Christian, is some variation of this: How can you believe that stuff?
The “stuff” part of that is always different. Some folks have difficultly believing in a virgin birth. Others a literal resurrection. Others that there is a life after this one. And I tell them that there are good Christians who have a variety of different beliefs on “that stuff”, and that a large part of being a Christian is living between faith and doubt, and not always being 100% sure, but being open to a greater truth.
So that’s what happens sometimes. Other times I get a question like this: “Do you really believe that this world was created in six days?” Or, “Do you really think Darwin was wrong? Do you reject evolution?” Or, my favorite, “What about the dinosaurs?”
I get questions like this all the time. They are all a little different, but all variations on the same theme: how do we reconcile faith and science?
And, in a world where things are given credence only when there is scientific proof, how do we believe without it? And I’ve recently had some of you ask me if I would preach a sermon on these questions, so that’s part of why I’m doing this today.
They’re good questions. And they’re not questions that are easily answered. Or, I should say, they are not easily answered in this particular church and others like it.
Because in some churches they are. I knew people growing up who believed that the earth was created in six, 24 hour days. They believed that this happened a few thousand years ago. And they believed that anyone who believed otherwise was not a real Christian.
It always troubled me to hear that. I wanted to be a good believer, but one of my favorite places in town was the science center and planetarium. And I couldn’t reconcile what I heard those loudest voices of Christianity in my town say with what I learned when I went to the science museum and saw the exhibit on the dinosaurs. Because they had lived long before a few thousand years ago, and things just didn’t add up.
And on a few occasions I even heard Christians say that God had put the dinosaur bones on the earth to test our faith. If we were real believers, we wouldn’t be distracted by them and we wouldn’t stray from the story: God created us in six, 24 hour days.
I could never accept that. I’m grateful that I’ve never been a member of a church that has asked me to check my brain at the door. I’m thankful for a faith that tells me to glorify God not just with my soul, but with my mind.
But not every church is like that. When my a friend of mine’s sister in law had her first child, my friend sent them a box filled with things for the baby. One of the things in the box was a picture book about dinosaurs. They called her and angrily demanded that she never send anything of the sort again because “real Christians didn’t believe in things like that.” My friend, who considered herself a good Christian, was baffled.
I feel baffled sometimes too. I love the Bible. I take the Bible very seriously. I think it contains an inherent truth about who God is and how God loves us. But I also think that taking the Bible seriously is different than reading it mindlessly. Faith is too precious, and God’s creation too extraordinary, to approach God’s word with anything less than our full selves; minds included.
But learning how to do that has been a process. Like I said, I loved science as a child. I loved that science museum and its exhibits. Everything was fascinating to me. And in a real way I credit that first interest in science with inspiring the big questions that led me to theology.
If there are all these stars in the sky, all these galaxies, how did they get there? Who created these dinosaurs? Who created a universe that even the greatest scientific minds of our generation cannot explain?
I had a Biology teacher in ninth grade who was also a Christian. One day in class a more fundamentalist classmate was asking her how she could believe the things she believed about how old the world was and still be a Christian. She responded simply that even if she didn’t believe that the world was created in six, 24 hour days, she still believed that God created the world. Genesis, while not a literal timeline of the beginning of the world, was true to her none-the-less. God’s hand was no-less a part of creation in her scientific view than it was in their literal view.
That always rang true with me. That idea that taking something literally and taking something faithfully are two different things. That God’s involvement in the world is not something that can be quantified and understood by our human measurements. That God’s work of creation can stand on its own and does not need to be supported by living in a scientific world and believing literally a story told by pre-scientific people. Especially one that seeks to explain what we as humans, of whatever age, will never be able to fully explain.
Because God could have created the world in a second. God did not need six days. And God could have created the world over the course of millenia, always active in creation, always working, always transforming. Because God is creating the world, and all of us, even still today.
And that means God is still creating our ways of understanding the world. Back when the books that make up this book were written, thousands of years ago, and over hundreds of years, the world looked so different.
The Bible is a pre-scientific book. It comes from an era before this one, one in which human beings did not know all that we now know. But we are now living in a scientific world, and sometimes it doesn’t translate well. We know the world is not flat, heaven is not literally just above the clouds, and the world is more than 6000 years old. But that doesn’t mean that this book is worthless. Because it still holds truth. It just means we have to read it in a different way than we read a science textbook. And we have to say “both ways are valid”. Read it like poetry. Read it like inspiration. Read it like a testament to the greater truth of God.
Because if you can do that, you will find something great…you will find that you can see the world itself in new ways. And that can be a gift.
And that’s also the other side of this. Because the other half of the questions about faith and science that I get are about this: how do we know? How do we know God is real? How do we know that God loves us? How do we know it’s true?
It’s not like back when you had to do a project for the science fair. This is not like scientific knowledge. Because, great truths are discovered through the scientific method. It would be a whole lot easier if we could approach faith that way. But there’s no controlled experiment, no equation that can yield us a definitive answer. It doesn’t work that way.
I’d love it if we could do that?. Wouldn’t you? But faith, just like science, is not that simple. It means taking risks. It means opening your mind to new things. And it means being willing to be changed by new discoveries.
Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always allowed here. And your questions, your search for God’s love, with your heart and soul and mind, will always be respected. To do anything less, would be to disrespect the God who created us good all those years ago.
I’ll close with this. Thursday afternoon, after I’d already picked the text and topic for today, and after the bulletin had been planned, I was walking back to the church from lunch. And there was a car parked in front of it with a bumper sticker. It read, “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion.”
I had to laugh. But then I thought about our church. I thought about many of you. Physicists, biologists, chemists, science teachers, medical professionals. I thought about one of our members who is in the Galapagos right now studying what Darwin studied. I thought about even our children and youth who love science and devour every book they find.
And I thought, “science isn’t an enemy to us here.”
I left a note on the car. Not an angry or hostile one. Just one that said, hey, I’m not trying to convert you but I’d love to show you Christians who love science. So, I invited that person to worship today. I don’t think they came. But I hope that maybe their perception of what it means to be a person of faith changed, just a little bit.
Because in the end I believe both people of faith and scientists hold something in common: we are explorers. We don’t stand on the shore and say it can’t be done. We get in the boat, and go on the journey. And if we look hard, we just might find something there that is true. Something worth searching for. Something worth believing.
Scientists are on voyages to find the next vaccine, the newest planet, the cure for cancer. They never stop exploring. And if we are true to our faith, and to who we are created to be as human beings, than neither do we.
We keep going on our own voyage. Our own journey that defies easy answers. We have to work at it. We pray. We struggle. We wonder. We ask the big questions. And somewhere, despite all odds, we find faith, and when we least expect it, we just might find out a little more about God.