Faith, Science, and the Journeys We Take

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.

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The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral, donated by the crew of Apollo 11. (Photo copyright National Cathedral.)

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.

Clocks, Dinosaurs, and Other Inconvenient Realties: A Sermon on Creation for September 14, 2014

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Remember how last week I talked about how a shorter sermon is sometimes called a homily? Well, I don’t know the a name for a longer Scripture reading, but whatever it is, our reading for today would probably qualify, right?

We just heard the whole of the first chapter of Genesis, one of the stories of Creation found in the Bible. It’s probably one you know well. On the first day God created this, and on the second day this, and on the third day this, and so on and so on all the way until the seventh day, when God rested. And at the end of each day Scripture tells us this: “and it was good.”

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Chalk drawings of the Creation story by the Middle School Youth of The Congregational Church in Exeter.

If you’ve ever tried to read the Bible cover to cover, maybe with a few starts and stops, you’ve probably read this passage so many times that it’s almost second nature. Six days of work. One day of rest. And God making everything from the stars to the fish, from the seas to the sun, from animals to us.

It’s why we divide our week into seven days, one of which is, in theory anyway, a day of rest. It’s why we look at our world and see God’s hand in everything we see. And it’s why we, and the other faiths which share this story with us, believe that taking care of God’s creation matters. This story informs so much of what we believe, and what we do.

Which is also why it’s so challenging to those of us who want to take the Bible seriously, but also sometimes have trouble taking it literally.

A few years ago a friend of mine sent a box of books to a family member who had just had a new baby. She was surprised when she received a call from her relative stating that she just could not give her children one of the books because it was inappropriate, and that she hoped my friend would never send her children anything like that again.

My friend is a very conscientious person and couldn’t figure out what was possibly objectionable about these books for small children until her relative said, “You know we are Christians…and you sent a book about dinosaurs. The world was created in six days. There is no such thing as evolution, and there was never such a thing as dinosaurs.”

It’s tempting to dismiss this or laugh it off, but these were well-educated people who sincerely believed that their Christian faith told them the earth was only about 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs never existed, and that the world was formed in six, 24 hour, days. And they believed that if they believed any differently, they were not Christians. And, they are not alone. There are many others who feel the same way.

The only problem with that is this: We know it’s not true. Scientists estimate the earth is about 4.65 billion years old. We know that dinosaurs once roamed it. We know that over the billions of years that came before now there has been profound change, even among human beings.

And so for those of us who are people of faith, but who also take science seriously, where are we left? One of my favorite places growing up was the local science museum, and you can’t tell me that my faith tells me to disavow everything I learned there.

And yet there are many who believe that Christianity requires that. And the scariest part is that it’s not just people in the church, but people outside of it as well. That’s what some people think you and I believe.

Because of that I’m sometimes asked by my atheist and agnostic friends, “how can you believe that stuff”?

I ask them, “What stuff?”

And they tell me, “Stuff like the world being created in six, 24-hour days.”

When I tell them I don’t believe that either, they seem surprised. And then think I’m hiding that from my church and then they get worried that if you find out I might get fired. And that’s when I tell them, “you know a lot of Christians don’t believe the world was created that way either. You just never hear about us on the news.”

And that’s because we who are people of faith, can also be people of science. And, more importantly, we can be people of nuance.

A friend of mine is a geologist. She studied rocks and rock formations all through college and then went out and worked in the field. And taking a walk outside with her is like walking through a living museum. Every rock she picks up suddenly tells a story about what happened hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of years ago. It’s fascinating.

And it was while I was walking with her recently that something hit me. I’ve always known that the Biblical account of creation was to be taken seriously, but not literally. That wasn’t new. But for the first time I really comprehended how important it was to acknowledge just how long creation has been unfolding, and not just for scientific reasons, but for faith reasons. Billions of years. And each of those billions of years does not detract from the idea of God as Creator. Instead, each of those years tells us even more about God’s work, and just how long God has been doing this whole Creation thing.

To deny just how long God has been at work is to deny the glory of God, and is to fail to understand the whole of God’s story.

I believe that in the beginning God created the earth, as well as so much more. And so I think the story in Genesis is true in the big T sense of the word “truth”. But I don’t think the Bible is a science textbook. I think it’s a story that speaks in the language of faith. And I think that faith and science can speak to one another, and only strengthen the other.

And here’s the other piece. I don’t believe that God is done creating. To say God finished the work long ago is to deny that God is still active in our world. There have been some over the centuries who have believed in God, but who also believed God was like a divine watchmaker who put us together, wound us up, and walked away, leaving us to our own devices. You may have heard them called Deists in history class.

But I don’t believe God ever walked away. I believe God is still active in creation, and God is transforming creation, including us, all the time. That’s one reason we take our Eco-Covenant seriously in this church. We believe God made this world, and we believe God still has more to do, and so we need to be good stewards of all we have been given. We need to work with the Creator.

And that’s why, despite the fact they can go home and read science books, we still tell this story to our children and youth.

We are starting something new this year where every time the children and middle school youth start a new unit, about every six weeks or so, the story is going to be told in worship, and I’m also going to preach on it. The idea is that all generations will be able to reflect on the same passage. Today is the first day we are trying this. And so, the kids just came up front and heard the story told by Lisa. And right now they are downstairs learning more. And the middle school kids are out front with chalk, drawing their understandings of Creation too.

And when they leave here today, I hope they go home and play with dinosaurs. I hope they pick up science books. I hope they go to museums. I hope they use the minds that God created in them and learn all they can about this world.

And then, I hope they remember what they were taught here. And I hope that they have adults in their lives that help them to integrate the two. And that they see what they learn outside of church not as a barrier to faith, but as an affirmation of it, and as a sign of God’s work in the world. And I hope they learn to love this world because it is a gift from God, and that they want to care for it.

If those things happen, we will have done a good job sharing this story with the next generation. But this is a story for all ages. And this is your story too. And so, how does it change your faith? Does it challenge it? Or does it make it stronger? I hope it’s the latter. I believe it can be the latter. But I believe it requires those of us who are adults to do the same things that we are asking of our youth. It requires us to bring all of us to our faith. Not just our hearts and our hands, but also our heads. And it means that when we come into the church, we refuse to check our brains at the door.

At the end of each day in the creation story, Scripture tells us “and it was good.” God created us good. God created us, in the words of the Psalms, “just a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor”. God created every part of us, including our minds, and to not use everything God gives us is not an act of faith. It is an act of disrespect for our awesome creator.

Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always honored. And your quest to read the Bible, this document not of scientific facts or historical timelines, but of 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, and who, generation after generation, creates us still. Amen.