All of this hinges on the year 587 BCE. If you don’t ever remember another date about the Hebrew Scriptures, I want you to remember 587. Israel, since the glory years of King David around 1000 BCE, had been scrambling to find security amid the Philistines, Phoenicians, and the powerful Assyrian Empire. They made deals, paid tributes, did whatever they could.
Finally the deal-making fell apart, and in 587 the Babylonian armies destroyed the Temple and carted off the leadership in Jerusalem – priests, intellectuals, civil servants – back to Babylon. The Holy City was in ruins, the Temple Mount smoldering. This event led to the crisis that is at the heart of much of the Hebrew Scriptures: If our faith is about God’s promise to claim us and give us a home, and that home is taken away, what does that say about our God? How can we worship God somewhere else? Almost all of the Torah, the first five books of the bible, was compiled in exile, in order to answer these questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Now that everything is be collapsing around us, who can we count on?
This creation text offers a daring claim – in the face Babylonian power, the Israelites are saying to the world – You are not in charge. Our God is. But before we explore that a bit further, I think it important to say what this text is NOT. These are things I imagine you know, but bear repeating.
- This text is NOT intended as a firsthand account of creation. It is not a news report, corroborated by multiple witnesses. Told for centuries, this story appeared in its final form around the exile, in the 6th century BCE.
- This text is NOT intended as a scientific paper. The community that authored Genesis didn’t comb through the historical record from literature and archaeology. People who look at those kinds of things tell us that the earth is very old, maybe 4 and a half billion years, created in much longer period in a way quite different from seven discreet days.
- This text is NOT even intended to be a unique account for us Christians, even for Christians and Jews. This narrative leans heavy on older, similar Mesopotamian stories.1 Practically every ancient culture – Babylonians in particular – share these kinds of stories, of creation and of floods, which comes in chapter 6.
What we DO know – and I think it is infinitely more interesting and powerful than this account being a literal description of HOW the earth was made – comes back to 587, the year of the crisis. As Psalm 137 recalls: "By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." The people ask, "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?"2 This text is not any kind of attempt to explain HOW the world was created, in any sense that we might mean, at least. There is a longer quote in your insert that is worth your time, but to read a portion: "…the claim that the world belongs to the God of Israel is a mighty and daring alternative to the dominant, easily visible liturgy that the world is governed by the Babylonian Gods."3 As our own wise Pete McWilliams put so nicely in our sermon talk-back time last Sunday, language is an expression of power. In this case of deep faithfulness. This text falls into what scholars often call the priestly tradition, formed for liturgical use – in worship – addressed to a community of exiles.4 When nothing else made sense, the people gathered to say that all creation belonged to God. That God made everything we see, sustains it by God’s grace and is, in some strange and mysterious way, is continuing to sustain it, and us.
This text also gets at the at time tenuous relationship between theology and science. I tend to think that too often the world forces a distinction between science and faith that is a bit of a false dichotomy. Sometimes science doesn’t seem to see that there are other, perhaps deeper, ways of knowing things beyond what we can prove. Sometimes the church is way too defensive, seeing science as a threat instead of a partner in trying to figure out this world, what it means, how we are to live. I was interested in exploring this question, but also keenly aware of my lack of knowledge in this area, so I found some scientists and have asked them to share some reflections with us. Elena Cleary has a PhD in Neuroscience. She is an executive at a global biopharmaceutical company and among other things work to develop treatments for epilepsy. Richard Draffin is a pathologist. He went to medical school at Duke then, after a stint in Savannah, returned and works at Duke and Durham regional mostly doing surgical pathology, which is the interpretation of tissue biopsies. Both are elders here – Elena is presently on the session.
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When I was in college, I drifted away from the church and lost most of the faith I had grown up with. I did occasionally go to Duke Chapel, but mainly in the hope of meeting girls. Several things helped me to return to the faith, the most important of which was my wife Claudia. Thinking about God’s creation was also very important. I had taken some philosophy courses as an undergraduate, and had enjoyed examining some silly questions such as "why is there anything rather than nothing?" Some scientists claim there is no purpose to the universe, no design, no ultimate meaning. The universe just happened and someday it will just end and that is all there is to it. This kind of thinking is philosophically based on materialism, which is the idea that there is nothing but "atoms in motion" – no spirit, no soul, no reality beyond matter. Many scientists do not agree with this position, and in fact, there does not need to be any real conflict between science and religion, especially if you interpret the Bible in a non-literal manner (literal interpretation is a valid, but not the only valid, type of biblical interpretation). I believe the Bible is our authoritative guide to what we need to know to be in right relation with God, but it was not and is not, intended to be a scientific or historical or political treatise.
So, I started thinking about the world around me, and came to believe the real beauty, design, and intricacy of the world probably did not just happen by chance. This does not deny that there is evil and injustice in the world, but there is just something transcendent going on here. Many scientific theories support this point of view, that God created and sustains the cosmos. Just a tiny sample of these scientific "factoids" include the big bang theory, which holds that the universe began about 15 billion years ago in a singularity; the design of the universe, as evidenced by many findings that seem to indicate the world was intended to be inhabited by humans; and evolution, by which many believe that God creates and sustains the world. I have also witnessed in my medical training and practive what I believe to be healing miracles. The birth of a child or falling in love are also indications of the transcendent God.
Some scientists berate religious belief because it is based on "faith" by which they mean acceptance of things that just aren’t so. In fact, all human endeavor is based on unproven assumptions – for example, in science we cannot prove that human reasoning works. If you think about it, the most important things in life cannot be proved – how do prove "love" or "faithfulness" or "character"? There are many paths to God, probably as many as there are people, including revelation, mysticism, tradition, and witness, and natural theology, this idea that we can discern something of God from his creation, is one of them. Careful examination of creation can be a positive and helpful way to draw closer to God. True science is not antithetical to religion, but complementary to it. Of course, we can overdo the "thinking" aspect of being a Christian – our faith is not merely a series of logical propositions to be accepted/proved. However, God gave us minds and we should use them. Thanks be to God for creating and sustaining us and loving us enough to send His son to save us. As St. Peter told us in I Peter 1:13, "Discipline your minds for action, for your hope is in the grace which the Lord Jesus will bring you when he returns."
"I don’t believe in God. I believe in Science."
That’s what my friend said to me, and I was taken aback.
I really shouldn’t have been so surprised. Unfortunately, this sentiment is not terribly unusual. In many corners, popular belief renders science and religion incompatible.
This notion centers in large part on the debate over creation and evolution. More than 150 years after Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species,5 one would be hard pressed to find a legitimate scientist who does not believe in evolution. The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
This would have been difficult enough for the church, but more recently, the famed scientist Stephen Hawking published a book called The Grand Design in which he asserts that the universe created itself.6 Based on a theory of quantum gravity, Hawking says, "The universe can create itself out of nothing and God is no longer necessary." Atheists cite Hawking’s hypothesis as "proof" there is no God. But in science, a hypothesis is really a guess…something you test. It is not proof.
And let’s face it…scientists can be wrong…
Those who doubt this should consider the case of Antonio Egas Moniz – a Portuguese neurologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949. He was awarded this honor for the discovery of the therapeutic value of the lobotomy in the treatment of mental illness. Of course, now this practice is viewed as barbaric and would be grounds for a malpractice suit if not criminal prosecution.
You see, just as we evolve in our faith in our Reformed tradition, science evolves…
From ancient times until the 19th century, blood-letting was the preeminent treatment to cure or prevent all sorts of illnesses and diseases. We now chuckle at the thought of this crude medical procedure being considered the height of medical innovation.
And if we think that now we have all the answers, we would be just as wrong as those ancient physicians. I often wonder: a hundred years from now, what current preeminent medical practices will be viewed as barbaric? It WILL happen. I’m sure of it.
It will happen because we continue evolving our understanding of the world. Scientists do this by questioning and questioning and then questioning some more.
In science, we use a structured way to question and test called the scientific method. The steps of the scientific method are to:
- Ask a question
- Do background research
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
- Analyze your data and draw a conclusion and
- Communicate your results so that other scientists can repeat your results and reaffirm their validity
In a discussion with Chris this week, he asked me about the similarities between the scientific method and a faith journey…and he is absolutely right. In science, the questioning is indeed much like the questioning of faith. We question… we hypothesize about what we believe…we test and we look to others to bear witness to our results and conclusions.
In fact, I agree with physicist, Brian Greene, that "science is very good at answering the ‘how’ questions. How did the universe evolve to the form that we see? But science is typically inadequate in addressing the ‘why’ questions. Why is there a universe at all?"7 These are the really meaningful questions better answered by faith.
So, science might provide evidence in favor of evolution. But what if evolution is God’s tool? To me, it is perfectly logical to think that a divine being used evolution as a method to create the world. Of course, there is no way to prove religious faith scientifically, and it’s hard to envision a test that could tell the difference between a universe created by God and one that just appeared, without God.
And so, without scientific proof, we have faith.
Albert Einstein — surely one of history’s greatest scientific minds — once said "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." So, I am happy to find I am in good company as someone who is both a scientist and a person of faith.
A couple of years ago I arrived in Brussels on a business trip. Upon arrival my driver asked if I would share my limo with a young woman who was going to the same hotel. I agreed, and this is how I met Veronica. Veronica is an African American woman from Dallas, Texas. She was 22 years old and was traveling for the very first time. She was downright giddy — so excited to be so far from home.
Veronica has epilepsy.
She told me about her life — about living with her mother because she needed someone to take care of her. She told me about how the seizures had prevented her from doing "normal" things — getting a job, going to college. She was shy and didn’t have many friends because she was so self- conscious about her frequent seizures.
As a last resort, her doctor put her in a clinical trial for a new drug in development as an anti-epileptic medication. She told me that ever since her first dose of this new medication, she had been completely seizure-free. She had gotten an apartment of her own, a job, was enrolling in college, and was traveling to places she never thought she’d see.
Veronica’s new treatment was the same medication I had spent many years of my career developing. In fact, Veronica had been enrolled in one of the clinical trials we had run to determine whether the drug was safe and effective. Veronica had been an unnamed data point in one of our scientific experiments — but for Veronica, our scientific experiment had given her a life she had all but given up hope of having.
Meeting Veronica was a blessing for me. It reminded me that in my life, science and faith are not contradictory concepts. In my life, science and faith are inextricably intertwined. Through extensive study of the intricacies of the brain, I have concluded that God has indeed created amazing things, and I am blessed with the ability to use science to serve God.
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Two things must be said. This church honors questions. Real faith is work, deep engagement. I don’t have any idea exactly how the earth was created. But what the church says, what I believe unequivocally, is that God made all of this, that God gives us creation to tend to carefully – to take much better care of than we have. While my impression is that the science is fairly settled on global climate change of some sort, it shouldn’t matter to people of faith whether things are getting worse or not and why to want to take care of God’s creation. To do a much better job in our work and in our homes than we have.
Which brings me to point #2, which is most appropriate for a day in which we celebrate graduates. We are so proud of the ways you continue to use the gifts God has given you. But, and I am speaking most specifically to you who have just graduated, though it works for all of us – I implore you to be mindful of what your education is FOR. All of your smarts don’t come so you can get a job and make money and support your families later on, feeling like you have achieved something. These are not all bad things in themselves. But, if they are your end goal, you will have left much good undone. Beyond it all, learning is for the betterment of all humanity. For virtue beyond the diplomas, to share all your faith and your smarts with this world, this world that God made and claimed, as God made and claimed you.
We have but one small part to play. But, if we are made in God’s image, as this text dares to claim, we come with great power. Imagine the good we could do if we put all those smarts and energy and creative and love to work for the world. Imagine it. In gratitude to God, who offers it to us as gift. So that we may say, as we will in a few minutes, without equivocation, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…." All praise be to this One, who created, who creates life around us, and who brings all things into being. Amen.
1. Walter Brueggmann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2003), 34.
2. Psalm 137:1,4.
3. Brueggemann, Intro, 36.
4. Walter Brueggmann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p 22.
5. Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1859).
6. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
7. Stefan Lovgren, "Evolution and Religion Can Coexist, Scientists Say," National Geographic News (October 18, 2004).