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COMMENTARY: Why battle science? Adam Hamilton, Aug 26, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series.
To hear some Christians talk, you would think we are starring in our own version of the movie Groundhog Day, waking up morning after morning to find that it’s June 22, 1633.
That’s when a tribunal of the church pronounced Galileo a heretic for promoting the shocking notion that the earth moves around the sun, not the other way around.
Today, of course, it is common knowledge that the sun sits at the center of our solar system, and that there are likely countless other solar systems with planets also circling their own stars among all the galaxies flung throughout the universe. What was a dangerous and heretical idea on June 22, 1633, is now something most people (including most Christians) take for granted.
I wonder how many of the issues today over which Christians battle with science will take a similar path. If Christian attitudes toward science bother you, then you are not alone. Surveys of young adults show that many bright, thinking people find themselves increasingly alienated by the belief expressed by some Christians that much of what we know from modern science is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Began with Galileo
This is not a new development, of course. Galileo’s trial was only the start of an accelerating process in which scientific discoveries draw the wrath of Christians who complain that the new ideas undermine their faith. From discoveries in geology about the age of the earth to the much-maligned science of evolution, some Christians have been pushing back at advances in science for centuries.
As I try to understand why so many Christians carry on this battle, I keep coming back to one word: fear. Simply put, Christians are afraid that science will disprove or debunk what they believe.
They secretly worry that the next scientific development will be the one that decisively shows that God doesn’t exist, that the gospel is a fraud. They think that the more people know about science, the less they will believe in God.
Christians fear science because they think that it either competes with faith or is actively engaged in destroying faith. They think that science leaves no room for God; if you let it get its foot in the door, science will take over the whole house.
But God is not threatened by science. If creation is the handiwork of God, and science helps us see the exquisite and marvelous workings of creation, how can that do anything but magnify God for people of faith?
When some Christians add up the ages represented by the genealogies of the Old Testament and then tell us that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, I want to laugh or cry. I find myself wondering why they can’t appreciate that the biblical stories of creation were written in the form of Hebrew poetry.
Not biology lesson
They were not written as God’s way of giving ancient people a lesson in cosmology or biology or physics. They were written to say that behind all of the magnificent beauty of creation there is One who created—who called for all that is and gave it form and shape and established the laws and patterns that govern it.
In the 20th century, Christians were often thought to oppose evolution. Not all Christians held this opinion, but some of the most vocal Christians did. They felt that evolution (at least at the “macro” level) somehow undermines the glory of God. They believed that God had to have created each species from scratch, rather than overseeing a process by which simpler life forms became more complex.
To many Christians, evolution is simply a way of describing a process that God established for creating the magnificent forms of life we have today.
Think of creation in this way; God created the processes and approved the plans for progression of life on our planet. God is still the Creator. Whether each species was individually crafted by God or the process God designed played a critical role in shaping the diversity of life forms under God’s guiding hand matters little to me.
Science and faith are two different ways of understanding our existence. Science helps us understand the physical processes—how the universe works. This is hugely important and, as I’ve already noted, no threat to genuine faith.
The why of theology
Theology and faith, on the other hand, aim to teach us what our existence means. While science asks the questions what and how, theology seeks to answer the questions why and for what purpose. Both sets of questions are important.
Can science by itself answer questions of ultimate meaning? No. Science isn’t equipped or designed to address these questions. And when we try to use the Bible to answer scientific questions, it’s a bit like trying to use a paintbrush to drive screws into a wall. It is the wrong tool for the job.
This is why Christians get it wrong when they treat the book of Genesis as a science textbook. It stands to reason that if you look in the wrong place for something, you are not going to find it. So why do many Christians think they will find a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe in a poetic narrative about God the Creator?
The creation stories in Genesis were not meant to teach us how God created, but that God created. They are meant to stir the soul with the image of God calling forth light from darkness and then creating the earth, sun, moon and stars, all the creatures of the land and sea, and finally human beings themselves.
The stories teach us that there is a God, that God is good, that creation is a good gift of God and that human beings are created in God’s image—not in our physical appearance but in our capacity to love, to think, to reason, to make moral decisions and to act as co-creators with God.
Rev. Hamilton is pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. Excerpted from his new book, "When Christians Get it Wrong" (Abingdon).