Dean Lloyd: “God, Science, and the Life of Faith”
The day was dimming. My fellow backpackers and I had been hiking all day, and had finally pitched our camp at 11,000 feet. We were cleaning up after supper when a friend began yelling for us to ‘come look, come look!’ And so we dropped everything and gathered at the bluff edge where three immense 14,000 foot peaks loomed over us. The sun was almost gone, and everything was bathed in deep red and purple hues. Soon, the sky was darkening enough for the stars to begin appearing. We settled in to watch, and one by one the lights came out, until the night sky was teeming with glittering stars. We tried to help each other trace the shape of the Big Dipper and Orion. Some of the stars were so thickly clustered that they looked like mystical clouds. It was breathtaking.
I remember feeling overwhelmed that moment with the immensity of the universe—God’s splendor shining down from millions of light-years away. It must have been something like the sense that propelled poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to write, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God, / It will flame out like shining from shook foil.”
And it surely was what Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson today must have been feeling when he has God speak some of the most beautiful words in the scriptures:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?
It is [the Lord God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
To the despairing people of Israel in exile, with their own nation in ruins, Isaiah offered a vision of a grand ruler of the cosmos, who reigns over both nature and history. Because of this God, Isaiah says, you can hope again.
It’s not hard to sense God’s presence in the night sky on a beautiful evening, or in the vast sweep of the universe, but for the last five centuries the sense that God is present in our physical world has been disappearing, especially among many scientists. In fact, things have been going badly between religion and science since at least the 16th century.
Copernicus and Galileo, brave scientists of those early years, discovered something that was to shake the world—that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system. Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest for trying to convince the Pope of this new cosmology. Sir Isaac Newton in the early 1700’s shook the world by introducing the notion that the solar system and our own life here on earth operate by immutable laws and mathematical formulas, not simply by acts of God.
And then along came Charles Darwin two centuries later, who set the world on fire with his declaration that all life, including human life, emerged over millions of years of evolution, not in the six days described in the creation story in Genesis. This led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, pitting fundamentalists arguing for the Bible’s six days of creation against the new scientific view. As a result of that battle much of the scientific world began to dismiss religion as a primitive leftover from a time of superstition. And it drove people of faith in two directions. Fundamentalists saw science as a threat to their literal understanding of the Bible, and so reacted vehemently to disturbing new insights. But there were many religious people who welcomed scientific exploration as the unfolding discovery of how God’s world really works.
That war between religion and science rages on even as we speak. Now it’s framed as a battle between Darwin’s theory of evolution and something called “intelligent design.” The advocates of intelligent design argue that evolution is just another theory, entirely unproven and full of holes. And because of this they insist that students should learn about other “theories,” such as the notion that there is an intelligent designer behind the world who created and shaped everything.
Intelligent design advocates argue that some things such as the human eye, are “irreducibly complex,” so much so that they couldn’t have emerged through evolution and natural selection. So there had to be an initial designer to put all the pieces together.
School boards and courts have gotten into the act. In Dover, Pennsylvania, for example, the school board ordered that a teacher in every science class read a statement insisting that evolution is only a theory, not fact, and that intelligent design is an alternative explanation. Soon afterward the board was voted out of office.
The intelligent design argument can sound pretty reasonable, can’t it? But actually it isn’t. It reflects a confusion of categories, a thrusting of religion into a domain that should belong to science alone. Science exists for the unfettered pursuit of understanding through observation, experimentation, formulating theories based on the evidence, and testing them. But intelligent design makes claims that can’t be tested because they are based solely on conjecture and faith. That doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in this idea of God as creator and sustainer of the world; it just means that this isn’t science. And then there is what seems to me the deepest flaw in intelligent design. If God is shaping every part of the universe directly, why has God built in hurricanes like Katrina, or the AIDS virus, or malaria germs?
Many scientist argue that science and religion are two separate but compatible realms—what the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called “nonoverlapping magisteria.” Science speaks with authority, Gould says, in the realm of what the universe is made of and why it works the way it does. And religion holds sway over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.
Both science and religion can claim too much. Science can claim that we humans have outgrown religion, that everything in our existence can be explained in terms of physics, chemistry, and biology, a view called “scientism.” Carl Sagan, for example, in his famous television series Cosmos, declared, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” How does he as a scientist know that? That in itself is a faith statement, and its claim ignores the most profound parts of our existence—sacrificial love, awe, compassion, yearning, gratitude, delight.
But religion too can claim too much. It isn’t religion’s job to explain how the world works. It is to help us to know what, or who, is behind it all. It is to tell us why we’re here on this earth and how we should live.
Writing in the New York Times not long ago, Francis Collins, Director of the National Genome Research Institute and a person of faith said, “I see no conflict between what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. If God chose to use the mechanisms of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan?” Religion and science need each other. As Albert Einstein put it, “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.”
In fact, science can offer tantalizing hints of how God has shaped the cosmos. For example, some scientists are pointing to the stunning balance of forces in the original Big Bang that was necessary for the universe to expand and for life to emerge. The English physicist Roger Penrose once estimated that the odds against a cosmos as suitable as this one to human life to be one in ten to the three-hundredth power—a figure larger than the number of atomic particles believed to exist in the universe.
But to use this as definitive proof of a designer goes too far. We should see these as hints of a harmony we can only glimpse, pointers to the fingerprints of God for those who have discovered God for themselves in a journey of faith. And Christian faith invites us to know this God personally, directly, not simply as an idea, a theory, but as a person, a loving Father, a life-giving Mother, a Companion, a Savior, a Presence at work to lead, heal, strengthen and sustain.
We heard in our gospel today stories of Jesus healing. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and then crowds thronged around him as he healed many more. The God of the universe, the gospels tell us, is deeply engaged in bringing wholeness and healing, peace and new life, to individual human beings such as you and me.
And that is the God who meets us in our passage from Isaiah:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Those words reach beyond anything science could tell us. They declare that we are living in the middle of a miracle of generosity and love beyond anything we can imagine. This is a God who cares about the powerless, the weak, the broken, a God whose heart reaches out to the victim of Katrina, to the starving child in Mozambique, to the struggling and heartbroken here at home. And then Isaiah describes how God can come to their aid:
…Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
John Claypool, an old friend and one of the finest preachers of the last generation, once gave a sermon about how this passage helped him through the darkest time in his life. His nine year old daughter had been stricken with leukemia, and after an eighteen-month fight entailing excruciating pain she died. And two weeks later John climbed up in the pulpit to give testimony to how he had survived that terrible ordeal and what difference his faith had made. He used the words I just read to say that God has three different ways of coming to us in crisis.
Sometimes, he said, help comes in the form of pure strength and ecstasy, enabling us “to mount up with wings like eagles.” Sometimes we are given an almost supernatural power to cope with a crisis and endure. But he reported that that never happened for him in this terrible ordeal.
Sometimes God comes with the energy to go to work on a problem—“to run and not be weary.” God gives us the inspiration and intelligence to find a solution. The doctors and the Claypools were doing everything they could to fight what was happening. But again, nothing worked.
But Isaiah tells us, he said, that God has one more way—the capacity “to walk and not faint.” For those looking for spectacular rescue, that may not sound like much. After all, who wants to creep along, inch by inch, just barely staying conscious and avoiding fainting? It may not seem like much, he said, but that was the form that God’s help took. Sometimes there is no way to soar, no way to run. All you can do is trudge one step after another, barely holding on. The hardest thing he faced in all this, he says, was his own helplessness. “All I could do was stand there by the bed and give [my daughter] a sip of water now and then and rub her and assure her, and it seemed like so little in the face of such an immensity.”
Down at the bottom, when his life was at its lowest, John Claypool found that God was giving him the one gift he could not survive without—the gift of endurance, the capacity to walk and not to faint.
We meet this living God in the depths of our spirits, in a dimension far beyond what science can touch. We sense this God on a starry night, or in times when peace and joy come unexpectedly, in times of prayer and worship, in yearning for a just world for everyone.
Thanks be to God for all that science can teach us. We must let science be science. But thanks above all for the great faithfulness of the God who comes to us to renew our strength, so that we can
mount up with wings like eagles,
or we can run and not be weary,
or, even when things are at their hardest, we can walk and not faint.