The liturgical calendar may say that today is Transfiguration Sunday, and the social calendar might say that it’s Valentine’s Day, but I have another calendar that says that it’s Evolution Sunday.
As you can see from the service, I decided to go with the latter calendar! For the fifth consecutive year churches and synagogues from across the country will be focusing on the relationship between science and our confessions of faith.
Evolution Sunday and Weekend is observed on the weekend nearest Charles Darwin’s Birthday. We don’t do this because Darwin was a saint, or because he had special spiritual knowledge that we need to pass on. But, Darwin is important to our conversation, because he personifies the ongoing debate that has rocked our churches and society for decades if not centuries. Although the debate started long before Darwin – just ask Galileo — the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species changed the conversation between science and theology forever.
I’ve been participating in this observance since its inception, even though I’m not a scientist, nor even well-trained in the sciences. I do believe very strongly, however, that this conversation has important implications for both church and society. Issues like climate change, stem sell research, end of life, and human sexuality all have both scientific and theological implications. If we’re going to make good decisions about the future of our world, then we need to listen to both voices. This won’t happen, however, if one side sees the other as the enemy. So, how can we have a fruitful conversation about science and faith, when the two sides seem so far apart? Well, that’s why this observance was born!
As we consider how faith and science relate to each other, I’d like us to reflect on Job 38. But, before we get to our reflections, I’d like to read it again, this time from The Message.
1 And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:
2-11 “Why do you confuse the issue?
Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
Up on your feet! Stand tall!
I have some questions for you,
and I want some straight answers.
Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
How was its foundation poured,
and who set the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
and all the angels shouted praise?
And who took charge of the ocean
when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
and tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,
And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.
Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’
I should point out that is a conversation that begins in these eleven verses goes on for two whole chapters. Aren’t you glad we just read the opening round?
If you go back to the preceding chapters in this book, you’ll discover that Job has a problem with the way the way God is running the universe. He doesn’t curse God, but he does complain about the unfairness of his plight. He also doesn’t appreciate the fact that his friends have accused him of being a sinner. Now, we get to watch God’s response to Job’s outburst. As we read this passage, it’s almost as if God is trying to pummel Job into submission with unanswerable questions. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly care for this portrait of God. I find the God present in much of Job to be capricious, angry, self-centered, and a bit of a bully. And yet, I believe that we can find a word of wisdom in this passage that will speak to the questions of our day.
1. Were You There? A Matter of Perspective
As I read this passage, I thought of the song “We’re You there, when they crucified my Lord?” It’s not that the song speaks to the question at hand, it’s just that opening line – were you there? – sounds like the question God asks of Job. You’ve questioned my fairness, so here’s a couple of questions for you. You seem to have all the answers, so where were you in the beginning? You talk big, but do you have all the facts? When this barrage of questions ends two chapters later, Job had no choice but to answer, no I wasn’t there and so I can’t answer all your questions.
Although it might seem as if God is beating up on Job, God’s question does raise the issue of perspective. This passage reminds us that our vantage point as human beings is limited. We can’t know everything there is to know about the universe. It’s simply too vast. But that doesn’t mean that there are no answers or that we should stop asking our questions.
I appreciate the point made by Daniel Harrell,
a pastor who is trained in the sciences. He writes that science has an easier time dealing with the questions of nature, because, “science has more clear-cut boundaries than does theology.” He goes on to say:
Science limits itself to the natural, measurable world, while theology expands to include the immeasurable too. Everything science investigates is subject to scrutiny and testing, but when it comes to God, our posture is to be one of deference and obedience.1
In other words, theology explores areas that ultimately require from us a confession of faith.
2. Get Ready to Debate
Our text speaks of perspective, but it’s also a call to pursue the truth, no matter where it takes us. I realize that the ferocity of God’s questions, seems to shut down the conversation. If you look at the beginning of chapter 40, it appears that Job had decided that it might be better not to ask any more questions. And yet, hidden inside this series of seemingly unanswerable questions, is a challenge to pursue our questions no matter where they lead. God tells Job: “Gird your loins, be a man, stand tall, and answer my questions.” Is this not an invitation to pursue the questions on our hearts and minds?
As I think about this question, I find myself turning to that statement of Augustine about “faith seeking understanding.” As I understand Augustine, we shouldn’t see faith as our answer of last resort. Instead, it’s our starting point, upon which we build understanding of the things of God – and that includes nature. As Jesus reminds us, the Law calls on us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Faith, therefore, gives us the freedom to explore our doubts and questions without fear of what we might discover.
The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, talk about people of faith as if they don’t think and they’re gullible. Dawkins talks as if theology is simply a collection of old worn-out fairy tales. Unfortunately, there’s some truth to the charge. The polls tell us that large numbers of Americans believe that the earth is only 6000-years-old and that evolution is a Satanic plot. So, maybe the critics can be forgiven for the skepticism that there is another way of looking at things.
If we’re going to have a fruitful conversation about the relationship of faith and science, then people of faith, like us, should respect science and its contributions to the conversation. We shouldn’t act as if Genesis or Job offers a scientific explanation of the way things are. If we’re willing to do this, then perhaps a skeptical scientific community will be willing to engage us in this important conversation.
3. A Call to Humble Adoration
In my mind, theology tells us a lot about the meaning and purpose of the universe. Genesis tells us that this world of ours is good, and that we’ve been entrusted with its care. Job reminds us that the universe is God’s Temple, and we’ve been invited to worship the God who both creates and inhabits this Temple. What theology doesn’t do is fill in the gaps of our science. If we use God to fill in the gaps, then if science finds an answer, then God’s place in the universe becomes smaller. So, instead of looking for God in the Gaps, perhaps we can, as Stephen Barr suggests, find God present in the “beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made.” Or, as John Calvin puts it:
“God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor”2
While I would agree that there is also evidence of disorder and chaos in the universe, I think we can agree that nature does bear witness to God’s eternal presence and ongoing work of creation – whether it’s a beautiful sunset or a glorious snow-capped mountain.
As we observe Evolution Sunday, may we again see science and faith, not as enemies, but as partners in an ongoing conversation about the world in which live and work and have our being. And as people of faith, who respect the findings of the scientist, may we also stop to give thanks to God for the wondrous gift of nature.
1. Daniel Harrell, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith,
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), p. 67.
2. Stephen Barr, “The End of Intelligent Design,” First Things, (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/02/the-end-of-intelligent-design).