Yesterday I attended a fascinating workshop exploring the intersection of faith and science called ‘Science as the Voice of God. The keynote speaker was Ron Cole Turner, ordained UCC minister, founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Pittsburg Theological Seminary, a position relating theology and ethics to developments in science and technology. He spoke of the ways God’s voice comes to us – in the stories of the poor, the marginalized and the suffering, in the book we read as Holy Scripture, and in what has been called the “second book”: the Natural World; the immensity, complexity and beauty of creation. Turner proposes that the natural sciences are an access point into this second book through which God speaks, the book of nature. How many times have you heard someone say that they find God, or experience God, in nature? If God is still speaking, isn’t God speaking through scientific breakthroughs and our ever increasing understanding of the natural world? One rich opportunity for the intersection of faith and science is in the scientific discipline of environmental studies and the faith principle of earth stewardship. Grounded in the best and most recent science, spiritual ecology is a powerful force against the degradation of our planet.
Four panelists also spoke eloquently about exploring the mysteries of science and the mysteries of faith – explorations that can enhance and deepen one another. They brought up the stance of humility which is critical to both scientific and theological inquiry. In seeking to understand our lives and the universe of which we’re a part through science and faith, we have to acknowledge that we’re only a tiny part of the swirling cosmos and we’ll never be able to fully understand and explain everything. In science as in faith, we see through a glass dimly even as we gain knowledge and understanding.
One of the panelists, Michael Zimmerman, is the founder of the Clergy Letter project. The Clergy Letter is a statement of support for teaching evolution in schools which clergy are invited to sign. The project began in 2004 as a response to anti-evolution policies passed by a local school board in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Almost 200 clergy signed the statement. Groups of scientists and teachers sent their own letters. Eventually, the school board retracted their policies. Today the Christian Clergy letter is available online and has over 13,000 signatures. There are clergy letters for rabbis, Unitarian Universalist Ministers, and Buddhist religious leaders.
After Q & A with the panelists we broke into smaller groups and rotated through discussion topics. We brainstormed together about ways in which we can incorporate an appreciation of science into our worship, our faith formation, and our evangelism. Discussion points included: Is God looking for a church that embraces science? If so, how do we become the church that God is looking for? Instead of being Christians BUT, as in, “I’m a Christian BUT I believe in evolution, or I’m a Christian BUT I understand the human impact on climate change,” how do we become Christians WHO, as in “I’m a Christian WHO supports the teaching of evolution in schools,” and “I’m a Christian WHO is active in the struggle to mitigate the effects of climate change”? The ideas generated in these sessions are being compiled and sent to workshop participants. I look forward to sharing them with you. Perhaps we’ll be inspired to develop our own project on the intersection of science and religion.
The workshop concluded with sharing some of the ideas that bubbled up in our small groups. We also posed questions to keep the conversation going - How can we partner with the scientific community? How can we increase the overlap in the intersecting worlds of science and religion? What are the stories of science encountering faith and faith encountering science? How can science be made more accessible to people of faith? How can the church claim its role as a place for true dialogue, not just debate? With its openness to inquiry and exploration, our denomination may be the ideal place to expand this dialogue.
By now you may be wondering how Abraham, the patriarch formerly known as Abram, fits into all this. In our reading from Genesis this morning, God has yet to rename Abram as Abraham, father of a multitude of nations. God has appeared to Abram and told him to leave his country and his father's house for parts unknown, promising to make of him a great nation, bless him, and make his name great. Following God's command, Abram has taken his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, the wealth and persons that they had acquired, and has traveled with them to Canaan. In the reading today, God tells Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God has made promises to Abram, God has reassured Abram, but Abram is starting to have doubts. “O Lord God,” Abram says, “what will you give me, for I continue childless….You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
Once again God reassures him: “…no one but your very own issue shall be your heir….
I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But Abram continues to doubt: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Abram is growing impatient with God, but God is patient with Abram. God listens to him, reassures him, and comes to him in a dream, signifying that all will be for Abram as God has promised. And when Abram believed what God was telling him, the scripture says, God reckoned it to him as righteousness. Not the heifer, the goat, the ram, the turtle dove or the pigeon, but Abram’s trust in God, the overcoming of Abram’s doubts, is the true sacrifice, the righteousness that puts him in right relationship with God.
This kind of righteousness, this kind of radical trust, isn't easy. Abram didn't have access to the data, but he didn’t need a fertility specialist to tell him the suggestion that his nonagenarian wife would conceive and give birth to an heir was patently ridiculous. And in spite of millennia of scientific breakthroughs, we don't have access to all the data, either. How did life begin? How did consciousness develop and are we truly the only beings who possess it? What can explain the feeling of peace that envelops us when we pray? What happens when we die?
In 2008, then-UCC President John Thomas wrote a pastoral letter on faith engaging science and technology. In this letter he asks, “Can we dare to seek, to wonder, and if necessary to doubt until we believe anew, confident that in the end we will be filled with a fresh faith that engages the hunger in so many hearts and minds? Can we be technological and theological at the same time?”
To live as a spiritual being in a world that demands empirical evidence, to embrace evolution and the notion that our world was created intentionally, with love, is a tough balance to maintain. But if we’re willing to sacrifice scientific certitude for scientific wonder and curiosity; if we’re willing to sacrifice scriptural literalism for the language of poetry and metaphor, we can live with our feet grounded on the earth and our eyes gazing into eternity. Amen.