Preacher: Lesley Misrahi
I was asked to step in because Lloyd Peterson wasn’t able to be with us today, so, in the spirit of recycling I have brought out and dusted off a sermon I first preached in 2001. I’m hoping that everyone who was there at the time was asleep – but stay awake now because I’ve got things for you to do later.
At that time, I was asked to talk about the conflict between science and the gospel and then I thought how very unsuitable this was because I‘ve been both interested in science and a believer since childhood and have never found them to be in conflict. At University I studied Maths, Microbiology and Community Medicine and did some research on viruses. Later I did a degree in Contextual Theology. Have I been deluding myself, I began to wonder by just keeping different ideas in separate boxes? There are other scientists in the church. Are they also somehow engaged in a process of double-think?
Our Western culture, in contrast to any that preceded it, is, in its public philosophy, atheist. Modern philosophy has driven a wedge between spirituality and theology on the one hand and the social and physical sciences on the other. In academic and public life what one believes about God is supposed to be a private matter that makes no difference about one's views on either the sciences or the political arena. So there are two worlds - the private world, in which one can be spiritual if one chooses and the public world in which a belief in God is neither necessary nor desirable. On the one hand we can say that something is right because it accords with something that is called an objective fact. On the other hand, there is a private world where what is good or right morally is a matter of personal taste.
Although there is a growing interest in spirituality these days, it has no difficulties in co-existing with the kind of scientific atheism I have described when it is a spirituality that does not deal with the material world and human society. But if it’s a spirituality that talks about God as the Bible does - the Maker and Sustainer of everything, who has specific purposes for the world and who has criteria for human actions as individuals or groups, then there can be some difficulty.
One of the reasons that people feel there is a conflict between science and faith is because prior to the development of science, anything inexplicable and mysterious tended to be explained in spiritual terms. So people everywhere have creation myths in which gods of some sort play a central role and many natural phenomena are explained in terms of the actions of gods. Thunder, for instance, was thought to be the voice of a god, rather than the vibration of air molecules caused by an electrical discharge. This way of thinking has been called the God of the gaps. God's action in the universe was seen as being to intervene at certain points, to do things that could not be explained by so-called natural laws. And because some things were inexplicable, of course there must be a God.
I was reminded of this by Wayne and Lois’s sermon a couple of weeks ago, when they talked about God standing in the gap in people’s lives, and their role in helping with this. That’s the sort of God of the Gaps I believe in.
However, as science has found explanations for more and more phenomena, including the origins of life and the universe itself, the gaps for which it is necessary to use God as an explanation become smaller and smaller and the God of the gaps gets squeezed out. Christians find themselves forced into desperate last-ditch stands to defend viewpoints which become increasingly unreasonable in the face of mounting scientific evidence. The best example of this is the evolution debate. Some Christians make me cringe when they seize upon the slightest area of controversy in Darwinism to try to destroy the whole edifice of evolutionary thought. They don’t understand how scientific debate works. Science does not proceed in a linear way without error, but by building one block of knowledge upon another. Sometimes those blocks don't fit together well; sometimes they are wrong and have to be torn down, or re-arranged, but the amount of credible evidence for the basic tenets of evolutionary theory amassed since Darwin's time is now enormous.
Such Christians are genuinely trying to defend their faith. But it ‘s a faith in the God of the gaps. They have fallen into a trap which is reinforced by some scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan who are evangelistic atheists. It’s strange that both Dawkins and Creationist Christians seem to share the view that if scientific explanations can be given for natural processes then this rules out a theological description of the universe. Dawkins doesn’t believe in the God of the gaps. Well neither do I!
Fundamentalist assumptions about how God works in the world focus on the origins of the Bible. If we assume that God only usually intervenes in ways that defy our understanding then we will expect the Bible to have been dictated literally. We would not think that it could have emerged through the work of God in human society in ways appropriate for particular kinds of literature at certain points of history. We would expect only to see God at work in ways that were supernatural and without scientific explanation.
But this kind of literal dictation of Scripture is not a genuinely Christian view. The Moslems believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, from the original which is engraved in Arabic on silver tablets in heaven. And somehow the prophet, who was illiterate, managed to remember each chunk long enough to get someone to write it down later.
Christians have never believed that the Bible is like this. Otherwise we would not have dared to translate the literal word of God into so many languages. We would be studying it in ancient Hebrew and Greek. We understand that the Bible contains many different sorts of text, written by humans, under God’s inspiration for their time, but capable, through the interpreting power of the Holy Spirit, to speak to us in our time. Those with fundamentalist views understand parts of the Bible in the same way. They’re not advocating that we eat kosher or stone adulterers and most are not even insisting that women wear head coverings in church. But when it comes to Genesis the fear of losing the God of the gaps drives fundamentalist views about creation. The Creationists are saying that the world must have been made exactly as it says in Genesis – in 7 days, each of 24 hours, and by a process of direct creation of everything by God Otherwise, if the Universe, the world and the people within it came into being through the workings of natural law, they are afraid there will be no need for God at all.
But in trying to make it a book of science, which it isn’t, perhaps they miss the fact that there is a poetical story that can tell us a huge amount about who God is and what God’s purposes are.
To do this let’s have a look at some Creation Myths from different peoples throughout the world. Two of these are the creation myths of the Babylonians and ancient Greeks which some of the Biblical authors must have encountered. Others are from widely scattered parts of the world.
Divide into small groups of 4-5 people Each group to discuss one myth
Answer the questions together Appoint someone to feed back
Feedback answers to questions with flipchart. (Other people can read all the stories later)
The creation story in Genesis will be familiar to most of us. But let’s just hear it read again.
Read Genesis 1 (seven readers)
Think about it in contrast to the questions you answered of the other creation stories. (Plenary)
Many theologians agree that the at least one of the accounts in Genesis was written down to set the record straight for Jews coming into contact with the Babylonian religion. Creation in the Bible is full of beauty and order. God made the world, and it was good. Christians believe in a universe that is based on rational laws and one that does not keep repeating itself in endless cycles or changing irrationally at the whim of some spiritual being. It’s this very belief in a rational universe which allowed the development of science in the first place.
Most of the people who feel that there is a conflict between science and belief are neither good scientists nor good theologians. The so-called modern scientific viewpoint that has permeated our culture in fact goes back to the 18th century. Mathematicians such as Laplace believed that it was possible to explain the universe through knowledge of all the forces, bodies and particles in the universe and the mathematical laws which governed them.
This gave rise to a kind of hierarchy of explanation. So Physicists try to explain their observations of the universe in mathematical terms. Chemists increasingly understand the chemical interactions with which they work in terms of the interaction of the subatomic particles described by physicists. Biologists explain the workings of biological systems in terms of physics and chemistry. Then there are psychologists who try to describe the workings of the mind in terms of physiology, genetics and other biological disciplines.
This is called a reductionist philosophy, and the end of the endeavour would be to explain everything in the universe in terms of natural physical laws, expressed mathematically. As you can see, and as Laplace remarked, there is no need for God in any of this. Unfortunately, what this process does is to explain how, without explaining why. It is summed up by the phrase 'nothing but'. So a human being is nothing but a collection of chemicals. Our religious experiences are nothing but abnormal neurochemical processes. Yes, they may be these things, but this is not the full story.
Let me give you an example. We know that whales are supposed to be very intelligent, perhaps as intelligent as we are in different ways. Now suppose that a bicycle somehow falls off a boat and ends up at the bottom of the sea. The whales go to investigate it. They can use their knowledge of physical principles to understand how it works. The clicks and hoots and whistles resound about the ocean as the whale scientists hold a seminar about the nature of this strange object. They describe how if pressure is put in the same direction alternately on these two flat things here, then a circular motion is produced in this crank here and this motion is transmitted by means of a chain to the two circular objects. They could describe the chemical composition of the steel and aluminium and rubber and plastic. The only thing they wouldn't know was what it was for. Never having seen a road and being unable to conceive of beings like us that want to move about on it, they could understand everything about a bicycle, except its purpose. For that they would need a higher order of knowledge beyond the physics. chemistry and biology which they knew from the world they lived in.
In the same way, understanding the physical and chemical principles that determine the working of a car, say does not explain it as a mechanism. You can tell this if you ask yourself 'How do I know when the car is not working correctly?' The answer is when it does not fulfil its purpose in enabling me to bring the shopping home from Sainsbury's. In other words, we can describe the car's working in terms of physics and chemistry but these do not explain why the car exists in the first place and what constitutes going wrong. Only when we look at the original purpose of the mechanism can we say whether it is working properly.
The fact is, though, that while our culture in general sees science as having an answer for everything, and that rules out the need for questions of purpose and the existence of God, science itself is becoming less and less sure of its ability to explain things. The physicists have discovered that for extremes of speed and size, it is mathematically impossible to determine everything accurately. Godel's theorems now show that in any rigidly logical mathematical system, there will always be some things which cannot be proved or disproved. The reductionist philosophy is seen itself to be a myth.
If we are really going to understand the universe and our place in it then science with its reductionist tendencies is not enough, even to understand something as simple as a bicycle. We have to call in arguments about purpose, which we usually have only at the back of our minds because, for instance, we know quite well what a bicycle is for.
The same applies even more so when we speak about biological life. How do we know when an animal is sick? - when it cannot carry out its purposes of eating, sleeping, reproducing etc. Even though we may be talking about as a biological mechanism for purposes of scientific study, we know this in the back of our minds all the time. It is not sufficient to reduce everything to the laws of physics; we need higher orders of knowledge.
In particular, when we interact as humans, we are not dealing with each other as biological mechanisms. We aren't thinking to ourselves, 'Oh, he smiled, that means he moved this particular set of muscles in his face.' We can detect very subtle variations in the way people use their muscles in smiling. We have knowledge at an unconscious level, which we learnt the hard way as babies. We just know ' This is a really warm and generous person' or 'That smile seems a bit phoney to me.' So at the level of human interaction, purpose is the most important thing, far more important than our knowledge of somebody as a biological organism.
Mature human relationships are characterised by being reciprocal - they are intended to meet the needs of each person in an even-handed way. Immature relationships may not be like this. There may be efforts to dominate, seduce or exploit the other person. But in the kind of relationships that are acknowledged to be the best, there is a development of purpose that suits both parties. If we disagree, people talk about listening to each other - in other words trying to hear and understand what each other's purposes are. For true relationship to exist I must treat the other person in accordance with the purpose for which he or she exists and not as an object to be used for my own ends. Without such values, which cannot be inferred from the laws of physics or biological mechanisms, or any of the other facts about a person, human relationships become simply matters of mutual exploitation. The only way we can discover the other person's purposes is through communication. I have a strong belief that Jeremy is interested in film. Now you couldn't tell that to look at him, could you?
We've seen that understanding the components of the mechanism doesn't mean that we know all about it; we have to know its purpose. Is there any reason to suppose then that looking at the mechanism of the universe is going to enable us to deduce all the purposes for which it exists and to come to a full knowledge of the Creator? Just as we don't understand an individual without listening to his or her purposes, so we can only fully understand the world and its Creator through the communication of God’s character and purpose.
We can only know about the existence and purposes of God through communication with God. We can't expect to derive this knowledge from the reductionist processes of science because it simply does not deal in issues of purpose, which are the everyday commerce of our social life and especially of our relationship to God.
At that point we have to go beyond science and ask, is there a God; has he communicated with us? The answer is found in the testimony of believers throughout the ages. The Bible and the church's interpretation of it in its corporate and individual life are the record of part of that communication from God as to his purposes. The way in which we understand that communication of God's action and purposes is called faith. So Hebrews says. 'By faith we understand that the Universe was formed at God's command' And it goes on to describe so many faithful witnesses who testified by their faith to God's character and purposes. And whatever way God made the world and whatever the radical atheists may say about Christian belief, they cannot take away that experience.
So where does that leave us as Christians? Is there a conflict between science and the gospel? The answer is yes and no. We do not have to be at loggerheads with scientists over the how of the natural mechanisms in the world. And as scientists, Christians can help to discover the glories and mysteries of Creation. But when scientists begin to think that understanding how things work gives them an explanation of why they exist, they are arrogating to themselves both the province of theology. When biological explanations are put forward as if they define human actions, while leaving out human purposes that can respond to the will of God, then we have something to say.
And we believe that God has communicated the divine nature and purposes by being incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. Our testimony is that God has both affirmed the value of the creation that he has made and developed a way for the whole of the natural universe to be reconciled to himself. God has become subject to those natural processes, even death, and has shown himself able to transcend them, through resurrection. Against arguments from social sciences that violence and force are an essential part of human society, we can set the intentions of the maker, who has called the church to demonstrate a radical alternative.
It’s not surprising that in a world that thinks that science has explained away everything, there’s often a loss of sense of purpose. We need to speak out boldly that God is not entirely separate from his creation, like a car mechanic who occasionally tweaks the mechanism to make it run a bit better. (If you do that too often by the way, you'll end up like my first husband who used to like to fix up his motorbike. He ended up on the side of the M4 in the middle of the night with a hole burnt through the cylinder head of the engine. That’s probably why miracles aren’t that common!)
We have on offer a life consistent with a scientific view of the world, but one in which there is purpose and hope, and in which it is possible to move beyond whatever limitations science would set for us, through the working out of the purposes of God.