Christians as environmental scientists

The topic of yesterday’s post? Many environmental scientists I know (myself included), should take matters of faith more seriously.

Today’s focus? Many Christians I know (again, myself included) should take science more seriously.

A stumbling block for many Christians? How to square the Genesis account of creation with science on the age and origins of the universe, and with Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Much has been written on these topics, from both sides (more accurately, from a diverse range of perspectives), by people who’ve thought a lot more extensively and carefully on these matters than I. They’ve been disciplined in their approach in ways I would heartily recommend. So if you want a more definitive word, please seek out these voices. Google is your friend.

But here are a few homely thoughts.

To start, most of my Christian friends don’t ask me about these topics. I think there are several reasons behind this. To start, this is not based on a survey, but my guess would be that they have more immediate concerns, ranging from raising the kids to their health to finding a job – science and technology are in the background and not an issue for them. In fact, the great majority of all people – people of faith, agnostics, atheists – probably belong to this group. Hardly a surprise.

Of those who are left? Some know I’m a scientist, and they are somehow worried they might offend me, make me defensive. Some like me, but are afraid if they knew what I really thought, that their liking would turn to suspicion and distrust…so they “don’t go there.” They adopt a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Others fear that I might launch into many minutes of scientific gobbledygook; they don’t want to hear it! Another group finds the whole issue unsettling, worrisome. The less they have to think about it, the better. Some have heard my thoughts before – and frankly, aren’t that impressed.

But a few do raise the subject. To them I usually start with a question:

“Have you ever been interviewed by an FBI agent?”

If I get a positive response, we go on. Otherwise, I ask them, “How about a police officer?”

If they have, or if they’ve seen such an interview in a television action drama, I go on to the next question, “What’s the first thing the agent or the officer does?”

The answer? Show you a badge.

And here’s the point. That badge is inerrant (a word Christians use to describe the Bible: “without error.”). It is without flaw. It is totally accurate. But it is not a history of the FBI, or the police force. It is not a discussion of the origins of the FBI. It is not an organization statement for the police. It makes no statement about how the FBI works – its investigatory techniques and its forensic methods.

Instead, its function is to establish relationship.

The badge says, in effect. “I am an FBI agent. In our interview, I will ask questions. You are the person before me. You will answer them.” [In the context I usually see this badge, the FBI is running a security clearance background check on someone I know – not arresting me!]

In the same way, the opening chapters of Genesis are meant to establish relationship. They say no more or less than “I am God. You are part of my creation (and, by the way, a part that I love). Now we will talk about the topics I, Your Maker, want to discuss: Love. Hate. Sin. Forgiveness and Redemption. Justice. Mercy. Grace. Things that matter to you.”

Which brings us to the origins and age and nature and extent of the universe. A lot (a guess…I’ve never taken a poll) of my Christian friends understand that the Earth is several billion years old, and the universe billions of years older still. A few don’t. [Probably there are some of your friends and mine who are of different faiths, or agnostic, or atheist, who also think the Earth is young.] And of course, I have a number of friends who are both scientists and Christians. And so do you. But, as I said yesterday, chances are good they don’t talk about this combination much.

To folks who ask, I try to point out that the same science that points to the age of the Earth and the universe is also the science that allows us to make a nuclear reactor that works. We can’t understand the one without the other. We apply that same science to make all those wonderful gadgets…the laptops and IPads and smartphones and so much more. The same science underlies the law of gravity. The same science that explains why our sun is hot and bright also says that it’s old. The same science that points the way to evolution also underlies much of the big advances in health care since that have come along since World War II. And on and on. You can’t have the one without the other.

A word more on evolution. Some Christians are troubled by what they see as a conflict between evolution and intelligent design. They make essentially the same statement often attributed to Albert Einstein, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” [Interestingly, Billy Graham isn’t concerned in this way, as you can see from his quote in yesterday’s post.]

In response, I tell a story from my own experience. What seems chance to us need not seem so to a higher power. When I was a child, I recall several instances where a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, even a parent would say something like “Let’s go for a ride in the car.” [Remember, in the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s a ride in the car was a bigger deal than today!] My brother and I would gleefully hop in. The trip would seem purposeless for pretty much its entire duration…and then suddenly we’d be at the ice cream parlor. Or the ballpark. Or the cigar store (our grandparents had their needs too!). Pretty clear in retrospect that grandpa, with superior strategic view and vantage point, saw the evening’s journey differently from us. There was a guiding hand. No dice were harmed in the making of his plan.

To bring yesterday’s post and this one to a close…

Historians – the great academic and former head of the Library of Congress Daniel Boorstin in his book The Discoverers among them – sometimes tell us that science in many respects is a western invention. They give this reason: Judeo-Christian tradition holds that God is a God of order; therefore if we look for order in His creation we’ll find it…and sure enough we do.

Here’s what one scientist (they thought of themselves as natural philosophers then; the term scientist has been in use only for a century or so) from back in that era had to say – Francis Bacon, in his work The Great Instauration, in 1620:

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

A call to seek knowledge…for the benefit and use of life…out of love for one another?

Surely that brings us together…we can agree on that one?

Tomorrow? The weekend is over. Back to the nitty-gritty of science, science policy and the human prospect.

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4 Responses to Christians as environmental scientists

  1. Eddy Weiss says:

    I love the analogy of the ride with your grandfather! So true, and I have the same memories of those rides with my father…seemingly a random selection of streets all to a pre-planned end. Perfect!

    • Thanks again, Eddy:

      I’m glad you can draw on similar experiences. I’ve tried this analogy out on a number of folks, and have been surprised to learn that not everyone has such childhood memories… 🙂
      all the best.

  2. Lucy Hancock says:

    Dear Bill,
    I loved your post! I think about these things too…. and in a similar spirit. Without leaning too hard on things that pass, I reflect with a bit of comfort (that I am prepared to surrender to new facts!) that the order of Creation in Genesis is the same as what actually happened, so simply by adjusting our notion of a Day, it comes out OK after all. I’m not married to that thought, but there it is. And as for evolution, a similar thought: there are two types of evolution, genetic and chromosomal. Genetic evolution is the one with all the philosophic difficulties. Also the one that has not been seen to lead from species to species but only to intraspecies differentiation. Chromosomal evolution has no philosophical difficulties, and we see something like it all the time, whenever we see a Downs child, for example. So there is this question (I’ll give this up if I have to but I LIKE it), how many of all the species we see could have evolved from doubling and breaking of the first DNA? Could all species have been there already, just as the entire periodic table is there in the first hydrogen atom? Burbage, Burbage, Fowler and Hoyle showed how all the elements build up in a great soap opera of novae and gas clouds, slowly and quickly, from that first. Perhasp species also? It’s not an unreasonable question. But like you, I’ll give up these comforts if I have to. Truth first and last.

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