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North Springfield Baptist Church
People Meeting God
Just off Havengore, off Pump Lane,
Chelmsford CM1 6JP
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FAITH AND SCIENCE -
My understanding as a believer and as a scientist - Rev Peter Thomas
1. The Supernatural
2. The existence of God
3. Creation and evolution
In the Middle Ages they used to ring church bells during storms to drive away the storm demons. In many parts of world today if someone is sick call witchdoctor / medicine man / shamen to cast a spell to heal the sickness or to break the curse which has caused it. Things have changed in Western world by the 3rd Millenium. For 3 centuries our world has been turning away from beliefs in magic and religion and trusting instead in science. Isaaac Asimov has even described scientists as the New Magicians. We no longer explain the world world in terms of God or evil spirits but in terms of atoms and molecules and forces and reactions. When we are sick most people no longer pray - we turn to doctors, the new miracle workers. So religion and magic have lost their sway over lives of ordinary people. This process of "disenchantment" has one simple cause - the rise of modern science which leaves no room for God in His world.
I have to declare a Personal Interest in this area. I studied science at Cambridge and then taught chemistry and I.T. for 5 years at Watford Grammar School. It makes me nostalgic and almost sad to say that I can probably no longer call myself a scientist. I have also studied theology at London Bible College for 5 years and been a Baptist Minister for 25 years.
Of course there have been and still are many notable scientists who have a deep Christian faith. Many in our own church work in different branches of science. At university there were more Christians in the science and medical faculties any other departments. But there is the popular view that "science has disproved religion", that "science has replaced religion", "we dont need God any more", even that "with the rise of science human beings have outgrown God." This popular view comes not from science itself but from the media's presentations of science and religion, from David Attenborough' subtly atheistic natural history programs to Richard Dawkin's explicit attacks on Christian faith.
I want to touch this evening on three big areas where science and religion clash. Or rather I should say "where bad science and bad religion clash". Because Id want to argue that there is no conflict between GOOD science and GOOD religion at all! But the claims that "science has disproved religion" often focus on three areas: questions about the supernatural in general and miracles in particular, questions about the existence of God, and questions about creation and evolution and the Bible.
1 THE SUPERNATURAL
One popular view is that science has explained away everything supernatural. Science has explained away God. God couldnt have made the world, God couldnt answer prayers, God couldnt speak through prophets, because science has explained away God.
Of course this is a claim, an assertion and not an argument. The last quarter century has seen an immense backlash against the claims of science in the growing interest in the supernatural, the paranormal and the occult. People want to believe. The immense popularity of the X-files shows popular beliefs that "the truth is out there."
"Why is it," Government agent Deep Throat asked “X Files” agent Fox Mulder "Why is it that in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary you are not dissuaded from your beliefs (in the paranormal)?" Mulder replied "Because the overwhelming evidence is not entirely dissuasive."
Very many people do have an instinctive belief in the supernatural. But because there is also the popular belief that "science has disproved religion" they no longer look for the supernatural in the church or even in the other world religions, but instead turn to the occult, to mediums and seances and tarot and astrology. In this way mistaken ideas about science are proving very very dangerous!
The reason science can appear to exclude the supernatural is that its underlying presuppositions exclude the supernatural. At deepest of levels Science presumes that the only things which exist are those which can be observed and touched and experimented on. That is an assumption, a presupposition. Its a necessry assumption if you want to do work in science. But its a dangerously mistaken and limiting assumption if you want to live in the real world. Science is used to dealing with certain kinds of evidence - observations and measurements. The hardest thing I found in moving from studying science to studying theology was learning that there are different kinds of evidence as well as scientific experiments, the evidence of historical documents, or of personal testimony for example. These other kinds of evidence need different skills if you are to handle and interpret them properly. The world is overflowing with evidence for existence and activity of God - but sadly some scientists are so locked into their ways of handling evidence and their ways of looking at the world that they cant accept the testimony of Christians about answers to prayer or god speaking in dreams and visions. They want to put the Bible under a microscope instead of letting its truth touch their hearts.
The same problem comes when some scientists think about miracles "Miracles can't happen" they say. Underlying assumption in science is that the same things keep on happening in the world. U do experiment today and get a certain result then if u do same experiment again tomorrow under same conditions you'll get the same result. That is how all "scientific laws" are worked out. If things didnt happen the same day after day you couldn’t do any science at all!!! By definition a miracle is God breaking or suspending those scientific laws which He created and He sustains. God is Creator - He's allowed to do that if He wants to. But science has problems with God breaking His own rules. Science has problems with anything happening today which wont happen again tomorrow unless God does the same miracle again then. Science has problems with any events which cant be experimented upon, anything where u cant control all the factors and only vary what u want to investigate. So BAD science rejects reports of miracles because such reports cant be handled in the ways science likes to.
To say "miracles dont happen" is an assumption. The most any person should say is that "if miracles do happen I havent seen any". Thats the limits of how far science should go. And many of us HAVE seen miracles - healings, answers to prayer. I have experienced miracles myself. So I believe in the God who works miracles! Good science should never reject evidence of miracles just because it doesnt fit into its philosophy or conflicts with its presuppositions. Scientists should always reexamine their assumptions so they fit with the real world!
2. THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
“God is not discoverable or demonstrable by purely scientific means, unfortunately for the scientifically-minded. But that really proves nothing. It simply means that the wrong instruments are being used for the job.” J. B. Phillips (1906–1982)
Some people confidently declare ‘‘there is no God’’ as if this were a proven fact. All anyone can reliably say is, ‘‘if there is a God I haven’t seen evidence of his existence yet’’. People who say ‘‘God does not exist’’ are only expressing their personal belief.
As a teenager I used to argue vigorously that God couldn’t exist. Then God proved me wrong.
Someone who declares that God cannot possibly exist is making the same mistake as someone who insists that Australia cannot possibly exist, just because they haven’t personally been there (yet). Or somebody who says “the Queen doesn’t exist” because he has never met Her Majesty, and refuses to believe the pictures or the people who claim they have met her! Isaac Asimov made the same mistake as very many people - "I am an atheist, out and out. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he does not that I don't want to waste my time."
Asimov had closed his mind to the evidence for God's existence - so in the end he could not see what many others can! But Christians HAVE seen that evidence. We have experienced the power of God and seen him at work! And scientists should NOT ignore that evidence, but rethink their scientific assumptions until their science fits with the real world!
“Science without religion is blind. Religion without science is lame.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
“Posterity will some day laugh at the foolishness of our modern materialistic philosophy. The more I study nature the more I am amazed at the Creator.” - Louis Pasteur
The way we all see the world, our "world view", depends on where we are standing, where we are coming from. Two people were walking along a river bank one day when they saw a man across the river. “How can we get across?” They shouted. “Why would you be wanting to do that then?” The man asked. “We want to get to the other side” they explained patiently. “Don’t be daft,” the man replied. “You’re already on the other side!”
And we don’t always interpret what we see correctly. Our interpretations can be distorted by our presuppositions, our preconceived ideas, the things we assume and take for granted.
Advert - "What do u see?" 1. Scruffy black man running along street behind a well-dressed white man. Is it a mugger chasing his victim? 2nd picture - pull back - wider picture shows Policeman in uniform running after the black man. Perhaps that confirms your interpretation. What do u see? Answer = picture of 2 policeman pursuing a criminal - black man was a detective in plain clothes. How we interpret what we see depends upon our point of view, our presuppositions, our world view. Especially if we only see half of the picture we may well completely misunderstand what we see.
Some scientists face this problem when they come to think about God. How we interpret stories, facts, events, evidence, is blinkered by our presuppositions.
We all know the story of boy who cried wolf. How one day a wolf actually came and attacked the flock but when the boy shouted "wolf" the villagers thought he was joking yet again and didnt come so the sheep and boy were killed. What's the moral of that story?
We probably think it is about the importance of never telling lies. But maybe that just reflects our presuppositions. In Star Trek DS9 when Garek the alien Cardassian who had been a leader in their secret police was asked for the moral of that fable, he saw things differently. “Surely it is the importance of never telling the same lie twice!”
If a person starts off with the wrong assumptions, the same evidence can reinforce those wrong ideas!
Think about those kinds of optical illusions (termed Gestalt shift pictures where the same image can be seen in two different ways - the candlesticks which are also faces. BOTH images are there in the picture. When your mind switches from seeing one to other the picture hasn’t changed, only your interpretation of it. Its possible to get so locked into seeing the picture in one particular way that you cant see the other. But once you have seen both it is impossible to argue that only one image is there and the other is not. Many examples of optical illusions where it takes a perception shift, a gestalt shift, to see the image in its different ways. Many people are so blinded by the way the media suggests that science has replaced God that they simply cannot see God. Some scientists are so locked into their way of looking at the world that they genuinely cannot see the evidence for God which is all around them. But for anyone who looks for it that evidence is there plain to see.
3. CREATION AND EVOLUTION
Has evolution disproved the Bible Is the Bible account of God creating the world in 6 days true? Here I suggest the real issue is philosophical. It’s nothing to do with science and everything to do with how we understand the Bible. The real question is what do we mean by “truth”? Consider these statements.
True or False?
(a) 2 + 2 = 4
(b) force equals mass times acceleration
(c) Henry the Eighth had six wives
(d) "He's got a frog in his throat."
(e) Romeo loves Juliet.
(f) God is love.
(g) "In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them."
What do we mean by True and False?
- Mathematical truth starts from certain basic assumptions, or axioms, and derives from them by defined operations other "mathematical truths" which are proved totally theoretically.
- Truth in science is based on observations and experiments from which theories are deduced. A theory or model is only true if it successfully explains and predicts the results of practical experiments.
- Truth in historical events and people can still be accepted even though there may be little evidence remaining of what actually happened many centuries ago.
- "Romeo loves Juliet" cannot be proved scientifically or historically, but only in the experience of the people in love. (Here – true in the story world, but did they ever exist? Does that matter?)
There are many different areas of knowledge; mathematics, science, history, literature, morality, philosophy and religion too. Each area has different ideas of truth within it, with different ways of determining what is true or false. Historical facts cannot be proved "true" mathematically because the rules of mathematics do not apply to history. Moral questions of right and wrong, like "Is murder wrong?" cannot be decided using scientific principles alone, because the scientific method of reasoning is not necessarily valid when applied to moral issues.
Different Kinds of Language
The different kinds of knowledge can use language in different ways. Poetry is not always literal. Consider, "Tiger Tiger burning bright, in the forest of the night." This poetry does not mean that the tiger is actually on fire!
Religious truth is a distinct kind of truth concerned with things infinite, eternal and spiritual, things we can never fully understand or adequately describe. Religious truth cant always be explained in the language or judged by the sorts of ways of thinking which belong to other kinds of knowledge. Eternal and spiritual truths often can’t be expressed in literal language. So religious truth is usually expressed in words used symbolically or poetically, using similes and metaphors, sometimes bending language almost to breaking point. We make a big mistake if we try to understand literally language which was intended to be understood symbolically. It’s an issue of interpretation.
When we approach the Bible we must try to work out what kind of language it is, what kind of truth it is trying to communicate. There are many different kinds of language in the Bible -history, parable, law, letter, proverb, and the highly symbolic language of prophecy and revelation.
As an example, think about when Jesus told his parables. Was he quoting historical truth? Was the "Good Samaritan" a real living person? Did a genuine "Prodigal Son" ever leave his father? Were the parables history? Or were they instead carefully constructed stories which convey spiritual truth.
We have to ask similar questions about the Creation Narratives in Genesis chapters 1-2. "Are they intended to be scientific truth?" "Is the language literal or is it instead symbolic or poetical, or some combination of these kinds of language (genres)?" It seems very unlikely that the writers were trying to produce a textbook of science and history. For one thing science and history as we know them have only been invented over the last few hundred years! These Bible accounts of creation have been around for 3000 years or more. It seems much more likely that Genesis was written to present religious truth in an enduring form.
Let's remember another obvious but very important thing which makes the Creation Stories in Genesis different from every other part of the Bible. From Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 onwards people were actually there - people who could tell their stories to their children. But for the accounts of creation NOBODY was there! Everything in Genesis 1-2 must have been revealed by God to those writers in some way because before there were people on earth NOBODY was there! And it would have been revealed in ways that the people THEN could understand, not in the language of history and science which weren't going to be invented for thousands of years.
When it comes to creation science and religion are asking different questions. Science wants to know HOW the universe began, HOW did life begin and develop. Religion is asking WHO was behind it all, WHY did life begin, what is the PURPOSE of it all?
SO How did the Universe begin? And How did life on Earth develop? If people are honest, we just don't know about the question of how the universe, and in particular life on earth, began. There are three kinds of approaches to the origin of the universe which many people believe today.
(a) Purely Scientific Views:
The Universe began with a "big bang" or else it has always existed in a "steady state", or if Stephen Hawking is right it doesn’t even need to have a beginning at all. Then over the millenia, life has developed through evolution, a perfectly natural and chance process. This view is remarkably popular with non-scientists who often think that everything can be explained by "science". Good scientists know it's not that simple!
(b) Biblical “Young Earth” Creation View:
One Jewish and Christian view is that the account of creation found in the Bible (in Genesis chapters 1-2) is literally, historically and scientifically true. So God took six days of 24 hours to create the world and evolution (which is after all only a theory, not a proven fact) cannot have occurred.
(c) Symbolic “Old Earth” Biblical View:
Other Christians, just as committed to the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God, believe that Genesis is teaching religious and not scientific truth. So the language of the Biblical account of creation is symbolic rather than necessarily literal. So Genesis teaches WHO it was who created the earth (God) and WHY, but not scientifically HOW it all took place. The issue is the correct interpretation of the texts.
This view regards the "days" in Genesis as long periods of time. This is a perfectly acceptable symbolic meaning for the word for day yom found elsewhere in the Bible e.g. Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
Other parts of the account are SURELY symbolic - God "said" (what language did God say it in?) God "breathed" into Adam's nostrils. when we're talking about God human language HAS to be symbolic. When it says "days" surely these are God's days. It's not necessarily, and probably a wrong way to approach the Bible as God's Word, to insist that the days are literal 24 hour periods. (There wasnt even a sun or a moon until the third day!)
Notice how well the order of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 actually fits with scientific ideas of evolution, ideas which didnt come alone till thousands of years after Genesis was written. So we can accept the idea of development or evolution. There probably were dinosaurs, living and dying out before humans were created in that long long period of the fifth "day" in Genesis 1:20 .
So evolution probably happened. But sensible scientists will realise that the probability of life in all its complexity appearing by the operation of mere random chance would be exceedingly low! So we believe God must have intervened by "guiding" evolution, continuing the process of creation.
Consider the wonders of nature; the complexity of human brain and eye, the action of enzymes, the interplay beween DNA, RNA and proteins in replication and inheritance, and countless other phenomena. It is so unlikely that these marvels "evolved" by pure chance, and sometimes in opposition to so-called natural selection. Design points to the existence of a Designer, the Architect of the Universe, "God".
In Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 man is created in the (spiritual) image of God by the inbreathing of the breath (or spirit) of life. Many Christians understand this as God giving the dimension of spiritual experience to animals which had already developed through evolution, making them "Man" by giving them rational, moral and spiritual qualities. Psychologists and philosophers find it impossible to explain how human beings developed consciousness and conscience, and appreciation of beauty and the desire to pray and worship. Evolution never claims to explain these things, and never could! The Christian explanation is simple - God made us this way, in His image!
Science describes the way the world works. Faith is concerned with the God who is above science, who created and sustains the scientific laws which scientists study but is inevitably Himself outside the scope of "scientific" study. Science does not, and cannot, prove that God doesn't exist. Science is very good at explaining how this world works and how we can control it. But it has its limits - and GOOD scientists recognise those limits. Science will never ultimately be able to explain how the world began. Science cannot give us any answers about things in the universe which we cannot see or touch, the whole spiritual realm.
The most important questions about creation are these. WHY did life begin? WHAT IS the purpose of our existence? WHAT IS the meaning of life? Science can't answer these questions. The Bible can!
Faith and science: the supernatural and miracles, the existence of God, creation and evolution - things to say to your friends when they ask, things to think about.