Creation Spirituality: At the Intersection of Faith and Science
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
The awe in the psalmist’s voice in today’s text is unmistakable, making it a terrific reading as we begin a summer-long consideration of creation spirituality. And what better place than Colorado to explore what theologians call “natural revelation,” the ways we perceive God through the stunning beauty, amazing diversity, and breath-taking intricacy of the world we inhabit. We’ll observe, listen, feel, inquire, and contemplate, in pursuit of greater understanding. And we’ll think deeply about our roles and responsibilities as part of creation. We’re using the phrase “creation spirituality” deliberately. Sometimes the Church has been suspicious of looking to the natural world for clues to Divine purpose, as do nature-based religions. Nature is not God, but nature is an expression of God’s creative spirit, as well as the playground and chemistry lab and field base for God’s work. In recent years — motivated by the explosion of human knowledge as well as growing concern over human triggers within climate change — Christian theology has sought to recover a sense of wonder at the natural world in service to worship and sustainable practices. No one has done this better than Celtic Christians like J. Philip Newell and John Bell (who will be our Visiting Theologian in October), and others from the Scottish Isle of Iona where I visited a couple summers ago –and we will employ their insights, music, and prayers to guide our exploration.
We begin today by examining the intersection of theology and science, and how we “hold faith and reason in creative tension,” as our mission statement expresses it. Even that positive statement hints at a potentially troubled relationship between the two, and certainly that is the view of many who see the two as virtually incompatible. In the extreme, science has been portrayed as defender of truth and religion as the refuge of ignorance. From the other extreme, religion is regarded as absolute truth and science is a godless threat. There’s a lot of space between those two poles, and that is where I am drawn to articulate a position that honors reason and is faithful to the heart of Christian faith. For every Richard Dawkins there is a Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, whose discoveries in gene mapping drew him to Christian faith. In the recent confirmation class I was struck by the thoughtful wrestling of the young people who wanted to affirm the Big Bang theory and an evolutionary creation process, yet who want to trust in God to figure out what it all means. Their insights are in the mix, as are the perspectives of a number of Central members whose professions are steeped in scientific inquiry, research and application whose views I sought out.
The Psalmist was moved at the sight of the night sky to express humble praise. I invite you to consider the following:
There is enough DNA in an average person’s body to stretch from the sun to Pluto and back. . . seventeen times.
An individual blood cell takes about one minute to make a complete circuit of the human body.
Death rates from all types of cancer have declined 23% in the past 20 years.
Eight minutes, 17 seconds. That’s the time it takes for light to travel from the sun’s surface to the earth, some ninety-three million miles.
The known universe is made up of fifty billion galaxies. There are between one hundred billion and a trillion stars in a typical galaxy. In the Milky Way Galaxy alone there could be as many as one hundred billion earth-like planets.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
How can we not marvel at the created order — or disorder, as some quantum mechanics and chaos theory have shown?! The more we learn, the more we understand, the greater our sense of wonder! Yet scientists are the first to acknowledge the vastness of what we don’t know. Paradoxically, greater knowledge produces greater humility, and it is that attitude that can bring us closer to the Mystery of God who is beyond all knowing.
Sometimes I’ve heard it said that science helps us understand the “how” and “what” and “when,” but cannot tell us “why.” For that we need religion. But one Central member who has a Ph.D. in physics and spent his career in geophysical exploration says that for him there is no difference: both are explanations of how and what and when and why, and provide guidance for behaviors and choices. He put it this way (thanks, Rob Habiger!), Suppose God wanted to put in place a sustainable creation. God can intervene anytime, but chose free will as a foundation which rules out constant intervention. A good way to make a sustainable creation is to first put in place the basic elements and the “rules” on how all of the creation will relate to each other: causes and effects, forces and reactions, evolutionary abilities to adapt to change, etc. These sustainability elements are what we call “science.” By creating the primary elements and the rules of interaction, God created science and God created the world.
Others cited myriad benefits brought to human life through scientific knowledge. One doctor and research scientist spoke enthusiastically about advances in medical knowledge increasing potential health outcomes. For example, science has helped us understand that diabetes is a derangement in glucose metabolism at the cellular level. Yet he knows that “health” is more than managing or even curing disease. Faith helps him support his diabetic patient with good knowledge and personal encouragement toward healthier nutrition and physical activity as well as medicine. Another doctor confronted the limits of medical science by describing the miraculous ways faith works in people to help them overcome unbelievable hardship and heartbreaking outcomes. Faith is essential for identifying meaning for mortal lives that come to an end. Faith is essential for affirming that we are not alone in the universe, but deeply connected to its Source and to one another. Faith lifts us from self-interest and self-involvement to service and sacrifice and life beyond mere survival. Faith teaches us how to love, and through love, touch Transcendent Reality.
A word about Scripture, and why, though written in a pre-scientific time, it still has authority to guide our lives.
Remember, first of all, the purpose of the Bible. It wasn’t written as science but story, a witness to God’s special revelation to the people of Israel and their spiritual offspring, the Church of Jesus Christ. Its truth endures, even though it is subject to the limitations of its time and cultural understandings. One of the scientists cautioned not to tie faith to a belief that can be observably proven wrong, such as the age of the earth. Focus instead on the meaning and core messages, Jesus’ teaching and example of loving God and neighbor. Christian faith rejects the naturalism of Darwin’s latter day disciples (like Dawkins) because it removes God from the equation entirely, while leaving room for evolution as the way God chose to create. The Presbyterian Church (USA) long ago distinguished itself from other Christian churches by affirming Neither Scripture nor our Confessions of Faith teach the creation of humanity by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory. That’s a point worth remembering the next time your atheist friend chides you about believing the world came into being in six days about 6000 years ago.
I like the way one Central member put it: Accepting the Bible as absolute, literal truth hampers curiosity. You have to shut down questions if you just accept everything at face value. That’s not the example Jesus set us for us. He who spoke in parables and used metaphors and asked a lot of questions, seems to invite us to do the same. For Edith, wrestling with questions and following one’s curiosity leads to amazement and enhanced faith.
Another doctor who responded told me of displaying a sign in his office: What we believe must yield to what we know. The integrity of his research depends upon having an open mind and following where the evidence leads. Imagine, he wrote, if we still believed the world was flat. Imagine if we did not believe in bacteria as a cause of illness, but attributed it to sin. Imagine if we believed that Pi was equal to three (a proposed law that the state legislature in Iowa nearly passed in the 1800s would have made its value that whole number). For him science and faith aren’t incompatible, but have different goals. Science observes the world, plumbing its depths, ascending its heights, going boldly into its far reaches. Faith, on the other hand, is not a way of observing the world; it’s a way of interpreting the world.
I remember a summer road trip my son and I took when he was a sixth grader, driving from our home in Michigan to Portland, following the Oregon Trail as much as we could. We covered some stunning territory from the Badlands to Yellowstone to the mighty Columbia River Gorge (not to mention the CORN PALACE in Mitchell, South Dakota—a brick courthouse entirely covered with corn kernels. I’m not making that up and it is something to behold!). I was eager for Paul to learn the history, geography, and science of all we were seeing — which meant reading every display, informational sign, and historical marker for 2,344 miles. Maybe I overdid it, because there was that moment in front of a spurting Old Faithful Geyser that I was talking on and on about water under pressure in deep earth…he turned around and said, “Mom, could you just let me experience it?!”
Friends, there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Life requires balance and so does the relationship between science and faith. Pursue the God-given gifts of intellect, curiosity, and reflection. Leave no question unasked; no stone unturned. Whatever knowledge is gained will witness to God’s creative power and majestic being, and elicit from us the profound thanksgiving of the poet.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened) [e.e. cummings]
For those who wish to explore further, I recommend two books, from which I drew material for this sermon.
John Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (Yale University Press, 2011)
Gregory Cootsona, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva Press, 2002)