Genesis 11.1-9

Matthew 16.1-4; Romans 1.18-23

These Fish Have Legs

(Summertime on Demand - II)

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that nearly the entire world was filled with relief and elation when the Wild Boars soccer team, twelve young men and their coach, were safely rescued in Thailand early this week.  It was an incredible effort that had all of us riveted, and many of us in deep hope and prayer. We grieve for the Navy Seal who lost his life, but are amazed that this was the only casualty in a circumstance that teetered on the edge of disaster throughout.  I was struck by what one of the Seals said when the ordeal was over. “All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave. Everyone is safe. We are not sure if this is a miracle, or science, or what.” We are not sure if this is a miracle, or science, or what.  When I read this, I wondered to myself, “Why can’t it be both?”  Why can’t it be both science and a miracle at the same time?

I read the most unusual article on the Irish Central web page this week.  A fish called the sea toad, native to Mexican waters, was found off the coast of Ireland.  This, by itself, is not all that unusual – fish migrate all the time. What is unusual is that the sea toad propels itself by walking across the ocean floor on tip toe.  On tip toe: over millennia it has developed feet in the front and its rear fins have evolved into legs. So literally the sea toad discovered off the Emerald Isle tiptoed its way across the Atlantic Ocean.

The story of the sea toad – the fish with legs – is an apt metaphor for the interface of science and religion we’re thinking about this morning.  You’ve probably seen the plastic fish that some people put on the back bumper of their cars – they come in two main styles. One is the plain “Jesus fish,” as the fish was an early church symbol of Christianity.  The other style is the same fish, with little legs and the word “Darwin” inside the body of the fish. Clearly the second was designed to have a little fun with the first, making a kind of evolution vs. creation, science versus religion statement.  But I would ask, once again, why the conversation needs to be an either/or, a conversation about opposites. Why can’t it be about both? The cartoon on the back of this morning’s bulletin is a good visual image of the way far too many people engage in the conversation:  church and state are cleanly separated, and religion goes in one place and science goes in the other. The cartoon says that the boundary between the two is the only wall America needs. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I’d say, “This wall must come down.”

So often - in my opinion, too often - when science and religion are spoken of in the same breath, they are usually couched as an adversarial relationship between two diametrically opposed disciplines: science vs. religion; evolution vs. creation; sense vs. spirit; faith vs. reason.  The scientific view of the world is understood to be incompatible with the religious view of the world. And yet, as we have occasionally seen, when science confronts the unmeasurable, it will sometimes hedge its bets with an appeal to a higher power; and when religion feels otherwise helpless, it turns to the world of observable data.  But this was not always so. There was a time that science and faith were partners in the common endeavor of explaining the universe. Indeed, theology was once called “the queen of the sciences,” and what we would call “pure science” today was thought to be a branch of theology, but one of many approaches to understanding God. Dr. Ron Cole-Turner, a long-time friend and colleague who teaches theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes, “Since theology was interested in learning everything about God, theology included science as the way to study God's activity in the world.  Medieval theology encouraged technology as the application of human ingenuity to the accomplishment of God's will in nature.” So you see, if religion and science appear to be opposites, if not outright adversaries, today, we ought to remember that this is a relatively recent development; and I think one of the things people of faith need to ask is, “How did it happen?”

In a way, the antagonism goes a long way back.  Remember the myth of Babel, when God destroyed humanity's architectural and technological achievement of a tower leading to the heavens, because it represented the arrogance of human presumption.  And Jesus mocked the pride of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who believed they could read the weather, but were ignorant of the state of their own souls: “He said to them, ‘When it is evening, you say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.  And in the morning, [you say] It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot even interpret the signs of the times!’” And yet even in these passages, what is condemned is neither the scientific knowledge nor the technological applications themselves, which lead to human accomplishment, but rather the way some people had come to view that knowledge and that ability.

And yet so much of the church's history bears witness to the mutually beneficial partnership between science and faith.  During the Renaissance, for example, early modern scientists conceived of mathematics as the best way to describe the logic which God had inscribed into nature.  Newtonian physics was the culmination of Newton's efforts to divine the hidden elements of God's creative powers. The University at Wittenberg, where Luther taught, and which was the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, welcomed and taught Copernicus’ revolutionary ideas about astronomy, and the first edition of Copernicus’ work was published through the efforts of Osiander, a prominent Lutheran theologian.  John Calvin considered it an affront to God to reject the insight of scientific discovery. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear.”  In fact, our own immediate forbears in faith, those venerable New England Puritans and Congregationalists, took these words of Calvin to heart. Increase and Cotton Mather were both interested in medicine, and particularly in the development of vaccines.  Jonathan Edwards followed the entire range of natural sciences with great zeal, and his first writing was a treatise on the wonders of spiders. So it is that the principles of science and the natural world on the one hand, and the principles of faith and the spirit on the other, have a much closer relationship than most folks tend to suppose.

Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, the author of more than two dozen books including The Panda’s Thumb and Dinosaur in a Haystack.  Gould insisted that science and religion are simply two different fields of inquiry, two different but compatible ways of looking at the same thing.  And I think a good approachable illustration of this is the ways you and I can look at the Genesis creation story, whose beginning we read together at the start of worship.  Our Call to Worship describes the first of the six creative days in the first chapter of Genesis, which is often ground zero for the creation vs evolution wars. But I would insist that both creation and evolution have a home here.  What does Genesis 1 tell us about the creation? It tells us the what:  the heavens and the earth came to be.  It tells us the why:  it was the desire of God to create.  It tells us the who:  it was God, moving with the spirit over the face of the waters.  These are the character of religion, they are the category of faith.  But science comes to creation with different questions. Science asks the how:  in what ways did the species of bird and animal and fish Genesis describes come to be?  Science asks the when:  over how many years and how long ago did it take for creation to develop and grow?  Science too asks the what:  which species developed when and how are they related?  As Gould would say, different yet compatible ways of looking at the same thing.  I understand this may sound overly simplistic, but remember, these are the Hebrew scriptures we are talking about.  They are about higher realities, not about evolution or the development of species. To this I believe even Charles Darwin would agree.  What leads me to say this is that when the English edition of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was about to be published, Marx offered to dedicate it to Darwin; but Darwin demurred, because he believed Marx’s atheistic worldview was detrimental to intellectual freedom.  In other words, to exclude God from all fields of human inquiry by definition limited that inquiry.

Or, to put it positively, to include God and to consider the spiritual dimension in every field of human inquiry completes the quest for knowledge.  Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”  God is knowable though the natural world, and the natural world bears the imprint and signature of the creator.

There are so many ways in which the partnership and interplay of science and religion work successfully.  More than thirty years ago a group of scientists led by astronomer Carl Sagan appealed to religious leaders for help in raising global consciousness about environmental issues.  One of their lines of reasoning declares, “We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded.  Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.” Their appeal insists that “there is a vital role for both religion and science.” Indeed, our own United Church of Christ stands in the forefront of advocating for the sanctity of creation.  Another example is the Human Genome Project, a government research project involving genetic coding. The Project overtly takes questions of faith and ethics into consideration as it addresses its work. One participant observes about the project,

“A remarkably free communication has developed between exponents of religious thought and genetic scientists (many of the latter, of course, being members of churches and synagogues [themselves]).  Theologians are now almost conventionally included in national conferences on genetics... This unprecedented phenomenon represents a stark contrast to the separation of religion and science which many people have either taken for granted or have desired.  It is a new era.”

We need to reclaim the best of our religious past, including Calvin's view that the Spirit of God illumines our scientific quests, and Edwards' limitless curiosity about the ways and designs of the Creator which might be discovered in the natural world.  The church that is skeptical about scientific endeavor is a church that has condemned itself to the margins of its own culture. The scientific endeavor which omits consideration of the spiritual imprint and presence shared by the planet and its inhabitants is left with an incomplete equation.  So the church that is both partner in and proponent of the ways in which science and technology are transforming our world daily will speak with authority when we raise our voices to the moral implications of those changes. The symbiotic unity of science and faith demonstrates that it is possible, I would say urgently necessary for both to remain reverent and relevant to culture and creation alike

Amen.

 

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