Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Adding to the Gospel heresy No.4 : Science or Religion

As a Christian you must now believe “science is bad” and/or “the world was created in 6 (solar) days”.

This one is, unfortunately, very common especially in more evangelical and fundamentalist circles. It results in people rejecting Christianity (wrongly) believing it is anti-science, or being sidetracked from devotion to Christ alone into fighting for the “cause” of creation science etc. I am dealing with it here because of its danger as an addition to the Gospel, but at the same time I will comment on the false “Christianity vs. Science” dichotomy.

I grew up in a denomination which although it contained many devout and godly Christians had fallen into an “adding the Gospel” trap with creationism (and also special foods and Sabbath). So I do have some first hand knowledge. I also remember vividly as a young teenager keenly interested I science what a put-off it was hearing science denounced from the pulpit, and how silly preachers sounded who railed at scientific things which they very obviously did not understand!

When I was studying for my High School finals, I was taking Geology as an extra science subject. One of my younger cousins, who still belonged to that denomination came into my room one day. As he saw me sitting there surrounded by geology textbooks his look turned to horror and he blurted out “But you do believe in God don’t you?”

So let me cover the “science is bad” fallacy in a few words first.

The fallacy has been fed by atheists opposed to Christianity – from Darwin to Dawkins - who have tried to use science in their cause. So what if they used science as a weapon, it was them not science that was anti-Christian. It has also been fed by the more fundamentalist preachers who made two mistakes. Firstly did not realise that the real answer to the atheist scientists’ attacks is to remember that science deals with the question “how” while theology deals with the question “why”. Neither has anything to fear from the other. Secondly these preachers have very in-advisably tried to use Genesis as a science text book (I will deal more with that later).

What is modern science? It is a search for truth. It is a search for answers to the question “how?” in relation to this world. And modern science is the child of devout Christians of long ago who, because they believed God created everything and that God was dependable, believed that there would be a “rhyme and reason” to the world and so they confidently looked for it and discovered things like the ‘laws’ of physics.

So what is “bad” about science? Jesus said “I am the Truth” so searching for truth cannot be bad.

Especially for us who believe God created everything, discovering the “how” of his creation should be an exciting and noble thing.

The scientific enterprise, scientific mindset and scientific method are things that we Christians should thanking God for, not disavowing and most certainly not stigmatising as bad.

Back to creationism as an addition to the Gospel.

You may have seen news clips of conflict in the United States at various times with people objection violently to “evolution” being taught in schools and wanting “creationism” taught alongside it. The passion with which these people pursue their cause is testament to the importance they attach to it. In Australia you will find churches, and may even have joined a church, that hold creationism with similar passion. In that case it has changed from being a matter in which a Christian can believe whatever they like to a heresy because it is pulling people away from devotion to Christ.

My aim here is most certainly not to get into an argument on the actual subject of “creationism Vs evolution”. That is the very last thing I want to do. What I want to do is show that it is not an essential part of Christian belief, but rather a matter on which every Christian has – and should extent to others – freedom to hold whatever views they like. Especially I want to show that elevating it to an Article of Faith makes it into a heresy.

How do I show it is not an essential Christian belief? Here goes…

When I was at theological college I had two very good Old Testament lecturers. One was Dr. Bill Dumbrell. He was a devout Christian (rare I am afraid in Biblical scholars) and a formidable scholar. At the start of a one semester unit on “Genesis chapters 1 to 11” he started by dictating the names of good reference books which we slavishly wrote down. He seemed bemused that we all dropped our pens when, after one book he added what he obviously thought was a matter of no consequence: “It is several hundred pages … in German” He was that sort of scholar! One lesson someone asked him if he believed the world was created in six days. His answer was very interesting. He said that if he found that a sound interpretation of the Bible required that belief, then he would believe it without hesitation. But that in fact he did not believe that the Bible said that. And he went on to talk about the way the Bible used the word “day” and other items which I won’t digress on to here.

I realise that his belief does not prove anything, but it does give us a good reason not to allow ourselves to be swept along by claims that the Bible “obviously” says the world was created in six solar days.

My next reason is to do with Gallileo. In 1633 Galileo was condemned to prison by a church Inquisition for the heresy of “holding as true the fallacy that the sun is at the centre …”

In 1992 the then pope said this:
Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture....
Pope John Paul IIL'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) - November 4, 1992
So Galileo was condemned because the theologians of his time believed the Bible said that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun went around the earth. I do not think any Christian today would believe the sun goes round the earth, but we still read the same passages out of the same Bible as those theologians did.

So when today we have scientists saying that the evidence appears to show that the world came to be in such and such a way we should be cautious about acting like the Inquisition of Galileo’s day and declaring “No! It cannot be! The Bible says it happened in six days!” The Bible has important things to say about why the world around us is the way it is and why evil exists, and what God has done about it and how we should live to please God. These are the things that really matter. So the Bible may not have the least interest in teaching spiritually unimportant things like the world’s physical structure.

My last reason is in the answer to this question: “What difference would it make to our faith?”

I don’t have any difficulty in believing God could create the universe in an instant let alone over six days. But what if the modern scientific theory is correct (and of course it may be supplanted by another theory in time); what changes in my appreciation of God?

Well if I imagine God putting forth some stupendous burst of pure energy, bounding it I suppose by what we know as the laws of physics, watching for billions of years while nebulae, galaxies and solar systems form knowing that out of all this vast array of stars at least one will have a suitable planet for life. Perhaps he does or perhaps he does not kick start that first anaerobic life. (He may for all I know have set up the whole thing to run to produce his desired result without further intervention – that would be very clever indeed!) If I imagine him watching as this world is “polluted” by oxygen (a biologist called it the earth’s greatest ecological disaster) and most life forms are killed off. Then as oxygen-based life flourishes he does or perhaps does not need to give it a push here and a shove there. Then as millions of years roll by he may or may not tweak things so that something recognisably human emerges. Perhaps there is indeed a first breeding pair who are “human” maybe he starts to talk to them and gives them a really simple test of obedience “don’t eat the fruit of this tree” …

I am no biologist and I may not have done the current theories of astronomy and evolution justice, but my point is that such an account is to me just as glorifying to God, and does not detract from any essential piece of doctrine that I know.

On the other hand treating Genesis as a science text book does divert attention away from the really fundamental doctrines it sets forth. Doctrines of how evil come into the world – we humans let it in; doctrines of why we suffer natural disasters – because we humans decided to try to run the world instead of God; of God’s kindness – that despite what we did, God did not totally stop helping us; of the beginning of God’s way of setting to rights what we humans had made wrong. These teachings are really important, and they are what Genesis is really about.

There is a justly famous principle of the English reformation:
"in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." 
This principle is a very good one to apply to “Creation Vs Evolution”. The question of which is correct is not an essential of the Christian Faith, rather it is definitely a “doubtful matter” so the correct approach is “liberty”. Believe what you believe, but grant other Christians the same liberty to believe what they believe. That way you will avoid turning you pet belief into a heresy that harms your Christian life and growth.

As Paul wrote of a different but I think analogous situation (Titus 3.9)

9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.”

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