Thursday, June 26, 2008

Building Bridges Between Science and Faith

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
February 11, 2008

Go outside and look around, you'll be amazed at what you see. From the beauty of a sunrise to the buried living treasure under a log, the world is abundant in beauty and diversity. Although the majority of species that have inhabited this world are extinct, our planet remains an amazingly complex and diverse world. From the tiniest microbe to the mightiest elephant, these creatures are a testament to the wisdom of an evolving creation.

I'm not a scientist, but I have great respect for their work. Their tenacity in seeking answers to seemingly unanswerable questions needs to be commended and encouraged. Seemingly undeterred by apparent blind alleys or overwhelming challenges, when one solution doesn't work, they look for another. To be a scientist requires great curiosity, persistence, and patience; this is because the scientific method assumes that there are no easy answers to life's questions.
As a pastor and theologian, I look at the world from a different vantage point, but I, too, recognize that life's questions rarely involve easy answers. When it comes to observing the natural world, the scientist starts with a commitment to methodological naturalism, which means they proceed with their work without assuming God's presence, looking only to nature for answers. I, however, can and do speak of the hand of the Creator in this effort, and therefore I'm able to celebrate the Creator's handiwork.

Even before Darwin's time, theologians tried to understand God's relationship with nature, but Darwin's theories posed special challenges to theology. For the first time there was a natural explanation for the diversity of the Earth's species. Some within the religious community resisted his proposals, but many welcomed his contribution to the discussion. As we are still learning, such a discussion, if it's to be fruitful, requires humility and a willingness to learn and listen.
Recognizing that tomorrow's discoveries could fill in today's gaps in knowledge, neither scientist nor theologian should embrace a “God of the gaps” perspective. Rejection of the idea of a “gap filling God” doesn't, however, preclude the theologian from reflecting on nature or the scientist to contemplate God's presence. Owen Gingerich, a distinguished Harvard astronomer and devout Christian, points to a distinction made long ago by Aristotle between efficient causes and final causes. Science looks at the former, while theologians look at the latter. Efficient causes have to do with the way things work and how they have come to be - this is the realm of methodological naturalism, the search for answers to questions that have possible answers. Final causes, on the other hand, have to do with questions about why we exist and what's expected of us. It's the distinction between physics and metaphysics, and metaphysics is the realm of faith and reason. With Gingerich, I believe it's appropriate to speak of design and purpose, but such talk must always be done with humility and tentativeness.
It's possible to speak of the truthfulness of both natural selection and design, as long as we recognize their inherent differences of perspective. One is scientific, the other is philosophical. Both are reasonable and compatible. I speak, therefore, as a theologian who sees the wisdom of God at work in the universe. From my perspective, I see balance and purpose, and I hear an invitation to participate in maintaining and furthering that balance and purpose.
Today my congregation once again observes Evolution Sunday, an idea that on the surface seems quite secular, but isn't. It's simply an effort to build a proper and respectful bridge between science and faith. I realize not everyone believes this to be possible. Some believe you can't be a true scientist and also be religious, others believe that if the scientific consensus contradicts a literal reading of Scripture, then science must be wrong. In one case science trumps God, and in the other God trumps science.

To my mind, the wise choice is the middle path, the one represented by Evolution Sunday. Such a path calls on people of science and people of faith (recognizing that many are both scientists and people of faith) to work together for the benefit of humanity. In this spirit, I invite you to join us in celebrating the wisdom of an evolving creation by observing Evolution Sunday (www.evolutionsunday.org).
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org).
Feb. 11, 2007

1 comment:

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