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Wisdom's Design

Sermon - 2/10/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Proverbs 8:22-31

The text for this morning for our reflection comes from Proverbs 8, and it's one of the creation stories in scripture, though we're not as familiar with it.  But in this creation story, wisdom speaks in the story.  It's the first of God's creation.  So this is Wisdom speaking to us of that creative process:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
   the first of his acts of long ago.
23Ages ago I was set up,
   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth—
26when he had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
   when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

 

There's a brewing controversy in this country involving politics and religion, and you know me, how much I hate those kinds of controversies J.

In reality, you know that I've never met a religious or political controversy that I didn't like.  When you combine the two -- a controversy about both religion and politics -- and I'm kind of like a bug drawn to that light.  You know, the 'zapper', and I just can't resist.  And it often zaps me J.

This one involves not only religion and politics, but science and scripture.  And as such, is not only a critical issue of faith, but also of education -- the advancement of knowledge, and the whole issue of separation of church and state.

In other words, it's a critically important issue not just for us but for our whole country, and even our world.  And that issue is the relationship in general between faith and science.  And more specifically, between creation and evolution.  And what should or should not be taught in public schools.

To illustrate the nature of this controversy and just how absurd it often becomes, I give you world-renowned expert on all matters related to science:  Bill Nye the Science Guy.

For those of you who do not know, Bill Nye is a very popular figure, is actually a comedian more than a scientist.  Indeed, I don't think he's a scientist at all, his degree is in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University.  He discovered he had this flair for explaining science in ways that even children could understand.  As a result, the show that he does on public television -- "Bill Nye the Science Guy" -- has become very popular for a whole generation of children.  My kids grew up on him.  It has also become very popular for educators and scientists alike, he's a greatly sought-after speaker.

Turns out before he discovered this career in public television, he worked for Boeing, and designed one of the mechanical hydraulic systems used on a 747 on which I will be flying to Jerusalem two weeks from today.  So in a very real sense, my life depends on this guy.  Now there's a scary thought J.

But at any rate, in this little video snippet where he's being interviewed on this news show, he talks about some of that controversy between science and religion, creation and evolution. So lets listen in:

Click here to view a video Dan played in the sanctuary

[Note:  the above video clip is 8 minutes long, but Dan played just the part that starts at about 1:35 into the video, and runs to the 4:40 mark]

I like how he downplays the controversy, I think partly out of respect for those with religious views that a contrary.

He talks about this process of science, that is so critical to understanding the whole debate.  And the National Academy for the Sciences defines science as:

 

So the process of science is what can be proved through experimentation and testing.  And as such, knowledge achieved through science is inherently and fundamentally different from the truths obtained through faith and religious traditions.

Science teaches how, where, when, and faith teaches who, and why. Science is about facts and empirical evidence that can be tested.  Faith is about meaning and purpose that cannot be tested.

There are two different realms of knowing, which should not be seen as competing with one another for the ultimate truth.  And for us as Christians, to believe the words of Jesus in the gospel of John, that our emblazoned on the front of the Knight Library (at the University of Oregon) -- "You shall know the truth.  And the truth shall make you free" -- means that we have nothing to fear from the pursuit of knowledge through science wherever it leads us.  For it is part of that larger truth which is wonderfully liberating.

Just as there is no controversy among scientists whether or not global warming is occurring (which Bill Nye referred to), this is also true of evolution.  There simply is no controversy among biologists and all relation fields of science regarding evolution.  Biological evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology.  It has a tremendous impact on a number of fields, from agriculture, development of medicine, bio-engineering and the like.

The basic principles set forth by Charles Darwin over 150 years ago -- that the process of natural selection best explains how the various species of life have developed over time -- have been well established in science through testing and experimentation, to the point that the only debate among scientists today is not whether or not evolution is a factual reality, but rather how its mechanisms work in various scenarios.

I think Gary Larsen provides a wonderful explanation and insight into it all in this cartoon from the Far Side:

 

Or there's this image:

 

The controversy that has been created around the teaching of evolution in schools has nothing to do with science.  It has everything to do with religion and politics. 

Case in point is the forced resignation of Chris Comer, in Texas, this past December.  Comer was the Director of Science Curriculum for the Texas Department of Education, a 27-year career teacher, until she made the mistake of forwarding an E-mail -- without comment -- informing teachers of a public lecture giving a scientific critique of the whole notion of intelligent design.  The idea that life is so complex, it had to have been created by an intelligent being.

Now, keep in mind that kind of critique is part of the scientific process.  That's how you test an idea.  And also keep in mind that in 2005 there was a landmark ruling by a federal judge, appointed by President Bush, in which the Dover Pennsylvania school district required the teaching of intelligent design along side evolution.  The court found that intelligent design, quote "is not science and cannot be judged a valid, accepted scientific theory, and in fact is grounded in theology, not science".  And therefore is not appropriate in science curricula.

It might be appropriate in other places, in comparative religion classes and other discussions, but not in science.

The court also found "The goal of the intelligent design movement is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with intelligent design".

In other words, Ms. Comer was fired for promoting the principles of science over religious ideology in science classrooms.

Folks, when religion determines what is or is not taught in science classrooms, how are we any different than the Taliban, which imposes what is taught due to religious ideology?

The problem here is not with the science of evolution, but the ideology of some religion, and the perception that what science teaches conflicts with the Bible.  But there is not conflict.  And therefore, there should be no controversy.  The problem comes not from a misreading of science, but from the misreading of scripture.

To give an example that Bill Nye gave, that is right on target, pointing out that the creation account in Genesis 1 cannot be a factual account of creation because it refers to the sun as the "greater light" (when we now know that there are billions just like it), refers to the moon as a "lesser light" (when we now know that it's not a light at all but reflects the light), and in doing so, Nye was simply trying to show what should be obvious:  the Bible is not a science textbook.  And that the creation stories are not meant to be factual descriptions of how the world came into being.

Again, I think Gary Larsen has the best insight into this in his cartoon entitle "In God's Kitchen":

 

God is taking out the freshly baked Earth, and muses that "This thing is only half baked" J.  And I love the box down there in the left-hand corner -- "EarthQuik", you know, just add water.  And it was 50 cents off!

This knowledge, that the Bible is not a science textbook, should not offend or frighten us.  It should excite and free us.  Excite us because we can know so much more about our universe than the ancients of faith could have ever possibly known.  And it frees us because our search for knowledge and truth is not limited to the facts that are found in scripture, but include the facts of the whole universe. 

Kenneth Miller, professor of Biology at Brown University, author of the book "Finding Darwin's God - A Scientists Search for Common Ground Between God and Religion".  Hear that again -- a common ground between not science and religion, but between God and religion, from a scientists perspective.

And he writes in that book:

 

This is sometimes known as the "God in the gaps" theory.  You look at an evolutionary chart and there are all those gaps, those missing links, well that's God at work, right? 

That's a terrible explanation.  What happens when those gaps are filled?  Then where is God?

So Miller says:

 

And so Michael Zimmerman, who is the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University (a school founded by our denomination, supported to this day by our offerings to our higher education program) has amassed signatures of over 11,000 clergy -- myself included -- who agreed with this statement:

 

Again, signed by over 11,000 clergy.

The time, you see, has come for Christian people to stand up in support of the teaching of science without interference from religion.  To show that science and religion cannot only peacefully coexist but can even be mutually supportive. 

A great example of that is the work of Dr. John Polkinghorne, one of the world's top quantum physicists, whose work helped lead to the discovery of the quark, one of those basic elements of matter.  And who is now an Anglican priest, employed by the Church of England.  In 1999 he wrote the book "Belief in God in the Age of Science".  And Polkinghorne knows that whereas in science you can establish what is knowable or true through experimentation, you can't do that in religion.  And so he says:

 

This from a leading top physicist of the world.

To understand the beauty, the mystery, and the awe of the entire process of creation that is still unfolding before us, is to see the truth of what Proverbs names (in the text with which I began):  Wisdom.  At the very beginning of time, the wisdom of creation.  Present itself in the creative process.

And I would suggest to you that what Darwin called natural selection is in fact wisdom's design for creation.  It is not the antithesis to God, it is in fact the hand of God at work. 

And in a very real sense, the more that we come to know and understand about evolution, the natural process of creation and the complexity -- the incredible complexity -- of living things, the more we will know about God, the mystery of the universe, and the awesome beauty of life.

 

 


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