“The Theology of Science”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 17, 2022
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
God spoke: “Let there be light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
and the darkness God named Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
– – –
At first glance, titling a sermon “The Theology of Science” might seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, from Galileo’s inquisition to the Scopes Monkey Trial all the way to the determination on the part of some Christians to pray instead of getting the Covid vaccine, religion and science have often been at odds. The antagonism has come from both sides: from scientists who have no patience for any non-rational phenomena or who have summarily dismissed the idea of God as lacking evidence, and biblical literalists who actually reverse-engineer creation to claim that the world is only a few thousand years old and any kind of scientific evidence otherwise is either misinterpreted or just plain wrong.
Yet there are many people of faith – I’m guessing most of us gathered here – who “believe” in science just as much as we believe in God.
And there are many prominent scientists and science-y mathematicians, from Copernicus to Galileo to Newton to Darwin to Einstein, from Hildegard of Bingen to Mary Anning to Florence Nightingale to Antoinette Brown Blackwell to Katherine Johnson, who have believed in God and for whom faith in God was a major part of their lives. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, by the way, was the first woman ordained by any denomination, a “first” we proudly claim as she was a Congregationalist. She was also the first woman evolutionary scientist, proving with examples from the natural world that the female inferiority that Darwin had stated as universal and inevitable fact was bunk. (And she raised seven kids.)
Yet despite the great company we’re in, we may, at times, feel the cognitive dissonance of subscribing to evolution while simultaneously taking seriously holy scripture that says the world was created in 6 days, or the embarrassment of being put on the spot about our faith by someone seemingly more erudite or rational than we are. When it comes to science and faith, do we just cross our fingers and look the other way, never really daring to contemplate the two at the same time? Or is there something to be gained from trusting that both can speak to us simultaneously – not just without contradicting each other, but actually complementing each other, actually enriching our lives if we’re willing to let them interact instead of keeping them safely locked into separate parts of our lives?
Spoiler alert: yes!
The first thing we gain when we let science and faith speak to us is something we’ve touched on in a few other sermons in this series: a sense of awe and wonder. As science explores and uncovers ever more complex phenomena in our world, in the tiniest cells of our bodies, in the farthest reaches of the universe – we find more and more to marvel at, and, if we’re people of faith, that awe is directed to the One who is somehow the author of it all. If you got a chance to look at the first set of photos released from the James Webb Space Telescope, one of which is on the cover of your bulletin, you may have felt that sense of awe and wonder – that there is such beauty and such intricacy in this world. “Science,” says Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, “is a form of worship. …When I’m a scientist and I discover something nobody knew before, that’s like this rush of excitement, but it’s also a moment of worship – like, ah, God knew that! And now [God’s] given all of us a chance to begin to learn it, too. The lab,” he says, “can be as much a place of worship as a cathedral.”
Related to awe and wonder is a sense of mystery: that despite all that we do know, and it is a lot – Einstein actually said that one of the proofs of God’s existence to him was how very understandable this complex universe is, meaning there must have been a rational “mind” behind its creation – there is still so much we do not know, so much that, even as we continue to learn and discover, we will never be able to predict or determine in the world of natural and physical phenomena. Our unknowing isn’t always a case of ignorance that we will eventually overcome if we build computers complex enough to measure and calculate all the factors affecting a phenomenon; often it’s a case of some things being simply unknowable, either by their nature – like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle where we cannot know both a particle’s momentum and its location with any exactness; or because some factors work in ways that are not predictable no matter how much data we have.
Most of us are probably familiar with “the butterfly effect” – the idea from chaos theory that one butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can create a hurricane on the east coast of the United States. Theoretical physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne describes why this is so in his book Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: it’s due to the “exquisite sensitivity” of systems like air molecules interacting with each other: “we shall make a serious error in our calculation,” he writes, of how one air molecule will be moving at the end of a period of time as short as one ten thousand millionth of a second “if we have failed to take into account the effect of an electron ([one of] the smallest particle[s] of matter) on the other side of the observable universe (about as far away as you can get) interacting with the air by means of gravitational attraction (the weakest of the forces of nature). In other words, even for a simple system like air, for a period that is a very tiny fraction of a second, its detailed behavior is absolutely unpredictable without literally universal knowledge.” Good luck, he says, ever developing long-term weather prediction systems with any degree of accuracy!
This means God isn’t a “God of the gaps” – a God to whom we assign responsibility for the things we haven’t yet figured out, and whose sphere of influence grows ever smaller as we grow ever smarter. And, for Polkinghorne, it also means that God didn’t simply wind up a well-ordered machine of a universe and then step away to watch it unfold according to unchanging plan. No, it means that in these exquisitely sensitive systems where things work in one predictable way on a small level but on another, completely unpredictable way at a system or pattern level, where there is both the reliability of the transmission of genetic material through DNA that ensures species can reproduce and the unpredictability of genetic mutation that fuels evolution, there is space for both a creation with its own freewill and free processes and for a God who lovingly and continually interacts with that creation.
This balance of stability and creativity, of knowability and unknowability (to use the technical terms) also means that the mysteries we confront in our physical world actually reveal part of God’s nature, because God is both increasingly knowable as we grow in relationship with God, and in some ultimate ways ineffable – simply not completely understandable by humans. As Tina Gramm put it in last week’s sermon about gardening, “We are not God” – and in a world that is constantly feeding us information and where we as a species often act as though we can do whatever we want, what gifts that humility and sense of surrender to the mysterious are!
Here’s another thing we gain when we let science and faith speak to each other: we learn to embrace and even appreciate very different ways of knowing. Science encourages us to pursue facts, evidence, and replicable data as we move from experiment to conclusion, from theory toward law. Faith encourages us to pursue experience and relationship – not to “prove” anything but to live something for ourselves, to search after not just the seen but the unseen from which Paul writes, in this morning’s epistle reading, that God made the universe. They are asking two very different questions which both have value for our lives, which encourage us to look at the world in different, complementary ways. If we can read Genesis 1 (from which this morning’s passage is drawn) as poetry instead of as history or scientific data, then the theory of evolution by natural selection and the story of creation can illuminate both the “how” and the “why” of the emergence of conscious life – both the exquisitely brilliant underlying mechanism and the utter beauty of the resulting world. It’s a tension, a kind of cognitive dissonance which doesn’t have to undermine our faith but which can, if we let it, empower our faith.
Speaking of cognitive dissonance and asking different questions, one of my favorite things about physics are the twin, seemingly contradictory, properties of light: the head-scratching truth that light can act both as a wave and as a particle.
When Max Planck and Albert Einstein first discovered that both could be true, Polkinghorne writes that “it was an apparently ridiculous situation, but people just had to hang on to basic experience by the skin of their intellectual teeth, even if they couldn’t make head or tail of it.” Then, in the late 1920s, Paul Dirac invented quantum field theory, “which explained how light could give a wave-like answer if you asked a wave-like question, or a particle-like answer if you asked a particle-like question. Nature was not irrational after all,” Polkinghorne continues, “but it had a deeper rationality than we could ever have guessed beforehand.” A few chapters later, he writes the same thing about experiencing God as both divine and human: “from the earliest documents of the New Testament onwards, Christians have never been able to express their experience of Jesus Christ without feeling the need to use divine language as well as human language, however difficult this combination may be to understand.” In this respect, Christians are not unlike the physicists working with light who “knew they had to use both wave language and particle language about it long before they knew how the two could be reconciled. Sometimes one just has to hold on by the skin of one’s intellectual teeth to the strange way things turn out to be.”
According to Polkinghorne, science also gives us an insight into the age-old theological question of why we suffer. It’s “not beyond God’s power” to create a magical world where nothing bad happens, Polkinghorne writes, but it is “contrary to [the]…character” of our God, who is “not a magician” but rather a loving Creator who made us and this world to be free, knowing we could not become “morally responsible beings” without the consequences of freewill, and that the world could not have evolved to its current complexity without natural laws and processes being allowed to be themselves, so to speak. “Exactly the same biochemical processes that enable cells to mutate, making evolution possible,” he writes, “are those that enable cells to become cancerous and generate tumors. You can’t have one without the other. In other words, the possibility of disease is not gratuitous, it’s the necessary cost of life.” It may not make it any easier to deal with human-made evil or natural suffering, but, like the idea that we cannot love deeply without risking great pain, it may help us to imagine how such suffering could possibly fit into a world made by a loving God.
I’ll close with one more insight we get when we allow faith and science to speak to each other, an insight that touches on all we’ve said so far: the anthropic principle. In very basic terms, the anthropic principle describes the constellation of laws, processes, and particles that have to be in just the right balance for conscious life to have evolved. I asked our very own Steve Scott, Laurie Scott’s husband and a physicist, about his thoughts on the theology of science, and he gave this beautiful, and mind-blowing, description of that balance:
“In a nutshell,” he wrote, “the ‘physicist’ model of the universe is that there are particles, laws that govern their interaction, and a few ‘constants of nature’ like the speed of light and the mass of an electron … and nothing else. In this model, everything we see about us, including sunsets and babies and symphonies, derives from just the particles and the laws and the constants.
In my humble opinion, it would be an incredible feat to devise a set of particles and laws that would be sufficient to allow stars and planets (and therefore sunsets!) to exist, but to also allow life is a step beyond.
For example, I suspect that if one were to tweak the constants of nature just a little, then stars would peter out – or explode – in a much shorter time than their customary multi-billion year existence, and then there would be insufficient time for life to evolve. With some other tweaks, then supernovae might not happen, and then there would be no elements with atomic numbers bigger than iron – half the known periodic table would disappear. With probably a very small tweak to the electron charge and other constants, water might not have its incredible properties as a solvent. Again with just a few small tweaks to physical constants, the ‘dynamo’ that allows the Earth’s rotation combined with its iron core to generate its magnetic field would disappear, and without this protective magnetic shield the solar wind from the sun would cook us all from radiation exposure. Maybe a few fish would survive.
We have the distinct advantage of being not only able to observe an “existence proof” of a clever choice of particles + laws + constants,” Steve continues, “but we live in it. So we know that at least one special combination ‘works’. Whenever I get full of myself, I ask myself if I could concoct a different scheme of particles + laws + constants that would allow an alternate but interesting universe to develop. Of course, I haven’t found one yet,” he concludes.
Friends, science does not have to be the enemy of faith, and vice versa – instead, science can reveal to us so much of the beauty and mystery of creation and of the Creator, and faith can encourage us to embrace what seems rationally impossible in the scientific world and to remember the limits of data and experiment. If we’re not afraid to let those two things play together, so much more opens up for us, so much of that awe and wonder and that greater sense of purpose that makes our lives really joyful and beautiful and rare and precious, so much more to be savored.
So I hope that, the next time you’re scratching your head about quantum mechanics or looking at those glorious photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, you’ll take a moment to think about how, for you, that relates to God and who God is revealing God’s self to be in this world of utter beauty and also a little bit of chaos. Amen.
by Jeff Chu after the release of the the JWST images
May the magnitude of the universe summon in us an appropriate smallness.
May the majesty of distant galaxies stir in us true humility.
May the light of faraway constellations remind us of the holy fire within.
May you remember that the same wild creativity that kindled the stars also etched beauty into your body.
May our awe yield hope.
May our gratitude inspire grace.
May our wonder stir love.
This isn’t the result of ignorance, Polkinghorne writes, but of sheer “indeterminacy” – the ability of a system to be influenced both by forces that proceed logically as we expect them to and forces that, acting on a much higher level, do not. Polkinghorne sees more than enough room for God in this system – a God who doesn’t simply wind up a well-order machine of a universe and then step away to watch it unfold according to plan, but one creates creatures who have free will and processes that have a nature of their own, and then lovingly and continually interacts with them as things unfold.
And while we will continue to learn and understand more, some of these mysteries simply they’re not all solvable mysteries – God isn’t just a “God of the gaps” to whom we assign responsibility when we can’t figure something out, and whose sphere of influence grows ever smaller as we humans explore and discover and solve ever more questions.
Something else we gain when we let our belief in science and our belief in God speak to each other: a sense of mystery. Despite all those discoveries I just alluded to, there is so
“Science is a form of worship” – Dr. Francis Collins, director of NIH
“We as scientists have the opportunity to explore [God’s gift of] nature and see how it works, using the intelligence that we’ve been given through this amazing process of humanity arriving ont he planet (through evolution, by the way, let’s be clear about that, that was God’s plan too) so science is basically our opportunity to explore God’s creation and to marvel at it and to be in awe.
When I’m a scientist and I discover something nobody knew before, that’s like this rush of excitement, but it’s also a moment of worship – like, ah, God knew that! And now [God’s] given all of us a chance to begin to learn it, too.
The lab can be as much a place of worship as a cathedral.”