“Going out on a limb…”
Paul Edwin Jackson
For University Congregational Church
Sunday, November 16, 2014
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” John 3: 12
Did everyone get a chance to take the brief science test found in today’s bulletin? Well, let’s take it together:
- How long does it take the Earth to revolve around the sun?
- Did humans and dinosaurs exist on the Earth at the same time?
- Approximately what percentage of the Earth’s surface is water?
From a recent survey of American Adults taken by the California Academy of Sciences:
Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. About 365 days, give or take a few hours and adding a leap day every 4 years.
Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.* 47% got between 65-75% Only 14% got 70% (which is the better answer)
Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
There is a well organized “War on Science” that is taking place in America. It’s part of our larger “Culture Wars”. We like wars on things don’t we? We’re told there’s a “War” on Christmas. There’s our endless and racist “Drug Wars”. And what about all the news about a “War on Religion”? Yes! Right here in America there is a War on Religion. Does anyone sitting in the beautiful room this morning feel anything other than peace and joy and maybe some curiosity at what I’m getting at? Do any of you feel threatened right at the moment? No. Because this is an imaginary “war” on religion that has more to do with religious abuse than anything we do at worship on Sundays. More on that later. Let’s get back to our “War on Science”. The troops are anxious to commence firing.
Now we Americans have always been a little funny about our education systems. We want you to know stuff. But not too much stuff. Not so much where you make us start to feel uncomfortable because we don’t know as much stuff as you know. And we don’t want you too dumb either. There should be this nice middle ground between dumb-as-toast and a high-faluting college grad. OK-I’m exaggerating, but I think you see me point. As a society we’ve always had this kind of middle ground.
Well, in the past thirty years this has changed. Greatly. We have decreased public funding of our public schools and universities and we have, as a society, begun to place less value on education and science as a matter of public policy. And we’re beginning to pay the price. We consistently lag behind other nations in benchmarks of scientific knowledge and where other nations would send their best and brightest to America to receive what used to be top-notch scientific education, well, there are other nations doing a better job at this than the country that once got a man to walk on the moon. How did this happen?
Let’s go out on a limb here. There’s an apple. It falls to the ground. This cause and effect situation made a man, long ago, Isaac Newton, begin to think about some stuff. Now whether or not this story is true doesn’t really apply here—it’s a familiar tale and it should immediately make most of us think of some of Newton’s propositions or theories. Whether there was an actual apple is up for debate, but it’s a familiar tale and it works for our story. Out on a limb.
Back to Newton– He thought to himself: Did the apple and the ground have some strange attraction that caused them to join together? They did and they do. It’s called gravity and we all have it. Anything with mass has gravity and actually exerts its pull upon things in its neighborhood. In fact, the earth actually moves up an imperceptible bit to meet your foot as you walk. Your mass has gravity. Just not as much as the earth’s. Here’s a question for you—where’s the war on the Theory of Gravity? It’s just a theory! It’s never really been proven—there are holes in the science—it’s a liberal plot to undermine God!
About 10 years ago I was teaching a basic anatomy and physiology course to nursing students at the Wichita Area Technical College. I had been doing this off and on for a number of years and it’s a passion of mine. I love how our bodies work and how they heal and how they decay and all of the good stuff of knowing the science of anatomy and physiology. SO, on this particular day, it had snowed and the college snow removal team had yet to get to my campus and I knew I had students showing up very soon for a class, so I took matters into my own hands and found a snow shovel and began working on the steps. Well, I didn’t know there was black ice under the snow, so down I went right on my tail bone. Hard. Hard enough that I couldn’t get up without help. So, they sent me to the occupational doctor for an x-ray and a check-up. The physician who was examining me found out that I was teaching anatomy to nurses and he paused. And he actually asked me…now mind you, this is a physician, an M.D. who we hope understands how science works…he asked me if I “believed” in evolution. I believe his exacts phrase was “You don’t believe in this evolution stuff do you?
To say I was stunned is an understatement. Do I believe in evolution? No, I don’t believe in science. I trust in science. I trust in science to get it right. To explain the natural world. Science is self-correcting. I don’t worship science. I trust science. When something is discovered that corrects a previous finding, the science is changed to reflect the new understanding. Besides, as I replied to this “physician” have you ever really looked at the human knee? If someone “designed” that, I question their engineering skills. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but the human knee is just one of the many examples of things in our bodies that doesn’t allow for “intelligent design” in my theology. Now, do I think there is something else going on here…yes I do, and I’ll get to that in just a minute.
So, evolution isn’t just some “theory” that can be easily disproved. I think the general public has confused the idea of a “scientific theory” with “just an idea of mine that I’ve been kicking around and so it’s open to debate”. The Scientific Theory of Evolution is a well established piece of our scientific knowledge. Did you know that Darwin was a deeply pious Christian who delayed the release of his book “On The Origin of Species” for as long as he could because he knew the science he had uncovered, that had been revealed to him, was going to shake up the religious authorities of his day. It did. It still irks the religious authorities of our day.
The science of evolution is not in doubt. There are plenty of people who think there are plenty of holes, but the reality is the science is not in doubt. In fact, it is a foundational piece of all of the biological and natural sciences and is not in question; except by people whose religious views cannot co-exist with the natural world. Except by people who feel that for some reason to understand how the natural world functions is a threat to their religion and their belief in God. I question a faith that can be threatened by the real world. But that’s my thing.
Well, it’s a few other’s thing as well: The Dahli Lama has stated “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” He recognizes that the real world is not in opposition to theological and religious beliefs, but an actual reflection of those beliefs. Regardless of whether or not I believe the earth is round. It is still round. It took the Catholic Church until 1992 to apologize for its treatment of Galileo who dared to show that the reality of a Sun -centered Solar System disproved religious teaching; and that was in 1600 and something.
Ahhh…there’s the problem. Don’t mess with my teaching of my religion, because that is a direct assault on my authority and if you do that then the whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards, doesn’t it. Or it bends and breaks like an apple out on a limb falling to the ground.
So just where is God in all of this? Well, I have a mental illustration I want you all to join with me on—it’s one that helps me find room for the divine. For the spirit that dwells within us and within and upon the the earth and the living, growing things dependent upon it.
Remember the classical model of the atom that you studied back in the day? It has a nucleus made of of tiny particles called protons and neutrons and they are surrounded by little particles that orbit them at great speed called electrons. Let’s imagine, for our mental exercise, that our atom is the size of a football stadium. Let’s blow everything up to a relative size. In that gigantic stadium the nucleus (the protons and neutrons at the center) would only be the size of a small marble sitting on the 50-yard line. And the electrons would be orbiting around that marble on the track around the field. You have our great, big mental model in your mind. Stadium. 50 yard line. Marble in the middle of it. Smaller marbles rolling, very fast, around the track. Here’s my question. What’s in all of that space between our marble on the 50 yard line and the little specks of electrons racing around the track? What’s in all of that space. That’s an awful lot of relative space. In fact, we are made up of mostly space. Empty space? It’s not air—air has molecules in it, right? Oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide. So what’s in the space between a proton and its surrounding electrons? What’s in that space? Science doesn’t have an answer for that just yet. Lots of theories, but we don’t have time for them right now.
My theology has found an explanation for that space and it is one that gives me great peace and great joy. I think God lives in that space. It’s that easy for me. That’s where we can find the living God. In the space within all of the atoms that make up everything in our world.
I think there’s plenty of room in science for God. And plenty of room in God for science. I think in these empty spaces there is room for more than we can ever know of…and I’m thankful for that. I always like going out on a limb once in a while and hopefully getting a useful idea from the experience. Especially, if the limb holds and my theories don’t come crashing down.
I am thankful for a God who chooses to reveal its nature through science. I am thankful for a brain that can see the real world and find a divine spark within it and within us all. May that combined spark of God shine through the threatening darkness on our horizon and provide bright light that illuminates great truth.
Go out into this day and breathe deep the molecules of the air knowing that there is plenty of space in them for the mysteries of God. Eat good food and know that in the molecules you are taking into your body, there is more than enough room our God. Amen