Let me start by saying that I don’t really care whether you believe the earth was created in six days or whether you believe the universe is over 13 billion years old. I don’t want to sound crass or insensitive, but I don’t care. And that’s the point.
I believe that a literal reading of scripture is an absolutely valid hermeneutical approach. It leads to some really bizarre conclusions about God and humanity and what it means to be a person of faith, but, if that’s your thing, I say go for it. This Christian, father of three, full-time ordained parish clergyperson, however, prefers to read the bible as a complex collection of history and metaphor and imperative and reflection and dream all woven together. Yes, I do believe that the earth is 4 billion years old. Yes, I do believe that the human species evolved from lower primates. Yes, I do believe that science should be taught in science class and that religion should be taught in religion class (in church, not in public schools). But I still believe that both the creationists and the evolutionists are totally missing the point and damaging both religion and science in the pursuit of a mythical “victory” in a debate that shouldn’t be taking place in the first place.
Last night, at the Creation Museum of Petersburg, KY, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham (presumably no of direct relation to the second son of Noah) rehashed the thoroughly over-debated debate on creation vs. evolution. I did not see the debate, but I heard a report on NPR this morning about it. One of the lead-in comments made as the story was introduced reflected the fact that, despite the debate, it seemed doubtful that any minds were changed. Is anyone surprised? Of course that’s what happened. Nothing.
Then, I heard an interview of one of the attendees of the debate. Like me, he grew up watching Bill Nye on television. Unlike me, he went to a private Christian school where he was taught a biblically literal approach to creation, but, as a mainline Protestant Christian from Alabama, I was “taught” the same thing in various venues—Sunday school, conversations among friends, at the dinner tables of friends whose parents care a lot about the issue, etc.. He remarked that as a child who learned one thing in school and another thing on television he recognized that he had to make a choice about what he would believe. I found myself gripping the steering wheel as he spoke, drawn both physical and mentally into his story. This was my experience, too. He knew what it was like to be pulled in the bifurcated directions of science and faith. And then, he shared his conclusion: he decided to believe what the bible said. Ugh. Sigh. And I realized how little we have in common.
Science is science, and faith is faith, so why we do we keep pretending that they belong on the same stage? They certainly don’t have the same answers, but that isn’t because they “disagree.” It’s because they aren’t even asking the same questions. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t ask your clergyperson to tell you about the fossil record or about carbon dating or about the cosmological origins of the universe (unless she or he happens to be an evolutionary biologist or an astrophysicist). And, for the love of all that is sane, don’t ask your biology teacher to explain what happened to Noah’s ark after it landed on Mt. Ararat or how it was possible that Jesus walked on the water or what will happen to the world when Jesus comes back (unless she or he happens to also be your Sunday school teacher). Can’t we all agree that it’s silly to think that science and religion have to fit together like chocolate and peanut-butter? I like both of those delicious things, and I even like them together. But science and religion are like chocolate and race cars. Sure, you can like them both. I do. But don’t try washing your race car with chocolate sauce or eating a chocolate-covered tailpipe. That’s just silly.
Today’s OT reading is the story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). It’s the story of a man who believed God when God promised to make him the father of many nations—that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (astrophysicists, please forgive the metaphor). It’s the story of a man who was nearly ancient when he and his equally ancient wife conceived and bore their son Isaac. It’s the story of a man who heard God say to him, “Get up and take your son to distant place and sacrifice him—kill him—at the place where I tell you.” And what did Abraham do? He got up and took his son and went just as God had said.
It’s remarkable to me how the story of faith unfolds. Abraham basically had given up his entire life to respond to God’s promise. Despite all the odds, Abraham believed God—took him at his word—and sure enough had the miracle-child. Now God was telling him to kill that child, and Abraham agreed. He didn’t know how things were going to work out. As he walked up the mountain with his son and heard his son ask, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice,” Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb,” not knowing in the slightest how things would turn out. And, as Abraham raised the knife to kill his son, he did so with no understanding of what would happen as the knife plunged into his rope-bound boy. But he did it anyway. And that’s the kind of faith God calls us to have.
We have faith that doesn’t come with answers. That’s what faith is—it’s accepting a premise that isn’t proven (and shouldn’t be). We are called to have faith like Abraham. Not to kill our child—that isn’t the point. The point is to believe and trust in God even when we don’t understand how everything works.
What does it mean to be a Christian who believes that the bible is the word of God and yet sees the scientific evidence that the universe is 13.4 billion years old? What does it mean to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and yet have no tangible proof of it? What does it mean to trust that God will redeem all of creation for all eternity even though cosmologists predict that eventually the whole universe will either fizzle out or come crashing together in a big crunch? I don’t know. And I don’t have to know.
Don’t back yourself into the corner of needing all the answers. Having faith means having faith.
Whenever people of faith or scientists who disagree with people of faith pretend that one must be right and the other must be wrong, both suffer. Scientists who find axioms of faith incompatible with the rationality of science are letting creationists be their evangelists. And people of faith who believe that the pursuit of science is a quest to punch holes in their beliefs are yielding the greatest resource they have to an argument that need not exist. Learn to live with unanswered questions. Learn to believe despite the incongruity of science and religion. We don’t need to be in conflict with each other.