Science and Creationism

On February 4, Bill Nye (“the science guy”) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) will meet at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate the question of the world’s origin. At least that’s how the debate is billed. But the real fight is less about what happened eons ago than about what’s important now.

Calculus and Cross

Advocates of creationism are concerned about the authority of scripture. And for something to be authoritative, it must be true. So those for whom scripture is important are naturally concerned with it being true. Of course, there are different ways to express what is true—through poetry, metaphor, myth, drama, literature, music, art, and more. But in our culture we tend to equate truth with scientific fact. To our detriment, we often treat science as the single measure of what is unassailably true.

This is how the waters get muddied: authority=truth=science.

But this equation leaves us impoverished. This is because science deals only in facts. Science can give us all kinds of valuable information. It helps us understand the world around us, invent new technology, and make our lives better. But science cannot assure us that our lives have meaning. It cannot give us hope or courage. It cannot give us a sense of belonging or of being loved. Science cannot ease our fears or teach us what it means to live a good life. Spiritual questions and longings are part of being human, but science is not designed to address this aspect of human existence. For grappling with spiritual issues, we need the kind of truth we find in religion.

There are two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. They vary in terms of the order of creation and the focus of the stories. But the writers of Genesis placed them side by side because those contradictions do not matter. The stories aren’t there to talk about the chronology of the universe. How would that help us? These stories have something more important to convey: that creation is good, that we are placed on earth by a loving God who cares for us and wants us to have what we need. We need that kind of assurance, which religion can offer and science cannot. Scientific claims take nothing away from religious ones—they address different realms of inquiry.

The fear is that if our culture accepts the scientific explanation of creation, then we are rejecting the divine message in Genesis. But these two ways of considering our origins are not in competition. Science is not fit to answer questions about the meaning of our lives. Religion is not equipped to address the physics of the universe.

Nothing is gained for science in denigrating the human search for meaning. Nothing is gained for religion in denying the discoveries that science has gained. People need both.

It’s interesting that Nye is makes something of a moral argument for taking on the difficult role of participating in this debate at a potentially hostile venue. His concern is that children be able to learn science. As he told NBC news:

“We’re just trying to change the world here, and draw attention to these forces in our society that are trying to get creationism in science textbooks. My argument is, this is bad for the country, bad for our economy. We can’t raise a generation of science students who are not scientifically literate.”

The Bible is not made to be a science textbook. Neither is a science textbook equipped to serve as a Bible. They don’t undermine each other, at least they don’t have to. There is no reason why these areas of human endeavor cannot co-exist.

Does Prayer Make a Difference?

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of friends who found it meaningful, I read Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It describes his extended near-death experience, a story he would have viewed with skepticism before slipping into the coma in which his view of reality changed.

Believing that near-death experiences could be explained by certain types of brain activity, Alexander had long dismissed such experiences as hallucinations with no correlation to external reality. But with his rare illness, all activity was shut down in the part of the brain where such stimuli could occur. The kind of brain activity to which Alexander had attributed classic near-death experiences was simply not possible in his brain during this time.

I don’t share the skeptical view of the soul held by Alexander before his experience, but I would not have picked up this book without my friends insisting it was worthwhile. I’m glad they convinced me. I won’t try to describe the experiences he relates, but his compelling story has remained with me since I finished reading it. One aspect to which I keep returning has to do with prayer.

During his sojourn, the time came when he could no longer gain access to the divine realm. Alexander found himself sent back, descending into a physical world that he did not remember. But he was drawn to his destination in this life by faces and voices that emerged from the chaos and became clear to him. Later he realized that those whom he saw and heard were the loved ones gathered in a circle around his hospital bed, praying for him. The single additional person he saw was the minister’s wife, who was not at his bedside but prayed for him at home. He became aware of a young boy pleading fervently for his life, then realized with a shock that it was his young son. At that point, remembering his life on earth and people he loved, he re-entered the physical world. The prayers of others had oriented him as he moved between realms and led him back to his life.

It’s not hard to see the value of prayer in terms of naming our concerns and laying down our burdens. We draw strength from our sense of connection with others, and prayer brings us closer to God and to those for whom we pray. The affirmation of being heard helps empower us to cope with difficulties. Prayer also focuses our attention, helping us to recognize guidance from the divine. But to speculate about where our prayers go, or what it means that God hears our prayers, or how prayers work, is more difficult. How can we speak about any realm but this one, or any reality beyond our personal experience of prayer?

I had Alexander’s story on my mind when I learned that someone I care about had a sudden, debilitating stroke. His condition sounded dire. I was afraid for him and his family. I didn’t know what to ask for. But I prayed. I prayed for health and healing. I prayed for strength—for him and for his family. I thought about all of them continually. And I kept praying, as did his large family, a network of friends, and his church. Within a few days he came back in a way that seems miraculous, with a determined effort in physical therapy that allowed him to go home far sooner and in better shape than anyone could have hoped for.

What allowed this to happen? Did all of those fervent prayers change his outcome? Could they have affected his ability to recover? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it looks that way to me. The prayers didn’t make things smooth or easy, but in a time of extreme crisis they seem to have made a difference.

Yet on the dark side of answered prayers are those that seem to go unanswered, pleas for health and healing that do not come to fruition. Why would God intervene for some requests and not for others?

I have no good answer to that question. But the fact that miracles don’t occur every time doesn’t mean they never do. The world is more than we can fathom. And the messages all around seem to keep urging that we pray.

Getting Past What We Think We See

I’m fascinated by this optical illusion.

I’m so sure of what I’m seeing here—a gray and white checkerboard—I can hardly believe the demonstration showing how it’s not that simple. Certainty encourages me to dismiss any new information. It limits what I am able to perceive. I can barely take in the information that challenges my understanding because I “know” what I saw. But it turns out I was wrong.


I wouldn’t want to go through life never trusting my sense of how things are. I need to rely on my perceptions to get through the day. But I also know from experience that certainty can be misplaced. Past choices that seemed perfectly clear at the time had far more room for questioning than I was able to see. I know now that I knew less than I thought I did back then, if you can follow that convoluted sentence.

But I was generally doing the best I could with what I had. Who can do more than that? It’s what we all do. But it would have been better to ask if there were more to know than what meets the eye. I might have made better decisions if I had been willing to test my assumptions.

Yet even in our lack of wisdom and experience we are given an inner sense of when things are out of balance. When our misperceptions matter, life provides indications that we need to pay closer attention. They accrue until we finally notice.

Within us is a life force, a holy spirit, urging us forward and helping us to transcend illusion. Often it speaks with a still, small voice that helps us know what we need to know, even when thoughts and perceptions are confused. Occasionally it jolts us into waking up to what is going on around us.

Could it be that this clever video is speaking to us of such things, even now?

And if you still don’t believe the squares are the same color, check out this demonstration:
The Checker-Shadow Illusion

I Don’t Believe in the Same God the Atheists Don’t Believe In

I still read the old-fashioned newspaper, the kind you can carry around and spill coffee on and it’s no big deal. One of the things that keeps me connected to the local paper is Paul Prather’s religion column, one of my main motivations for reading the Saturday morning paper. We don’t approach religion the same way, but I look forward to his thoughtful reflections, his candor, and his utter lack of pretension. And he’s a good writer.

His most recent column is worth passing along to you. He looks at the thread of anti-religious thought threading its way into Western intellectual life through the proponents of the “new atheism.” Here’s a quote from Prather’s column:

The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They’re dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it.

It’s a subject that Karen Armstrong also addresses in her excellent book, The Case for God. (I’ve written about Armstrong’s book in the posts, Opening to the Sacred and A Church of Unknowing.)

There are some received notions of God that I’m all for rejecting. But the range and complexity of religious experience makes a simplistic dismissal of religion irrelevant to any thoughtful conversation. It’s short-sighted to deny that the source of spiritual and artistic inspiration—silence, awe, reverence, connection, inspiration—have a place in a thinking person’s world view. It’s not simply a denial of the existence of God, it’s an impoverished view of humanity.

When I don’t believe in the same God that the atheists don’t believe in, it’s hard to take seriously their critique of religious thought. Yet many people seem to. Ironically, the counter to their pseudo-rational message is the thoughtful voices of those with a deep understanding of what religion is and their experience of it. The world needs the clear thinking of those who value their faith.

What God do you not believe in? What helps you name the God you know?

The Real Fight

The hate spilling into public spaces and political discourse in this country feels to me like a flash flood these days. I knew that river was there, but as long as it kept within its banks I could approach warily and life continued as usual. But now bridges are washed out and the angry torrents are sweeping through all kinds of communities.

It’s frightening to see.

All that anger, all that fear, directed at some evil “other,” is a horrendous force. When some other person, or institution, or ideology comes to stand for everything we detest, we lose the ability to think rationally about the dynamic we’re engaged in.

Things become artificially simple when we disregard the humanity of the other person. It unleashes the darkness within us. When that happens, we lose our own humanity and evil prevails. Jesus was truly looking after us, speaking out of love and concern, when he said “Love your enemies.”

We all need to be asking: What’s behind all the anger? What are we really afraid of? When someone in the media really pushes my buttons and I feel the swelling tide that wants to drown them out, what exactly is going on?

The true answers are not the huge concepts, not the vague generalities, but the specific and deeper things. Personal ones. What am I personally afraid of? What is the source of the anger that is mine?

If the enemy is painted large enough to be an easy target, we don’t have to be specific about what we’re fighting, or clear about what we stand for. To really know our enemy we have to understand who we are, and face what lies within us. That is the first fight, and the one that’s necessary for peace.

Opening to the Sacred

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about “this hinterland between rationality and the transcendent.” It’s the place where our thought, ideas, and intellectual life have taken us as far as they can, and we need a different kind of knowing in order to experience God.

The intellect is part of our spiritual path. It carries us past the limited notions of God that constrict our assumption of what religious life entails. It brings the fresh breeze of new ideas, which prepare us to see what we have missed. It shows the limitations we have put on God, and the experience of God, of which we were unaware.

But we can’t live into a new faith, or any faith, by intellect alone. An expanded idea of God doesn’t have much impact on who we are or how we live unless we develop a connection to God—asking, seeking, waiting, inviting, listening. In Armstrong’s words, “Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood. . . . It require[s] kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’”

Armstrong’s book mirrors this process. It summarizes and analyzes a long and complex history of how people have understood God. She places our current theological thinking in the context of history, the better to see how we arrived in this place and how best to move forward. Yet her work points to an understanding of God beyond definition or certainty, experienced in mystery, expressed in poetry and in love. It’s a book about what cannot be expressed in books.

Ideas are important; I thrive on them. Yet at a certain point ideas no longer satisfy. It’s like driving to the mountains to go hiking. At some point, you have to get out of the car.

I experience another kind of truth in the light turning gold as the sun rises, the purr of a cat under my hand, the voice of a loved one. These are openings to the sacred, to the sense of being deeply and truly alive.

I’m asking myself whether I’ve spent too much time reading theology and not enough reading poetry. Where is the balance between intellect and experience? Do you see one as more credible, or trustworthy, than the other?

A Church of Unknowing

I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). It’s a big book to wade through, but the clarity and grace of her writing make it a pleasure. Even more, her ideas stimulate my own thinking. I won’t try to do a review or a summation, but here is one aspect that resonates with me.

One of the gifts of The Case for God is that Armstrong articulates clearly how the modern Western mind came to equate truth with certainty, knowledge with logic and definitions, and credibility with science. Even more, she shows how this way of thinking resulted in a notion of God disconnected from the heart of religious longing.

Rather than allowing language and logic to carry us to their limit, then point us toward the mystery that cannot be named or known, we settled for a list of God-traits. Our idea of God defined a being, with specific attributes, sitting at the next-higher level of creation. In Armstrong’s words:

The process that should have led to a stunned appreciation of an “otherness” beyond the competence of language ended prematurely. The result is that many of us have been left stranded with an incoherent concept of God. We learned about God at about the same time as we were told about Santa Clause. But while our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured, our theology remained somewhat infantile.

We need an understanding of God that holds up to our experience, and allows us to build a life around our faith. Armstrong points to the work of Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo as thinkers who embrace a way of seeing God that can speak to our time. She mentions in her notes a collection containing works by both of them, After the Death of God, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins. I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.

This is how Armstrong describes Caputo’s view of our experience of God, and the unknowing that is “truth without knowledge”:

So how does Caputo see God? Following Derrida, he would describe God as the desire beyond desire. Of its very nature, desire is located in the space between what exists and what does not; it addresses all that we are and are not, everything we know and what we do not know. The question is not “Does God exist?” any more than “Does desire exist?” The question is rather “What do we desire?” Augustine understood this when he asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” and failed to find an answer.

An encounter with such mystery leaves us open, without certainty, thrillingly alive and humbled with awe. It points us to a reality that transcends our ordinary experience, calls us to be awake, and encourages us to seek ways of living out the ineffable truth that we are given.

Is it possible to live out this kind of truth in community? Can a church be built on faith that professes uncertainty and not knowing?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Listening to a stirring speech from Rev. Tanya Tyler at the Disciples for the Dream service last night, I thought of how the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King is often referred to as Dr. King, but rarely, if ever, Rev. King.  As a culture, it appears that we respect the academic accomplishment more than the mantle of ordination. Yet it was his faith and his relationship with the church that both fueled and sustained his work, providing a source of community and network of support.

Martin Luther King embodied the ideal of an intellectual, spiritual, and activist life coming together in a single, extraordinary individual. Not every person can bring the strength in each of these three areas that he did. But we can join with others to form the beloved community, where together we value clear thinking, deep connection, and heartfelt service. In a community where myriad gifts can find expression, we gain strength from each other. Strength enough to change the world.