This blog post is the text of a sermon that I gave on the 2nd Sunday of Lent 2018 in the parishes of Benson and Ewelme in Oxfordshire, UK. The Bible readings for the day were Romans 4.13-end and Mark 8.31-end.
Who are you going to trust? This is a question that gets asked when we are given conflicting information or advice, especially if the sources of that information or advice have differing levels of expertise, or if one is well-known to us and the other not. It’s sometimes a question that can arise when we’re being asked to accept an assertion that seems a bit far-fetched over something that appears more reasonable but comes from a less reliable source.
The passage that we’ve heard this morning from the letter to the Romans is part of an argument that Paul is making about the equal status of Jews and Gentiles in the Church. Both groups, Paul suggests, are descendants of Abraham by faith. The fact that one group also had the Law of Moses does not, in Paul’s understanding, mean that the Law is a necessary part of any claim of descent from Abraham.
Many biblical scholars think that Paul wrote this letter before visiting Rome, as a way of introducing himself to the Christian community there. As we know from some of Paul’s other letters, there was disagreement in the early church as to whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised and adhere to the Jewish law to be accepted as members of the Christian family. From the tone and content of this section of the letter to the Romans, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that this debate had also made its way to the Church in Rome. Paul always argued that circumcision of Gentile Christians was not necessary, and so the question becomes, who are you going to trust on this issue? Who were the churches to believe?
For Paul, it wasn’t just about trusting him, his knowledge of theology and his judgement. It was about trusting God. Who are you going to trust? The Law, which points to salvation but on its own doesn’t have the power to save, or God, who does have the power to save and, further, is the author of the Law? It’s not too difficult to see what Paul believed the answer was: trust in God – faith – is all. This is why Abraham is such an important role model for Paul and for the Church.
Two thousand years later the Church has moved beyond the circumcision question. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have difficult questions to face. The whole question of whether science challenges, or even disproves religious teachings, for example. As Science Missioner, this is a question that often crops up in conversations that I have. There are definitely people who would say that the discoveries made by science over the past 200 years or so ‘prove’ that the Bible is wrong, and that because we can explain everything scientifically, there is no need for God. There are, however, problems with that argument. First, for science to ‘prove’ that the Bible is wrong, the Bible would have to be a scientific treatise, and it isn’t. It’s a record of God’s ongoing revelation of himself to his people. It isn’t written as a scientific paper. Some is history, some is prophecy, some is moral teaching, some is poetry, some is prayer. The second problem is that, despite what people tend to think, science hasn’t yet explained everything. The day that it does, scientists are all out of a job. And even if science did explain how everything in the universe works and fits together, that wouldn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. Science has a big enough task without also asking science to do our theology for us. Even in an age of science, we can still, reasonably, have faith.
It is the case, however, that science may, at times, challenge our understanding of God, or our interpretation of the Bible. There are different ways that people can react when science presents a challenge to, for example, the way something is described in the Bible. One possible reaction to the challenges that science poses to religious faith is simple denial and rejection of the scientific facts. At the other end of the spectrum would be to accept what the science teaches and reject all religious teaching. Somewhere in the middle is a response that is, I think, not a cop-out and not fantasist, but both reasonable and faithful. This response accepts the scientific facts, recognises God as the author of those facts, and then thinks about how to interpret the scriptural texts in the light of those facts. Some might argue that this diminishes the authority of the Bible, by subordinating it to science. I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I think that scientific knowledge simply gives us one more window through which we view the scriptures – a lens for focussing in on what the scriptures are trying to teach us. It prompts us to think about the ways in which deep truths are conveyed and understood within human societies – through symbolism, metaphor and narrative.
Taking the age of the earth as an example, there is good geological evidence for the claim that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. How, then, do we interpret the genealogies given in Genesis that have historically led some people to calculate the age of the earth as being only 6000 years? One way might be to look at the persons in those genealogies as symbolic of humanity or different groups of human beings. We might apply an allegorical interpretation, a means of interpretation that has a long history in the Church. Paul himself interprets the story of Abraham allegorically in the letter to the Galatians.
Interpreting and understanding scripture in the light of science is, admittedly, hard work. It requires thought, prayer and a deep engagement with the text. And it also requires discernment. There are, undoubtedly, some parts of scripture that seem to be scientifically impossible – the resurrection being the prime example – but which for our faith to have any meaning at all, must be factually true. Here is one of those moments where we have to ask ourselves, ‘who are you going to trust?’ Is it irrational to believe in the resurrection, just because it’s statistically extremely unlikely? Is faith, as some have defined it, belief despite the evidence? No. Scientific evidence isn’t the only evidence. We have the evidence of the eyewitnesses who were there, whose accounts are recorded for us in the Gospels and who, based on what they saw, were willing to risk their lives to share their stories. We have the evidence of St Paul, whose encounter with the risen Christ caused him to completely reverse his position on the church, risk his reputation and throw away his privileged place in Jewish society, and endure all sorts of hardships, including imprisonment and eventual execution.
Living in an age of science doesn’t mean that we have to reject our faith. But having faith and believing in God doesn’t mean that we have to reject science, either. Science offers us a means of exploring the physical universe. Science has provided us with a great deal and will continue to do so. Science is the product of human curiosity, imagination, ingenuity and intelligence – all gifts from God. One of the great things about science is that it reveals just how beautiful and extraordinary our universe is. So science – or at least, its discoveries – can point us towards God.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that faith is incompatible with playing it safe. Obviously, there is a place in life for prudence and being sensible, but if we never take a risk, we can’t move forward. We need to take some calculated risks in life, because always playing it safe leads to stagnation. When it comes to science and faith, the safe option would be to embrace one while rejecting the other. That way one has just a single source for ‘truth’ – no challenges, no contradictions to resolve, no prompts to think again about what you believe. There is no reason to ask ‘who are you going to trust?’. The riskier option is to embrace both the truths of science and the Truth of faith.
This does force us to ask questions – ‘How do we use science?’ or perhaps, ‘Can we justify benefitting from science when others don’t?’; ‘How do we interpret Scripture and Church doctrine in the light of scientific discovery?’ And, of course, there is the risk of opening ourselves to ridicule for acknowledging that, yes, we accept the knowledge discovered through science, but we also believe and trust in Jesus Christ. Sometimes, as St Paul himself knew, the apparently foolish option is the wisest.