This blog entry is a sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Kingston Bagpuize, on 17 September 2017. The Bible readings around which this sermon was constructed are Genesis 8.1-12; Matthew 16.1-3
I probably should start by acknowledging what an unusual pair of readings I’ve chosen for this morning. Although, when we think about what’s been going on in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico over the past couple of weeks, readings about flooding and weather may, in fact, be all too apt!
The reason I chose them wasn’t, I must admit, anything to do with hurricanes. I chose these readings because both, in their way, are about people doing science. Nobody has ever asked me who my favourite scientist in the Bible is, largely because people don’t think that the Bible contains any science. But if anyone were to ask me, I’d probably say it was Noah. Whether you believe the story of Noah and the flood to be literally true, or think of it as a narrative that illustrates a deep truth about God’s relationship with creation, as a story, it offers a great description of science at its most simple. Let’s think for a minute about exactly what we’re told Noah does once the ark comes to rest once the rains have stopped and the flood waters start to abate.
Even though the waters had begun to recede, Noah clearly couldn’t risk opening the door of the ark, because he didn’t know how much water was left and if, when the door was opened, they’d be inundated. So what does he do? He does an experiment to find out if it is dry and safe. Through a window, he sends out a dove, and he does this several times, until he has evidence that the flood waters have receded sufficiently.
What Noah is described as doing demonstrates a way of interacting with the world that we might call scientific. He had a question about the physical world; he worked out an experiment that would generate an answer to that question; he acted based on the results. And to ensure correct results, Noah had to use the proper materials and methods. Sending out an albatross, for example, would have done him no good at all. But the dove is basically a ground-feeding bird, so would come back if there were no place to land and find food. There was also, clearly, an understanding of what happens after a flood, that the water doesn’t just disappear once the rain stops. Noah doesn’t send the bird out the moment it stops raining. He waits until it is reasonable to expect that there might be a bit of dry ground out there.
Did the person who wrote about Noah set out to tell a story about a scientific experiment? No, of course not. That wasn’t his purpose. And yet we still get a story that illustrates how faith and scientific enquiry can work together. Noah’s faith is demonstrated in that he receives a revelation from God, believes it and acts upon it in the building of the ark. He also has faith that God won’t leave him and the animals with him to die in the ark. But this faith is combined with a keen sense of how the world works, and an ability to ask a question about the world and perform ‘experiments’ to find the answer to that question.
The title of this talk is ‘What has Christianity to do with science?’. I think that the answer to that question is, ‘Rather a lot, really.’ Those of you who are familiar with the history of science will know that western science arose largely because men of faith felt drawn to explore the natural world, not just out of a sense of curiosity, but as an act piety. They wanted to learn all that they could about the creation in order to better understand the mind of the creator. Unfortunately, in our own time, religious faith – including Christianity – is often portrayed as hostile to science, as if we feared that learning about the world around us would somehow negate our faith in God. That’s simply not true. The more we learn about how astonishing the universe and our own world are, the more admiration we should feel for the One who created them. What the story of Noah shows us is that science and faith both inform our understanding of the world and the actions that we take to live within it.
Time and time again, the Bible points us to the natural world as a source of revelation about God, and a means through which we can encounter God. The opening verse of Psalm 19, for example: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” This idea that God is revealed through the natural world is so strong, that Paul claims that even the pagans, who have not had the benefit of direct revelation like the Jews received, have no excuse for not knowing God. In Romans chapter 1, verse 20 he writes: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” And therefore, Paul goes on to say, the pagans have no excuse for turning their backs on God who made the world.
Science, of course, doesn’t just give us a means to explore and understand the world. Science also gives us tools that enable to manipulate and change the world. This, too, is an aspect of science in which Christians should take an interest. Being able to manipulate the world brings us into the realm of ethics – deciding what is right and what is wrong. Science itself may be morally neutral, but how we use it isn’t.
In the gospel passage that we heard today, Jesus takes the Pharisees to task because although they can understand and make predictions about the natural world from their observations of it (something that sounds rather like a scientific endeavour), they can’t, or won’t, understand the things that Jesus was doing as signs of God’s presence. In other words, they had cultivated their worldly sensibilities but not their spiritual sensibilities, and so they could not recognise or understand the ways of God. When we divorce the scientific and worldly from the things of the spirit, we can get into trouble. If science loses sight of things like compassion, kindness, and mercy, and becomes the pursuit of knowledge or power above all else, it runs the risk of becoming unethical. Knowledge for its own sake isn’t of itself a bad thing, but how we make use of knowledge once we have it does have ethical implications. Christians who engage with science, both those working in science and those who are interested amateurs, can bring a Christian understanding of justice, compassion, and mercy to scientific undertakings, helping to provide part of science’s ‘conscience’. But we can’t do that, of course, unless we do take an interest and engage with science.
The engagement between science and the spiritual is about more than just preventing harm, important though that is. Science has the potential to engender wonder, and wonder is perhaps the most basic spiritual emotion. Experiencing a sense of wonder helps us to be open to encountering otherness, including God. So science can motivate spiritual exploration. It can inspire.
What has Christianity to do with science? Rather a lot. In learning about and marvelling at the creation, we honour the Creator, and can come to know him better. By contributing to the discussion about the proper uses of scientific knowledge, we can help bring science into the service of gospel values. By engaging with science to cultivate our sense of wonder, we can stimulate spiritual growth and maturity in ourselves. Science can challenge us – new knowledge forces us to look again at previously held beliefs and assumptions. But challenge isn’t a bad thing. It stimulates growth and builds strength (just think of an athlete – if they don’t challenge themselves, they can’t build strength, stamina and skill); challenge forces us to think through what we believe and, when we’ve done that, we are better able to explain our beliefs and defend them, just as scripture commands us to do, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3.15).
I love science, and I think that Christians should make a point of embracing science, both the challenge and the wonder. After all, if the heavens are telling the glory of God, don’t we want to listen to what they’re saying? If God’s power and nature are seen in the world that he has made, should we not be looking at it as closely as we can?