I’ve had a number of great conversations recently with people about theology, science, and sometimes both. I get a lot of crazy looks when I tell people how excited I am to get a PhD in this and spend my life teaching and writing about it. Here are the four responses I usually get…
“Science and religion can’t work together. Science is reality and religion is fairy tale”
“Science and religion can’t work together. Science is godless and religion is the true reality”
“I thought I was the only one who was interested in this! We should talk about it sometime”
“Zack, please stop yelling about black holes. Glee is on!”
Ok. I’ll stop yelling. Finish watching Glee and finish this blog post when you’re done.
I do not want to combine science and theology into some kind of Frankensteinian monster. I will never get a job working at the Creation Museum. I also do not want to use science to prove the Bible or (more dangerously) use the Bible to prove science. No matter how much we can prove with the Bible, it can never prove the existence of God. Even if we discovered King David’s tomb and found his body holding a sling, a bloody stone, and a note that says, “I’m King David and I approve of this tomb”, that would not prove God. Finding King Tut did not prove that he was a god. Faith in God will always be just that, faith. That’s why it angers me when people try to prove the existence of God by proving the Bible. Even if we do have plenty of non-biblical corroborating evidence for the life and influence of Jesus, that doesn’t prove that he was the Son of God.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Even if science disproves some of the literal readings in the Bible and proves that many of the “demons” in the Bible were illnesses like epilepsy and schizophrenia, that doesn’t disprove God. That just proves that God did not think it was important enough to teach the ancient Israelites microbiology before He gave them the 10 commandments. Take Joshua 10 for example. The text says that God stopped the Sun in the sky for an extra day so that Joshua could finish the battle. That would mean that the Earth itself stopped spinning and everything on Earth would continue moving at 1,040 mph, killing every living being on the planet. One would think that even if God compensated for this, some other culture would have written about it. Does that mean that God is a fake? By no means! God, being entirely “other” than the created order is neither able to be proved nor disproved by any means. Faith in God must begin with faith or it is essentially useless. St. Anselm based his philosophy on “faith seeking understanding”. I don’t agree with him on everything, but that is right on.
By now you’re probably wondering how I want to engage theology and science if not in the ways that they are traditionally done. Well I’m glad you asked…
Poets are exceedingly talented at using their words to create realities that we may not have otherwise imagined. Poets have long used their propensity for creative communication to delve into the depths of theology. Songwriters have done more to shape popular theology over the last 20 years than any theologian. Philosophers are trained to ask “why”. They begin with whatever philosophical method is popular in their day and interpret their reality in light of that. They then use reasoned arguments to convince other people of their philosophy and the implications for their lives. Historians see all of Church History, the highs and lows, and are able to help us plot a course that will avoid the theological pitfalls of our past. Are you a storyteller? The Church has historically found a place for you as well (see: the Gospels and Acts). Wait, you’re a scientist? Oh… Hmmm… We know how to do theology as all of those other types of people, but as a scientist? How does one do theology as a scientist?
Allow me to show you.
Scientist do not know if there was ever life on Mars, what is the smallest form of matter, how gravity works, or what happened before the Big Bang, but give them time and they will figure it out. Why are they so singularly focused on pressing into the unknown? For some of them, they are thinking about the immediate implications for the sake of humanity. You might put AIDS researchers, climatologists, missionaries, and relief workers in this category. The rest of the scientists (who are not on some corporate payroll) are exploring because they simply cannot help it. There is a spirit of adventure, wonder, and excitement that is obvious if you talk to them for more than a few minutes. If I meet anyone with a PhD, the first thing I ask them is what their thesis was on because I love hearing people talk about what they are excited about. In the same way that NASA scientists continue to beg Congress for money to send up more satellites whose data has little to no “real world value”, I do theology. Why do I continually press into the mysteries of God? I am not looking for any “real world value”. I do not want to discover proof that can never be disproved. If what I discover helps me to spread God’s love around, then that is wonderful, but if sometimes, my little discoveries only impress myself, then that is equally valuable. I’ve never been in a worship service that has filled me with as much reverent awe as I am when I happen to see a flock of starling all flying as one.
I do not want to mix science and theology. I want to explore what it means to do theology as a scientist. Theology is nothing really except talking about God, and I can do that too. In fact, I’ve talked to a lot of science/math minded people who have had a hard time relating to the Church as a whole because scientists/mathematicians are not encouraged to worship God in their first language. Scientists are as awe-inspired as poets, but are far more impressed with truth and reality than clever words.
In my mind at least, science and theology share the same motivation and the same pitfalls. They are both motivated by the unquenchable desire to press into the mysteries around them, and being equally inspired by the questions as the answers. They are also both often co-opted by people with a lust for power and twisted into something terrible (see: the atomic bomb and the Crusades). If I had to boil it all down into one word, I would call it “wonder”. Did you know that the eternally “other” divine God somehow became one of us and still is one of us? Did you know that the Kepler telescope just found a planet that could possibly harbor life? What!? This is what I think Jesus meant when he encouraged us to have a child-like faith. Every child is a scientist. Just watch a baby as they discover their hands or take a toddler to the zoo. Everything is still amazing to a child, and I’m here to tell you that everything is still amazing. You just stopped looking. I have heard plenty of scientists who still have this sense of excitement and reverence, but have found few theologians. Perhaps the Church has spent too much time focusing on crafting the perfect argument, sales pitch, presentation, or polemic that it has lost touch of the child-like wonder. A quick YouTube search will bring up countless videos of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, and plenty of other scientists getting really excited talking about what they love. Off the top of my head, the only such theologian I can think of is Rob Bell.
Two questions: Can you point me in the direction of some theologians with this kind of wonder? If not, will you become that kind of theologian and do this with me?