Letting Scientific Knowledge into Religion

Ancient religions used myths to explain the mysteries of the universe to primitive people, making up stories that modern humans know to be imaginative but false. The problem, however, is that many people still anchor their world views in these old fables, as Rev. Howard Bess describes.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The writers of the Bible material had a very primitive understanding of the world and the universe. They did not grasp that the world circled the sun and was spinning constantly. They had no understanding of a universe that was a part of a much larger galaxy that was only one of millions of galaxies.

Writers of Bible material observed the earth and the heavens and were understandably in awe. However, we now know that what they saw was completely beyond their understanding. These special writers had no idea at what they were looking. They came to conclusions about the God of all things based on primitive and incorrect understandings of nature.

Michelangelo's depiction of God creating Adam, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michelangelo’s depiction of God creating Adam, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Scientific research has pushed far ahead of ancient misunderstandings. Our present scientific knowledge of the expanses of space has left the earth a tiny dot that hosts humbled human beings, who at one time thought the “heavens and the earth” were a commentary about the God who created all things and who continues to have significant control over all things.

This “natural” theology took its place alongside “special” revelations that came through great prophets such as Moses, Abraham, Isaiah and finally Jesus, the common man’s rabbi from Nazareth. Science has brought us new understandings and conclusions about this planet on which we live and the universe that hosts our world.

Unfortunately, many Christians refuse to acknowledge this radical new kid in our intellectual neighborhood.

Does modern science have room for a personal God who loves and cares for us all? If so, are scientific discoveries a reliable commentary on the God of all things? In my ponderings about my Christian faith, I have not been able to sidestep these questions. I firmly believe science and Christian faith can walk hand in hand, though that requires science and Christian faith to listen to one another. I have made a commitment to listen to what scientists are saying.

Scientists have reached two tentative conclusions that impact our conversation. The first is that “nothing is fixed.” All things are in motion; all things are evolving, including human beings. Human beings are not the product of a single creative act by an all-powerful God, rather human beings are always becoming, always arriving. What human beings have become is the result of a long process, which is continuing.

The work of Charles Darwin on biological evolution forced a discussion in Christian theology that will not go away. Alfred North Whitehead took evolution into the world of philosophy. Charles Hartshorne moved the discussion to theology, writing: “Everything, including God, is ceaselessly changing in a dynamic process of creative advance that will never end.”

John Cobb Jr. took up the mantel of Hartshorne and taught for many years at the Claremont School of Theology, which has embraced the exploration of “process” theology more than any other Christian seminary. He forced the subject of process into the curriculum of almost every U.S. seminary. Christianity in an educated world cannot long avoid the scientific adventure with process.

The second conclusion of science is that there is no beginning and there will be no end. I was first faced with the folly of THE beginning by Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential theologian. To Kierkegaard a beginning was not relevant. Only the moment was important. He mused, “Beware of the person who says he has found the beginning. He has not found the beginning. He got tired.”

Scientists are now describing the outer limits of space in terms of millions of light years and still expanding at accelerating speeds. Thus, beginnings and endings are no longer relevant concepts. Yet, the Bible writings have a lot of materials about beginnings and endings, and Christian theology offers a widely accepted framework in linear time that has a beginning and an end.

Beyond God creating the heavens and earth in seven days, some Christian churches are filled with “end times” theology. This kind of thinking is terribly outdated and irrelevant in the light of modern science.

What kind of theology can relate to science that embraces life that is never static and always in process? How does theology relate to life that has no beginning and no ending? Science continues to have a great void that scientists can never fill.

What is the meaning of the enormous volumes of facts that are being gathered? The scientist has a desperate need to make sense of their discoveries, and my own Christianity has a desperate need for an honest environment in which to find the full and meaningful life.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he responded with two laws that are begging for embrace. Love God and love neighbor. I find no conflict with our faith’s fundamentals and our search for understanding our living context. I suspect that science is in its infancy. Theology and faith need to be seen as an ongoing, every day joyful experience.

Life is fun and rich when we get religious people and scientists on the same dance floor.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.    

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2 comments for “Letting Scientific Knowledge into Religion

  1. Zachary Smith
    May 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    The writers of the Bible material had a very primitive understanding of the world and the universe. ……….. They came to conclusions about the God of all things based on primitive and incorrect understandings of nature.

    This is true, but we modern folk must be careful not think because we understand things the ancients didn’t that our understanding is in any way complete. Which doesn’t detract from the reality that what they wrote in their Holy Books was often pure nonsense.

    The old-timers constructed some of their belief systems on the basis of what they could see with their own unaided eyes. The world was obviously flat so speaking of the “four corners” of the Earth was a reasonable thing to do – then. And any fool could watch the Sun moving across the sky.

    Religious folks make assumptions about their Supreme Being(s) in the same manner as do the scientists. It’s just that they tend to refuse to admit doing so. Perhaps God isn’t exactly the way we like to believe he (he?) is.

    http://www.frankandernest.com/search/index.php?pm=2&pd=28&py=1990&kw=&submit=Search

    Most people are with Einstein when he said “God does not play dice with the universe.” But that’s an assumption too. Robert Heinlein’s hero in the novel JOB remarked that he knew as much about operations at the God level as a frog knows about Friday. IMO that’s something we all need to keep in mind when we’re doing any speculating about God. (As an aside, RAH was a strange duck, and I’ve outgrown most of his novels. But JOB I’ve kept. It’ll be a very difficult read for Christians of all types, for one of the assumptions he makes in the book is that every single word in the Bible is the literal truth.)

    This post is already too long, but a couple more points. No matter how much we humans flatter ourselves about our current knowledge of science, we still ought to cultivate humility. Many years ago I saw a very old SF movie on late-night TV. It was mostly awful, but had a memorable finale which I’ve found on Youtube.

    <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdK7xzEaCXwEpilogue – Things To Come

    As time goes by, I’m coming around to the view attributed to J.B.S. Haldane – that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. I expect that to be a valid statement of reality for quite a long time into the future. In the meantime, we can reasonably seek comfort among the Mysteries – so long as we don’t pervert them by stuff like trying to force God’s hand with the End Times. Or by attempting to force-feed our own theological views down the throats of sober people who have come to different conclusions.

  2. Robert Landbeck
    May 4, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Science and religion will never find common cause until religion is able to meet the much stricter criteria for its truth claim that science continues to offer as standard. I have no problem with the idea of God in principle, but religion, founded not upon any revelation, but upon an all too human theological process using rules of philosophy, remains a human intellectual construct. And as such cannot have anything to do with God. Theology only exists because nothing has been revealed. And if religious history is as I suspect, no more than a theological counterfeit, at some point it will need to be exposed as such. And the ‘end times’ may mean nothing less that the end of theological based religion, which is the whole of christian/judeo tradition. For while we have been conditioned by all of history to the presumption that a demonstrable proof of God is not possible, only because religion has no such proof to offer, it does not contradict much of the scriptural record. And as more material is discovered, who knows if what we think impossible today does no become possible tomorrow. And that is also what science has been about!
    http://www.energon.org.uk

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