Tough Texts Part 5: Genesis 1 and Science

October 21, 2009

Sermon Text: Genesis 1:1-2:3

Lisa and I went to Paris in the late-’90s. We toured the Louvre, of course, and saw the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. We also went to its sister museum, the d’Orsay, which features Impressionist paintings by artists like Monet, Manet, and Degas. This is a painting by Monet that we saw. monet-irises-monets-gardenI really like Impressionism, but if I were going to be a total hick from the sticks I might be tempted to wonder why there would be this nice museum devoted to artists who painted blurry pictures. Consider this post-Impressionist piece: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” starry_nightThis doesn’t look much like any night sky I’ve ever seen. The sky doesn’t swirl around like that! And look at that crazy moon! This does not reflect reality at all! Wouldn’t it be better to look at a photograph?

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. The intention of artists like Van Gogh and Monet is to communicate something far more than just, “Here’s what a starry night looks like… Here’s what a garden looks like.” If that’s what we want these artists to communicate to us, we will be sorely disappointed. By not giving us a straightforward depiction of reality, however, they end up communicating far more truth about the world than they otherwise would.

And so it is with the artist or artists who, under the inspiration of the Spirit, crafted today’s scripture. It is literally a poem. In the same way that we don’t look to Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” to give us the literal history of a particular world leader who was assassinated in 44 B.C., we ought not to look to this poem in Genesis chapter 1 to gain any kind of scientific or historical understanding of Creation. Unfortunately, for the past few hundred years, in response to the challenge of modern science and the Enlightenment, well-intentioned Christians have often tried to understand or defend it as literal truth. This way of reading this text is not only unnecessary, it misses the point entirely. We’ll get to the point a little later, but in order to get to the point, we’ll first have to clear a path of a few hundred years’ worth of overgrown weeds.

We first have to discuss modern science. Modern science assumes that everything we can know for certain about reality we learn from within this physical universe. If we are good scientists, we don’t look for supernatural explanations for things that we observe. This usually works out well for us: When the University of Georgia beats Georgia Tech in football—as is so often the case unfortunately—we can explain these victories in terms of superior recruiting or coaching, or laxer academic standards, or the fact that a football is a funny shaped ball that bounces in unpredictable ways. We don’t have to resort to saying that God just likes the Bulldogs more because we just know that’s not true. And so it is with science. Good scientists will limit their explanations to things they can observe in this natural, physical world. Whether or not God exists or is active in the world is a question that science cannot answer. God is beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry because God is beyond nature, supernatural—or a more theological word is transcendent.

The most prominent thinker who has written a book attacking faith in God is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. I’ve read his best-selling book The God Delusion. He goes much further than scientific inquiry allows him to go, yet he speaks as if he’s being a good scientist with great authority. He says that it’s so unlikely that there’s anything beyond the physical universe that it’s irrational to believe that there is. His main argument is this: Any being capable of creating or designing something must be very complex. We know that anything complex must be, like other things in the natural world, the product of a Darwinian or evolutionary process—in other words, a god capable of creating and designing a world must start as something simple and over time become more complex. Any such god would have arrived very late in the history of our universe, long after the universe had begun; therefore, God could not have created it. Make sense? He argues that “god,” who he himself defines as supernatural, ought to be governed by laws associated with natural things, and because god isn’t, god cannot exist. This overlooks the fact that Dawkins himself defines god as supernatural. Either god is beyond nature or god isn’t, but if he is, there’s no sense complaining that he doesn’t conform to laws that govern nature.

The Bible and Church tradition have never taught anything other than this: God is transcendent. God is above, beyond, and other than this physical world. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely. God is not one thing among other things in the universe; God in fact is not a thing at all. We can’t place God under a microscope and study him; we can’t describe him with formulas in a textbook. A god who could be proven scientifically is no god at all! Certainly not the God of the Bible. And, yes, it takes faith to believe in God and in a reality beyond this physical universe, but it takes faith to believe in the alternative—I would argue more faith: Why something and not nothing? Why this and not something else? Why life at all?

It’s incredibly unlikely to begin with that a planet would exist in our universe to support life. What are the odds? Scientists say that if any one of many variables were different in the beginning, we would not have a planet that supports life. And Dawkins says, “Yes but there are billions and billions of planets, so the odds, though still small, improve.” And we can say, “Yes, but what are the odds that there would be billions and billions of planets such that one of them would support life?” And Dawkins would then say, “Yes, but there may be billions and billions of universes—so the odds improve.” To which we could respond, “O.K., but what are the odds that there would be billions and billions of universes, such that one of them would have a planet that would support life?” The answer remains the same: “incredibly unlikely.” There’s no way around it! Dawkins admits in his book that we got lucky; although I would say really, really lucky. But luck, as he should know, is not a scientifically justified explanation.

O.K., but what about evolution? Our United Methodist position on the subject feels about right to me. It says, “We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world, although we preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues.” That means that when someone like Dawkins rules that believing in God is irrational, we say that he is out of bounds. But it also means that we can accept a scientific account of how we got here that includes evolutionary processes. But we reject this pervasive and harmful idea that if evolution happened then God didn’t also, at the same time, create the world. It’s not either God or evolution. It’s both/and. And there’s no need to be bothered by that. This is the way we often explain reality. One theologian writes: “One explanation for the page you are reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper. Another is that the author intends to put certain ideas across. Still another explanation is that the publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism.”[1] All three explanations are true; none of them contradicts any other. To say that evolution happened is not to say that God didn’t create. Both can be true.

I heard an interview once on NPR with a world-renowned scientist, who was Indian and a deeply religious Hindu. This surprised the interviewer who thought science and faith were at odds with each other. The scientist said, “You can’t adequately understand a Shakespearean sonnet by analyzing its structure and saying, ‘That’s iambic pentameter.’ You haven’t described what the poem means. All science can do is describe the structure of the universe without saying what it means.” After all, we could scientifically describe falling in love as a series of chemical processes in the brain—these glands secrete these hormones; these physiological responses take place—but we haven’t touched the meaning of love.

The meaning of Genesis Chapter 1 is love. God’s love is the heart of what Creation is all about. What does it mean that God says, “Let there be…”? “Let be” is not language of command and manipulation and coercion; it’s language of permission and freedom and joy. Teenagers, this is like turning 16 and your parents handing over keys to the car. I’m going to let you drive; I’m going to let you do the thing that your heart most desires. In this poetic language, God gives his Creation permission to be everything that it wants to be; everything it most deeply desires to be. God speaks these words of life, love, and freedom, and we human beings respond with gratitude, love, and praise.

God speaks, and Creation responds. God speaks, and Creation responds. Feel the rhythm. Feel how closely connected we are to our Creator. People ask, “Can we really believe in Genesis Chapter 1 and Creation?” Can we believe that out of the chaos of life and this world, God can bring order and good? Can we believe that God can make a way where there presently is no way? That God can give us new and better possibilities for life than we ever imagined? Can we believe that God wants us to enjoy loving relationships with one another in all their fullness? That we use the gifts God gives us as his image-bearing creatures to do meaningful, fulfilling work? That we live in peace and harmony with this good Creation? That we trust our Creator enough to rest periodically, knowing that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, that God is ultimately in control?

Do I really believe Genesis’s account of Creation? Of course I do! This points to the very meaning of life—a life that finds its ultimate expression in the life of Jesus Christ; a life that Christ makes available to us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Do you want this life? Do you want more of this life? What changes is God asking you to make in order that you enjoy it more fully? Has God been speaking to you about something, waiting for you to respond? Will you say “yes” when God calls?


[1] John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 84-85.

 

2 Responses to “Tough Texts Part 5: Genesis 1 and Science”


  1. […] At its best, this potential new discovery can only answer why this something and not some other something. And even that is only a partial explanation. Reality has multiple, mutually non-competitive explanations, as I’ve discussed earlier. […]


  2. […] conceding that there is good scientific evidence against believing in God. See my previous post and this entry for more discussion about God and science. Also, see this post, among others, about suffering and […]


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