by Pastor Doug Kings
There has been a long history of conflict between science and religion. In the area of health care, many early advances (like vaccines) were initially condemned by church authorities. The most common reason given is that these drugs or techniques are tinkering with God’s plan for humanity, and that such scientists or physicians were “playing” God.
In other instances, religious authorities have intervened to suppress ideas which ran contrary to their theology or understanding of the Bible. The most notorious example was the church’s condemnation of Galileo for asserting that the planets revolved around the sun and not around the earth. This, of course, was just the beginning of an avalanche of scientific discoveries which upended the church’s ancient view of the universe.
Fast forward to today and it is still the case that many conservative Christians reject fundamental scientific teachings. They refuse to believe that the earth or the universe are as old as scientists say they are because, in their view, this violates the creation stories of Genesis. And for the same reason they reject the notion that life has evolved on this planet over its billions of years of existence. But this isn’t just a problem in fundamentalist churches.
In my first congregation we held a 4-week adult seminar on the creation stories of Genesis. It was led by a dynamic Old Testament professor from my seminary and who easily held an audience (“fasten your seatbelts” was how he began most classes). Dr. Michel fully accepted the scientific view of how the universe began but had a profound way of integrating the first chapters of Genesis with that understanding.
The class was SRO with about fifty people jammed into our church lounge, and they were clearly enjoying this experience—with one exception. During the third session, John stood up and basically had a meltdown, denouncing the professor for being a heretic by denying the truth of the Bible. It was quite a scene, which Dr. Michel handled compassionately and professionally. Not surprisingly, John left the class but then he and his family also left our congregation and joined a local conservative Baptist church.
Professor Michel was exceptional in his willingness to engage anyone in exploring the intersection of science and faith. Such ideas have been taught in seminaries for at least a century. Yet in most cases, pastors-to-be have been cautioned again using them in their congregations because “they might upset people.” What this has meant in practice, as I saw that night, was that the church would rather deny 49 people these modern insights into faith and life than take the risk of alienating one person.
Many Christians, even from supposedly progressive churches, have often acted as if science and faith inhabit different and unrelated compartments of our lives. One result has been that we think we can pick and choose what science we want to believe and discard anything “upsetting” that runs contrary to our beliefs.
During the current pandemic, churches again have often been leaders in resisting medical recommendations. The most public instances of this have been churches’ refusal to alter or cease public worship services. In other cases, pastors have publicly rejected the seriousness of the illness or stated that God would protect faithful Christians from it. Inevitably there have been several instances of such pastors themselves becoming infected and a couple have died.
No, “anointed handkerchiefs” will not keep us from becoming infected (as one pastor claimed). No, God will not stop infected people from coming to worship (as another pastor promised). And no, we can’t “pray the pandemic away.” Trying to use God to save us from our foolishness or selfishness is as old as religion itself and was one of the objects of the prophets’ bitterest scorn.
Countless medical professionals and researchers are working tirelessly to bring this pandemic under control. As people of faith our calling is to give them our support and encouragement and to thank God for their talents, energy, and commitment. God is at work in and through them, rather than in the fairy tale thinking or arrogant bluster of contemporary false prophets.
The universe science has unveiled is one vastly different from the one inhabited by the founders and teachers of the world’s religions, and even from our recent ancestors. Hiding from that world in ancient texts and doctrines will not make it go away. Rather, it will only leave us increasingly disconnected and alienated from the world and from life, often with disastrous consequences.
Yet Christianity, like its ancient religious cousins, has a depth of which we are often unaware. The Bible knows well the human tendency to keep God in a box of our own construction (often called “religion”) and scornfully laughs at such foolishness. It also knows that God is the mystery, at the heart of all reality, beyond our understanding, yet the source of all truth and goodness.
It is our privilege as humans, created in God’s image as the Bible says, and the pinnacle of the universe’s evolutionary journey as science tells us, to experience that truth and goodness as the most profound Love. And that’s all that matters. “Where is the love?” song writers ask. That’s where we need to be. Set aside the doctrinal, philosophical, and political mind games, find where people are loving their neighbors, and join in.
Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug