For two years after college, I taught high school band in Hilton Head. I loved my students and I loved teaching, but what became clear to me in those two years was something I had known since I was fifteen; that my truly calling was to serve in the church. So, about midway through my second year, I submitted my resignation to the school principal and made my plans to attend seminary public. After word got out that I would be starting seminary the coming fall, I was having a conversation with one of the biology teachers at the school. She was nearing retirement, and in my time teaching, she had become a sort of mentor to me. So in this particular conversation, we were sharing our faith histories. I told her about my calling to ministry, and she shared with me her faith. She had grown up in the church, but in college, as she really began to study science, she found her beliefs to be irrelevant. There was no mystery, no need for faith, she thought, because science provided an explanation for everything. But then, she said, as her studies progressed and she started digging deeper into the questions of science, she found that there were some questions that science could simply not answer. “I realized then,” she said, “that sometimes the only answer is God. I’ve been in church ever since.”
For centuries, we have put science and creation at odds with one another. And yet, this is not necessary. As United Methodists, we believe that Scripture is the inspired word of God and that it contains “all things necessary to salvation.” But that does not mean our Bible is to be taken literally, or that contains all things necessary for biology and physics class. And by the same token, science cannot answer questions about our creator. At their most basic level, faith and science are seeking the answer to different questions. Science wants to know, “When?” and “How?” while religion seeks answers to the “Who?” and “Why?” “The more questions we ask about the world, the more we see that every system will, in the end, require some point of belief beyond what we can prove.” Werner Heisenburg, a theologian and Nobel Prize winning physicist captures this reality well. He says, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
So what are faithful Christians to make of science? Science teaches us that our universe began with what it calls a “big bang” event some 13.7 billion years ago, and that life (including human life) has all evolved over the last 3.5-3.8 billion years from some single-celled organism. But a literal reading of Genesis teaches that our world and all that is a part of it was created in seven days sometime around the year 4,000 BCE, a mere 6,000 years ago; a clear contradiction. So, faced with this contradiction, people tend to gravitate toward one of two possibilities. Many scientists say that creation is just a story, that it’s not real. And many faithful God-followers say that evolution is just a theory, not a reality. But scientific evidence for the origins of the universe and the emergence of life on our planet are overwhelming, and at the same time, the reality of God and the life-giving creator are beyond a doubt for many, including scientists like my biology teaching friend.
So how do we believe in science and creation? First, we must remember that God is a God of blessing, and part of God’s blessing to humanity is knowledge. Just think of all the places knowledge has taken us, look at all the advances in our society that spring from a growing wisdom of ourselves and the world around us. Such knowledge is God-given, and meant to help us grow into our fullest potential as God’s creation. Secondly, we have to understand that both science and faith are necessary for wisdom in this modern world, and belief in one does not necessitate the rejection of the other. Science is all about asking questions to get data and find answers, but life is about more than the physical processes of our world, and true life comes in faith. Science can help us understand the building blocks of the universe moments after it was created, but science cannot tell us why it was created or who might have created it, only faith can do that. Science simply cannot provide answers about some of the most important things life such as hope, sacrifice, and love; only faith can do that.
I’m going to come back to this specific question in minute, but first I want us to take a moment where we are to think a bit more about faith, and believing in a God that cannot be proven. Certainly, in scientific terms, God’s existence is not a matter of facts or data. As important as science is for so much in our world, there is no scientific physical evidence, no definitive proof of God. As we heard from the writer of Hebrews this morning, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” So faith is our only proof, and faith is nothing more than the assurance of the unseen. Kind of tough, isn’t it? The earliest Christians, those who saw Christ resurrected from the dead, may have had something resembling proof, “but every Christian since that unique moment in history worships a God they cannot see or touch,” a God that cannot be proven by any hard data. In fact, most of the information available about God isn’t about God at all, but instead about the actions and experiences of those who follow God. Just look at the “roll call of faith” we heard from Hebrews this morning; the faithful actions of Noah, and Abraham, and David, and Samuel, and ultimately Christ. These people sacrificially followed the call of God in their lives and in so doing their lives were changed, as were the lives of countless millions.
Indeed, it is basically impossible to empirically prove the existence of God. So how do we believe in a God we cannot prove? For starters, we can remember that just as it is impossible to prove the existence of God, it is also impossible to prove that God does not exist. Throughout history, philosophers have sought to provide proof of the reality of God. Perhaps the most compelling of arguments is offered by Thomas Aquinas, who laid out five proofs of God that continue to be important in this conversation about God’s existence. Without going into the full details of Aquinas’ five proofs, I will share with you that basically what it boils down to is that science can only provide proof and observable data to the “beginning.” But what existed before the beginning? What caused the beginning? What filled the void? By Aquinas’ reasoning, the only possible answer to these questions is “God,” the “Unmoved Mover,” the “First Cause.”
Other faithful philosophers and theologians like Saint Augustine and Origen have offered other lines of reasoning, arguments, and proofs of God’s existence. But the thing is, such arguments can never be the foundation of faith, God alone is the foundation of our faith. In Hebrews 12, just after the passage we heard this morning, the writer calls Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith. So how do we believe in a God we can’t prove? Faith is our proof, the faith that is offered to us by God and perfected by our Savior Jesus Christ. And one of the things that always helps me feel secure in my faith is seeing wonderful things happening in the world around me and knowing the only possible way such a thing could happen is because of God. Like the way Caitlin, the 18 year old girl we were praying for, was miraculously cured. Or the way babies are born into our presence nearly every second of every day.
…Which brings us back to science and creation. How do we believe in both? Well, here’s the simple fact. Science can account for about 3.8 billion years of life on this planet. And science can even provide proof of some massive moment of singularity 13.7 billion years ago that marks the “beginning” of the universe. But science cannot tell us anything about those moments before the “Big Bang.” Nothing. And I for one, see God in that moment. Still, even more than that, science tells us that all living things evolve, but Genesis 1 describes the creation in a step-by-step process; each step “evolving” from the one before it. Science fills in the gaps of the creation story, and faith in God fills in the gaps of scientific inquiry.
In a sermon in 1968, my grandfather answered the question, “What are we to make of evolution?” He preached in part this response, “By all means – believe it! Evolution is God’s idea, not man’s. In all the operations of the universe, evolution is one of the eternal laws. It signifies growth, expansion, and development…[W]ho can deny that God is still trying to make man in his own image, through the processes of evolution. I want to believe that! God is still working with us, trying to evolve – to evolute – a better world, a better race. I believe that God is still trying to improve man in body, mind, and spirit…The whole concept of evolution makes God even greater!” Science answers a lot of questions for us, but ultimately, it brings us to the question for which the only answer is God, and the proof is our faith.
So science and creation or science and faith is not an “either/or”, it’s a “both/and” We need science. Science has provided us with antibiotics and computers, with airplanes and cell phones, and undoubtedly science will bring even greater break-throughs in the future, like maybe the cure for cancer. Would we want a world without science? On the other hand, would we want a world without religion or faith? Faith tells us that we are made in the image of God, that we are valuable, and that God loves us. Faith tells us that life can exist after death and there is always reason to hope.
So you’re in the elevator with your friend who says, “Alright, you’ve got 15 floors to give me an answer, so nothing long and complicated, but I’m wondering, how do you believe in science and creation and a God that can’t be proven?”
You might answer like this: “The difference between science and the Bible is that they are asking different questions. The Bible doesn’t teach that the world was created 6,000 years ago; it teaches the truth that God created the heavens and the earth. Science has no means to test for that. There is no way to prove that God does exist, nor can we prove that God does not exist. Ultimately, the only proof we have is that we exist, created by God, and in God in Christ Jesus we have life and hope. Science answers a lot of questions for me, and my faith tells me even more. But ultimately, my interest is not so much in proving God or the exact process of God’s creating work; I just want to live the life that a great a perfect God made possible.”