A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 9, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:13-16
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Last week the hashtag #EvolutionDebate was trending on Twitter.  What that means is that a whole bunch of people were posting 140 character statements about a debate that was taking place between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, a creationist and founder of the Creationist Museum.  The debate took place at the Creationist Museum and lasted for two and a half hours.  It was streamed on the Internet and had somewhere around half a million viewers.[1]  A recording is available on YouTube that, as of last night, had 1,150,000 views.  “There hasn’t been this much attention focused on a single discussion of evolution since the Scopes monkey trial,” one commentator mused.[2]

I’m not one of those million views.  I didn’t watch it live and I haven’t spent the two and a half hours to watch the recording.  I suspect there are plenty of creationists who haven’t watched it either.  We are probably quite certain of our points of view and don’t think we will hear anything that will get us to change those views.  I believe that humans evolved along side other species; creationists believe humans were created by God as a complete species and have changed very little since then.

I think the debate was worthwhile, though.  It was a golden opportunity to address questions of science and education at length, moving beyond the demands of television that normally reduce complex debates to sound bites.  According to response to the debate that I’ve read, “Nye told his audience – most of whom, he knew, were online, not there in that lion’s den – that he was happy to be proved wrong, that there were boundaries to knowledge and that science is humble in the face of mystery.  None of us can yet prove what preceded the Big Bang, or explain why consciousness exists.  And that’s exactly why we need science education, so some curious child watching this debate can go out and push back the boundaries of knowledge a little further.”[3]

If Nye’s arguments “engaged one school board member [in Kentucky, a state where Creationism is taught alongside evolution], or in Texas, or Tennessee; if it told one curious child that she wasn’t wrong or alone in asking questions of religious dogma, then the debate will have been worth it.”[4]

As a religious person, I want science – the science that Nye represented – taught in our public schools’ science classes.  And, as a religious person who understands and embraces the importance of science, I was a little baffled by how science and religion became enemies.  Enter Karen Armstrong, scholar and author on comparative religion.[5]

Prior to the enlightenment, there was a general resistance to attempting to define God.  There was (and is) a very strong Jewish tradition that resists even naming God.  When Moses asks for God’s name at the burning bush, God essentially says, “Never you mind.  I am who/what I am.”  And in Genesis, when Jacob wrestles with a being Jabbok, this being won’t disclose its name.  The being blesses Jacob, but won’t share a name.  We can be blessed by God, but we cannot define God, even by so much as a name.

Sir Isaac Newton

During the 17th century, scientists claimed they had found a definitive, scientific proof for the existence of God.  Newton thought that the intricacies of the solar system were proof of God.  This God was omniscient, omnipotent, and (as Newton said) “very well versed in mechanics and geometry.”[6]  So God became a “scientific fact, a scientific hypothesis, a scientific explanation.”[7]

Earlier theologian claimed that you couldn’t prove that God existed because our minds can only deal with material beings and limited beings, and not with infinity itself.  But with the Enlightenment came this idea that everything real, including God, can be proven scientifically.  Newton’s and Decartes’ physics wouldn’t work without God to get things going, thus they became a proof for God.

Later, other scientists found natural explanations for the universe.  Then Darwin came along and found a natural explanation for life itself.  “And,” to quote Armstrong, “that wouldn’t have mattered a jot had not the theologians and the churchmen fallen in love and become intoxicated with Newton’s proof.”[8]  Science had achieved so much, fostered so much explanation of the physical world in this period “that myth became discredited and people thought that science was the only way, the most reliable way to reach God.  And they lost the older habits of thought which had been very reticent about saying what God was.”[9]

The real antagonism developed in response to this modernist embrace of science as the most reliable way to reach God.[10]  While some theologies came to look at the world and scripture and God through the lens of science, other theologies backlashed.  The birth of fundamentalism can be traced to this reaction.  As science seemed to contradict what the Bible said, people felt they either had to reject the science or the Bible.  Fundamentalist chose to reject the science.

Of course, this is a false dichotomy.  The choice is not between either science or literalism.  There is another options that embraces both science and religion.

One additional option is modernist.  Some people, in Newtonian fashion, understand God to be that which makes the rest of scientific explanations work.  This is the God who caused the Big Bang.  This is the God what is the uniform explanation for both quantum mechanics and planetary mechanics.  Except that maybe M-theory explains uniformly the miniature and the large.

That’s the problem with a God who resides in the gaps in the natural order that science can’t yet explain.  With each new scientific explanation, God has an ever decreasing place to reside.

Another option is the way that we post-enlightenment, post-modern Christians can embrace science and religion.  Yes, this way may upsets some pre-modern sensibilities of not defining God, but I think that’s okay.  This option involves letting go of views of God as a force of nature.  Instead, God is about willing and leading and loving.  God is, in this sense, more personal than the God of the scientific gaps.

Think about time.  When you are a kid at it’s 2:30 and school is getting out at 3:00, that half hour is exactly 30 minutes long.  Except that it isn’t.  There’s time on the clock and time that you’re experiencing.  There’s chronos and kairos.

Or consider the question, “Why is the kettle boiling?”  The scientist might explain that when methane oxidizes it gives of heat.  When it oxidizes rapidly (we usually call that burning), under a kettle with water in it, that heat transfers to the bottom of the kettle, “which in turn causes the water molecules to move more rapidly within the kettle, whereby the increasingly rapid motion of the molecules eventually becomes sufficient to push the vapor pressure of the water higher than the atmospheric pressure – and the water boils.”[11]

This is a perfectly legitimate and scientifically complete explanation.  We don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural to explain that process.  But that’s not the only explanation.  Another perfectly accurate explanation is simply, “The kettle is boiling because I want a cup of tea.”

“This second kind of explanation is what we might call a personal explanation.  It appeals to a different sort of reality – the reality of persons – and provides an explanation in terms more appropriate to that reality.”[12]

If, in addition to whatever else God is, God is a personal being, then it is perfectly legitimate to explore a personal aspect of reality in theological terms, while also engaging in an exploration of the scientific aspects of reality in a scientific manner.

“Science may well be comprehensive within its domain.  When speaking as scientists we need not appeal to supernatural intervention to make our equations work.  But theology should persuade us that there are limits to that domain.  Natural explanation does not exhaust reality.  Chemists might give an exhaustive analysis of the elements and properties of an oil painting, or acoustic engineers might comprehensively describe the action of sound waves in a symphony hall.  But if those descriptions were all that were given, we’d be missing the central point of art and music.

“So too with explaining the origin of the universe.  Is the Big Bang as far back as we can go with a scientific explanation?  Maybe, maybe not.  I see no reason to take a definitive stand on that question.  If scientists can figure out ways to push their explanation back further, Christians can remain committed to the claim that they will not have explained all of reality.  Scientists may give a more comprehensive account of one aspect of reality, but if Christians are right, there is another aspect to reality.  Indeed, the central point of reality is a personal being who loves and sustains the world and who cannot be exhaustively described by science any more than art or music or love can be.”[13]

At this point I expect someone must be wondering what this has to do with today’s gospel lesson, what this has to do with being salt and light.  Jesus’ call to be salt and light is much more than the point I am making today.  But it at least includes the point I’m making.

One of the problems with the Nye/Ham creation debate is that it planted the false suggestion that Ham speaks for the majority of Creationists.  Worse yet, in reinforced the false assumption that Creationists speak for the majority of the Christians.  That’s patently false.  Even the Vatican declared evolution valid decades ago.  Yet the cultural assumption remains, reinforced by vocal Christians who reject science, that all Christians reject science.

One of the ways we can salt the debate is to stand up for science as Christians.  One of the ways our light can shine is when we show that we are both scientific and faithful.

One of the things that I love about this church is how embracing we are of questions.  Maybe that’s a trait we adopted from the scientists.  Scientists are constantly questioning their assumptions and their conclusions, tweaking experiments to see if results are consistent, seeking to prove themselves wrong to expand their understandings of the physical world.  We, too, are regularly questioning our assumptions and beliefs, adjusting our understandings, and new spiritual and interpersonal experiences lead us to deeper and deeper relationship with God.

That is a flavor of Christianity the world needs.  That is a light that will enlighten the world.  So don’t lose your saltiness and let your light shine.


[1] Chris Taylor, “Yes, the Creation Debate Was Worthwhile,” Mashable, http://mashable.com/2014/02/04/creation-debate-worth-it/ (5 February 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karen Armstrong was a guest on “To the Best of Our Knowledge” on National Public Radio on 15 December 2013.  I heard the original broadcast and listened to the archive online at http://www.ttbook.org/book/karen-armstrong-case-god to transcribe the quotes included in this sermon.  The radio segment offers much more.

[6] Karen Armstrong quoting Sir. Isaac Newton, I assume from her memory rather than notes, but it’s a memorable enough quote I’d bet she nailed it.

[7] Armstrong, ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This paragraph and the next were not in my original manuscript, the one that I used when I preached this sermon.  I added it Sunday afternoon.

[11] J.B. Stump, “Cosmic question,” Christian Century, 26 December 2013, pp. 20-23.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.