Why you might have to choose between science and faith

In the wake of Ham v. Nye, the latest spectacle in the ongoing creation/evolution debate, cooler heads are calling for a rapprochement between science and faith.

Take, for example, Tim Stafford’s impassioned plea on behalf of our children to stop treating the two pursuits as mutually exclusive:

Right now, the way we’re carrying on battles over evolution, many of our children… will shy away from science because it demands that they abandon faith. They will avoid faith because it requires forsaking science. And they will have no idea — in this realm, at least — that it is possible to disagree with someone on the deepest level and yet treat them with respect.

Or take respected scientist (and Christian) Francis Collins, who, during a recent interview with the Huffington Post, argued that science and faith shouldn’t be pitted against each other, because they ask fundamentally different questions. One is preoccupied with how things work, the other asks why.

The cooler heads are saying we can have both. We don’t have to choose between science and faith.

But we might have to put an asterisk to that claim.

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As much as I’d like to say, “Yes, it can be both!” that’s simply not the reality for many Christians today. In some corners of the church — and perhaps in some corners of the scientific community as well — you are forced to choose. Faith or science. One or the other. Some will cling to their belief in a young earth — scientific evidence be damned. Others, like the North Carolina State University students in Tim Stafford’s piece, will conclude they have no choice but to abandon their childhood faith.

What it really boils down to is the nature of your faith. Depending on what kind of faith you have, you may well have to choose between it and the scientific evidence for evolution.

If your faith is rigid, unyielding, or inflexible, you might have to choose.

If your faith is unable to cope with a constantly changing world, you might have to choose.

If your faith is not open to new discoveries and possibilities, if it views the outside world with a wary eye, then you might have to choose.

If the defining posture of your faith is defensive rather than inquisitive, then you might have to choose.

If your faith forbids you from even considering other ways of reading the Bible, then yes, you may have to choose between science and faith.

You won’t be the first.

Five hundred years ago, believers had to choose between the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus and the church’s insistence on a stationary earth, based on a literal reading Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30. (Oh, and it wasn’t just the Catholic Church either; Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also accused scientists of undermining faith in scripture.)

We all know how that particular episode turned out. The scientists were vindicated, and the church has fought to shake off an anti-science reputation ever since.

To us, it seems obvious that Joshua’s depiction of the sun standing still and the chronicler’s reference to an immovable earth should be viewed as metaphor, not literal (much less scientific) assertion. But it wasn’t so obvious to everyone in the 16th century. Just like it still isn’t obvious to everyone today that Genesis 1 may not be a literal description of how the universe came into existence.

Five hundred years ago, the church had to open itself to other possibilities, to other ways of reading the Bible. It had to accept that maybe we don’t have everything about the Bible figured out, that maybe not everything in scripture was meant to be taken as literal history (which is not the same as saying that none of it can be read historically).

If you build your faith out of a house of cards, then all you have to do is take one card away, and the whole thing comes crashing down. That’s why young-earth creationists like Ken Ham cannot give an inch to science. That’s why they force you to choose between faith — or their version of it — and science. In Ham’s view, to reject a literal, 7-day creation is to undermine the gospel itself. He’s backed himself into a corner, and he has nowhere else to go. So he fights on, evidence be damned.

There’s another way, though.

You don’t have to check your faith at the door in order to see that we don’t know everything there is to know about the Bible, much less the world around us. You don’t have to chuck your Bible out the window to accept that it doesn’t always describe reality in literal, scientific, or historical terms. It’s so much more than a rote depiction of stuff that happened.

You don’t have to fear new discovery. You don’t have to be afraid of exploring the world if you understand that “science is not the only answer” — that it can help us understand how, but it cannot tell us why.

If the God you worship is truly as big as you say he is, then you don’t have to fear that something’s going to jump out from underneath a rock and devour him.

In the end, Tim Stafford and Francis Collins are right, with a caveat. You don’t have to choose between science and faith — depending on what kind of faith you have.

Creation debate recap: Bill Nye invites us to explore the world, Ken Ham does not

[Note: This article is also available on the Huffington Post.]

It’s unlikely anybody’s mind was changed by the creation debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye.

Ham behaved pretty much as expected, largely skirting the scientific argument and framing the debate as one of competing worldviews. He attacked evolutionary theories from 1836, rather than address the current science head on. His diversionary tactics were probably enough to keep the largely sympathetic crowd at the Creation Museum from getting too restless.

For his part, Bill Nye picked away at the logic of young-earth creationism, using the very thing Ham accused evolutionary theory of lacking: observational science. Among other things, Nye highlighted a number of famous trees whose age puts them on the earth long before the cataclysmic flood in Ken Ham’s chronology.

It seemed to me the debate went pretty badly for Ham, especially considering that it took place on his home turf. But then again, I have no problem believing that God is the “ultimate authority,” as Ham puts it, AND that evolution was the means by which God brought the universe into being.

To me, the “age of the earth” debate is fairly straightforward. We know the speed at which light travels. We can calculate the distance between us and other galaxies, including one that’s a whopping 60 million light years away. Which means the image of this galaxy captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 took 60 million years to get here.

Unless you want to argue that God designed the universe to look older than it really is — that is, that God wove dishonesty and deceit into the very fabric of his creation — then it seems to me that young-earth creationism has a big problem on its hands.

The question of human origins is, admittedly, a bit more complex for Christians. But the religious implications of us descending from a bunch of apes are not insurmountable, as Peter Enns demonstrates in his book, The Evolution of Adam. Besides, as Bill Nye pointed out a couple of times during the debate, there are billions of devoutly religious people on this planet who don’t insist on a young earth or a particular view of the origins of the universe.

But what struck me more than anything about the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was the very different posture each took toward the pursuit of knowledge and the virtue of curiosity.

More than once, Bill Nye addressed the audience directly, urging them to get out there and explore the universe for themselves. “Let’s keep looking,” he said. “Let’s keep searching.”

If Ken Ham had a recurring catchphrase during the debate, it was, “There’s a book about that, and it already has the answers.”

(For the record, the Bible is not a book about science.)

At one point, Ham and Nye were asked if there was anything that could ever change their minds. Ham’s answer was, in effect, no. Bill Nye, on the other hand, said he needed just one piece of evidence.

One of these two men was there to nurture curiosity. The other was there to stifle it.

One of these two men demonstrated a desire to keep on learning, to be shaped, challenged, and inspired by new discoveries. The other took a more defensive posture, treating scientific exploration with suspicion, hostility, even contempt.

I know which of these two men I want my daughter to emulate — if not with regard to faith, then with regard to intellectual inquiry. I want her to cultivate an insatiable hunger for knowledge, an unrelenting curiosity that propels her out into the world, an inner voice that says, “Come on! There’s more to discover.”

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend a Christian college that had made peace with the science of evolution. I remember what our president used to say: “We’ll turn over every rock in search of truth, because we’re confident that nothing’s going to jump out from underneath and eat God. And if something does, we should worship that instead.”

That’s a journey Ken Ham doesn’t want us to go on.

And that’s why Bill Nye won the creation debate. Even though he’s agnostic, it seems to me that he is closer to the creative, fearless, adventurous heart of God than Ken Ham has ever been.

How there’s a better way to read Genesis 1


This post was inspired by a conversation with some friends about a book called The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton.

What if you could read Genesis 1 and utterly miss the point?

What if someone told you Genesis 1 has a lot in common with other (older) creation tales from the ancient world?

What if Genesis 1 reflected ancient cosmology rather than modern science — hence light which appears before stars do and a heavenly vault that separates waters above from waters below?

What if ancient cosmology was more about the purpose of things and less about how they came into being? What if Genesis 1 was more about God bringing order and function to the cosmos than how it came into being?

To put it another way, what if Genesis 1 is about the why of creation rather than the how?

What if Genesis 1 is a really story about things which had no function, purpose, or meaning until God gave them one?

And what if the pinnacle of creation wasn’t reached on day six, when God made people?

What if Rick Warren is right? What if it’s not about us?

What if the people who added chapter breaks to the Bible got the very first chapter division wrong? What if the first few verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the first creation story?

(Did you know there were two creation stories in Genesis?)

What if day seven, which comes at the start of chapter 2 but is actually part of the first creation story, wasn’t just an afterthought? What if it’s more than a footnote to the other six days? What if day seven is the whole point of the story?

What if God resting is what it’s all about?

And what if “resting” was ancient-world-speak for when a deity took up residence in his temple?

What if God “doesn’t live in temples built by human hands” because he already has a temple — one built with his own hands? What if the reason the scriptures say that God “is not far from any one of us” is because the earth is his temple?

What if Isaiah was right? What if the earth is God’s footstool, his resting place, his dwelling?

What if that’s the point of Genesis 1, that God made a home and invited us to share it with him? What if that’s the real point of the story, not how old the earth is or how it came into being?

What if getting sidetracked by debates over the age of the earth or evolution is more than just a way of embarrassing ourselves in front of scientists? What if we’re missing the whole point of our own story?

What if the whole rest of the Bible is about God reclaiming his cosmic temple so he can take up residence — so he can dwell with us — once again?

What if that’s what he was doing when he carved out a patch of earth to share with the Israelites? What if that’s what the apostle John meant when he said Jesus “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”?

What if that’s what God started doing on a global scale when he sent his Spirit to fill his church?

What if that’s what he’s going to do at the end of the story? What if that’s why the last book of the Bible depicts a holy city — God’s city — coming down to earth?

Do you get the feeling that if we miss the real point of Genesis 1, we could miss so much else?

If we get the beginning of our story wrong, could we get the ending wrong too?

What if this is really what’s at stake in the endless debate over creation and Genesis 1 — not just our scientific credibility (though that’s on the line too) but our ability to embrace the story the Bible actually wants to tell us?

All of which, by the way, is why we need books like this . . .

Lost World of Genesis One

Science vs. Scripture (or, history repeats itself)

There was a time when scientists made a series of discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of the world around us. They began proposing new theories to explain these groundbreaking observations.

Not everyone was happy about it.

Many in the church felt threatened by the new scientific consensus, which undermined confidence in Scripture (so it was thought), because it contradicted some of what Scripture seemed to say about the universe.

So the church rejected these new theories as “godless,” even though many scientists (though by no means all) professed a deep and abiding faith in God.

Church leaders expended vast resources trying to discredit the new science. They accused scientists of being hostile toward religion and discouraged the faithful from reading any of their books.

“Science or Scripture,” the church seemed to say. “You have to choose.”

For some, this might sum up the present-day creation-versus-evolution debate. But it also describes a scene from our more distant past.

Over 500 years ago, science began questioning the geocentric view of the universe, which said the earth is fixed and everything else revolves around it.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. These were the scientific trailblazers who brought geocentrism crashing down. The church fought them tooth and nail because it feared that without a geocentric universe, the Bible would come crashing down as well.

After all, Joshua 10 described the sun, not the earth, standing still during a battle between Israel and the Amorites. 1 Chronicles 16:30 said the earth “cannot be moved.” (And the list goes on.)

The new science, heliocentrism, was regarded as a threat to faith. It had to be stopped.

In fact, opposition to it was one of relatively few areas of common ground between Catholics and Protestants (who, generally, were still trying to kill one another).

On one side, Rome forced Galileo to recant his scientific theories (under threat of torture) and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Books by Galileo and Kepler were banned by the pope — for over 200 years in some cases.

Sixteenth-century Protestants took by and large the same view as their Catholic counterparts. John Calvin wrote that “the earth… is placed in the center [of the universe].” It is “unmoved,” because God himself made it that way.

Calvin may not have been acquainted with Copernicus’ theory, but Martin Luther was. And he didn’t like it any better. In a conversation with a student of Copernicus, Luther reportedly said:

But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must agree with nothing else others esteem. He must invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! That fellow [Copernicus] wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon went even further, suggesting governments should punish anyone who advocated the new science.

It took many years for the church to come to terms with heliocentrism. But eventually it did, largely because it had no other choice in the face of overwhelming evidence.

None of the contentious passages in Scripture (Joshua 10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, etc.) disappeared from the Bible. But they came to be read in a new light — not as scientific or literal descriptions of reality, but as something else.

Some would argue that we find ourselves in a similar situation today. Only now with evolution as the church’s Waterloo moment instead of geocentrism.

But we don’t have to fight this battle.

Science can’t answer questions of ultimate origin (i.e. God), and the Bible doesn’t seek to answer questions of science. To make it do so is to turn it into something it’s not. It’s making the Bible what we want it to be, rather than letting it speak for itself.

Five hundred years from now, I wonder if our descendants will look back on the Al Mohlers and Ken Hams of our world in the same way that most of us look back on the 16th-century church’s opposition to heliocentrism.

By waging a battle with science, Ken Ham and others are taking a page from a very old script. They are repeating history. (You might even say they’re refusing to evolve.)

Worse, by forcing people to make a false choice between science and faith, they’re inadvertently pushing people away from faith — people who conclude that science and faith are irreconcilable, that the evidence for evolution (for example, the Human Genome Project) is compelling, and that Christianity therefore is not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The church came out its last tiff with science a bit bruised, but otherwise intact. Faith didn’t come crashing down. The Bible didn’t stop being God’s inspired word just because people realized it may not be an inspired word about science.

If the church continues to pick an unnecessary fight with science, it will end as the last one did. And it will be a self-inflicted wound.