Science and Religion

We had a presentation about the International Space Station after worship yesterday at our church. One of the people who has been participating in our congregation is a NASA ambassador, who is part of a corps of people who have studied at NASA and are deployed out across the country to spread the story of that agency. Earlier in the week, I mentioned the presentation to a colleague who is a minister in another denomination. He seemed surprised that we would have such a presentation in our church. To him it seemed to be far removed from religion and he saw the topic as somehow irreligious. That may be how he views it, but the presentation garnered plenty of interest in our congregation. The room was filled with people, including first time visitors to our congregation, who were interested and engaged in the presentation.

For whatever reasons, there are people in the Christian Church that don’t seem to know the long and historical relationship between science and religion. In their part of our tradition they have either forgotten or misremembered interrelationship between theology and religion. The classic scientists of previous generations believed that understanding the natural world was the best way to understand the Creator. Galileo said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Darwin came from a religious background and believed that God is the ultimate lawgiver. He was aware of the implications of his theories for religious faith, even though he did try to avoid religious controversy.

All human beings are endowed with a curiosity to understand. We look at the night sky and wonder what is up there. We gaze out into the universe and wonder what our place is in it. We ask the big questions of who we are and from where we have come. We have a hunger for knowledge and understanding that is as basic and as real as our hunger for food.

The false dichotomy of science and religion comes in part from a kind of fear of change. Some people are challenged by new ideas and resist new understandings. We cling to old ideas for a sense of security and are challenged by new ideas.

From my point of view, the result of thinking of science and religion as being oppositional is a diminished view of the nature of God. There are thinkers who want to define God and assign God qualities that put God in a particular place. God, however, is far bigger and far more than our capacity to imagine. When we become attached to a particular notion about God, we limit our capacity to be in relationship with God because we want to see only a bit of the reality. If we truly believe that God is in all things, then there is nothing that does not reveal the nature of God. Study the rocks and minerals of the planet, and you will discover mysteries that point to God. Look out into the universe with the most powerful telescopes and you will encounter the presence of God. Build a giant neutrino detector and search for the secrets of the universe and you are seeking God.

After yesterday’s presentation our presenter sat down at the large piano in our sanctuary and played Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Fight of the Bumblebee” at a blistering pace. His talent and musicality overwhelmed us. Naturally we began to speculate on the relationship between the fine arts and science. It certainly is the case that many who are skilled in mathematics and science also have considerable musical talent. It seems to me that these relationships are not random. There is a rhythm and tonality to the universe that inspires a musical response. Perhaps is would even be fair to say that one of the ways to learn more about God is to look at the intersections of art and science.

One of the things that our presenter has done is to combine slide shows of his scientific interests with original musical compositions. You can view and listen to them on his YouTube channel. Some of the videos have been recorded in the sanctuary of our church, making yet another connection between science, art and religion.

When we seek to control or limit the definition and role of God, God continues to surprise us. One of the elements of modern scientific theory is that scientists are continually asking questions while being open to having their notions disproved. They understand that learning occurs in part when things don’t go as expected. They subject their theories to all kinds of tests and are as delighted when things don’t turn out as they are when they do. They are willing to live with a degree of uncertainty.

I believe the same qualities are essential in a true theologian. If we seek to understand the true nature of God, rather than just project our own notions and ideas onto the universe, we will be surprised by God. God is not predictable and even though we are the inheritors of millennia of thinking about God, the ancient notions continue to evolve and understanding continues to expand. Uncertainty is part of human nature and whenever we are certain, we are certainly mistaken. Science that will be done 200 years from now will be much different from the way science is done today. The process of scientific exploration is constantly changing and evolving. Our understanding of the universe is always incomplete.

This is true of religion as well. Our understanding of God is always incomplete. We can learn a great deal from the ideas and concepts that have been handed down by history and tradition, but our theology is always faith seeking understanding. We know only in part, as is beautifully stated in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

So we will continue to celebrate science in our congregation and we will strive to understand more and more of the nature of this world. It is, after all, God’s creation and worth of our exploration.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!