The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Universal truth

'Science and religion look at the same reality from different angles'

Life on Earth began millions of years ago, claim the best minds of science, with simple organisms that slowly evolved, through mutation and adaptation, into today's abundance of plants and animals.

Not according to Genesis.

The Scripture tells how God made the heavens, the earth and all things in less than a week. And there was nothing gradual about the creation of humans: God simply sculpted Adam--big brain and all--from scratch.

Most Lutherans know that science and the Bible are not mutually exclusive.

Pope John Paul II last year endorsed the scientific concept of evolution, saying the idea is compatible with Christian faith but emphasizing that creation is still the work of God.

Still, the evolution debate persists today in large part because creationism is in resurgence. The New York Times reported in l996: "Around the country, the issues that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant brought out in a Dayton [Ohio] courtroom [70 years ago] are being replayed in classrooms, school board meetings and state legislatures as religious fundamentalists become increasingly assertive."

The report noted that educators said many high school biology teachers around the country skip teaching evolution rather than risk confrontation with conservative parents of fundamentalist religious groups.

Mainstream media coverage of creationism may cause Christians to doubt whether science and religion really have learned how to get along in the four centuries since Galileo was charged with blasphemy for proposing that Earth revolved around the sun.

Society may be susceptible to confusion about the connection between science and religion because our culture does not encourage people to think about how they interrelate, says Russell Norris, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who is dean of students at Wesley College in Dover, Del.

"I talk to students who have a simplistic belief in the Bible: 'Yeah, the Bible is true.' They also have a simplistic belief in science: 'Yes, science is true.' And they try not to put the two together," says Norris, who has taught courses on issues of religion and science at Lutheran Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C., and leads seminars on the topic.

Also, science education at many schools and colleges lags in emphasis behind liberal arts, leaving many unprepared to evaluate data presented in the popular media. The January Scientific American reported that television may blur the distinction between "pseudoscience" and solid science by presenting as fact the paranormal and highly speculative aspects of science, such as UFOs and aliens.

Responding to these challenges, theologians and scientists around the world are joining to help get the word out that science and religion are not enemies. Those involved say that as the 21st century approaches, with its foreseeable blessings and difficulties, civilization needs religion's prophetic wisdom and science's diligent enterprise to work together for good.

"We see science and theology as being two different but necessary tools for intellectual inquiry into life," says George Koch, campus pastor at Syracuse University in New York and a member of the ELCA Work Group on Science and Technology, dedicated to guiding the church on these issues.

"There's a lot of middle ground because we don't see religion and science as incompatible," Koch says. "We see them as answering two entirely different questions."

Science is best at uncovering how and why things happen. Religion's expertise is in areas of purpose, meaning and value. So when the Genesis account of creation meets the theory of evolution, each contributes what it best can.

Genesis conveys important theological truths even though we know--scientifically--the sky is not a firmament that keeps waters at bay, nor are the sun and the moon celestial lamps.

"Those were 10th century B.C. understandings of what the universe looked like," Koch says. "To force that, to say that's really how it is, is not to understand the world as we best do through modern cosmology. But to hear over and over again the purpose declared that 'it was good' is certainly biblical and applicable to us today."

Science and religion reinforce each other, says David Buehler, pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Providence, R.I., who is working on a doctorate in bioethics and theology.

"When you put the two together, you don't end up with this horrible dissonance. You end up with a clearer, stronger interpretation of the universe," Buehler says.

Norris says it may be most fruitful to understand science and religion as complementary disciplines. "Science and religion are looking at the same reality but from slightly different angles," he says. "They are not exclusive, they are not unrelated to each other. They don't describe reality in the same way, but one can be supportive of the other."

In his work as a pediatrician, Kevin Powell of Illinois, who is also on the ELCA Work Group on Science and Technology, daily encounters issues science is ill-prepared to handle.

"What is our relationship with this person on a ventilator who essentially has no chance of ever regaining cognition?" Powell asks. "Why are doctors talking this over? They have no training, compared to religion [which has] thousands of years of literature on precisely these issues: What is the meaning of human life? What is the value of a human being? What is our relationship to others?"

These questions increasingly arise as medicine grapples with such issues as doctor-assisted suicide.

Another medical field, genetics, is developing so rapidly, hardly a week goes by without a breakthrough linking some condition to genetic coding.

"As we finish the deciphering of the human genetic code, we find ourselves more in a position to alter the basic structure of life," Norris says. "Then you can get into some enormously important ethical and religious and theological questions." For example, if genetic coding predisposes someone to physical or mental conditions or certain behaviors, what then does it mean to be a human being created in the image of God? What does it say about free will?

"It's really important that people be prodded to think about these issues in a responsible way," Norris says.

As population increases, food and environmental crises loom. Society will face hard choices: How will we allocate scarce resources? How will we balance economic and environmental issues? The values and wisdom of religion can help guide the discussion.

On the cosmological frontier, the possibility of life on Mars and discovery of other solar systems have profound implications.

"Everywhere we look, now that we know how to look, we're beginning to see evidence of planets around nearby stars," Norris says. If planetary formation is common in the universe, development of life on those planets may also be common.

"Now what's it going to do to us theologically and scientifically to discover that we are not unique?" Norris asks. "It's going to have the same kind of impact as Darwin telling us that humans are not unique in the sense of being totally separate from the animal kingdom--rather, that we are part of it."

Powell agrees. "If Jesus Christ came to Earth as a mortal human being and died and was risen, as we believe," he says, "then what does that mean [as we think] about other worlds? Theology has to adapt, to try to understand what it means. But that process has been ongoing, ever since we realized that Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa."


Rev. Femi Ige

Rev. Femi Ige

Posted at 10:11 am (U.S. Eastern) 2/4/2010

Theology occupies itself with the Creator-God and the relationship between this Creator-God and His creation, while  science is an on-going attempt to discover facts (?) and gather and use workable data about the creation; its originalty, compositon and intra-action with itself.

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