Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I have friends who are Christians and tell me that science is wrong and destroys faith. And I have friends who are squarely on the side of science. Who is right?
The Thoughtful Pastor: When I hear that “science destroys faith,” I find it helps to ask for specifics as to which scientific discoveries in particular have been problematic.
For now, I assume that the conversation revolves around one or two big issues that seem to hit the faith/science divide in the U.S.: “How did the earth/universe come about?” and “Is climate change real?”
Let’s just look at the “creation/evolution” divide here. Some “faith not science” people assert the earth is around 6,000 years old, achieving that date by counting the generations listed in the Book of Genesis from the creation story forward.
That works if the Bible is read as a scientific textbook, written to the degree of accuracy that science demands. The problem: so much of the early parts of the Bible are actually written as poetry. Discerning truth found in poetry requires a different set of interpretative rules.
During the years when the Bible was written, few were literate and fewer had access to written materials because of the cost of paper and time-consuming labor of copying manuscripts.
Poetry became the primary way of passing on truths and history to the generations following. Poetry is far easier to memorize than prose. Hebrew poetry, with its short sentences, many just three or four words long, and exquisite use of cadence, repetition and word play, make it particularly easy to memorize.
Truth, when embedded in poetry, must be carefully extracted and rarely, if ever, emerges in a “literal” (the word means exactly what it says) way.
Words become doors to bigger worlds. Metaphors build bridges from the known to the mysterious and unknown. Psalm 18:2 says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.” Does that mean God is a “literal” rock? Of course not. There is deeper truth there.
Now, onto science: Something pronounced “scientific” doesn’t mean guaranteed truth. Flawed humans practice the art of scientific discovery. Things pronounced “true” may years later be pronounced “false.”
Just as in theology, researcher preconceptions and in some cases intent to deceive can lead to false or seriously incomplete conclusions.
Scientists, like everyone else, can also fall prey to unhealthy ambitions and desire for publicity and fame.
Because research funding is hard to come by, scientists may need the spectacular pronouncement, whether true or not, to keep the money coming.
In addition, all knowledge is incomplete. Scientists making decisions on the age and origin of the universe base their assertions on well-honed observational skills and increasingly accurate methods of measurement, but their conclusions are still limited and incomplete.
So, who among your friends is right? If any assume they have the only unequivocal answers to life’s ultimate questions, none of them. The either/or argument here may leave us comfortable but also impoverished.
Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I hear many Christians speak of how violent the Quran is, but I see a great deal of God-condoned smiting in the Bible, also not to mention how our more recent European ancestors applied their Christian beliefs in 200 years of the Crusades.
What are your thoughts on the nature of Islam and its relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition?
The Thoughtful Pastor: Both the Bible, particularly the older books of history like Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the Quran have their share of truly awful commands toward the outsiders or the infidels.
According to one analysis I read, the Bible has 842 passages out of 31,102 total verses that might be labeled “cruel and violent.” The Quran has far fewer, 333 out of 6,236, but percentage-wise takes the cake at 5.34 percent of its passages versus 2.31 percent.
A different analysis, using an alternative metric to identify violence, concluded: “Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament [2.8 percent] than in the Quran [2.1 percent], but the Old Testament clearly leads — more than twice that of the Quran — in mentions of destruction and killing [5.3 percent].”
As my father, a mathematician, used to say, “You can make statistics say anything you want them to say.” Anyone who is bent on destroying others can find justification in their particular sacred text.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have roots that can be read to promote the worst of human activity. Today, however, most respected spokespeople for these three related religions do all that is possible to promote peace and mutual understanding, even as they hold to their own religious underpinnings as truth.
They are willing to acknowledge the violence and cruelty found in the texts and balance that with the fact that all the texts also call for love of the outsider and justice for the oppressed.
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