Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred

A Rational Belief

posted by Darrel Falk

Easter Bunny.jpg

Source: finsbry / Flickr / All Rights reserved

My granddaughter Sara is six years old. About six months ago, her mom called to
tell me Sara wanted to talk about some theological concepts. She put Sara on
the phone, and I was peppered with questions like, “Who made God?” and “Where
is heaven?” Our discussion led her to pose more questions about the details of
what happened when Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven. I could tell
she was a little skeptical about all of this but seemed willing to believe me
because I am her grandfather. As I continued the phone conversation with her
mother, Sara called out in the background, “Tell Grampy I don’t believe in the
Easter Bunny.” I smiled at the thought that I had been granted the resurrection
and ascension, but the Easter Bunny had to go.

A couple of months after our conversation, Sara lost a tooth. In her growing
skepticism of all things childish, she sat down, pen in hand, and wrote a note
to the one who normally rewards her for each tooth left under her pillow. “Dear
Tooth Fairy,” she wrote, “Please don’t leave me any money this time, just leave
me a Mary Kate and Ashley DVD, and also would you leave a picture of yourself?”
I think she had grown suspicious that her mother was the tooth fairy and
figured out this sly way of still drawing on the benefits — and maybe even
increasing them a little — while satisfying her instinctive desire to get at
the truth. Letting go of her belief in Santa won’t be far behind, but that will
be a little tougher to give up. After all, Christmas presents are considerably better
than Easter eggs scattered around the back yard or a one dollar bill found
under her pillow.

As we grow up, we let go of the myths of our childhood. And many people believe if
we really grow up, we’ll let go of the myth of a creator — especially the highly specific logos of John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Surely we ought to be able to let go of that myth by the time we are in middle school. Surely science — which has never been able to detect a creator and is getting increasingly successful at explaining much of biology without a need to invoke God — has made such a view highly antiquated. Why, 150 years after Darwin, do so many adults still believe in the bodily resurrection of a dead person and a God who can hear individual prayers of hundreds of millions of people at once? If my granddaughter can see the parallel between these religious convictions
and her former belief in the Easter Bunny at the age of six, why can’t those of
us who have been around many times longer see the parallel, proceed to reject
it, and then move on? Are we, like Sara with the tooth fairy, just playing
along? Have we been unwilling to relinquish this one last antiquated belief
because the personal cost is too high?

It is very clear that evolution has occurred. It is also abundantly clear that
natural selection and other natural phenomena have worked as the driving force
behind life’s amazing diversity (watch this space for more details in coming
days). However, despite the reality of evolution, there is information that leads us to believe in a reality that extends beyond what we can study through science. There are
data, for example, that imply that key elements in the story of Jesus’ life really did take place. If so, a scientist ought not to reject that data without careful examination.

Much of the data that informs the science of evolutionary biology is historical in
nature. As a science professor, when I read a book written by The University of
Edinburgh biblical scholar Larry Hurtado that explores in detective-like fashion how soon early Christians began to venerate Jesus of Nazareth, I follow the same logic I use when reading evolutionary biology papers. Although the facts may not be as clear cut as those emerging from some of the experiments I’ve discussed with thousands of students over the years, Christian belief is nevertheless grounded in real data.

To explain the rational base for Christianity Timothy Keller, author of “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism,” examines the data the same way I want my students to do as they think about the ramifications of the data that emerge from studying the history and diversity of life forms. When I read the work of theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German Lutheran pastor who wrote about the theological ramifications of Genesis 1-3, or Karl Barth’s“The Doctrine of Creation,” I consider it as brilliant as the work of my scientific heroes including molecular biologists Seymour Benzer, Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner. Barth, Bonhoeffer, Keller and Hurtado all base their work on profoundly significant data also.

For graduate students, the unforgiveable sin is to discuss a particular concept as being the only acceptable one when there are other reasonably logical possibilities to explain the same thing. There are some very good reasons to think the God of Christian theology really does exist. Not only has this concept not been falsified, but also there is much data to support its veracity. Those who doubt these beliefs should ask themselves what they have actually done to test that doubt. For example, when reading the
epistle to the Romans, have they sincerely tried to picture how someone could
fake a document almost certainly written within 25 years after the death of the
historical person named Jesus? Could something so packed with sincere emotion
and veneration really have been faked? Have those same people read Keller’s book with the open mindset that is supposed to be the trademark of any scientist?

The concept of the God of Christian theology simply does not fall into the same
category as an easily falsified hypothesis about the existence of the Easter
Bunny, the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. There are data similar to that which
detectives and historians use to reach conclusions about what is likely and not
so likely. It may not be scientifically testable the way the replication mechanism of DNA is testable or in a manner that parallels the experiments supporting the theory of evolution, but there are good, rational reasons that serve as the foundation for a life of faith.

Sara’s next hurdle is going to be Santa Claus, and whether she will admit it or not, I
predict she’ll move that aside within the next year or two. However, the belief
that there may be something more to this universe than what science alone
reveals will not fall so easily — not if she is as smart as I think she is.

Darrel Falk is a professor and chair of the biology department at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and executive director of The BioLogos Foundation.


Comments read comments(11)
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Kathryn Applegate

posted May 19, 2009 at 11:51 am

Thanks, Darrel, for a thoughtful post which challenges us to think critically about our faith and be able to give a reasonable answer for the hope that is in us. Thanks too for the Keller reference – looks like a good read.

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Your Name

posted May 19, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I wondered about the question in regards to comparing belief in a creator with the tooth fairy, easter bunny, etc. Until it dawned on me that the creator (at least from a Christian perspective), talks to 1) our relationship with God and 2) our relationship to each other. None of the others (tooth fairy, santa, etc.) do this.
Even more so the Christian system talks so specifically to the human condition that “words” recorded thousands of years ago are as relevant today as they were then.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted May 19, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Good words. As I keep working on ways to help those steeped in evolutionism and naturalism. And I look forward to reading Timothy Keller’s book.

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Greg Greene

posted May 20, 2009 at 10:50 am

Great thoughts, Prof. Falk.
By the way, my wife and I have always told our 6 year old triplets that Daddy is really Santa Claus and Mommy is really the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, and that it is fun to imagine they’re real, though they’re not. They haven’t lost a bit of enjoyment at Christmas or Easter over knowing Santa and Bunny are pretend. We’ve been very intentional in telling our kids what we believe is true – Jesus’ resurrection, for example – as well as what we’re not sure of (Noah’s Ark), and what we enjoy as pretend stories (like my comic book collection).

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Your name. Answered.

posted May 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Great words professor.
In response to “your name”, I would simply like to point out that, while the ‘Christian system’ do indeed reflect that words created thousands of years ago could be applied today, that many other historical documents have benefited and have been relevant to today. I simply suggest that we cannot rule out the possibility of the Christian theology based off the idea that it is not relevant. Because in the end, our world today has been based off the generations of the past and the past will always have some relevance to today.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted May 21, 2009 at 12:23 am

A theistic God is a very difficult thing to consider. As soon as the idea of God includes omnipresence, any anthropomorphic views must of necessity evaporate. (i.e. An omnipresent God does not experience time; being all present. If that is so, said God is unchanging, which also implies cannot think, since to think is to be in a state of transition.)
Christianity has a history, and it is extremely likely that a historical Jesus existed. Anthropology (physical and linguistic) will certainly yield data about the unfolding of events which led to the early Christian religion. What is unlikely is that science will provide supporting evidence for supernatural interference in the natural order.
None of this is relevant to the excellent moral lessons provided by the Jesus of the New Testament, who welcomed the social outcasts, and delivered a revolutionary message of inclusive love. In other words there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Being able to put aside literal beliefs shows a maturation of the believer. Sara, for example, does not believe in a literal Easter Bunny. She has, however, learned some important things through setting experiencing and setting aside that belief. As an ex-Christian, I have experienced something similar with respect to Christianity.

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Your Name

posted May 21, 2009 at 9:21 am

Dear Albert, But did you read Timothy Keller, Larry Hurtado, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth (for example), before “throwing out the baby with the bath water?” (I think you’ve done that.) Many brilliant minds have thought about the issues you raise in your opening paragraph and they have reached conclusions quite different than yours (and they’ve written books!)
I agree that it is unlikely that “science will provide evidence for supernatural interference in the natural order.” However, I urge you not to put too much trust in science. The scientific method only detects that which works within the context of regular and predictable rules. Indeed it *depends* upon the operation of those rules. The message of the book of Job is that God doesn’t work that way. Paul writes marvelously about this in I Corinthians 2 and 3. My favorite part is I Corinthians 2:5, where he says that your faith should not be based upon men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. Paul goes on from there to write with what I consider to be the most profound wisdom of all time. (Has I Corinthins 13, ever been topped for example? He also wrote Romans 8!) The wisdom in Paul’s writings though, is firmly grounded in God’s power and the study of God’s power may not be accessbile to the tools of the scientific method, wonderful as that method is!
Be sure you don’t put too much trust in the power of science. Science has its limits … and it is not too late to resuscitate the baby. :)

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Darrel Falk

posted May 21, 2009 at 9:26 am

For some reason the comment above didn’t show me as the author. Sorry about that.
In Christ,
Darrel Falk

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Albert the Abstainer

posted May 21, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Thank-you for your reply Darrel.
This has been a consuming issue for me in the past. The difficulty, is one of what follows logically if omnipresence is ascribed to God? It seems that omnipresence must be ascribed to God or we are faced with the problem of cardinalities in which God is a lesser infinite set.
If we can agree upon the necessity of omnipresence we can explore the implications of omnipresence (as per my first paragraph.)
One idea worthy of reflection when considering omnipresence is the idea of local omnipresence or omnipresence which is bounded. The universe may be an example of a bounded set where the instantiated characteristics are omnipresent. (e.g. A fractal equation is omnipresent to an instantiated fractal. The equation itself is unchanging and defines the limits of what is able to be expressed.)
Where I believe we (people) get into trouble is the tendency to project human characteristics into an Imago Dei. If I may be so bold, within the Christian tradition are examples of negative theology (via negativa) which are helpful in getting around the difficulties imposed by positive definite assertions. (See the sermons of Meister Eckhart for examples as well as the writings of numerous mystics both within and outside the Christian tradition.)
Another question needs to be asked. Given the diversity of exoteric religions, and the irreconciable differences between many core beliefs and contradistinction to the common ground of primary religious experience): Why place a primacy upon religious belief?
If what is wanted is validation of primary religious experience, functional MRI scans are a useful tool. It validates religious experience, mapping categorized states to physiologic responses and specific areas of the brain. And this will in turn show the physiologic commonality which crosses relgious and cultural boundaries. Does it prove God? No. But what it does do is establish the legitimacy of religious states which are common as opposed to religious beliefs, which are diverse. (Not withstanding the above, commonality of archetype can be shown, as per C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, amongst others.)

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Darrel Falk

posted May 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

So your questions are getting pretty sophisticated Albert and my answers (since I am just a Christian biologist) won’t be able to keep pace. However, I can tell you what I think, as a layperson addressing important philosophical questions.
I am convinced of God’s omnipresence throughout God’s created world. However, I also see that the God of the Bible chooses to work within the space of real time. (The Scripture is full of examples (eg. God’s disappointment with Noah, God seeming to change God’s mind in interactions with Moses.) But still if God is omnipresent (even if it *is* in a way that does not necessarily transcend time), why are things so messy on earth? The answer as I see it, is that God wills freedom for humankind and for creation in general.
So, why place a primacy on religious beliefs, especially the Christian variety? There are some very good reasons for believing it is true and living in that truth works wonderfully well. The picture fits together so coherently and so beautifully, once a person has lived that way for a number of decades as I have. Our lives need to be grounded in something…or nothing. Life is much richer if it is grounded in something. This is especially true when that Something is as beautiful as that put forward by deep Christian thinkers and lived out by many of the Christians I know. Having said all that, Paul says we see through a glass darkly. To that I say, Amen, but I also say there is coming a day when even that darkness will change into light. There is good reason for believing this and, having chosen to believe it, I find life very rich indeed.
In Christ,

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