Do Science and Religion Have to Be in Conflict?

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 15, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day a zoo-keeper noticed that one of the apes, a gorilla, was reading two books – “The Bible” and Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Surprised, the zoo-keeper asked, “Why are you reading both those books?” “Well,” said the ape, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”1.

I like that joke. It’s got an ape seeking answers to religious and scientific questions with a fun bit of word play.  The ape’s statement “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother” humorously pits the two types of questions against each other as a one-or-the-other-choice, as if we cannot both be our brothers keepers as Genesis suggests AND related to other creatures as “The Origin of the Species” suggests. This little joke in a nutshell captures the essence of a conflict a part of our culture is engaged in. It’s a conflict that seems to ask us to choose religion or science. It’s a conflict that does not seem to appreciate that we can actually choose both.  Mostly the conflict heats up on the topic of creation. The result is that the question of how creation came about seems to have two competing disciplines, science and religion, at each others throats.  In fact, even including Biblical texts on sexuality, I am not sure there is a set of scripture in our day and age that causes more debate and dissension than the creation story.

I said that it “seems” science and religion are at each other throats because that’s the impression we are often left with, but I don’t really think that is necessarily the case. And I certainly don’t think it should be the case. Perhaps it is just my perspective. I did not grow up in a religious home, but I was encouraged to have an interest in science and I did.
As a kid I explored the world from tiny bugs and babbling brooks to furry mammals and the horizon-stretching day and night skies. In those awe-filled days of childhood exploration of the wonders of creation I learned to love not just science and nature, but much of existence itself.

When I took the time to stop and look and notice – really notice– the physical world around me I experienced a deep and Sacred spiritual presence.  Looking back now I understand that it was then that I fell in love with the physical and spiritual parts of creation. It was then that I first found love of existence and love of God through the portal of science. Later as a Christian – and now as a pastor and student of religion– I find religion bolsters, even boosts, my love for creation and existence and God.

Through the portal of religion I have found the validity of science as a good and Godly blessing. So my personal religious experiences and beliefs are NOT in conflict with science, but rather work well with it.

Today’s creation story is a good example which is why we are looking at it again this morning. I hear the big bang theory fitting nicely with God’s loud voice beginning creation with Light.  I hear the Bible story as metaphor and poetry, which is what I think it was meant to be heard as, not as a literal historical accounting of creation.

Big Bang is just an example . . . Science and religion don’t have to clash and don’t necessarily clash. Both seek truth about creation.   Science seeks to understand beings (the existence of things – the whats, wheres and hows of them).  And religion seeks to understand being (existence itself, the whys of it) and human response to it.  To my way of thinking science uses empirical evidence and reason to explain the workings of the universe. And religion uses metaphor and poetry to explain the mystery, awe and the relationships we exist to have with it. At the end of the day both seek truth and provide meaning about existence. The ape joke actually sums up the two quests, one is about the taking care of, relating to our brothers and sisters in creation– “are we our brother’s keeper?” One is about the physical relationships to them – “are creatures and creation our brothers?” Since these are different quests for truth they need not clash.
But with all that said, we do seem to see them clashing and arguing–often vehemently so! What are these clashes and arguments over the creation story really about?  They are if you think about it not so much about the true meaning of life, but a dispute over the meaning of a literal reading of the creation story. Theistic Fundamentalists, the Creationists, argue the literal reading provides ultimate truth, while a number of Atheistic fundamentalists argue a literal reading provides ultimate falsehoods.

In our day and age Creationists have come to claim the literal reading as the basis for their version of “science.”  Creationism’s fundamental core facts are derived from the words of the story, and observations in the world are then made to bend and conform to what they understand is written. The literal meaning they derive from The Bible is the center of their “science.”
Likewise in our day and age many Atheists have (and I think ironically so) also come to claim a literal reading of The Bible as the basis for their rejection of the texts as untruths and the God depicted in their literal meaning as a fairy tale. Like the Creationists, many Atheists point to a form of science to prove their and the Creationist’s literal readings of The Bible as full of untruths.  The science that the Atheists rely upon is not Creationism, but hard science, real science, the science of empirical evidence and proof and reason that most of us in this room trust and believe and utilize in our daily living. Now it’s not this science that we tend to have trouble with, but its application to non-science. See fundamental Atheists are applying science to the poetry and metaphor of a Sacred story and science isn’t a tool meant for that, nor is poetry and metaphor intended to withstand such misuse.

Interestingly what most of us have in common with Creationists, is that we too find meaning in the creation story.  And what most of us have in common with Atheists is that we too find meaning in hard science.  However many of us reject Creationism as a science and we reject fundamentalist Atheism’s application of science to literal meanings of the creation story to prove the absence of God.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that we differ with both on the conclusion that the creation story only has their literal meanings, and so it’s not surprising that we disagree with both of their conclusions about what or who God is or isn’t.

This can all sound quite complicated. But here is the bottom line, most of us do not share Creationists and fundamentalist Atheists’ definition of God as supernatural interventionist deity who wrote the Bible word for word and wields supernatural power to cause disasters, disease, death and miracles as “HE” metes out punishment and rewards. Frankly if that is the definition of God, I don’t believe in that God–and I never could.

And I find it quite ironic that finding the United Church of Christ caused me to deny that that definition of God is true, perhaps it is as ironic as the fact that science helped me experience God.

But what or who is this God that I experience? And is the God I experience provable? . . .
I actually came across a question and thread on an online T.E.D. site asking whether it’s possible to create an experiment to prove God exists? People have been trying to prove God exists for awhile– some with logic; some with experiments. But here’s the thing, you pretty much have to have a definition of God to know what you are trying to prove and how to determine if you have succeeded.

I just mentioned that I do not believe in the Creationists and fundamentalist Atheists’ definition of God as a supernatural interventionist deity who wields supernatural power to not only create and love, but to cause catastrophes and supernatural miracles while meting out punishment and rewards. I do not understand God to be a volatile King who we need to appease to garner love. The God I believe in is the Great Being we live and move and have our being in; the Great Being that who calls each part of creation into being and towards its best being-ness; the Great Being we hear about every week, the One who is love, who seeks justice and peace in creation– and calls and beckons us in each moment to do the same in our being-ness.

This God, if we think about it, is the reality – the beingness– we are immersed it. The beauty of this reality is all this happens whether we believe it or not. With or without a belief in God we experience this call and desire for creation – and our– best-ness and well being.
So, see, we do not need to prove reality exists, we only need to decide the nature of its meaning. If we understand God as our reality, or reality as God, then we don’t need to set up an experiment to prove it. Reality is self evident. 2

I get that there is a debate about God, but it’s not about the existence of reality, it’s about the nature of it, how to understand it, how to relate to it, and how to name it. What does it mean?

Even if God’s rejected as the nature of reality, science still seeks to understand the meaning of the whats, wheres and hows of it. And religion still seeks to understand the meaning of the why of the reality and human response to it. From this perspective it can be more than a little frustrating to have God simplified to an assumption that in the there-is-a-God -there-isn’t-a-God debate that the only form of God at issue is a separate transcendent “supernatural” being with powers imagined by humankind. The debate for me is more properly phrased as how we understand the immanent and transcendent nature of reality and how we choose to respond to “IT” , the great “I Am” . . . to the Great Being; the Supreme Being.

The existence of reality is pretty much a given. And while science explores truths about physical parts of reality, it’s not in the business of deciding how to respond to it, nor is it in the business of providing metaphor and poetic answers to the human whys of reality . . . our being-ness.  Nor is science aptly applied to describe reality’s transcendent nature, it’s mysteries and wonders; the awes within and beyond scientific experiments and explanations.  Albert Einstein noted science’s mathematical equations had limits in describing reality, he wrote: ““As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

There is a wonderful book by Barbara Brown Taylor called The Luminous Web. Mother Taylor is a remarkable Episcopal Priest known for her preaching and amazing sermons — from her work one can glean she is an exceptional Spirit Person and intellect.The Luminous Web is one of her more obscure books. It addresses science and religion as she explores in fascinating detail and thought the point of truth at which science and religion meet in reality.  I am particularly fascinated by her emphasis on what I’d call the touch point of relational aspects of quantum physics and religion. Both look inside and out, and they seem to meet at an interconnected oneness, in what Rev. Taylor calls the “luminous web.”

Subatomic particles and the laws gleaned from their existence and behavior suggest the presence and need for relational aspects in the reality of things, just as our Sacred texts suggest the relational aspects are present and needed for humans in reality. In that sense there is a meld in my mind of science and religious findings. Relationships make up reality at both the science and religious levels.

It is fair to say that how we relate to God in creation and others is the whole point of Jesus’ message and Way. It is also fair to say that God can be understood as the name or metaphor or an explanation of the forces science detects holding and connecting things together– and the synergistic reality that stems from the combination of it all.

God can be understood as that unexplainable thing that science has discovered called the “strange attractor” a force that guides creation with provable patterns in chaos, and the force observed at the quantum level that defies the laws of physics that seem to apply in space, but apparently not to space itself.

Endless mind blowing questions arise when religion lets science help it consider the mysteries of reality.  Is God the reality that both occupies space plus space itself?
Is God the reality that includes and holds together this and every other universe referred to in string theory?  Is God the reality of all that is happening, has happened and will happen in this and any other universe? Is God the reality and synergism of all that is and has been and will be?

Anselm, an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, in his very famous “Ontological Argument” asserted that God is proven if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Anselm was not focusing on science-based questions, but I keep coming back to his phrasing and find it helpful to take it out of his context and place it into ours.
If one were to accept God defined as all that is in reality and it’s synergistic effect (“reality plus”/”creation plus”) God would then be that than which nothing greater can be conceived. This makes the proof in the acceptance of the definition, of course, which is always the case when discussing God’s existence or not.

If we accept that God is that than which is greater than what a mind, some minds, or all of our collective minds can yet name or conceive, God’s existence would necessarily be a given.

Definition matters. “What is your definition of God?” is a question I often ask in discussions . . . and it is sometimes asked of me.  God is “reality -plus” is not very detailed. My slightly more detailed definition of God has evolved and will no doubt evolve some more. To sum up where I am today, I understand God to be that greater than all, incomprehensible creating, present and hopeful power thatand soaks reality with love while endlessly persuading all that is to the best it can be in each given moment.

In short, “God” is the name and the meaning given to the reality – the being-ness– we live in . . . and the Supreme Being-ness we are called by and strive toward.  No one has to believe in this God to make it true, but belief in this God helps many of us answer that call and make the strive toward our Supreme Being. That is, I think, why we gather in faith communities. I think that is the ultimate good news of the Bible and Jesus’ amazing Way that we follow.


1. I found the original version of this joke (I have slightly modified it) at this link:
2. I got this idea from Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p.70-71.