Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Finding God in Science

"Encouraged by this divine evidence, let us cherish the truth and let us not permit ourselves to be alienated from it by the tricks of those who deem it an intellectual honor to introduce confusion into the arts."  [1]

These words could be found in any of today's anti-evolution literature, but they stem from a much earlier source. They were written in 1549 by Phillip Melanchthon, principle Assistant to Martin Luther, and they were written not in response to evolution but to the heliocentric theory proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543.

The heliocentric theory was widely opposed by the Church. After all, it seemingly contradicted well-accepted doctrine at the time - the book of Joshua distinctly says that Joshua's prayers cause the sun and the moon to stand still, not the earth; entire treaties of theology were dedicated to the centrality of the earth in God's creation; scriptural references including Genesis (1:14), Psalms (96:10, 93:1, 19:4, 104:5), 1 Chronicles (16:30), and Ecclesiastes (1:5) were used as proof that the earth stood still with all of the Universe revolving around it as a testament to the divinity of God's creation. 

Copernicus knew that his work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), would not sit well with the Church. He purposely delayed publishing it until the very end, supposedly seeing the first published copy of it on his deathbed. Though the reaction from the Catholic Church to his work was delayed, it did indeed come. In 1616, the Catholic Church issued a decree that suspended De revolutionibus until it could be corrected, publishing a censored version four years later. At the same time, the decree prohibited any work that supported the idea that the earth moved and that the sun did not or that attempted to reconcile heliocentricism with scripture.

The work of Galileo Galilei supported the heliocentric theory, and when he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, it was with approval of the Catholic Church, though with the condition that it include arguments both for and against heliocentricism. However, it did not satisfy Pope Paul V, who at the time was a friend of Galileo's, and he ordered that Galileo stand trial for heresay. 

During his trial, he was threatened with torture if he did not tell the truth; he ultimately was convicted, ordered to "abject, curse, and detest" heliocentricism, and sentenced to life under house arrest with his book and all future books banned. 

Looking back, we shake our heads at the stubbornness of the Church. How could they take such a staunch position against something so obviously true? Why couldn't they see that those scriptural references were more metaphor than literal? What did it really matter if the earth was not the center of the universe?

The truth is that they were doing the best they could with what they had. For hundreds of years, all they could see was an unmoving earth. There was no physical evidence to the contrary, and there was plenty of scriptural evidence to support it. So they built their faith and their testimonies on a stationary earth, the central component to God's creation. It went from "no evidence to the contrary" to "vital to God's Creation." And when they were presented with evidence that maybe not all was as it seemed, that maybe the scriptures had been misread, that maybe what we think about this world isn't at all as it really is, it had significant religious implications. What else has been misread? What else are we missing? What else is different about this world? and maybe even, What if we are wrong about something else - something more important? 

When humans are confronted with evidence that what they've been taught their whole lives might be wrong, it can have severe repercussions. They start to question everything that they've been taught. As a result, they can no longer think logically about the situation (I highly recommend reading The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science for more on this). People respond emotionally, not logically, and suddenly, one of the greatest minds the world had ever seen stands trial and is convicted for suggesting something we find so completely obvious today. 

Copernicus' work was banned for over 200 years, and uncensored versions weren't published for another hundred. Finally, in 1949, Pope Pius XII described Galileo as being one of the "most audacious heroes of research... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, not fearful of the funereal monuments"[2]. It wasn't until 1992 that the Church acknowledged it committed any error against Galileo when Pope John Paul II stated, "The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture..."[3]. 

Today, the heliocentric theory is accepted by all but a small minority. Rejecting it in light of all that we know is tantamount to a mental disorder. The same goes with the theory of electricity, the germ theory of disease, the nuclear theory, and the cell theory. So why do we have such a hard time accepting the theory of evolution?

It's because we fall victim to the same trap that the early Church did with heliocentricism. They believed that the world had to be a certain way: the earth had to be the center of creation; it couldn't move because we're God's special creation; the heavens revolved around us because God wanted it that way. They took what information they had, drew conclusions, and then declared, "This is what God did!" They couldn't fathom the idea that God would not place us at the center of the universe; to admit that possibility would be to admit that some teachings are false, to admit that not all knowledge comes through a spiritual source, to admit that they were possibly wrong.

And now we are doing the same thing. We have learned that life on earth is not static, and that scares us. We are afraid what that might mean in terms of God's creation. It's bad enough that we aren't the center of the universe, but now we're just another animal? What does this mean for us? Does God even care about us? 

The trouble starts with us - we put God in a box. We learn what we can about Him through scripture, and we think that's all we can know. We then find a box that we think fits Him, tape the box shut, and say, "This is it! This is God!"

I find this way of learning about God rather limited. Yes, scriptural work is wonderful. There's so much we can glean from each reading, and it should certainly be a priority in any Christian's life. However, believing that that is the only source of knowledge about God limits our understanding of Him. Not only do we have His Word, but we also have His Works - this beautiful world He has created. And when we study both His Word and His Works, we really open ourselves up to a deeper and richer understanding of who He is and His plan for us.

Really, it's a rather simple deductive process: If you believe God created the universe, and you believe the universe works through scientific principles (which if you use antibiotics, cell phones, computers, or electricity, then you do), then there really is one simple conclusion:

God works through science. 

And from that...

Learning about science can teach you about Him. 

It's really that simple. It only gets complicated when we've placed God in a box based on our own preconceptions of who He is, what He did, and what He's capable of. When we open ourselves to the possibility that God works in mysterious ways, that limitations of God are only those that we've placed on him, then we realize that the world around us is just another way of coming to know Him - as long as we don't think that we already know the way.  

[1] Compernicus and His Successors by Edward Rosen, pg 198, 1995
[2] Discourse of His Holiness Pope Pius XII given on 3 December 1939 at the Solemn Audience granted to the Plenary Session of the Academy; Discourses of the Popes from Pius XI to John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences 1939-1986, Vatican City, p. 34
 [3] Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) - November 4, 1992

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