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Happy Birthday, Rochester Museum and Science Center

Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of our local science museum.  Congratulations!  I have many fond memories of growing up going to the museum.

My family had a membership to the Rochester Museum and Science Center for many years.  Going out on a Sunday afternoon to visit the museum was one of our favorite things to do together.  Back then, the museum was much smaller than it is now.  But that never mattered.  There was always something interesting to do there.

I remember when I was about seven or eight there was a huge exhibit that took up space on all three floors.  It was a miniature circus, marvelously detailed in every way.  The glass cases wound their way through the museum.  I was (and still am) fascinated by any small version of real life.  My favorite toy as a child was my dollhouse, because it had highly realistic furniture and accessories.  I used to go to craft stores looking for true-to-life miniatures to add to my collection.  So it should come as no surprise that this was my very favorite exhibit ever.  I have never forgotten it, nor the way it made me feel as I stood in front of the glass cases trying to see it all.  It’s no wonder I still get excited when the kids ask if we can go to the museum.

The other thing I remember about the museum from my childhood was how fascinated I was by the planetarium.  We have one of the largest and best planetariums in the country.  My first time in the Star Theater was when I was about six.  (At least, that’s the first one I can remember.)  I was on a class field trip and we “traveled” into space to see the stars, took a journey to the sun, and returned in time to watch the sun “rise” in the dome.  It was magical.  I credit that one visit with sparking my life-long interest in space.

Because of the educational programs that are offered at the museum, my own children have had the opportunity to be exposed to science in new ways.  My son has taken classes on Saturday afternoons in which he has explored principles of physics and even created simple machines.  My daughter has learned about the natural world, blending perfectly with the love she already has for animals.

The museum staff are fantastic.  We’ve been there fairly often, as we have our own family membership.  When we go in, the staff often recognize us.  The people who work and volunteer there really seem to enjoy their jobs and care about the families that walk through the doors.

Today, I am thankful that we live in a city with such a place.  If you ever chance to visit this area, be sure to check it out.  We may not have the largest science museum, but I am convinced we have one of the best.  Thank you, RMSC, for my own childhood memories, and thank you for providing my children with new ones of their own.

Science Is Not a Religion

There are a lot of phrases uttered by fundamentalist Christians that enrage me.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been having a perfectly pleasant conversation with someone and he or she comes out with something like, “Well, you know, ‘science’ [makes air quotes] is just another religion.”  I can actually feel my blood pressure rising just typing that sentence.

The difficulty with such a proclamation is that, regardless of its veracity, it is an effective conversation stopper.  The person who says it is not interested in continuing to discuss the issues.  People who use this tool either believe themselves to have “won” the imaginary battle (“You can’t argue with my opinion, therefore I win!”), or else they fear they are in danger of losing (“You have valid points, so I’m going to pretend they don’t exist!”).  The good news is that I simply don’t engage these people anymore, at least not in person.  The bad news is, it still gets to me.

Aside from that, “science is a religion” isn’t even a true statement.  It’s filler, a way to avoid having to make a reasonable case for your point of view.  Science has never been, nor can it ever be, a religion.  It’s an academic discipline.  While some people may use science to bolster their religious or non-religious beliefs, in and of itself it is neither.  Calling science a religion is like calling math or literature or medicine “religions.”  Saying that science is good or correct right up to the point where it disagrees with my religion is equally silly.  Replace the word “science” with another word: “I think Hemingway’s works are well-written, except for the parts where they doesn’t jive with my faith.  Then they’re badly written.”  Just as Hemingway’s works don’t suddenly develop poor grammar, spelling, and syntax, scientific discoveries don’t suddenly become false because of our interpretation of the Bible.

Science is meant to discover things about this physical world.  We learn about the past, observe the present, and make predictions about the future.  It’s meant to answer questions about what has happened, is happening now, and will happen someday.  Science leads us to who, what, where, when, and how.  The one question science can’t answer for us is the big Why.  And that’s where faith comes in.

That’s not a perfect analogy.  After all, we do discover why things happen in the sense of one thing leading to another, cause and effect.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean the really significant whys in life: “Why is there life on earth?  Why am I here?  Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Why is the mystery of this life and the next.  The unknowable.  The unexplainable.  The things that are left when we strip away all other reasonable possibilities.

The two are not incompatible.  No matter how much information we have from scientific discoveries, there will always be mysteries.  We who have faith should not feel threatened by science, as though this information is going to lead people to conclude there is no God.  I have yet to meet anyone who stopped believing in God because the scientific evidence against God’s existence was too strong.  I suppose such people exist, but I’ve never met them.  The few people I know who have left over the disagreement between faith and science left because of their church’s refusal to acknowledge science, not because God was proven false.

I don’t mind if you want to disagree with the conclusions drawn by scientists.  I may think some of the disagreement is foolish, but everyone has the right to his or her own point of view.  Just don’t call it a religion.  Aside from being untrue, you’ve also just told me that my Christian faith is impossible because I do agree with the conclusions.  It’s time that Christians stop seeing science as the enemy of faith.

Where We Came From

The old Evolution vs. Creation debate has reared its ugly head again.

People who have grown up in a certain kind of Christian environment and have little background in the study of natural or biological science often have a specific viewpoint on the subject. They are often reluctant to accept the idea that this is not a major point of doctrine or that the belief that evolution is compatible with Scripture does not negate the whole of the Bible. This is not an uncommon perspective in evangelical circles.

But there is a little-known subset of the scientific community which holds fast to the same belief, that evolution and the Bible are mutually exclusive and that “real” science bears this out. The proponents of this version of the argument are not generally found among people who work in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, or paleontology. In fact, they are most often found in other branches of scientific study or in mathematics. I was introduced to this worldview in an online community. Even then, it seemed like a stretch.

Anyway, I mentioned the issue to my husband. I had seen the title of a seminar and was frustrated by its inflammatory nature. My husband wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and said that a reasonable, scientifically-minded person would probably have a broader perspective than I was imagining. I told him that I did not think so. He said, “Is evolution that big a deal around here?” I assured him that it was. I grew up a couple towns over from where we currently reside, so I’m familiar with the raging debate. I told my husband that evolution is huge around here, even scarier to fundamentalists than The Gay.

When I was in high school, my biology teacher, who was not only an excellent instructor but a devoutly religious man himself (he was Jewish), had to add a caveat to his lecture on evolution. He told us that “some religions” do not subscribe to the theory of evolution, therefore he was obliged to teach it as merely a theory and not as factual information. He assured us that he was in no way attempting to negate anyone’s religious views on the matter.

At the time, I was entrenched in a particular brand of evangelical Christianity. I was on board with this apology, as I believed then that evolution could not possibly be compatible with a correct reading of Genesis 1. I was pleased that I had a teacher with the sensitivity to help the conservative students feel more comfortable having to endure this ungodly education. I, along with parents and Christian leaders, applauded the school’s decision to welcome Christian views into the classroom.

I am now horrified that I bought into such nonsense.

When I explained all this to my husband, he said that the science teachers with whom he works (he is also an educator) have said that they, too, must amend their lectures to include a nod to religious conservatives. He told me that he did not recall any of it being such a big deal when he was growing up. Living near a large city in a liberal area, even his church spent little time engaging the scientific community on the issue.

Why is is such a threat to our faith? Once I entered college, I met many Christians who were able to reconcile their deep respect for creation, their belief that God made Heaven and Earth and all therein, and their belief in the truth of evolutionary science. I was amazed that they did not see evolution and the Bible as fundamentally incompatible. Yet for them, it actually strengthened their faith and drew them toward God. How could that be?

When I finally had the courage to examine the arguments for and against evolution, I began to understand. That God could use such a complex, intricate structure to create the world we live in is a marvel. I live in awe of the beauty of it all. Appreciating the process leaves me more amazed by God’s creativity, not less.

I respect my Christian brothers and sisters who have a different view of evolution. After all, if not for them, I might not have taken the time to explore it on my own. I might have taken it for granted, and subsequently been less reverent towards the living environment and its Creator. I also know that this is not a deal breaker. Regardless of one’s point of view regarding evolution, it is not a major point of theology. It takes nothing away, on either side, from our need for Christ or His sacrifice for us.

Medical Judgmentalism

When we set ourselves in the place of God, judging the condition of other people’s hearts, we set ourselves up for God to knock us down.

There has always been a somewhat fringe health and wellness movement in the Church.  Sometimes, that can be very good.  There are excellent resources for people who want to lead healthier lives to do so within a Christian context.  I do not want to blame the leaders of those excellent ministries for the shortcomings of the purveyors of snake oil that can be found in pockets of Christianity.  As for the rest, their particular brand of “health and wealth” gospel takes many shapes, frequently masquerading as legitimate healing ministries.

One common thread that can be overlooked is the degree to which these so-called healing ministries attempt to blame the very people they claim to serve.  Some examples, from (unfortunately) real ministries: Your weight problem stems from lack of organization in your home; your disease process has been caused by your marriage failing to live up to God’s standards for husbands and wives; your illness is the direct result of sin in your life; specific sins lead to specific health problems.

I suppose that there might be some truth in the idea that holding sin in your heart can lead to breakdown of bodily function.  Certainly there is correlation (not causation) between a healthy spiritual life and positive outcomes following a hospital stay.  But drawing parallels between particular sins and various diseases seems dubious at best, downright evil at worst.

There are three things wrong with this.  I will cite the Biblical refutation for blaming sin for illness first.  In  John 9:1-3, Jesus speaks with his disciples regarding a blind man they have found:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (NIV)

In Jesus’ day, at least some people would have believed this very thing—that a person’s health was bound up in either his own or his ancestral sin.  Jesus lays this one to rest by assuring them that this was not so.  He also effectively demonstrates that his miracles have as much to do with instruction for us as with healing an individual.  In ministries that blame the victim, both of those truths are lacking.

The second problem is judgmentalism.  This morning, our church had a service along with four other local congregations.  The pastors of all five (total) churches delivered a great message about judgment and freedom.  Our pastor gave the definition of judgmentalism as assuming you know someone else’s motives.  When someone tries to make claims of personal sin as the cause of illness, that is bald judgmentalism.  If one believes we are all sinners, then how does one person’s “hidden” or “unforgiven” sin cause illness, while another’s does not?  Or while another’s overt sin does not?  We simply do not know what is in another person’s heart.  We cannot know that fear or anger or lack of submission are causing disease, because we cannot know that those are the sins someone is enslaved to.

Third, the claim that specific sins equate specific diseases can be easily refuted by reality.  A few small “studies” or annecdotal evidence are not enough to prove such a claim.  This becomes even more pronounced when we add in things like healing.  If the root cause of (I’m making this up) peanut allergy is really the sin of resentment, then why are people not cured when they repent?  Are they not praying hard enough for forgiveness?  Are they not really sorry?  We are promised forgiveness whenever we confess.  So if that is what is needed, then why does it appear to work for some people and not others?  And why are there lots and lots of people who are resentful, but not suffering from any kind of allergy at all?  It becomes clear that this is no more than an attempt to control others through pseudoscience.

We need to be wary of any ministry that claims we must clean ourselves up before approaching our Heavenly Father, even if that takes the form of purging our sins before asking for healing.  We also need to be wary of anything that pretends that the Bible is a medial or a science text.  It isn’t, and it was never meant to be taken that way.  What a gross misuse of our holy Scripture.

 

The Science of God

Yesterday, I posted about the problem of some Creationists having very little real knowledge of what science says about our world and its origins.  Today, I’m covering another side of that: Those who do know what science demonstrates and choose to reject it.

I am not trying to suggest that scientists are infallible.  Naturally the various branches of science can’t tell us all the details about everything.  What scientists do is examine the evidence and generate theories to explain what they can examine with their senses.  For example, where I live, there are rich deposits of natural salt (the mineral halite).  The going theory for how the halite deposits got there is that our region was once covered in a tropical saltwater sea.  We also have several lakes and ponds in this region.  Again, the theory is that they were formed by the movement of a glacier.  Now, there were no people present to observe these phenomena while they occurred.  The best we can do is collect data and study what we find.  In this case, I’ve presented the bare minimum of facts.  In reality, the study of weather and geological trends is much more complicated than just observing some salt and making a conclusion.

To listen to some Creationists, however, one might get the impression that’s exactly what scientists do–make far-fetched conclusions based on scant evidence.  I’ve heard many people say some variation of, “I know what they think they’ve discovered.  But they’re wrong.”  Among my least favorite arguments in this vein is that God made the Earth appear very old, even though it’s not, so that our faith might be tested.  Therefore, scientists are indeed “discovering” things, but it’s just some form of cosmic trickery.  What God really wants us to do is reject those findings, since they can’t be true, and believe literally in the Biblical “account” of creation.

I have asked this question before and have never received a satisfactory answer: Why?  Why would God, who is supposed to be our loving Creator, want to trick us that way?  I am left with two options.  One, God is not a particularly loving Creator.  I love my children, I want them to listen to me and believe what I say.  I don’t trick them in order to achieve that effect.  Or two, God isn’t tricking us, the story of creation in the Bible is exactly what it’s suppose to be–a good myth that helps us understand the relationship between Creator and Creation.  (By now I’m sure you know which one I choose to believe.)

If a person has a particularly weak or immature faith, then it makes some sense to hold fast to the idea that God wants us to choose faith over science.  After all, if we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, then perhaps we can’t take anything else in the Bible literally.  If that’s the case, then maybe our faith hasn’t got a leg to stand on.  If none of it is true, really, then why believe?  But for people with strong and mature faith, it doesn’t make any difference whether Genesis 1 is literal.  In fact, it doesn’t matter if anything in the Bible at all is literal.  I admit I’m not quite at the point where I see none of it as being factual.  But I am at the point where I don’t think it makes a difference to my faith.  It would take too long to get into why in this post; I’ll address some of that in my next post where I try to make sense of the concept of the “real, true Christian”.

Ages and Ages

Today I’m tackling the “age of the Earth” debate.  This one is tricky for me, as I don’t want to sound like I think I’m superior to anyone.  At the same time, I think that strict, semi-literal Creationism is both bad science and bad theology.

I say “semi-literal” because at this point, I don’t know anyone personally who believes that the 6 days in Genesis 1 are strictly literal 24 hour periods.  I suppose there must be people who hold that view, but they are not among my friends and acquaintances.  By semi-literal, I mean that the Creationists I know believe those “days” are a specific length of time (typically 1,000 years) each.  That renders the Earth to be approximately 10,000 years old.

Some months ago, our pastor gave a Sunday message in which he stated that scientists no longer believe that there was an ice age but instead believe the evidence suggests a worldwide “water event” (translation: big flood).  The issue here is not really whether or not there was an ice age.  The problem is that Creationists are making some pretty big statements about what science has or has not found.  If you want to refute science, you have to have a very clear understanding of the actual things scientists really say.  That was the same problem I experienced about 15 years ago at another church.  In that case, the debate was over evolution.  Unfortunately, it became clear that the strict Creationists didn’t have a full understanding of what the theory of evolution does and does not postulate.

I actually don’t have a problem with people choosing to believe that scientists are wrong in their discoveries or interpretations thereof.  I may disagree, but everyone has the right to his or her opinion.  But if we’re going to debate it, please be prepared with both accurate knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and a better argument than “it’s incorrect because the Bible says so.” (I’ll cover that last one in my next post.)

Frustrating Conversations

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with other Christians that have left me shaking my head in disappointment.  I suppose I always hope that people will actually consider the beliefs they hold dear, examining them to be certain that they understand why they hold those beliefs.  Yet I am often left feeling somewhat deflated when I discover that most people just don’t think that deeply, even when they say something is very important to them.

The three most recent discussions I have found myself involved in are repeats of similar conversations I’ve had over the years and cover three of the main topics some Christians see as a kind of barometer of the faith.  In other words, if you have the right opinion about those things, then you are clearly a “real” Christian.  Inevitably, they go something like this:

Conversation A

Person: The world is going to Hell in a handbasket, society has become so immoral.  We accept terrible things, like the “homosexual agenda,” abortion, and fat people.

Me: Um…this is the human condition.  People do bad things.  It’s not worse now, just different.

Person: We need to return to the values of the 1950s.

Me: You would like separate lunch counters?

Person: No, but you have to admit, it’s much worse today.

Me: Really?  Well, what about things like slavery or the Crusades or the Nazis?  There’s a lot of racism and genocide in history.

Person: Well, we still have all those things.  But now we also have men who want to marry each other.  And also fat people.

Me [realizing this person has a particular view of the world and is shaping his opinions to match]: Never mind.

Conversation B

Person: The Earth is really only about 10,000 years old.

Me: Scientific discoveries seem to indicate something different.

Person: Science doesn’t know everything.

Me: True.  But how can we explain what science has discovered?

Person: God made the Earth LOOK much older than it is.

Me: Why?  Why would God want to trick us like that?

Person: So that we would take the Bible on faith.

Me: Ok, how does that strengthen our faith?

Person: I don’t know, I guess God just wants us to believe Him instead of trusting our own observations.

Me: That doesn’t make sense.  I feel more drawn to God knowing He made all these wonderful things, including dinosaurs.  I think it’s really cool that our part of the world used to be a tropical sea!

Person: But God wants us to just trust that His Word, the Bible, is the only truth we need.  He wants us to pick Him over science.

Me [realizing this person isn't able to give a concrete reason]: Never mind.

Conversation C

Person: People who are [Catholic, Orthodox, non-Evangelical, emergent, social justice Christians, etc.] are not really saved.

Me: Why not?

Person: [gives various reasons, usually some variant of "they don't believe in salvation by grace through faith alone"]

Me: Are you sure about what “they” believe?

Person: Yes, I grew up in that tradition.  I know everything they ever believed and can recite it to you verbatim.

Me: So everyone from those traditions or beliefs is not actually a Christian.

Person: Well, no, I’m sure some of them have found their way to faith.  But most of them just don’t understand their faith or what they’re supposed to believe.

Me: Not unlike most people within our tradition.

Person: I’m sure there are people in our tradition who don’t understand, but that isn’t most of us.  It is most of them.

Me: Ok.  Even if that’s true, are you certain that we’re right and they’re wrong?

Person: Yes, because the Bible says so.

Me: You know they say the same thing about us, right?

Person: Yes, but we are actually correct, unlike them.

Me [realizing this person has preconceived notions that can't be addressed in this conversation]: Never mind.

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There you have it.  I’ve been having similar conversations on and off for the last 20 years.  It doesn’t offer me much hope.