What’s more damaging than “No Faith”? Mindless Faith

Listen to these words by St. Augustine, which have the contemporary ring of today’s science vs. faith debate to them:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and …this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. …If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which the themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

I know exactly what he’s talking about.  Years ago when I lived on a small island, I’d become friends with a biologist.  He was smart, funny, cared deeply for the well being of planet, and had all the marks of what we’d call a genuine spiritual “seeker”.  I enjoyed spending time with him and as our relationship grew, he became interested in faith.  Because he was a thinker and a biologist, I gave him a book which I thought would help him understand our glorious calling to steward the earth.  I’d read the book and loved it.  But then, I’m not a biologist.  He read the book and we got together for some conversation and he said, “Is it really true that the Bible says Lions and Lambs will lie down together?” I responded with an unequivocal “Yes”, because the Bible says that explicitly, and because I’d seen paintings of the two creatures chilling together in God’s perfect future.

“That’s not possible” he said, and then he went on to describe how lions are made to eat meat, how they’ll die of they’re denied their carnivorous role.  I said no, said that God could change it all, said that it was, most assuredly a literal prophecy.  He told me it was outlandish to believe such a thing.  I told him that the virgin birth was also outlandish.  But he said, “no – that’s a miracle – that’s a single intervention.  But if I need to believe that a lion will no longer eat meat – I couldn’t be a biologist, couldn’t be a scientist.”

Done.  He walked away from considering the faith because I told him that he needed to believe that the Isaiah reading had to be literal.  He’d bought in to the whole “the world is broken” piece of our belief system, even bought into his own sinfulness and his need to be reconciled with God.  But the sticking point was that he believed the world had an order to it that made sense, a beautiful ecological interconnectedness that, in fact, invited worship and pointed to a creator.  His stumbling block was that he pondered if perhaps Isaiah was speaking poetically about a time of great peace, and I said that no, he wasn’t.  I said that the lion will literally lie down with the lamb – that if you can’t believe that, in spite of the fact that it deconstructs all your science, then you can’t know God and be reconciled to Christ.

We still saw each other after that conversation, but not in church.  He stopped going.  Our conversations faded.  Only later did it begin to dawn on me that I’d forced him to make a choice that he didn’t need to make.  I’d forced him to choose between science and faith.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I can see now that I belonged to a tribe of preachers who viewed science and faith as opponents in a wrestling match, living in separate corners, drawing on different “gods” and revelations, and always coming to different conclusions.  I gave lip service to the bit about how early scientific endeavor was populated by Christians but always went on to add that “all that changed when Darwin came on the scene.”  Never mind that I’d never read the man, I’d been told by those who’d been told by others who read the man, that only people like Marx, Lenin, and Hitler, enjoyed Darwin, and that nothing good could come of his observations made on Easter Island.

It was the evangelical party line, and it forced a generation of young people to choose between science and faith, and it was wrong.  I’m not here to defend Darwin.  Frankly, the subjects of DNA, mutations, and the science behind cosmology, taxes the limits of my small mind, even at the basic level.  I am here, though, to say “shame on us”.

Over and over again throughout history, we’ve pontificated with certainty about what’s literal and what’s metaphor in the Bible.  Then science comes along and says, “maybe the earth isn’t flat, with four corners” like many thought, for centuries, because of Isaiah 11:12.  And if that “four corners” bit is actually metaphor, maybe it’s metaphor five verses earlier when the lion is lying down with the lamb.  And if that’s metaphor, maybe my biologist friend is right.  If he’s right, then there’s no barrier to him stepping into God’s story and believing.  No barrier, that is, other than the false one I erected for him 28 years ago.  I don’t know what became of him, but I know what became of me.

I’ve become a Christian who is more terrified of being like the Pharisees who covered their ears when truth was being told, than I am of being open to new views, informed by what science discovers.  You see, if I cover my ears and shout slogans I’ve heard from people who’ve only read secondary sources, I’ll not only be the village idiot, I’ll be something much worse; I’ll be someone who gives people a reason to NOT believe in Jesus. That’s why I’m jumping in the deep end, and teaching my series on Genesis One this week, considering how science and faith can become allies instead of adversaries.  Join us… or listen online the Monday after here.

I welcome your thoughts, and questions.


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  • GG

    I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself Richard as it takes two to tango. Your friend may have very well wanted to show you the error of your ways and turn a Christian into a non-believer, just as you would have liked him to accept Jesus.

    You both led horses to water and could not make them drink.

    While I find the idea of drawing parallels between religion and science admirable, I am unsure if it is necessary.

    You only need to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything to discover the fallibility of science(and the book has nothing to do with religion.)

    Just as many Christian’s may want to consider science as a friend, scientist’s must understand how much they will NEVER know. They may even want to admit how many times they have been completely wrong in the name of science.

  • sp

    here! here! Nice work Richard. Spot on (sorry…as that may not be helpful, critical feedback…but hey, it is what I think!)

  • I’m in entire agreement with you, and as I get into this series, i think we’ll see that the great need is for mutuality in our humility, each party recognizing the limits of their discipline, and how valuable it can be to listen to the other. Thanks for the input

  • JF

    I actually think that lions and lambs could indeed lie down together. This is God’s world, after all, and He can make these things happen if He should desire. But I also agree with you that this shouldn’t have been a point of contention or argument. I’m always finding this a tricky spot with my non-believing friends – knowing which points to hold to and which not; knowing when to be silent and when to speak.

    Half the time I find myself being challenged and changed by someone that I didn’t expect, rather than the other way around. I’ve found on several occasions that I had a little bit of Pharisee in me after all. One of the important points I’ve personally found is to be humble enough to accept it when a non-believer points them out. Not that I’ve attained perfection, though. Like you said in your response to GG’s comment it’s important to have “mutuality in humility.” Thanks for the good post, Richard.

  • Sorry for the lengthy comment, but this is something I’ve spent a lot of thought on. And I’ve appreciated your thoughts and awareness in this blog, even though I’ve only ever been indirectly connected to Bethany.

    As a young person (well, I guess at 23 I’m getting up there now…) who grew up a die-hard Young-earth Creationist and then realized he didn’t have a leg to stand on, this rings true. If you want yet another good book to read and haven’t read The Language of God, it’s by the now-director of the National Institute of Health. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but it does a good job of laying out for the layman just why evolution (in general, not specific facets of it) is nearly as unassailable as gravity.

    One quick sidenote, too: I know you weren’t specifically asserting this, but good to keep in mind as you delve into faith and science: it’s a common myth that people thought the world was flat until Galileo came along. We’ve known the world was round since at least Aristotle, if not earlier. Galileo’s primary offense was being boorish and personally insulting the pope – the church just wanted time to discuss and incorporate his theories, so they gave him the professorship of his dreams while they did. He insisted on calling the pope stupid anyway, which is what got him in trouble.

    A good note, now that I think of it, for those of us in the sciences: we can’t just dismiss those whose find their faith in conflict with science as stupid and naive – we need to engage in conversation and respectfully give them time and space to work out what is very important to them.

    And in response to GG: I’ll readily admit science has been woefully wrong on many occasions. We thought flies were born of meat. We’ve thought all kinds of ridiculous things. But while it’s not perfect (people and pride are still involved, after all), science is by nature self-correcting – there’s not as strong (although it still does exist, regrettably) a sense of tradition to contend with.

    A great example of that is what’s happening right now, with experiments that seem to show particles travelling faster than light. That turns all of modern physics on its head, so the researchers are very carefully examining their findings, and re-running tests, because it flies in the face of everything we know about physics. But in the end, if the results hold up, physics will have to adjust.

  • Theophile

    Hi Richard,
    We hear about how the “Church” persecuted “science”, but we seldom hear how the Bible itself was on that list of targeted “victims”. Read about it here:

  • Chris

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks so much for your sermon today!

    A few years ago I would have identified with your friend. As a physician and scientist, the issue of across-the-board literalism was one personal barrier to embracing the Christian faith.

    Reading the musings of scientists that were also Christians like Francis Collins and Ian Barbour was invaluable in personally reconciling these world views, but equally inspiring have been discussions with men of faith whose minds were open to the value of science.

    It takes courage on both ends and I wonder if all ‘seekers’ can ultimately see the limitations of science in providing meaning and the limitations of religious literalism in explaining the physical world.

    ‘Years’ later now I think you have huge potential for speaking to the likes of your biologist friend. Glad you’re willing to ‘jump in the deep end’ and very much looking forward to seeing how the next three sermons unfold.

  • Nathan Kach

    Hi Richard, saw this article on CNN today. Wow – amazing example of the tremendous and deep healing going on in Rwanda!


  • Christy

    I just wanted to thank you for this series. I chose to go into a medical field to glorify God and the resources he has given us to reach out to people. My journey to get here, however, has been tough because I have learned things to be fact which I had previously refuted because of what I was told to believe (literal Bible references). I often felt like a fool (and probably looked like one) trying to believe and defend something I knew deep down to be false, simply because “the Bible said so.” My college, community and church (in the deep south) had really solidified that line between science and faith and I am relieved that my gut feeling was true. I can, in fact, seek the truth by understanding God’s complex creation using evidence he has provided us in both science and the Bible. I will send yesterday’s podcast to all of my friends still in the south who are trying to defend their faith while supporting scientific evidence.

  • Margaret

    First off: Amen to the humility point. Secondly, I agree that science and religion should not be at odds with one another. God made it all and our faith in Him should not be contingent on the HOW he did it. That’s secondary (in my opinion).
    That being said, I think that your biologist friend had some great questions but I think his argument wasn’t fully formed. I think that the virgin birth and the lions not eating meat is completely comparable. Is a miracle not the intervention of the supernatural-making changes in the natural order? The virgin birth goes against what anybody would deem scientifically possible! If I were a biologist I don’t’ know that it would be any easier for me to believe that than God intervening to rearrange the food chain.
    I personally take “lions laying with lambs” literally because according to Genesis 1:30 God gave ALL living things “green things” for food. I would suppose that meant lions too. Although a sinless Earth (before the fall/the New Earth of our future ) isn’t really described in a whole lot of detail I would hope that the no death thing extends to the animal kingdom as well.
    The first mention of an animal dying is in Genesis 3 when God makes clothes for Adam and Eve-after the fall. Now again, there’s not a bunch of detail so who’s to say that there weren’t carnivores before but. . . I digress. Anyhow, I was at church on Sunday and I’m so excited to see where this series goes. I love this discussion and I hope it continues.

  • GG

    While I did make the point that science is often wrong and ever changing, much strength is found in the fact that scientists continue to challenge and discuss previously accepted scientific ideas and beliefs.

    I have found it difficult to have conversations with many Christians when I have questions or curiosities that challenge their norm.

    The problem seems to be that they believe I am trying to challenge and break their faith, when in fact I am attempting to understand it better. Typically for my own good not theirs, and in the process their unwillingness to discuss varied possibilities and questions the Bible poses, they’d prefer to not speak at all.