Who Are We? How We Need Both Science and Theology
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You have set your glory about the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
It was over 3000 years ago, when some ancient scribe recorded the Psalmist asking this question: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Over 3000 years ago in a world so vastly different from the one we inhabit here in 2018. Can you imagine someone, anyone really, sitting outside their tent on a clear, cloudless night and finding themselves surrounded by the multitude of stars overhead in a sky unpolluted by power plants or exhaust from millions of automobiles. Perhaps that Psalmist sat in the midst of the dark and lonely desert or on the edge of an oasis far from any town where there was nothing but sand and sky; and they simply looked up into the heavens and out into the darkness and realized how insignificant they were. And without really thinking simply asked: Who are we? Who am I wandering here in the desert; vulnerable to the elements, the wild animals and any one of a myriad other dangers that lurk just beyond the thin sliver of light that glows from a campfire.
Who are we? These words have bounded through the ages and passed through all of our lives again and again through the words of the Psalmist and from deep in our hearts. Who are we? Over the past 10 years or more it is this question in particular that has pushed and pulled at me more and more insistently. From the day a friend e-mailed some pictures from the Hubble telescope not long after it was repaired, I have pondered and prayed more fervently to have some sense of who we are as human beings. Who are we small spots in the universe? We, who can ponder and wonder at all that is around us and in us and beyond us?
Who are we? It was this question that drew me to the doctor of ministry program in science and theology at Pittsburgh Seminary. It is this question that compels all sorts of theologians and scientists to explore what makes us who we are. And I admit right up front that I don’t really know very much, and I certainly don’t see myself as someone who has the answer to this question. But I see myself as a seeker of wisdom as so many others hearing the author of Proverbs (chapter 2) tell us that “if we indeed cry out for insight and search for understanding . . . then we will find the knowledge of God . . . and we will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path for wisdom will come into our hearts and knowledge will be pleasant to our souls.” With those words on my lips and the question in my heart I seek to better understand who it is we are as human beings in this vast universe? Here in this 21st century there are two important avenues that we must search to even begin to understand who we are as human beings on a small blue planet situated in the midst of a vast, perhaps unlimited universe.
These two avenues are science and theology. Theology is the discipline that guides our thinking about God, ourselves and our relationship to God, to one another and to the world. “Theology reflects upon the language and concepts of faith. Natural science is our ordered thought about creation. It deals with the physical world, that of the heavens and the earth, including plants, living creatures and ourselves in relationship to our earthly and cosmic environment. Science is our attempt to know and order nature.” These two definitions are guided by a Presbyterian paper written for the General Assembly in 1982 entitled: The Dialogue Between Science and Theology. And so as we can see, this dialogue isn’t a brand new interest in the church . . . but it would seem that the conversation is bubbling up all around us. Entire issues of the Presbyterian Outlook and other religious publications have focused on this topic throughout the past several years. In 2009 the Vatican invited scientists from many disciplines to discuss the theological implications of the possibility of life on other planets. Cable television gives us the Discovery Channel, public stations bring us Nova and other programs which talk about science and its meaning for our lives. NASA and its scientists have filled our lives with wonder since July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. Think about it . . . 1969 . . . it has been almost 50 years since that day. I certainly remember sitting around our basement television with my cousins who just happened to be visiting, and we were awed and excited and proud of that accomplishment. That is what science brings to us in many and varied ways every day. From ice cubes to penicillin to automobiles to computers to the heat which warms our sanctuaries and the microphones which makes it easier for everyone to hear. Our 21st century daily lives are made possible by science.
As you read this, there are men and women orbiting the planet inside the space station some 250 miles above the earth. They conduct experiments which make a difference for our planet today and for the future . . . including the best way to recycle water . . . all the water available . . . and this same recycling equipment is now used in places around the globe where water is scarce. You can learn more about NASA at their website www.nasa.gov.
So we can see that science continues to ask who we are. It especially addresses the questions of how, why and what. Why is the world the way it is? How does gravity work? How do we get from point A to point B? How many cells are needed to make a puppy, a bird, a person? What makes oxygen different from hydrogen? How can we split the atom? And so on and so forth. And science may answer these questions and many, many more.
But science does not answer the questions of “how do we make meaning in our lives” or “to whom are we connected” or “why do we matter.” These are the questions that come from theology and religion and faith. For both science and theology are looking into the face of mystery with our questions or when we ponder, “Who are we?” And in many ways the work of science is much easier than the work of theology, for scientists have material ways in which they can conduct experiments. They have mathematical formulas to guide them along the way. They have hypotheses and theories that can be tested again and again in a tangible, factual manner.
Theology on the other hand takes us to the edge of mystery and leaves us with our questions. Theology asks us to ponder over, to wonder about the mysterious source of all creation and what that mysterious source has to do with us mere mortals. It asks us to sit and to live with our questions and understand that most often we don’t know what the answers really are: Who are we? Where are we going? What is truth? Why have you forsaken me? Where were we when the foundation of the earth was laid? (Job 38) How do we reach out to others with mercy and compassion? Who is my neighbor? Who are you, God, and what is your name? And even when the book of Exodus offers us a glimpse of Moses and the burning bush, when Moses dares to ask God’s name, what is the reply? “I am who I am, I am who I am becoming.” The answer is one of mystery. God is who God will be. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways.
And so we march forward in life clinging to the glimpses of grace we are given along the way. That is why it is can be important to be part of a faith community where we can share our own glimpses of grace with one another. Together we can remember words from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me.” We know that “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalm 42) We know that our ancestors before us asked the same questions and lived their lives of promise and pain, of joy and sorrow, of beauty and betrayal under the watch of the great “I Am.” When we read their stories closely, we see people who were flawed and frail. Even those who were proclaimed to be God’s chosen ones lived ordinary lives bounded by carelessness and compassion, thoughtlessness and trust. They lived like us with faith and hope and promises. Most of all, they clung to the promise that God is with us, in life, in death and in life beyond death. Thanks be to God.
It is this promise above all others that carries me, that carries us through each day. Whether we stand together at the communion table or at the edge of a grave, we stand under this promise. In those moments, we can answer the question of who we are with clarity and assurance. We can proclaim that “We are the body of Christ.” We can remember that “We are the people of God.” We are witnesses to all those who have gone before, and we hold the promises for all those who will follow.
Science can tell us that our bodies are made up of some 10 trillion cells. We can be grateful that scientists have come to understand how vaccinations can be used to stop horrible diseases like polio or diphtheria and medicine that can cure malaria and stop pneumonia in its tracks. We can be grateful that lasers can often repair the tissue in our eyes, and surgeons can replace our knees and hips to help make us mobile once again. Today we can offer gratitude for the technology that makes our lives more comfortable and manageable. Without all the scientific research many more lives would be cut short. But science also brings us devastation . . . for when the atom was split we learned that its energy could be used for bringing electricity to the nations or destruction to a people. Science brings us breathtaking discoveries, and science offers us poisonous chemicals and brilliant bombs. Science unravels the mystery of DNA, and science can use that knowledge to prevent illness or clone creatures. But will science, can science or scientists make appropriate choices about how discoveries are to be used?
Do we not need theology to help determine how to make meaning out of what we know? Do we not need to remember every day that we are finite and we are flawed? Do we not need brakes and boundaries that call us to look out for the good of all, not just the pleasure of a few? And no matter if science unravels the parts and the pieces of every corner of the universe, can science explain away the source of that creation? Do we not understand that we are more than the sum of our parts? We are more than a particular number of cells. Are we not more than simply the totality of our genetic make-up? Can science ever really tell us why we are, who we are, since we are each individually affected by our experiences, our thoughts, and our interactions with the world around us. We are affected by beauty and destruction. We are formed by our relationships with other people. Our worldview is expanded by education and exploration. Our minds learn to ask new questions and even sometimes accept new answers. Does anyone really still believe that the earth is the center of the universe? It wasn’t that long ago that Galileo was condemned for looking through a telescope and discovering that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.
Science continues to bring us answers to questions that we probably didn’t know we had, and scientists will continue to ponder the question of “who we are.” As people of faith, we too are required to ask that question again and again . . . knowing that the answers may look a little different than they did two or three thousand years ago. After all we can be sure that we don’t live in a three-tiered universe with a layer of heaven just over head and the fires of hell just below. But we live in a world where we have to make choices all the time of who we are and what we believe. We have to continue to try to make meaning on a small planet that gets more crowded every day. We need to ask questions that might help us to live together in peace with people whose beliefs are different than our own. We need to ask questions that help us to better share our limited resources. We need to use our faith in ways that might unite us with others so that our divisions don’t cause us to destroy life as we know it. For we are all finite and fragile. We can all be hurt in so many ways . . . but we can also be transformed by beauty and truth.
Soon we will begin our annual journey through the season of Advent where we prepare to celebrate the wonder and mystery of the coming of Emmanuel . . . “God with us” as we remember and tell the stories of angels and shepherds, of Joseph and Mary and the birth of a babe in a manger. When we gather to sing the songs of the season and share these words from the past, we remember who we are and from where we have come. As we stand on the edge of Advent, we give thanks for all that we have and all that we are. We give thanks for science and the small and grand discoveries that make our lives better every day. We give thanks that we are free to pursue new knowledge and perhaps even some wisdom along the way. We give thanks for the past and all those whose lives have made it possible for us to live here today. We give thanks for the present for this moment to share in the miracle that is life and the possibility of life made new. And we give thanks for the future, for new knowledge and for generations to come who will ask old questions made new in their asking and who will continue to wonder like the Psalmist: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? And as we ask our questions, we wait with Psalmist (Psalm 130) once more:
Out of the depths, we cry to you, O God. God hear our voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications! If you, O God, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. We wait for god, our souls wait, and in God’s word we hope; our souls wait for God, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. Everyone have hope in God! For with God there is steadfast love and with God there is great power to redeem. Let us hope in God from this time on and forevermore. Amen.
Reality Changing Observations:
Q1. What is your faith perspective on the question of who we are?
Q2. How does science magnify your views of an illimitable God, if at all?
Q3. In what ways does scripture support scientific methods of inquiry?