Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Faith and Science (and Zombies) - Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel 10/30/11

1 Corinthians 13: 1-2
Psalm 8: 3-6

Two events of cosmic significance occurred,
since last we spoke:
Richard Muller, one of the last good, scientific skeptics of global warming,
concluded a massive, 2 year study,
funded in large part by the Koch brothers
and other oil concerns.
And Muller said to the world
that we no longer have reason to be skeptical.
The world is, in fact, warming.
Some of us, of course,
already believed that.
But it’s nice to be affirmed.

And AMC’s Show “The Walking Dead”
set just after the zombiepocalypse,
began its second season,
opening to the largest audience in the history of basic cable.
As I said, two events of cosmic significance.
worth mentioning together.
And worth mentioning in the context of our term’s discussion
of the Bible and the Newspaper.
Pulling, if we can,
our attention away from
violence on the streets of Oakland and Denver,
and immanent troubles in Thailand, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere,
to ponder briefly the relationship between faith and science
(and zombies.)

Public discourse about faith and science has,
in recent memory,
been dominated by two camps.
Who push mirror images of the same essential idea:
That there is not only a singular truth,
but a singular way of knowing.

On the one hand we have people like Ken Ham
of the creation museum.
Seeking to set forth a “scientific” view of young earth creation,
based essentially on a narrow reading of scripture.
Since all facts must align with scriptural truth,
much effort is spent undermining carbon dating,
suggesting that humans and dinosaurs must have coexisted,
and describing how Noah could, in fact,
have built an arc large enough to collect two of every species.

And on the other hand we have the “New Atheists.”
Who submit that the idea of God,
is a testable hypothesis,
and should thus be subject to the same kind of scrutiny,
as any other hypothesis.
Such as the evolution of species,
or the warming of the globe.
They submit that rigorous,
external data,
are the only means by which to know.
And conclude that no such data exist
for the existence of God.

Truth, in both of these frames,
is a relatively uncomplicated idea.
We have a singular set of tools with which to discover it,
and simply need to get to work.
And there are, I hope it’s obvious,
problems with this idea.
It seems plainly evident,
that the way I know my parents love me,
and the way I know how Carbon Dioxide reflects heat,
and the way I know that Mozart’s Requiem is a beautiful piece of music,
are not the same ways of knowing.
And so we need, I think,
an alternative path.

To date,
the most significant alternative,
comes from Stephen Jay Gould,
who called science and theology,
non-overlapping magesteria.
Now, like many big ideas,
Gould’s vision of how this works is fairly nuanced.
But his idea itself more recently has simply been used,
to say,
Science deals with these sets of concerns (the hows)
and Theology with these (the whys).
So let’s just leave each other alone.

This is a peace-keeper’s solution, perhaps.
But it seems to me that the need runs deeper.
And that we need to find a way for our ways of knowing,
to interrelate and interact.
Because we are faced with vast,
global issues.
Certainly not the least of which,
is our changing climate,
the problems it’s causing,
and the rhetoric of scientific doubt
pouring into our newspapers and airwaves,
funded largely by oil money.
We have a deep need for good science,
good ethics, and good communication.
I propose we need another way,
to explore the relationship,
between belief and observation.
A way in which we can meaningfully talk, push and pull.
without assuming that we share the same premises,
methods and ideas and backgrounds.
For starters,
I hope we can acknowledge
that there is no such thing as human objectivity.
I believe we are constantly informed,
in the questions we ask,
in the literature we pick up,
and in the way we make decisions,
by premises.
Some of which are more assumed than considered.
(for example:
We seem to believe, as a culture,
that individual autonomy is such a high good,
that we needn’t even talk about it.)
We learn and inherit such ideologies from parents,
and from teachers,
from religions and philosophies.
From the culture at large.
We are, I think, too quick
to name something an indisputable fact,
or an unchallengeable truth.
We are never, I think -
not in our exploration of the empirical,
nor our examination of the ultimate -
detached from our place in life,
and untethered from ideology.
This is a challenging idea,
and certainly not everyone agrees with me.
But I also find it a hopeful idea,
so long as we note that ideology doesn’t determine our fate.
The great thing about premises,
is that we can examine them.
We can challenge and change them,
and we can bring our premises
into relationship with others’.
As Paul says,
“I can know all things, believe all things,
do all things,
but if I don’t have love, I’m nothing.”
This is a premise, an ideology,
worth bringing, I think,
into all aspects of our daily life.

And where the rubber meets the road,
when it comes to faith and science
is ethics.
How are we going to behave in the world,
how are we going to organize in the world,
given what we believe,
and what we know.
This is where our magesteria,
faith and science,
must overlap significantly.
This is where I think, both young earth creationists like Ham,
and atheists like Richard Dawkins
have at least kernel of truth.
Creationists know that we can’t ignore the implications
of empirical observation of the world.
And Dawkins reminds us that if faith is an excuse
for accepting or celebrating ignorance,
then it is indeed to be feared.

Today’s Psalm reminds us,
that we are but one small creature in a vast creation.
But we have been given undue power,
undue dominion.
And must figure out how to live with it,
Lest we, as a species,
continue to make such collectively poor decisions.
And given our vast, undeserved dominion,
it seems we need all kinds of knowing,
to figure out how to live better.

Which brings us finally,
to the question of Zombies.
I’m a fan of zombies,
and pleased by their growing cultural cache.
And not just because I think they’re fun and scary.

Like most myths and monsters and heroes,
they reveal something significant
about the culture in which they were created.
Superman came about amidst the great depression,
as a paragon of strength and power,
in the midst of an era of immense powerlessness.
Batman’s vigilantism speaks to a fear of crime,
and need to take law and safety into our own hands.
And zombies,
are about hubris.
George Romero’s early films were set
against a backdrop of nuclear fallout.
But more contemporary zombie films,
center around super viruses,
and big pharma,
and genetic engineering.
They are frightening by-products
of human achievement and activity.
And they are thus,
I would argue,
theologically significant.
And more than other monsters,
Zombies force us to confront the question:
what makes humans human.
These sick, or reanimated corpses wander.
Brainless, but not lifeless.
And force lingering survivors,
and audience members,
to come to terms with why zombies are not human.
And how those last humans will survive,
organize, and not lose their own humanity.

Again, these are questions of deep significance,
questions of ethics.
Questions which,
with all due respect to the creators of Zombie films,
and the teachers of science and art and literature,
I think are best encountered
in realm of faith, scripture and theology.
We have before us such a rich,
complicated text.
One which sets not before us easy answers,
One which asks not for blind, ignorant faith.
But rather challenges and demands,
that we think.
Asks of us big, life-changing questions.
Forcing us not only to listen and emulate,
but to think and live and explore and respond.

A text which I hope,
opens us to the ways in which God can speak.
Opens us to what scientific inquiry has to say to us,
about psychology and biology,
and physics.
About our changing planet,
and the implications of our daily lives.
Ready to discover the divine,
not only in scripture,
but in a world that we can understand better.

And so too,
we are called, I think,
to enter public conversation
about science and politics and technology.
Asking not “can we…”
But, “should we…”
We can make all things.
Develop all things.
Study all things.
But if we have not love, we are nothing.
This is our message,
for all people.
Grounded in our premise of love.
our premise of grace,
Called to engage with the world,
in deep soul searching
and answer seeking.

Called to care for the poor,
welcome the stranger,
love both neighbor and enemy.

We can boldly enter public discourse,
confident enough to push,
and to be pushed.
And to explore together,
across many ways of knowing,
how we ought live and organize,
such that we don’t lose our humanity.


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