Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Denial of the Forces of Nature has Consequences: A Christian Pastor's Experience of Hearing Neil DeGrasse Tyson Speak Live

Last night, the missus and I (or, as I have taken to referring to us, Dr. and Not Dr. Atcheson...hint: I'm the "Not Dr.") had tickets to go hear Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the host of Cosmos and all-around spokesperson for the importance of the STEM quartet (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), speak at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall in downtown Portland.

And I have to tell you, I laughed my ass off.  The guy is just too funny: he clearly enjoyed being up there so much that by the end of the Q&A session, he was showing off Youtube videos that made fun of him on the overhead projector.

(Also, another difference between a doctor and a pastor: C asked me what my favorite part of his lecture was, and I said it was when NDT explained that Pluto was also once upon a time the name of a laxative water marketed in the early 20th century.  What can I say, I may not understand science one lick, but I can appreciate a good poop joke anytime.)

Anyways, it was a very informative, entertaining, and engaging presentation, which is precisely what you would expect from someone who has been in the public arena as long as NDT has been and who has had years to hone and perfect his craft of educating the unwashed masses (aka me).

But it was also very revealing for me, because it was the first time in a little while that I had *really* stepped outside the circle of my usual agnostic-to-atheist friends and saw, on full display, the disdain with which we Christians are held by many in the scientific community.  The VERY first (and I do mean very first) question in the Q&A session came from a high school science teacher who asked NDT, in essence, "I teach a lot of kids from uber-conservative families, how do I get it through their heads and their parents' heads that science is real and that it matters?"

Just a heads-up, fellow Christians: this is what the rest of the world thinks of us and sees us as.

And that's not an isolated example from last night, either.  I lost track of the number of times NDT said something to the effect of, "You can believe whatever you want, it's a free country, but when you bring those beliefs into a science classroom, we have a problem."

That hits home for me: my home state of Kansas has been a state that has vacillated back and forth between teaching evolution and not teaching evolution in high school biology.  To my knowledge, though, teaching the Bible as literature in English classes (which I also 100% agree with doing: so much of our culture is influenced by the Bible that at least a passing familiarity with its contents would benefit just about anyone's education) has never been an issue.

And frankly, that is where, in our current educational model, the Bible's wheelhouse is: in English classrooms, in social studies classrooms for courses on world history, and the philosophy/theology/classics trio for obvious reasons.  That's where the Good Book is at its most effective.

But as a scientific treatise?  That's a hard sell, because modern science as we know it today--the use of the scientific method, the use of laboratory controls in experiments--wasn't so much a thing in the hundreds of years BCE that, say, the Old Testament was written.  Genesis 1 and 2 is not a lab report, it is an accounting of God's actions in bringing about the order of the universe.

But even if you hold Genesis to be a science textbook, the creation story still doesn't actually contradict science.  If you read Genesis 1-2 carefully, you'd see that the seventh day, the day God rested, never actually ends.  The previous six days all end with the words (which may vary slightly depending on your translation, "And there was morning and there was evening, the (x)th day."

If the seventh day, the day God rested, never actually ends, then that alone would disprove our theory (yes, theory) that Genesis 1 is depicting literal 24-hour days.  If a day is instead an epoch of time, then there's nothing that necessitates us saying that the earth is only six thousand years old, or that the dinosaur fossils are somehow fakes.

Nor does believing in Genesis and believing in evolution preclude the other.  They are not mutually exclusive beliefs.  Again, a close reading of Scripture enables this.  In Genesis 2, both Adam and the animals are made from the exact same substance: dirt and dust (in fact, the name "Adam" literally comes from the term "dirt" or "earth").  We may be more the dust and sand, but the Biblical truth remains: we share the same substance as other living things.  We can share genes with, say, a chimp or an orangutan, and not have it be contrary to Scripture because Scripture itself says that we were created by God from the exact same stuff.

 If anything, this was probably the biggest criticism I had coming away from NDT's presentation: it isn't an either-or proposition, believing in science and believing in the God of the Bible.  It really is a both-and, but never was that even remotely presented as a viable framework.

But I can attest from my own personal faith and life experience that it absolutely is.

And, with the least possible amount of hubris, I would humbly offer that it needs to be, because so much of NDT's argument revolved around the thesis that a lack of science literacy directly leads to economic regression.  It means your country is no longer on the cutting edge of discovery and advancement, so when another country pulls ahead of you, you have to pay them to obtain and use the advances they discover rather than the other way around.

Our Christian faith--my Christian faith--need not, should not, must not be in the business of turning the world backward.  NDT told the story of pastors whose rival churches would get struck by lightning say that it was evidence of God's wrath that those churches were smote by lightning.  But then ol' Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, churches began to use it, and those same pastors began denouncing Franklin as a heretic for thwarting the wrath of God.

You read that right.  A beer-swilling, womanizing crank of a diplomat and scientist was strong enough to thwart the will of the maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen.

That's the kind of derpiness (to anachronistcally, but accurately, label the stupidity of that argument) we run the risk of clinging to if we shut our eyes and close our ears to what the world has to say.

And yet, Jesus Christ Himself says in the Gospels, "let him who has ears, hear."

We can hear God speaking not just through His ministers and pastors like me.  It is likewise entirely permissible for God to speak through scientists and doctors, engineers and mathematicians.  And we need to be ready to acknowledge that singular fact.

The one NDT quote that struck me hardest, though, was again in reference to us Christians: denial of the forces of nature has consequences.  He said this as he was going through the circumstances that led to disasters like the flooding from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the images of those consequences were emblazoned above him on the overhead projector that showed his PowerPoint slides.

There are consequences to denying the reality of the nature God created.  And God gave us the ability to mitigate, if not protect, ourselves, from many destructive elements of nature.

It's really that simple.  We need to be ready to really, truly pay heed to the nature of the creation that surrounds us, the creation in which we live.

And if we don't, we cannot simply chalk whatever happens next up to the wrath of God.  We saw that show already plenty of times, not just with the lightning rods and Ben Franklin, but as recently as the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Pat Robertson claiming it was because of the country's history with voodoo.  And that show sucks.

I'll leave y'all with this: I have found that far too often and far too easily, we wrap ourselves in cocoons when it comes to our faith (or absence of faith, or view on faith) so as to avoid being challenged by those who disagree with us, lest they be seen as leading us down the wrong path or whatnot.  Personally, I have found that the Biblical proverb is true: iron sharpens iron.  My agnostic and atheist friends have forced me to wrestle with what I believe and to make those beliefs my own.  In that way, I have actually become a more devout Christian because of them (I don't know if that is what they intended to have happen!).

May your wrestling with science and religion end up strengthening your own faith as well: faith in God, and faith in fact alike.

And may your newly strengthened faith be a benefit for you and for all God's children moving forward.

Yours in Christ,

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