Looking at life through the lenses of faith and science

A small group discussion led by Nate Inglis
A small group discussion led by Nate Inglis. Photo courtesy of Bethany Seminary

By Frank Ramirez

“Look at Life: A Conference Where Faith Meets Science” started with a big bang. No, not the Big Bang, although that came up in discussion over the course of the three-day event April 25-27 at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind. Isaac Wilhelm, a graduate student at Rutgers University, spoke on “The Big Bang, Fine-Tuning, and the Existence of God,” with an overwhelming energy and enthusiasm that helped dissipate all the travel weariness of the more than 100 participants.

Wilhelm’s topic concerned “a prominent contemporary argument for the existence of God.” If Theism is a belief that someone designed the fundamental features of the universe, and atheism is an understanding that no one designed the fundamental features of the universe, and given that the universe has life, physicists have discussed what numerical value can be assigned to the fact that the universe is “fine-tuned for life.” One question is whether that proves or disproves the existence of God.

Nate Inglis, Bethany’s assistant professor of theological studies and one of the planners of the event, noted that “we’ve lost our ability to talk to each other” with regard to faith and science. But that had not always been the case. Ingles pointed to three great Christians who had no trouble integrating science and faith: Anselm of Canterbury, who believed that faith sought understanding; Ignatius of Loyola, who “found God in all things, he read God’s book of nature and book of scripture”; and Francis of Assisi, who “saw God’s footprints in all of creation, which he considered the self-revealed word of God.”

Wes Tobin, a scientist and professor at Indiana University-East, was enthusiastic about the possibility of life not only elsewhere in the cosmos but even possibly in our own solar system. He cautioned against finding patterns and interpreting data according to what we want to believe, however, instead of what actually exists.

Russell Haitch, professor of theology and human science at Bethany who oversaw coordination of the conference, spoke on “Putting Faith and Science Back Together Again.” He said that while 59 percent of American adults say there is a conflict between faith and science, for most people this causes no personal distress. But there is “a long history of science and faith working together in Western Christianity. How did they get pulled apart and how might we put them back together?” Haitch asked.

Haitch said that part of the blame for the conflict between science and faith goes to what he called “the Protestant experiment,” which took the mystery out of the service of communion, separating the physical and spiritual worlds. Blame also goes to the scientific community’s success, leading many to think that “the physical world is the most real, and maybe the only reality.” The conflict finds its clearest expression in the Declaration of Independence, according to Haitch, saying “God has given all people inalienable rights, but we hold these truths to be self-evident.” As a solution, he said, “I have proposed that the pattern of Jesus…provides a model for uniting faith and science. Union without confusion.” In both realms of science and faith, he said there is space for both to operate.

Katherine Miller-Wolf, professor of anthropology at Indiana University-East, with a specialty in Mayan history, gave a detailed look at various methods used to date historical and geological events in “From Tree Rings to Microwaves: How Scientists Date Stuff.” It is possible through a variety of methods, from counting tree rings to examining the decorations on tombstones, to obtain a fairly accurate idea of just when certain events occurred, she asserted.

Craig Story, professor of biology at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., sprinkled scriptures throughout his presentation on “Life, Biologically Speaking: A Brief History with Updates.” “DNA is a form of time machine,” he said. “Most of us have about 800 people out there who are third cousins or closer.”

Story emphasized that much of the earliest work on genetics was tainted by the virulent racism of its proponents, who tended to put humanity on the top of creation, especially those branches of humanity that looked like them. Bad science made for in bad results, including unethical and immoral experiments on human beings under the guise of “eugenics.” Modern genetics notes that humanity is part of a complicated spectrum of life that is interrelated and dependent on those relationships. “The Bible is not very specific about the scientific origins of things,” Story said, adding that “God is working on all this at a very deep level. Science has truths. Scripture has truths. Both are true.”

Because of another presenter’s family crisis, Story also was called on to examine some of the exciting–and possibly frightening–implications of gene splicing in a presentation titled “The Perfect Human? The Promises and Perils of Human Genome Editing.” Is it possible for genome editing to alleviate, cure, or even eliminate several debilitating illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, or Sickle Cell Anemia? The answer is yes, but there are real ethical questions that have to be resolved.

A recent international conference insisted that in order to retain accountability and ethical behavior, “rogue” germline therapies in humans have to be discouraged, transparency in research must be encouraged, interdisciplinary forums for discussion should be created before proceeding with experiments, and policy should be formulated upon the recommendations of a globally representative group. This is necessary because, in the words of one scientist, “The unthinkable has become conceivable.” Yet, Story said, one scientist in China already has violated the conventions against rogue therapies and transparency in research by splicing genes in infants to inhibit the HIV virus–with no accountability, no publication, and no advance notification. While most would agree that it is important to alleviate human suffering, the long-term consequences of some of these actions is unknown.

Perhaps the most anticipated presentation came from John H Walton, professor at Wheaton (Ill.)  College and a prolific author whose lecture, “Lost Worlds: Genesis 1-2,” focused on the cultural assumptions behind the interpretation of the creation story in the Bible. He admitted, “There are lots of people who think there is a serious war going on between the Bible and science. You hear that you’ve got to make a choice. You can have one or the other. I’d like to propose that’s not the only way to look at these things.” Walton continued by noting that faithful interpretation of scripture calls for accountability. “The Bible has authority that I have to submit to. That means that I’m accountable.” Approaching the Bible, readers are accountable to “the truth claims of scripture.”

Walton reminded his audience that the Ancient Near East and contemporary 21st century Americans make very different assumptions about the world. He used the analogy of the difference between a house and a home to establish the cultural assumptions of Genesis. Some people are very concerned about how to put building materials together to build a house, while others are more concerned about how to make a building home-like. The Hebrew word “bara,” translated as “create,” is more about making a home than constructing a house, he said. It is used more than 50 times in the Hebrew Bible and it is always about bringing order to things. Walton said the word “refers to a divine activity. In scripture God creates, or brings order, to material objects like Jerusalem, but also to grammatical objects like purity.”

With this understanding, when the Bible says the earth was formless and empty the assumption is that the world was “not lacking matter, but order.” The creation story was about making a home, not building a house, he asserted, noting that the seven days of creation conform to the seven days necessary to dedicate the temple as holy space. The creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis was about consecrating the whole earth as God’s home, meaning all of creation is God’s holy space.

Throughout the conference, participants met in small groups to process what they had learned and discuss issues they wished to explore further. Despite the controversial nature of the subject, and the wide variety of religious backgrounds and beliefs, respectful listening was the norm throughout.

— Frank Ramirez pastors Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind.