Believing and Knowing

Believing and Knowing

The Clergy Letter Project’s Religion and Science Weekend 2024, previously known as Evolution Weekend, ran from February 9th-11th this year. This is a summary of two sermons with science demonstrations given by Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumna Reverend Dr. Ruth Shaver at Lakeville United Church of Christ and North Congregational United Church of Christ.

Proverbs 8:22-31, Common English Bible

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his way,
before his deeds long in the past.
23 I was formed in ancient times,
at the beginning, before the earth was.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
when there were no springs flowing with water.
25  Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
26     before God made the earth and the fields
or the first of the dry land.
27  I was there when he established the heavens,
when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
28     when he thickened the clouds above,
when he secured the fountains of the deep,
29     when he set a limit for the sea,
so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
30  I was beside him as a master of crafts.
I was having fun,
smiling before him all the time,
31    frolicking with his inhabited earth
and delighting in the human race.

This beautiful passage from Proverbs 8 is in the voice of Lady Wisdom, Sophia, who is describing her experience being with God as God created the whole of the universe, up to and including human beings. I love this imaginative story, especially the verses at the end where Sophia says she’s “having fun.” The Hebrew there captured by “smiling,” “frolicking,” and “delighting” can also be translated as “playing.” Permission to play in creation? Yes, please. Permission to play with science? I’m all in. Let’s play!

First: I have a question for you. Do you believe in gravity?

I hate to tell you this, but you don’t “believe” in gravity. You know that gravity exists because gravity is what keeps our feet on the ground. You can’t really “believe in” gravity, because all of us experience gravity the same way. And even though we don’t know exactly what gravity is, we have equations and we have an understanding of how gravity works, so we can describe it in terms that each of us can understand.

So: we know about gravity. There are things we don’t understand about it, but we do know about it. We know that gravity is what holds us to Earth. 

A ping pong ball.A crumpled up piece of paper.

These two objects are about the same size, about the same weight. Intuitively, because this one looks a little weirder and smaller: What do we think is going to happen, versus what do we know is going to happen? If we had a vacuum chamber, they would fall at the same rate, because in a vacuum, truly everything falls at the same rate. My understanding of it is that God wrote the rules of physics, and the rules of physics are written in such a way that things work. We tend to think that a smaller object is going to fall slower, but gravity doesn’t work that way. Everything falls at the same rate unless air resistance works on it, which is controlled by shape more than mass.

This is Faith, Science and Technology Sunday in the United Church of Christ.  I love it when this Sunday falls near Transfiguration, because it’s a great passage to talk about this. But one of the reasons that we have Faith, Science and Technology Sunday in the United Church of Christ, which is also called Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend in other progressive traditions, is we’re trying to counter the anti-science narratives of so many of the more fundamentalist religions.

It’s not just fundamentalist Christianity that has an anti-science bent. Some of the other religions of the world also do. So those of us on the more progressive side are trying to make sure that people understand that faith and science do not have to be at odds with each other, but in fact, are from the same root, which is wonder, because you don’t go exploring the world unless you go “I wonder.” And our faith grows whenever we ask a question that starts with “I wonder…” or make a statement, “I wonder…” So they have that common root.  They also have a common enemy, and that is certainty. Because as soon as you are certain about something, you stop wondering, and wondering is essential for the continuing growth of our faith.

Peter’s Certainty

In the story of the Transfiguration (Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, verses 2 through 9), Peter is, as usual, very certain about what he’s seeing from the moment he sees it.

 “After six days, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up on a high mountain where they were all alone. There, Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling, whiter than anyone in the world could reach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses.

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters. One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.

“Then a cloud appeared and covered them. And a voice came from the clouds. This is my son whom I love. Listen to him.” Suddenly, when the disciples looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

So Peter, who has been so certain just 30 seconds ago, all of a sudden has nothing about which to be certain. And then Jesus tells him, “Don’t talk to anybody about this until you know even more” – until after the events that were to come. So Jesus wasn’t expecting Peter, James, and John to understand what they had seen until after many more things had happened.

And this is a pattern that repeats in Peter’s life over and over again. Peter, if you remember, is the one who, when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” immediately jumps in with, “Oh, you’re the messiah.” And Jesus says, “And what does that mean?” And Peter doesn’t really have a good answer, because he’s certain that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t know what that means, so he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.

Peter has this streak of certainty that sometimes keeps him from getting the big picture at the moment that he really should. But he gets there eventually. I think many of us are like that. We hold on to things in our faith, and we’re so certain of them, and then a crack appears in them, and we have to go back to the drawing board and rethink how it is that we learned.

Looking at the Transfiguration from a Scientific World

Physics gives us the ability to understand certain parts of our faith from a perspective that means we don’t have to sound like nutcases when we’re thinking about them. When you read the story of the Transfiguration, at first you say, “Really? Could that really have happened? Did Jesus take his disciples up on a mountaintop, and then all of a sudden, he appears in such bright, white raiment that they were blinded, and then people appeared that they understood to be Moses and Elijah?”

And remember, these were not times when there were portraits around, so there was not an identifiable portrait of Moses hanging in some museum, and there certainly wasn’t one of Elijah. But they could say immediately, “Oh, that’s Moses.” That they could recognize these two figures and then have the response that Peter did. And Peter’s response is a very definite response: “Okay, I see this. I’m certain of what I’ve seen. I want to make this permanent. We’re going to build some houses and huts. And we’re going to memorialize this on the mountain.”

And the same thing is true of everything in the Bible, because the vast majority of us, I would say, have not encountered God in ways that are written about in the Bible. Have we anybody here seen a burning bush that wouldn’t stop burning? We take that story on faith because we can’t know that that is what happened, but that it is important because it was recorded.

Even when we get down to something like the virgin birth, we can trace the lineage of the word that Luke used in the gospel to mean “virgin” all the way back to the Hebrew word הָעַלְמָ֗ה from Isaiah 7:14, where it was used to refer specifically King Ahaz of Judah’s queen. It actually means, even today, “a young woman with child.” It does not necessarily imply virginity; it does not necessarily imply unmarried, married or anything else.

But over time, as the Bible passage was translated into Greek, and then as the Greek language changed, the word in Greek that originally meant “a young woman” came to mean exclusively “virgin,” so by the time Luke wrote it down, that was in fact what it meant. So what do theologians do with that word? Over time, they give us the doctrine of the virgin birth.

So you can trace that evolution, and that’s a very understandable, rational thing. My scientific brain says, “Cool.” The faithful part of me says, “My God is big enough that it could have happened exactly the way it’s recorded.” And there are people who have a real problem figuring out how to live in both worlds, and so they reject one or the other. I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to. I’m here to say, you can live with the things that you know and the things that you believe. And the way that you do this is by setting aside the need to be absolutely certain about what you think. 

I think that’s part of why the Open and Affirming process in the UCC is so hard for some people, and why it’s hard for those of us who are white, and have always lived in the world of white privilege, to understand what white privilege is – because it’s the certainty of our lives. We understand it because we live in it. But once we start seeing for what it is, it’s hard to adapt to the fact that it’s not the way the world is for other people. Certainty keeps us from growing as people of faith.

If you’re flexible enough to live with the possibility that you might be wrong and that you might yet encounter new information that helps you understand the world in a different way, it is truly amazing what you can do with your life, because you can be a person of deep, deep, passionate faith and a person who is also excited to celebrate the wonders of the world and what humankind does, to explore the incredible world that we have. You do not have to give up science to be a person of faith, and you don’t have to give up faith to be a person of science and reason and rationality. The thing that kills both scientific exploration and faith is rock-solid certainty. 

Quantum Physics

And I didn’t really understand that as well as I do now, until I started working on trying to understand quantum physics. That involves a whole lot of complicated math that I don’t even begin to understand, but what I did glean from learning about quantum physics was a restoration of my belief in miracles, because I had a really hard time understanding how miracles could happen – because they just didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem that it was right for God to stick God’s metaphorical finger into the world at various points in time and change things at seemingly random. Like, why would God do that? 

Now, thinking about the story of the Transfiguration with a very practical mind, my head goes, “Okay, that’s a nice story, but what’s the point?” Quantum physics gives me an inkling of the possibility that maybe it happened just the way it said that. Maybe this is not one of those stories in the Bible that has been embellished over time. But maybe something similar to this, if not exactly this, happened on the mountain. And Peter, James and John really did have an experience that they could describe later on.

I love it when knowing more about science can help me understand something that my faith teaches me now. I don’t know whether later on, when Peter, James and John were free to tell this story, the other disciples believed them. Somebody clearly did, because the story is preserved in the Gospels. But even if they knew that that had happened, the reason we have it preserved is because other people believed it. 

But the rules of quantum physics are written in such a way as to allow for those random, odd things to happen that we would consider miracles. For example, it is theoretically possible, although highly improbable, that I have dematerialized here, rematerialized on a beach in Waikiki, and rematerialized here, without missing a beat in the sermon. That is theoretically possible. It is highly improbable. And you might never, ever know if it had happened. I might never know if it had happened. But it’s theoretically possible. And if that’s theoretically possible, according to the rules of physics, then anything is possible, right? Which leaves us open to the idea of miracles. Now, if we had a way of harnessing those miracles, we might be able to do some more of those things that we would consider miracles to change people’s lives on a regular basis. 

Real-Life Miracles?

But I would posit to you that our own understanding of scientific knowledge, and the ways that we have used it, have made miracles more likely every day. For example, how many of us know people who have been put into remission or cured of cancer? One hundred years ago, cancer was a death sentence, period. Our understanding of human anatomy, our understanding of human cells, biology, medicine, is a miracle that we take for granted until it doesn’t work. And we wonder then, “Well, why didn’t that treatment work for so and so when it works so well for 95 other people?” The miracles still happen, but we notice them more in medicine when they don’t happen, because we’re so used to medicine being the end-all-be-all.

And yet, there are still forms of cancer that have a very low cure rate or a very low long-term survivability rate. I had a conversation with my oncologist at one of my checkups way back when, and we were talking about how there were people who were absolutely convinced that the pharmaceutical industry was withholding the cures for cancer because they were making money on it. And he laughed and he said, “Here’s my deal. I want to be able to say to somebody who gets a cancer diagnosis, ‘It’s stage one. Here’s one pill. Take it today, you’re done. It’s stage two. Take it today, take it next week, you’re done. It’s stage four. Here’s four pills. Take them once a week for four weeks. You’re done.’ And I never have to think about it again.”

He said, “We may never get there, or if we do, it might not be in my lifetime. But I’m working daily on it, because I would love to go back to delivering babies and doing the occasional breast reduction or enhancement. I don’t want to be doing cancer. I’m called to it because my mother died of a cancer that wasn’t treatable at the time she died.” He said, “We have more treatments for it now, but we haven’t cured it. I would like to think that by the time I retire, we’ll have found a cure for it.”

That was pretty cool. But he was absolutely 100% uncertain about the next step for research, because we get too many varying results, and we don’t understand why some people respond to certain treatments and other people respond to different treatments, and some people don’t respond to any of them at all. But we have a lot of work to do, he said, and I wonder a lot about that. And then he said, “I also pray a lot about it. I pray daily for the wisdom to never think I’ve got the answer, because as soon as I have the answer, I’m wrong.” 

And that sentence spurred me to change some of what I wrote in my thesis, because I realized that he was right, that certainty was the death knell of curiosity. Thankfully, Peter, for all of his certainty, was able to realize that every time he was certain, God knocked the wind out of him, and he had to get curious again. He had to open his ears and listen. He had to obey that voice that said, “Listen to Him,” and he had to listen to the stories of other people. He had to understand that God was working in different people in different ways, and that even if they were all together with Jesus at the same time, in the same place, their experience of that was slightly different, because Jesus is slightly different for each and every one of us. 

How We Live With Uncertainty

And that’s why what we do here is we practice our faith, because although our stories have common threads, each and every one of us has encountered God in different ways. And we come together in this place, in sort of one bucket, where our stories are similar enough that we can talk with each other about them, but that we have differences and different ways of looking at God – different ways of understanding how God operates in our lives. And that keeps us on our toes, and it keeps us questioning. And perhaps in the telling of our stories, those of you who don’t have a story to tell yet might find something in your experience, or might learn something that opens you up to that experience at another time.

Peter’s account is different from James and John’s story. And I’m sure that as they told the story of the transfiguration, James and John had a slightly different understanding of what happened than Peter did in those days when they were allowed to tell the story. We don’t even know whose version of the story we have, because we only have the story in three places, and Mark is probably the oldest of them. It might be Peter’s, it might be James’s, it might be John’s. It might be somebody who heard Peter’s, heard James’s, and heard John’s, and said, “We’ll just tie them up like this.” So it might not be any of their stories, but pieces of all of them. 

We don’t know that’s how the Bible came to be, but we have the story, so we know something happened, and we know something big happened on that day. They were transformed on that day, even if the transformation continued for many, many months and years. 

And so, my friends, I invite us to be like Peter and James and John, and to stay open to those transformative and transfiguring moments when God appears in our lives and does something strange and unusual. And I equally invite us to remain curious and inquisitive about the world around us, about what it is that science is showing us about the world. Maybe someday, maybe in our lifetime, scientists will explain what gravity actually is, and maybe we’ll be able to put some different formulas to why it is that our feet remain firmly rooted to the ground and why objects fall to the ground at the same rate, especially in a vacuum. And maybe someday we’ll understand enough about DNA and cell biology and pharmaceutical chemistry to be able to read a genome and say, “This cure will work for this person, and that cure will work for that person.”

But if we don’t stay curious and inquisitive as people who support scientists, as people who work, in some cases, in fields where science is happening, that work won’t happen, and we will be wasting a gift from God. We’ll be wasting that inquisitiveness that makes us uniquely human. We’ll be wasting our insights into God’s world. So let us move forward, not with certainty, but with a willingness to be uncertain, a willingness to be open to what’s next, and a willingness to let God surprise us both with scientific revelation and with the power of God’s love to change our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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