Sermon

August 6, 2017

St. John’s Lutheran Church

Melrose Park, PA

Big Questions: Why did God devote almost 14 billion years to the universe before humans appeared?

 

…they say back then our universe

Was an empty sea, until a silver fox

And her cunning mate began to sing

A song that became the world we know

 

And they say back then our universe

Wasn’t even there, until a sudden bang

And then there was light, was sound, was matter

And it all became the world we know…[1]

 

In 2011, the Icelandic singer and composer Björk wrote a song called Cosmogony in which she laid Native American Miwok, Sanskrit, and Aboriginal creation myths one beside another. The final creation myth in the song isn’t a myth at all — it’s the story of the Big Bang. Yet it is set among the same beautiful, swirling musical textures as the other myths.

As a religious person and a lover of science, I find Björk’s song meaningful because it doesn’t declare that the scientific explanation of the universe’s creation is better than the creation stories of the world’s great religions, nor does it attempt to force all the creation stories into artificial accordance with science. The song simply expresses awe and wonder at the mystery and beauty of religion, science, and the human mind as we contemplate our origin.

This week’s big question wonders about the vast timescale of our universe. If the Big Bang happened nearly fourteen billion years ago, why did our species Homo sapiens only evolve two hundred thousand years ago? It sounds like a long time, but it’s the blink of an eye compared to the age of the universe. If God loves humans so much, why did our creation take so long?

To address this question, we need to talk about religion, science, and how we determine truth. In the contemporary landscape, the loudest voices of scientists and religious people claim that science and religion are incompatible. Fundamentalist Christians demand that evolution and the history of the fourteen-billion-year-old universe not be taught in schools; the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens declare that religion is a dangerous and violent lie incompatible with rational thought. Of course, fundamentalist Christians don’t speak for all religious people, and the New Atheists do not speak for all nonbelievers. Still, many non-fundamentalist Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians still grapple with religion and science, trying to figure out what is true.

The idea that there is a disconnect between faith and science at all arises from our attempts to read the Bible like we would read an ordinary book of nonfiction. The Bible is more like a library of books of many genres written at different times than a single book. It is full of scientifically implausible things: miracles, signs, wonders, a virgin birth, a resurrection. It is also often inconsistent with its own “facts.” In Genesis, for example, the world appears to be created twice. Genesis 1 tells a story of God creating the world from water, while Genesis 2 tells a dry and dusty story of creation. So which was it — wet or dry?

The answer is “both.” Those of you who spent last fall reading David Lose’s book Making Sense of Scripture with me learned something very useful about the difference and the overlap between truth and fact. Here’s a refresher.

In the thousands of years from the stories of the Bible to the Reformation, people were not terribly concerned with correlations between truth and facts when it came to their sacred stories. Truth and verifiable facts simply didn’t have much to do with one other. Something was true if it was logically consistent and faithful to longstanding tradition. Thus, we get two creation stories in the Bible: each is consistent with itself, and each makes sense with how the people who wrote the Bible thought about God. Both creation stories in Genesis said true things to people in the ancient world, and they were true at the same time.

In the 1700s, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment arrived in Europe, and with it came the scientific revolution. People learned about the universe around them by measuring and testing it. As Western science advanced in leaps and bounds, Europeans stopped thinking about truth as anything other than that which they could verify by measurement or rational philosophizing. This is how we tend to think today. We say that something is true if we can verify it by science or reason. As we have already noticed, many parts of the Bible fail this post-Enlightenment test of truth. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was unable to rationalize many aspects of Jesus’ life, so he constructed a book called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by literally cutting up Bibles and gluing them back together so that he could read Jesus’ moral teachings without any of that unverifiable faith stuff — the miracles, the claims of Jesus’ divinity, even the resurrection stories were left out. Other people performed scientific backflips trying to come up with explanations for every miracle and phenomenon in the Bible, from the seven-day creation to the parting of the Red Sea to the resurrection of Jesus. Both approaches — cutting away the implausible parts of the Bible and explaining the heck out of them— miss the point of both science and scripture.

We don’t need to choose between science and scripture. We don’t need to cut up the Bible or science it to bits in order to be people of faith who bring our modern minds to our religion. We now know that we think differently from the people who wrote the Bible, who weren’t as worried about facts as we are today when they testified to the truth of their experiences of God. Even if the universe is almost 14 billion years old, the Bible’s seven-day creation tells the truth about a God who chooses to create with words instead of violence, who delights in creation, and who loves human beings. The Bible is true: it tells the true story of God’s relationship with God’s people in the words of people who were moved by the Holy Spirit to testify to their experiences of God. Scientific explanations of the universe and of human evolution are also true: after nearly fourteen billion years of cooling and spreading and stars exploding and planets coalescing and amino acids combining and life crawling out of the sea, humans became a distinct species two hundred thousand years ago. The sheer scientific implausibility of our fragile existence can inspire us to praise God our Creator.

To return to the big question of the day, I’m not sure we can really say why it took so long for humans to emerge. Conditions had to be just right, though; those fourteen billion years weren’t a waste of time. Compared to the huge projected age of the universe at its ultimate heat death, fourteen billion years go by quickly. Science can show us how the universe happened and what might happen to it in the long run. The Bible points us toward different insights: it hints at God’s purpose for us on this tiny spinning blue marble of a planet, and it reminds us that God loves us deeply enough to care about the daily joys and struggles of every human individual who has ever lived.

Consider the creation stories in the Bible once more, Genesis 1 and 2. What do they teach us about God, and what do they teach us about ourselves as human beings?

First of all, we learn that God cares about things that aren’t humans: light and darkness, day and night, sun, moon, and stars, sea and dry land, animals and insects and plants. God calls all of them good. It would appear that we aren’t the center of the universe.

Second, we learn that God creates humans separately from animals. Even if we are animals on a biological level, it seems that God wants us to act thoughtfully, not just instinctually.

Third, God gives the world to humans and makes humans responsible for its well-being. God creates people for creation, not to exist as if our planet doesn’t matter.

And finally, God delights in the creation of human beings. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. We have the special honor and privilege of being made in the image of God, each one of us: male and female and everywhere on the gender spectrum, developmentally disabled and autistic and neurotypical, able-bodied and differently-abled.

The sciences describe us. They tell us what and who we are. Our evolutionary story is amazing, and it inspires wonder, even religious wonder. Scripture and religion answer different questions. They tell us whose we are: a people who are entrusted with the care of creation and who matter to the heart of God.

In the latest issue of Living Lutheran magazine, the astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase writes, “I think it’s important for religious leaders to contribute to science by working with scientists to help people of faith form conscious bridges between their religious and scientific understandings of nature. Far too much time is spent arguing the results of science, with not nearly enough time allotted to thinking about how scientific knowledge might enrich theological reflection, and how technology produced through the application of science can best be used toward improving life for the poor and marginalized in society.”[2] At our best, scientists and people of faith can marvel together at our improbable two hundred thousand years of human existence and then join in the work of all creation: making our broken and beautiful world a better place for all God’s beloved.

 

[1] Björk, “Cosmogony” (Biophilia, 2011)

[2] https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/07/im-lutheran-grace-wolf-chase/