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Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Grand Canyon and False Choices

Four tourists arrived at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The first was an artist, the second, a minister, the third, a scientist, and the fourth, a cowboy. All four stood silently in awe, soaking it in.

After a while, the artist broke the silence, blurting out: "What tones! What colours! What contrasts!"

The minister, a smile on his face, gently exclaimed: "What a tremendous example of the creative power of God."

The scientist remarked: "It's amazing what effect geological processes can have over millions of years."

The cowboy didn't say much. Finally, he hazarded: "Tough place to lose a cow."

Who was right? Care to vote? Was it the artist, minister, scientist, or cowboy? In a strange way, they were all right. It just depends upon your perspective.

OK, I'll confess that this story originally had no scientist. She was added, because the tale needed updating. After all, in 2005, it's not the painter and cowboy who are coming to blows; it's the minister and the scientist. More specifically, it's a small but loud handful of Christians who interpret Genesis 1 in a very literal sense, where one "day" must equal 24 hours. All that we see in the universe, "the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees," must have been created by God in six 24 hours periods. (Question to literalists: Why must those first two "days" be solar days, when Genesis says that the sun wasn't created until the third day?)

And here's where the argument begins...

Youth with bright minds have a God-given thirst for scientific knowledge. At school, they think chemistry is cool. They've never met a fetal pig they didn't like, even if it does stink of formaldehyde. If you took the bus home, and looked in their bedrooms, you'd be impressed by the range of their interests. Over on the shelf is a collection of assorted insects. At the window is a telescope, trained on the stars. Don't miss that desk. There you'll find a well-worn Bible, with verses underlined last year at church camp. On the wall, next to the poster of the Space Shuttle, is a framed baptism certificate. And don't forget the "F.R.O.G. (Fully Relying on God) bracelet that sits on the dresser next to the latest installment from the Left Behind series.

From Monday to Friday, in biology class, or maybe it's in earth science or astonomy, our youth learn that the universe we see around us didn't happen overnight. It took a long, long time. And of course there's no mention of God being involved, because you can't put God in a test tube. Science isn't about the supernatural; it's about the natural.

And then many of them on Sundays go to churches where a well-intentioned but misguided Sunday School teacher is placing an "either/or" in front of them. "You can't believe in evolution," he says. "Evolution is a godless theory, made up by atheists, to deny a Creator. "

And we wonder why our children are so confused...

You see, I was one of those youngsters. If I hadn't become a minister, I'd probably be teaching biology. My brothers used to kid me about my "nature trails" photography, dozens of snaps of frosted leaves or tent caterpillars, and this before digital! Tenth grade biology was all-consuming, with what little art talent I have coming out in drawings of cells, bones, hearts, and muscles. In college, zoology taught me new things, like the Kreb's cycle and how to handle an expensive microscope. But always in the back of mind, I wondered about evolution, questioning whether I was "selling out" my Christian faith by being so curious about biology. After all, though the text book still said "evolutionary theory," it was obvious the authors considered it fact.

In the middle of that semester in zoology, a friend told me about a professor in the religion department who had a PhD in Old Testament. Importantly, he also held an M.A. in marine biology. Here was someone who was well-informed in both areas. What would he tell me? He listened quietly as I explained my dilemma. Finally, he replied: "Genesis is not so much about how as it is about who."

That answer helps avoid a needless train wreck between Christian faith and hard-headed science.

The next year, I took a course in the history of science. Our teacher, a PhD in botany and ordained minister, one day asked: "What would it have been like to be Moses?" The Lord says, "Hey Moses, here's how it all began. Now write it down.' " Moses perks up. He's ready. "First, I took millions of tiny atoms, then smashed them together at a tremendous velocity, which produced an enormous explosion, resulting in the release of gigatons of energy. Did you get that Moses?" God looked down at what Moses had written:

"And God said, 'Let there be light.' "

The Lord shook his head at first, thinking Moses had gotten it all wrong. Then, a smile came across God's face. "How did I do?" Moses asked. "Fine," the Lord said. "You're doing just fine. Shall we continue?"

Charles Darwin, though an agnostic later in life following the untimely death of his daughter, never saw a contradiction between scientific pursuits and religious beliefs. Theologian Orton Wiley agrees that the relationship between science and faith needn't be contentious. He calls Genesis a "hymn to the Creation." Darwin and Wiley knew what we sometimes forget: The Bible isn't a science text book, never was, never will be. So why are some intent on setting up a false choice, putting our children in an impossible situation, like having to choose between mom and dad? Divorce between parents messes kids up, and making them decide between religion or science is a false choice that we can live without.

So this summer, when you see the Grand Canyon, play the artist, and play the cowboy. But for heaven's sake, don't let that minister and scientist start arguing. They're both right.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


At 9:39 PM, Blogger jon said...

After we paid for our kids summer camp program we found it tough to recover! I totally agree with you!

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