Lesson 1: Questions About Nature

CosmosProbably the greatest challenge to Christianity in our day is people’s absorption in their jobs, their play, and anything else that allows them to ignore meaningful conversation and profound thought. Close behind is the churches’ inadequacy in addressing troubling questions about the suffering of innocents and our relationship to nature. I’ll try to deal with the latter in this series of lessons and hope you will continue to share your ideas.

Many months ago, Lupe brought up a good first question. She mused about what the vastness of the universe, that seems to run on its own, says about our understanding of God and his relations with us earthbound humans. We now know there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there, each with approximately 100 billion stars. Yet most of the theology the common person hears is radically human-centered, as if we were the only ones with whom God is concerned.

That leads to questions from evolution that picture the cosmos developing from matter to life to mind over a tremendous time period. Scholars now believe the Big Bang took place about 13.7 billion years ago. Carl Sagan used to illustrate what this means by placing the process on a one-year calendar in which homo sapiens appear one minute before midnight on December 31. Yet, polls report most Americans still insist God created the world in 6 days with each species fully developed.

Of course, evolution raises even further questions when it describes a process of death and extinction in which survival depends on fitness and chance. This violent picture threatens the Christian understanding of a loving God benevolently caring for his creation.

Another challenge has to do with the effects of technology that have tremendously changed our concept of what is natural. Just about every one of us depends upon modern technology to supply what we need. Without thinking, we use its devices and techniques to solve our problems. We have no idea what a natural birth, a natural death, or a natural anything means in this technological society. Yet churches divide the Body of Christ over controversies about what is natural in human sexuality, contraception, dying, fertilization, abortion, research, and on and on. Modern medicine is confronted with many more ethical issues, such as genetic engineering and cosmetic surgery.

And perhaps the most critical challenge is climate change. The natural process of evolution is being threatened by humans’ use of technology. Not that long ago, 1 species of plants or animals went extinct every year. Now 150 to 200 die out in one day. Scholars estimate mammals are going extinct 45 times faster than they did before 1600. Again Christians are deeply divided. Pope Francis’ first sermon included powerful words about protecting the creation. We expect to hear the same message in his upcoming encyclical. At the same time, people claiming to speak for Christ scream, “God gave you the earth. Use it! Rape it! It’s yours.” They see no reason to care for the creation, as they think the Bible claims God will destroy it when he saves humans.

Most of these questions are addressed in the Bible. Remember the Bible presents a number of different traditions or perspectives on human problems, often side by side. Modern Fundamentalists are not really presenting the one and only biblical position, but rather the one they find congenial to their purposes. One of the things I’ll try to do is highlight the other traditions that are helpful for understanding our relationship with the natural world.

(The statistics I cite are found in Elizabeth Johnson’s, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love)

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  1. John Myers says:

    Let me preface my comments by stating that I have a lifetime of respect for the scientific method and using science to answer questions. However, I think society has expectations backwards. Instead of asking science to solve matters of faith, we should allow faith to solve matters of science for which we have no answer (yet). Origins of the universe, explained by the big bang theory (remember this is theory) fail to explain where the matter originates that made up the ‘Big Bang’.

    I think we (society) try to oversimplify science and make it fit a certain worldview. An example would be climate change. Do we humans affect the climate conditions on the earth by means of modern living? I think anyone would agree everything we do has consequences. The problem for me is the simplistic notion that this results in permanent and catastrophic change to our climate. There is no actual evidence of this, it is all based on calculations and assumptions. Further, I find the idea arrogant – that we even could manage this when you understand the actual science of it. No one goes that far, they root for a political position with no actual critical thought process. The earth is astoundingly resilient. This is no excuse for those who choose to take poor care of what God has given us, but I believe we should beware the arrogance of man in thinking we can destroy the garden that God has provided us.

    I find it interesting that the more we search (and with better tools) for another place like earth, we still have not found one. This is statistically improbable. Sometimes the correct answer is the simplest, maybe we really are alone in God’s universe. I choose faith as the most reasonable answer despite many years in pursuit of a scientific (mind of man) answer to many questions.

  2. Derek says:

    That last note on statistics brought to mind as statistic I’d heard some time back. It was a Reuters poll that found 22% of Americans expect the world to end within their lifetimes. It’s pretty easy to see how that outlook on life makes hundred year projections of our impacts fairly meaningless.

    I suppose I can also see how it might be hard to argue for environmentalism with “Bible literalists.” If God can create species with little more than a word why would they care about extinctions? If they can create the whole of the world in less than a day, why would God care about strip mining any more than I’d care about one of my children scooping up some sand in a sandbox?

    Environmentalism makes more sense from a “theistic evolution” sense, where Genesis is metaphor and it really took God billions of years to create life and the world we know.

    While our current understanding points to a situation more like the latter, I suppose at some level I’ve always had a bit of discomfort with the “smaller” feeling God there.

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