Science & Faith: Imagine by Rev. Leah Rosso

Genesis 1-2:3; John 1:1-4

In Staten Island there is a landfill called Fresh Kills Landfill that was closed in 2001, containing 150 million tons of garbage, and reaching over 225 feet into the air. An arborist, William Bryant Logan, recently wrote about his visit to Fresh Kills Landfill. Walking through it today, with tall boots, pants, and long sleeves to protect him from whatever chemicals are lurking under the green muck, Logan found many unexpected things. A small grove of pin oak trees, there far before the landfill, still seemingly able to thrive at 70 feet tall and more than a yard wide; frogs were jumping through puddles that Logan wouldn’t have touched with his bare hands; various vines had managed to take down many trees, returning needed nutrients to the ground to create soil all over again, and yet even these trees that were taken down were sprouting five and six feet into the air, what arborists aptly call the phoenix generation of trees. Nature is taking over the garbage heaps. A yellow garter snake darted in front of him, the first he’d ever seen in the city, and there was evidence of coyotes; at one point he ran into some deer that skittered away, although slowly, as they carefully jumped through the dangerous trash. What he saw, in this living, somewhat thriving landfill, was regeneration; transformation; slow and sure resurrection— even, as he also knew, that it would take 200 years before the aluminum will decay; 700 years for a plastic bottle; a millennia before all of the styrofoam returns to the earth. And yet it was clear— an apt reminder, that nature will make its way unbidden. Although grotesque in many ways, it was also beautiful in other ways. It was beyond what Logan had imagined— he could see a new creation being formed. (1)

As we heard the beautiful words Genesis 1 this morning, it is easy and right to get lost in the poetry of it— to hear the cadence of time and space and life; to hear the phrase over and over again, it is good; it is good; it is good.

You might think that these words, which bring so much comfort and hope, which spur our imagination to think of all the beauty of creation and the goodness of God, were written out of a time of peace and prosperity and goodness. But in fact, Biblical historians will tell us, that it was actually just the opposite. This creation story and the next creation story, because there are two creation stories in Genesis, were written during the time of the Babylonian exile— they were written in a time when the people of God were struggling with where God was, how God was at work, and why they were suffering so much. It was in this time of despair, war, and oppression, that God inspired the leaders of the people of Israel to write down these beautiful words for all to hear and to participate in speaking. Genesis 1 was written as a form of liturgy— to be memorized by families, to be sung or chanted in fields, to affirm God’s goodness and creation’s goodness in a time when that was far from obvious. And this passage from Genesis, what later became the very beginning of our Bible, affirms some things about God and creation that were in direct contradiction to the Mesopotamian world they were living in. In a world in which the Mesopotamian rulers were considered a reflection of their gods, Genesis 1 says that all people who are created are created in God’s image. In a world where the focus was on the lives of the gods and creation was seen as not very important, less than; here creation— the earth, the skies, the seas, the animals— are all named as good, receiving God’s full attention. In a world in which gods were often associated with what was considered the heavens— the sun, the moon, and the stars— here God is affirmed as creator and ruler of them all— earth, sea, sky, and heavens. In a world in which the gods were often greedy and controlling; their creation stories often focused on violence, here the God of Israel is calm, creative, affirming, and intricately connected with all of creation and humanity. This story of creation, this poem, this affirmation of faith, is a song of praise meant to give people hope and peace and assurance that what they were experiencing in the here and now— the struggle, the war, the violence, the abuse, the slavery— was not all there was. That God is good, that creation is good, that they are good— and that God is with them. (2,3) The God who created a world in which a landfill of our worst nastiness can begin to support life again is the same God who created it all in the beginning out of darkness.

We all know there is a very real tension between faith and science in our world today, one that did not originate with our generation, but has been a part of cultural life for a couple of hundred years. But that tension does not come from the Bible, that tension comes from us. The Bible was never written as an answer to the question “how” when it comes to creation or the way our world works. The Bible is instead focused on who— who is God and who are we and what difference does it make? As Karl Barth put it in a letter to his grandniece in 1965, comparing the Biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution is like comparing an organ with a vacuum cleaner. (4) But of course over the years, as the world and our perception of the world was changing rapidly, people weren’t sure how to reconcile what they thought were irreconcilable differences between science and faith. In the 1600’s when Copernicus published his theory that the earth rotated around the sun, people were appalled; aghast; they thought that this contradicted their faith and the Bible. But the Bible doesn’t say the universe is earth-centered; the people of the Bible would’ve been surprised that the earth was round. It just turned out that God’s universe is way more complex than being focused on us. The tension was with the people, not the faith. And yet it didn’t stop the church from going to Copernicus to help them figure out when to celebrate Easter because the calendar had gotten so far off alignment with the sun. We often pick and choose which science is useful and which is not. But that has nothing to do with God. There have always been people of faith who support scientific discovery, and scientists who connect their work with their faith in God. John Wesley, in the 1700’s, was avidly interested in science, believing strongly that everything we can know about the earth, about space, and about our physical bodies should be studied and used to the glory of God. He grew medicinal plants in his backyard, studied the sciences whenever he could, and often wove scientific ideas into his sermons. So as Methodists, we’ve never had a problem making sure the two are in constant conversation. Albert Einstein was once quoted, from the early 20th Century, as saying that “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.”

In this way, just as we are discovering that our minds and our bodies are not really separate, I think that it’s healthy to see that faith and science aren’t all that separate either. They have different functions in our world, of course, and, at their best, they work together. Science can lead us to discover new things about our world and about God that we may never have had reason to think about before— like what does it mean to be created in God’s image if there are other beings out there somewhere who look, communicate, and are in their world very different from us? And faith is able to influence and shape the direction that applied science takes in ways that are helpful to humanity— like when is medical intervention no longer helpful for a person to have dignity and quality of life? How does AI affect who we are and who we want to be? How do we use technology to feed people, clean water, and be good stewards of the earth, instead of making it uninhabitable for humankind?

There are also things that both science and faith, at least for the time being, can affirm together. First, that the earth and the heavens are not random, they are ordered. Genesis 1 affirms that God brings order out of chaos— that God’s creativity is never ending— that God is still creating and has created an earth that is creative as well. Science has discovered that this fundamental principle is true— that there is definite order in our world, from the smallest particle we have yet found to the biggest galaxies, there is an order; there are infinite patterns; there are mathematical equations that fit together in beautiful ways.

Science and faith also both affirm that everything we know about is interconnected and related, not separate. The Bible affirms, not only in the first chapter, but throughout, that God is creating community, is a part of that community, and that all the parts are interrelated; so that even when one thing becomes out of balance, it affects all the other parts. Science, too, affirms, more than ever before, that everything is interrelated. The smallest bit of heat, motion, or energy, changes everything.

And both science and faith are always changing. Our understanding of God is never static. It is always changing as we are changing. Our understanding of God’s world and how God interacts with the world is always changing and growing. There are foundations that we always come back to: we have the Bible as a place to stand to continue exploring how thousands of years of people before us understood what it means to be faithful to God and we take that very seriously, but on the other hand, it’s always good in faith not to take ourselves too seriously— to be able to laugh and question and doubt and explore and experience God’s Spirit in this world.

I see the same as being true in science. Scientists know that with one discovery everything changes, even as a lot stays the same. New theories are born everyday that create bridges between the theories that already exist and expand our awareness of what’s around us. That while there are foundations, places to stand, that are taken seriously and have been proven, that it’s often when we take our ideas too seriously that we miss things that are obvious.

And perhaps the most simple connection, is that both faith and science start and end with humans like you and me wondering about what we do not know. Reveling in the mystery of things yet to be discovered. Accepting complexity and contradiction and wanting to know about our place in the universe. Imagining what we cannot yet see, and hoping for what we cannot yet prove.

God is with us in the questioning; in the curiosity, in the imagining of all that is possible. And God is still saying, “it is good.”

1) Logan, William Bryant. “Lessons of a Hideous Forest.” New York Times, July 20, 2019. Section SR, page 8. 2) Sarna. “Genesis” The JPS Torah Commentary 3) Brueggemann, Walter. “Genesis” Interpretation Commentary 4) Williams, Michael E., ed. “Genesis” Storyteller’s Companion Commentary