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Thursday, April 27, 2006

god and the astronomers

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

That was Robert Jastrow's conclusion to his 1978 book God and the Astronomers. At the time, the Big Bang theory had only been firmly established for a little over a decade. In his book Jastrow describes the lines of evidence that finally forced scientists to acknowledge what many of them did not want to accept: that the universe has not always existed, and that there was a time -- even if just for a miniscule fraction of a second at the very beginning -- when the known laws of physics did not apply.

Scientists, the majority of whom had previously believed in an infinite universe, were forced to change their thinking. The Big Bang, which many scientists had dismissed as religious dogma disguised in scientific language, had won the day. The theologians, who had always insisted on a finite universe, were right.

And so it is now that cosmologists, when speaking about the early universe, often refer to "God". Still, very few of them believe in a personal deity. Indeed, Jastrow himself remains an agnostic.

In Marcus Borg's four types of faith paradigm, these scientists have assensus faith. They look at the evidence and accept the conclusions it suggests to them. As new evidence comes in the conclusions may be revised, but the methodology remains constant: Examine first, then accept the results.

This is not the faith of religious belief. No, contrary to what some churches teach, Jesus never asked any of his followers to merely accept him. Instead, Jesus asked for his disciples' trust and their loyalty, even (or especially) at times when his followers did not understand his mission -- and those times were many.

Jesus did not come to bring new knowledge, he came to bring a new way of living. He introduced the kingdom of God, in which the least were the greatest, and the sick and the poor received special care. The rules of the known universe seemingly did not apply.

If Jesus's message was revolutionary back then, it remains revolutionary today, because no earthly government and no society even remotely resembles Jesus's vision of the kingdom of God. It's certainly not for lack of knowledge; we are constantly learning new facts about our universe, our globe, our nations, our cultures, and even the individual human brain. Yet all the knowledge we can ever possess will not build us the kingdom of God.

Still, for some it is tempting to get stuck on assensus. Apologetic books like Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ examine the lines of evidence and ask the reader to make a judgment. Unfortunately, many people are not convinced by such arguments. Jeffrey Jay Lowder of Internet Infidels offers critiques of both McDowell and Strobel. Frankly, looking solely at the objective evidence, I'd lean more towards Lowder's position than that of the apologists.

The thing is, the God I worship cannot be reduced to something that can be measured objectively. God just won't fit in that box. What's more, the elements of faith -- trust, loyalty, hope, visions of the kingdom -- don't fit in that box either. Genuine faith is not rooted in the things we can see.

Empirical studies have their place; we can learn a lot from what the scientific method can show us. But as Robert Jastrow acknowledged more than a quarter century ago, empiricism has its limits. Scientists may spend decades conducting research, only to reach the same conclusion the theologians have known for centuries. And even then, the scientists may not grasp its true significance.



At 4/28/2006 5:47 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Very nice, thank you! I ran into you over on Monastic Mumblings. Nice to see another Kansan, even though I'm an expatriate right now. I grew up in Manhattan where my father was a molecular physicist at KSU all his career.

At 5/01/2006 12:18 PM, Blogger see-through faith said...

but it is great that the theologians were sitting there anyway

At 5/03/2006 6:45 PM, Blogger Martin LaBar said...

Good Job. I found this through the Christian Carnival.

At 7/11/2009 3:29 AM, Blogger Kevin Probst said...

Nicely written. I've been studying apologetics under Dr. Phil Fernandez. Listening to his lectures on Creation when I became more interested in Jastrow. Thanks for your contribution.


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