There was a letter in the News-Sentinel this week that caught my attention. It was written in response to a previous letter, which may well have been written in response to a previous letter, which could very well have been written in response to a previous letter. Such letters have been appearing in newspapers, especially East Tennessee newspapers, at least since July 13, 1925. That date marks the beginning of the trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee.
Scopes lost that trial and was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of evolution. However, the conviction was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court. The reversal came not because the Supreme Court gave merit to the reasons presented for the appeal, but because of a technicality. The judge in Dayton had sentenced Scopes to pay a fine of $100.00. At that time, judges in Tennessee could not impose fines of over $50.00. Juries had to do the imposing if the fine was over $50.00.
Even though the Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s decision, and only overturned it because of the technicality, Chief Justice, Grafton Green, recommended that the case be dropped as it was not in the State’s interest to pursue further prosecution.
For the most part, Justice Green’s advice has been ignored through the years as the issue has continued to be debated in courtrooms, newspapers and throughout the court of public opinion. At times, the debate has risen to great heights and employed the expansive, technical vocabulary of both science and theology. Unfortunately, the basic tenor of the argument all too often seems to resemble a playground dispute rather than a learned debate. I am right, you are wrong. I am intelligent, you are superstitious. I am holy, you are godless. I am educated, you are backward. I am righteous, you are hell-bound. The debate continues. As to whether or not it is a helpful debate, well, that is debatable.
The question seems to get the most muddled when those involved in the conversation seek to address concerns beyond their fields of expertise. Namely, theologians try to be scientists and scientists try to be theologians. Science tends to be empirical. It collects data through experimentation and observation in order to formulate and test a hypothesis. Theology is an effort to speak about God. God rarely fits into the categories and methods of science. While science and theology share common concerns at various points, particularly around the ethical and moral dimensions of new discoveries and innovations, they each have their own unique task. Science seeks to understand life and how its many parts relate to one another. Theology seeks to understand the meaning of life and its ethical implications in light of our relationship with God.
Theologians in general, and those who would speak on behalf of the church in particular, would do well to exercise restraint in scientific matters. The church’s record is not so good in this area. In 1633, Galileo who was found to be suspect of heresy, was imprisoned and banned from publishing any of his work. His crime was that he believed that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the sun around the earth, as the church taught. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, conceded that the earth was indeed not stationary. In the 1800s, Church people in the southern United States took great pains to justify the peculiar institution of slavery based on their belief that persons of African decent were inferior mentally, socially and perhaps worst of all in the eyes of God. In 1995, 150 years after a founding rooted in the perpetuation of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention repented of its wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness. To be certain there have been other times and places throughout history when religious people have arrived at conclusions that lacked any factual basis. That has not kept them from acting and speaking as if their version of the truth was, in fact, the accurate and correct one.
The tragedy of such errors is that they are unnecessary, at least from a theological perspective. If God is God, maker and creator of all that we can see and know, there is no discoverable or observable truth that can contradict God. God needs little from God’s creation in the way of defense or bolstering. No truth that is, in fact, truth can diminish God, as such truth only has its existence within the creative activity of God. Those who believe in the one who is truth embodied ought to celebrate truth wherever and whenever it is found.
There are questions each of us ask about our lives that our belief in and understanding of God can help us answer. What is right and what is wrong? How responsible am I for meeting the needs of other people? What is really important in life? What is my purpose? Can I be forgiven for my mistakes? Do I matter in this world? Do I matter to God? In fact, some of these sorts of questions are difficult if not impossible to answer without an understanding of God and God’s claims on our lives. Suffice it to say that there are some questions that arise out of our life together that science is better equipped to answer, and some that are better suited for theological answers.
Which matters most to God; what we think about how the earth was created, or how we treat the earth? The prophet Isaiah sees a vision of:
The earth that is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgressions lie heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. (Isaiah 24:19-20).
Isaiah speaks these words in response to a crisis. The poor and needy are being mistreated. Political and religious leaders are failing in responsibilities. People are worshipping false gods. While such actions may not seem to pose a threat to the welfare of the planet, Isaiah understands that there is a connection between morals and mountains, between ethics and earth. Human sin strikes at the heart of God’s creation. The prophet’s words, spoken centuries ago, take on a troubling new meaning as we have increased our capacity to break, tear and shake God’s creation.
What does it matter who created the earth if we treat it like it is just another easily replaceable item that we can pick up at the grocery store? Does God care whether or not we give God credit for creating the earth, if we fail to see in it the sacred wonder of God’s handiwork? Does it matter to God that we acknowledge God’s creative activity if, by the way we live our lives, we are undoing God’s creation?