May 14, 2023
Rev. David Collins
Green Faith, Week Four
The title of today’s sermon is “How Christians can be actual scientists…and that means YOU”
You may wonder what I mean by the term “actual scientists”. So let me start out by explaining that.
When I say actual scientists, I mean people who are scientific and rational in just about every aspect of their lives. They may still knock on wood occasionally, but in just about every other way, they follow the science. I feel like I have to specify the word “actual” because you and I both know there are lots of ways to be scientific in one part of your life, and really really not in the rest.
We’ve all heard of surgeons who don’t believe in vaccines or evolution. It seems like it’s always surgeons too. Why is that?
So when I say actual scientists today, try not to hear professional scientists or full time scientists. You don’t have to have a white coat to be an actual scientist. All you have to be is someone who sees that being scientific in just about every aspect of your life is in no way in conflict with being a Christian. In fact, I think it’s the most faithful way to be a Christian today.
Because at the heart of actual Christianity is the belief that God so loved the world, not part of the world, not just humanity, but the whole world, so much that God became a part of the world. God entered into actual reality, the material world, and blessed it again. (The first time was when he made it and over and over again called it good)
We believe that God the Son took on carbon molecules, that is, flesh and blood, made from the remnants of exploded stars, just like everything else, and lived a life that favored the poor and marginalized, as a part of an historic people of the poor and oppressed, was killed because of his opposition to those who used their power to defend the status quo, and was resurrected to show that God endorsed his kind of life, not the other kinds. And when he was resurrected, the scriptures say that he kept the scars from his execution, and then bodily ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Which means, for one thing…that he kept the molecules.
God the Son, the second person of the triune God, is still currently made of star stuff.
So while very strict materialists don’t see any need for religion, I think that Christians should highly value materialism. (The philosophical kind, not the kind where you do a lot of shopping.)
The universe and everything in it operates by observable laws and processes, it’s a closed system. God entered into that system, so we don’t need to look for explanations for how things work or how things can be fixed from outside it.
The solution to most of the problems facing our planet isn’t prayer. It’s science.
And I believe that is a thoroughly Christian thing to say.
Sure, sometimes we pray for miracles. But in the face of the problems that are facing us as a people and a planet, we should be praying for the strength and energy to do the things that we already know need to be done. Scientists don’t pray for their failed experiments to somehow become successful. They pray for the strength to carry on until one day they find one that works.
That’s what I mean by actual scientists.
Another reason to use the word “actual” is because of the plethora of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories that call themselves science and tend to loiter around the church.
Pseudoscience has a real grip on certain parts of the church. The most obvious offender is Creation “science” which is an attempt to defend Biblical literalism against the fossil record, geology, and the fact that the radioactive half lives of certain molecules, and the observable background radiation from the Big Bang shows that the universe is far older than their reading of the Bible suggests. For instance, they believe the Grand Canyon was caused by the flood in 40 days.
I’m not very good at talking about creation science without sounding condescending and superior, because, well, authenticity is important to me, and that’s how I really feel. But if you’d like to engage with some people who are much nicer, smarter, and overall better than me about it, then please go to Biologos.org. There is so much amazing content there written by sincere Christians who are actual scientists.
Belief in one kind of pseudoscience opens you up to consider others too, which can be dangerous since most forms of bigotry often cloak themselves in it. And they all go hand in hand with
Conspiracy theories, like the flat earth society (which interestingly started out as a debate club for people to practice their skills by arguing for a premise they knew to be ridiculous before being taken over by people who…aren’t very smart. That’s the problem with pretending to be an idiot online. Real idiots can’t tell you’re joking).
All three of these things like to call themselves science, which often leads us to try and argue with people who believe them on a scientific basis, using evidence and reason. But, as the saying goes, you can’t logic someone out of a position they didn’t logic themselves into.
When you can’t talk about something you know to be true, but you still 100% believe it to be true, this often leads to Arrogance.
Conspiracy theorists are arrogant about their conspiracies because they make them feel like the only smart people in the world, and rational people get arrogant in response because we’re so proud to not be rubes. It’s a problem among mostly rational people too. Those who make discoveries that go against academic consensus find that out real quick. Our political divides are characterized by arrogance. And we all feel justified in our arrogance because the other side is so wrong, but then we need to remember that they feel the same way too!
No one can talk to those outside of their bubbles because of all the arrogance. Lucky for us, and unlucky for the world, that’s the way it’s always been. So we have a good word about it in our scripture today.
The apostle James was one of the first leaders of the early church. He was Jesus’s half brother. Can you imagine having Jesus as your older brother? James reacted the same way we would have too…until he witnessed his resurrection, that is. He must have come around real quick after that. So he became one of the early leaders of the church, along with Jesus disciples like Peter and John.
The one letter we have from him has some of the most practical teachings in the whole New Testament. In today’s scripture, he teaches the first Christians about wisdom and we get to overhear and apply it to our situation today, which is admittedly very different from the original context, but people are the same now as they were then in many ways. The first thing James says about wisdom is this:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:5-8)
Now, on the surface, this passage does not sound like a very scientific approach to truth. On the surface, it sounds very spiritual, like real wisdom is revealed only to special leaders, but look again.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly,
Truth is not a special possession for any one leader or group, one side or the other. It’s given to all generously and ungrudgingly. It can’t be reduced. If you have some, that doesn’t mean there’s less for me.
6 But ask in faith, never doubting,
Faith here isn’t the way that we possess the truth, it’s the way that we ask for it. The way that we look for it,. We are to ask for wisdom, to pursue truth, knowing that we will find it if we pursue it with tenacity.
Our world has gotten so despondent about truth, so jaded. The consensus is doubt. How can you really know if anything is really true. Truth claims have become tribal. Your group believes that, my group believes this….there’s no reason for us to talk. And if you’re not committed to a tribe, you end up like this doubter in James:
for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; double-minded and unstable
You know the type. The guy, and it’s usually a guy, who can argue against just about every point? Sometimes he even argues against himself! The only thing he knows is that you can’t really know anything, except that everyone’s got an angle, and everyone’s just in it for themselves. Being good at arguing has no real connection to knowing the truth.
So what does it mean to actually be wise, or in our case today, to be an actual scientist? The next time that James speaks about wisdom really lays it out. It’s printed in your bulletin if you’d like to follow along. Here’s what it says:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
This is terrible advice for getting views on social media, or winning an election.
14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.
This word for selfish ambition is the same word Paul used to describe the political ambitions of some church leaders he knew, that they preached Christ out of selfish ambitions, not sincerely. And you see this kind of thing in the church all the time, and in academia, and especially in politics. But it’s not the path for us as Christians, or as rational people, as actual scientists.
15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
Trying to make your mark, or get noticed, or even to get ahead in life is not the way to become wise. And as we look at this through the lens of green faith, and our calling to follow the science to take care of the Earth and the people in it, we need to learn to recognize that many truth claims come from people’s selfish ambitions and ability to argue, and that the truth is arrived at in a different way.
We need to know HOW we know what we know, and not just who else seems to know it. Things don’t become true because they’re said loudly, or chanted by enough people. This next verse shows us how to tell the difference.
17 But the wisdom from above
Here’s the first thing about wisdom we have to know, it goes for truth and science and all that, too. It’s from above. It’s from outside of yourself. It does not depend on your feeling of certainty, or your tribal confidence. It’s just true whether you believe it or not.
So you don’t have to get upset about it if someone else doesn’t believe it. If you want them to believe it too, then you need to help them see it the way that you do. When it comes to truth, especially when it comes to science, there’s not something to defend so much as there is something to demonstrate.
James goes on with this great list of characteristics that unpacks this idea. They apply to your life and relationships, but I think they really apply to science, too.
This wisdom, is first pure,
There’s no angle in it for you, or your cronies. We’re so used to everything being corrupt that purity strikes us as weird. If we can’t see how the wheels are being greased, we get more suspicious. But that’s because we’re so far gone. Wisdom, knowledge, truth, is pure. It doesn’t belong to a political party. It doesn’t need to appeal to anyone’s biases. It’s pure. We should want it just because it’s good and right, not because it appeals to our appetites.
Other translations render this word as peace-loving. I like that better. The truth doesn’t defeat you, it sets you free.
When what you believe is true, there’s no need to get loud about it. You can teach, and show. And best of all, help people to discover it for themselves. Now, this next one is the bedrock of the scientific method, and it should be a characteristic of every Christian too.
willing to yield,
This word sometimes gets translated as submissive, or open to reason. That is, wise people don’t think that ideas are right because they happened to have them, or even because they make sense to them. Wise people, actual scientists, are willing to yield.
First and foremost, they are willing to yield to reality. Reality doesn’t care how many people agree with you, or how important they might be. It doesn’t care that you had a long meeting around a really nice table. Reality doesn’t bend to you. You have to yield to it.
That’s the basis of science. Science isn’t about memorizing facts, or learning to argue. It’s about research and experimentation. Gathering facts. Measuring things. Collecting and organizing evidence, then building a hypothesis to explain them. Then, most importantly, testing these hypotheses. The best experiments aren’t designed to prove a hypotheses right, but to prove it wrong. If you can eliminate all the wrong possibilities, what you’re left with must be right, or at least as close as you can get.
Science is more about being less wrong than being right. There’s an openness there, a lack of ego (hopefully). The truth is not something to be defended, but uncovered, and gradually revealed by the work of generations.
Being less wrong is so much more compatible with Christianity than other approaches to truth. Isn’t that what we come here to do every week? To strip away a little bit of the wrong that clings to us, and that we cling to, to reveal who we really are? Who Christ is in us?
We confess our faults and our falsehoods, not worried about what will be left, if anything, because we trust God with the rest, because God is
full of mercy
And so is wisdom. Wisdom is so forgiving of our falsehoods and mistakes. There’s no reason to feel guilty about them. But when we see what’s better, truer, wiser, why would we keep holding on to them?
and good fruits,
Wisdom isn’t just about what you know, but what you do. If discoveries don’t translate into the need for action, then they aren’t genuine. Why do you think climate scientists are so urgent that we do something about the crisis we’re in? Because they’ve seen and understand the evidence! Since it is a genuine discovery, they are anxious to do something about it.
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
Wisdom like this isn’t just for the environment or for science. The truth will set you free in every aspect of your life.
What if you were an actual scientist in more parts of your life?
What if you used the principles scientists use to uncloud your thinking and see things a bit more clearly?
What problems have you been trying to solve the same way over and over again and what you’re doing doesn’t seem to work?
What if, instead of asking your friends, who always seem to agree with you, you asked God to give you the energy and insight to look for evidence that might prove you wrong? God might answer that prayer through a professional like a therapist. If you want to approach the problems in your life like an actual scientists, then you’ll want to bring your best efforts to them, and enlist the help of others who are smarter and more experienced than you, too.
Science never settles for easy answers. You shouldn’t either.
This passage in James ends like this:
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
We think of peace as the cessation of conflict. That if everyone just knew what we know, peace would just happen. So all we need to do is educate ourselves, and hope that everyone does the same. But the Biblical idea of peace is so much fuller than that. Peace in the Bible is a presence, a fullness, a completion for the whole planet. And it has to be made. It doesn’t just happen.
So often, in our minds, we make the perfect the enemy of the good. We think that what we need is one perfect idea, one amazing solution that convinces everyone instantly, and if we can’t find it, then we’ll stick with what we know. But peace isn’t made that way.
Peace, for us personally and the for planet, is more about being less wrong. And that means getting more excited about incremental changes.
Statistics matter. Reducing deaths, from climate change or guns or disease by percentage points doesn’t make for gripping headlines, but those percentage points are real lives. There are no viral news stories when a law based on reason keeps someone from buying a gun, or using a chemical that makes the planet slightly more dangerous for human life, but those are the kinds of peace-making we need so desperately.
This verse speaks about seeds being sown and harvested, and we all know that takes time. There aren’t instant results, but it works. Seeds just need time to sprout.
So go do that. Go make peace. Go be less wrong. Go and be an actual scientist.