27 April 2009

Stealing it back

So is evolution a weapon of unbelief, empowering the dark forces of atheism in their assault on Christendom by air, land and sea? It's sure easy to hear the dogs of war howling in the background of the weird debate over whether the NCSE is biased toward belief.

I don't have time to post my thoughts on that debate right now. Instead, I offer a talk I gave in a Calvin College chapel service in 2005, which I've been intending to share here since the beginning. The topic was the Psalms. The title was "Stealing It Back." I've edited it slightly. I think it says a lot of what I think when I see smart atheists (who I like and respect) using the chilling language of armed conflict when discussing the simple question of whether faith and science are "compatible."

Calvin College chapel
19 September 2005
"Stealing It Back"

First, a quick disclaimer about my use of the term "struggles." I do want to tell you about my journey as a Christian academic scientist and the power of God's word to bring strength into our lives. But I don't want you to think that I've had it rough or that I would ever compare the bumps in this journey to the kinds of experiences that we'd call suffering. It helps me in this regard to recall my wife's frequent response when I whine about my "struggles" (mostly unfinished grading): waa waa waa.

So seriously, some thoughts on how God's word has been a rock to me, a light unto my path. I want to highlight three questions or issues in the journey, and show how Psalm 104, a personal favorite, has been a rock for me.

Early in my career, when I was in graduate school, I'd often find myself in a conversation something like this:

"So Steve, what is it that you're studying again?" "Oh, I'm interested in the subcellular mechanisms underlying enhanced neurite outgrowth induced by steroid hormones in cultured neurons from the moth nervous system."
Well, not really...I would patiently explain that I was interested in how nerve cells grow and that I was studying the question in a model system where it was easy to do that. The next question would go something like this: "Why on earth would you want to do that?"

One person did actually ask the question just like that; typically it would be more polite, and would assume that my work had one or both of the following motivations: 1) to cure diseases (in humans, not moths); or 2) to witness to unbelievers. In fact, my work then and now does touch on both those things and they're both of obvious importance. But imagine what it sounded like to me when a church leader said to someone else, about me: "Isn't it great that Steve's there at Harvard Medical School doing research? Think of all the opportunities he has to witness to those people." It didn't seem to enter anyone's mind that studying God's creation could have a more intrinsic value than that.

It was certain of the Psalms that grounded me here, and helped me to see that my calling was not merely a vehicle to get me into the presence of the godless early and often. I'm sorry that I missed Scott Hoezee's message on Psalm 19, because I quoted that Psalm in my dissertation, writing, "the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Same goes for neuronal morphology."

Psalm 104 is an extended reflection on creation. Here's how it describes some of God's interactions with natural creation:
The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.
– Psalm 104:2-4, TNIV
and later in verse 31 the Psalmist says:
May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works.
Why look intently at the creation and try to understand it? Because it's cool; God thinks it's cool. He gets delight from it, rides around on it. He rejoices in it. To enter the examination of God's creation is to share God's delight in what he has made. It's his creation. He made it. He thinks it's great.

A second struggle I had was one that arises as a consequence of the fact that much biological science can in fact be used to help cure disease or grow food or help meet various human needs. Strangely, at least in the Christian circles we used to frequent, this created a tension between God's miraculous provision and his non-miraculous provision. There was something better about miraculous healing, for example, than healing brought about by, say, antibiotics. In fact, we did occasionally hear claims that one should forgo certain medical interventions and instead seek God's healing. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it ignores God's claims here in Psalm 104 to be behind all provision of pretty much every kind.
He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
– Psalm 104:10-16, TNIV
I'd love to try manna sometime, because I'm curious, but if you want to eat bread from God's hand, you can buy it at D&W. (If you try to buy some wine to gladden your heart, though, be prepared to show ID).

In Psalm 104, God claims every form of provision as his own. If our scientific efforts to understand spinal cord injury someday get people out of wheelchairs, God will claim that too. Psalm 104 helped me abandon the notion that non-miraculous provision is not God's provision.

The last struggle I've had as a Christian biologist has been the one you probably assumed we'd spend our whole time on. Yes, the topic is evolution. Early in my development as a Christian scientist I worried that evolution could threaten the idea of God as the creator of life. I think I know why I had this worry, and I'll talk about it in a second, but the worry disappeared over time as I learned more and more about God's limitless claims on this universe. Here in Psalm 104 God is identified as the source of just about every biological process I can think of. We've already noted his hand in the provision of food of all kinds for all kinds of creatures. (We left out lions, who "roar for their prey and seek their food from God.") Verses 24-30 are central to my hopeful commitment to biology:
How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
That word there in verse 30, "created," I learned recently, is bara, the same word used in Genesis 1-2. It was Psalm 104 that finally helped me to rest in the knowledge that whatever the process of biology that we're considering, death, reproduction, feeding, whatever...it's all God's hand. Period. Studying animal development is studying creation, Bara Creation.

Now why was this so significant for me? Well surely because it helped remove doubts I may have been harboring about God's wisdom and omnipotence as a creator. But also because it exposed for me one of the biggest lies that often crops up in discussions of biology among Christians.

You see, there are two big problems that Christians who oppose evolution seem to have with it. 1) Some Christians say it's a lousy theory and that evolution didn't happen. If you think about it, that's just an empirical question like those faced in any science all the time. 2) Some Christians say evolution can't have happened because that would mean God didn't create living things. There are whole movements in Christianity right now that are dominated by the claim that if naturalistic explanations for life are true, then God is out of the picture. I hope you'll agree that a biologist making that assumption is in dangerous territory while considering the evidence for evolution.

Psalm 104 destroys that assumption. It's simply not true that those things about life that have been explained naturally have thereby been removed from God's oversight or responsibility. Soaking in Psalm 104 helped me to finally stop worrying about what I might find while examining the living world, because whatever I find there already belongs to him.

But one last thing, and an explanation for the title of this talk. This notion that a naturally explainable phenomenon is not in God's purview ought to be laughable on its face. So where did it come from, and why is it still so strong? Why was I worried that evolution could eliminate God as Creator?

Don't have time to explore that now, but suffice it to say that some enemies of our faith (and quite a few confused Christians) are deliberately repeating and defending this nonsense, painting a picture of a God who gets smaller every time another scientific experiment is completed. It seems to me that there's been a robbery. Something rightfully God's, and ours, has been stolen.

So what should we do? Well, this is where my journey as a Christian biologist is now. It's not so much that I want people to accept evolutionary theory. I want us, as Christians, to see God as the ruler and sustainer of creation, however it might be ruled and sustained.

You're probably all too young to know much of anything about Charles Manson. He was a homicidal maniac back in the 1970's, and a famous book about him and his followers got its title from a Beatles song that Manson incorporated somehow into his wickedness. The song is called "Helter Skelter." On U2's Rattle and Hum album, you'll find a recording of "Helter Skelter" from 1987 (right around the year some of you were born). Bono introduces the song like this: "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back." This is how, reflecting on Psalm 104, I see part of my mission as a Christian biologist. Opponents of our faith stole the reverent study of the biological world from the church. We're stealing it back.

...so our response to the living world can be like that of the Psalmist after considering God's creation:
I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
– Psalm 104:33, TNIV

05 April 2009

Do you ever have this nightmare?

I think I stopped having this dream sometime when I was a postdoc. Or maybe I didn't shake free till I got a real job... Mine was always a language class, so everyone was jabbering away in Spanish or something, just to magnify the horror.