Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God.

The questions worth asking

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Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God.
Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God.

A very recent conversation has reminded me once again of how utterly confused many folks have become about the relationship between religion and science, and how damaging that confusion is for religion. The only way I can see to begin to straighten out this confusion is to be as clear as possible on the fact that science and religion are asking different questions of the universe.

Take for example creation. From the Big Bang down to evolutionary theory, the question science asks is how did things come to be? That is not in the least the questions that the creation stories of Genesis are asking. The questions that the first, second and third chapters of Genesis ask are, “Is there order and meaning in the universe?” and “Are we related to anything in this universe bigger than ourselves?”  The answers to these questions are given in the way they were given in every ancient culture, through creation myths that reached out, in faith, to the God beyond the immediacy of observation. They answered each of those questions with a “Yes.” Yes, there is order in the universe. Yes, there is meaning to existence, and yes, we are related to something bigger than ourselves.

It is no wonder we get horribly confused if we imagine that religion is asking the same questions of the universe as science. And it is no wonder that in that confusion religion must lose.

For the world was not created in six days, and modern human beings did not emerge all at once, complete and whole, by divine fiat. That isn’t how it happened, and if religion continues to misunderstand its own primary questions, religion will ultimately lose. In this sense it is vital for religious people to note that religion and science are two different disciplines asking different questions. If we don’t get that figured out, and soon, everyone will be in trouble.

It is also important to notice that at times the answers that religion and science give to their respective questions do converge. Science, asking the question of physical origins, has demonstrated that we all descend from a common ancestor. Indeed, all life descends from a common life form. Religion, asking a different question, has drawn the same conclusion; we are related, one to another. We come from a single source, we share a common ancestor. The reason for this convergence is simple; it is true. Both Religion and Science have come upon a basic truth of existence from two very different paths, and have expressed that truth from two very different perspectives.

We live in a world dominated by science, and there is much that is good about that. It is up to us as religious people to make clear that we are not competing with science, we are not even supplementing science. Rather, we are asking questions of the universe that are as old as humanity itself, questions of meaning, purpose and destiny that science does not address, and woe betide us all if, in our confusion, we either insist that we are asking the same questions as science, or worse, decide that our questions must not be worth asking any more.


About Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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  1. Hello Bill, I’m Riff.

    Must have been an interesting conversation.

    While I can agree that it would appear many folks are confused about relationships between religion and science, I cannot follow that it is because each asks inherently different questions of the universe.

    I’ve yet to hear a sound argument convincing me the domains of religion and science do not overlap.

    I’m not sure from where the specific “religious” questions you quote are referenced, but I can think of many more simply stated questions that both religions and science do aim to answer.

    To me the difference between each context is not so much specific questions, but specific methodologies embraced in going about answering different questions.

    Each has its merits depending on context.

    Religions and mythologies have been sources for answers a lot longer than science.

    In a free society, it is up to the individual whether to accept or reject what either offers up as advice.

    The difference in my mind is that religion is more like a trusted friend.

    There will always be need for the encompassing wisdom of a true friend who knows you best.

    I do not believe the world needs argue anymore about the relationship between religion and science.

    Each need simply focus upon that for which it is best designed.

    (In this way, I agree with you.)

  2. It should be noted that there remains a sizable block of Americans (45% or so) who decidely do not accept the idea of common descent, and for whom any whiff of theistically driven evolution is part of Satan’s master plan. They are motivated no less by deep religious faith than their counterparts, and show not only just how fluid the verities of religious truth can be but how religious beliefs all too easily collide with the activities of science.

    The issue, as my NOMA-D postings have sought to explore, is whether the science/religion dichotomy is all that overarching or appropriate a way to approach the fundamentals of knowledge and belief. The problem is what happens when a religious assertion about the decidably observable universe and the observations themselves are in conflict? 18th and 19th century geologists weren’t imagining that the Bible conceived of the history of all things in much shorter terms than their observations were suggesting.

    More “liberal” exigetes accommodate themselves with the anomaly, rearranging the doctrines to act as if they had been for it all along, while more “conservative” advocates stand firm and try to tinker with the data (or at least what bits of it they elect to think about) to keep the “true facts of sciene” in concordance with the non-negotiable doctrine. NOMA-D notwithstanding, that contentious arena is both inevitable and unresolvable.

  3. Respectfully, I would like to add a capsule of insight to my original comments upon Bill’s post.

    I have deep faith in our younger generations. This faith is based upon decades of exploring my own hypotheses through empirical analyses, exploration and experimentation. Today, I have concluded that neural networks of many within older generations were hardwired to think in binary fashion. Dig into the latest research in neuroscience and you will find many indicators pointing in this direction. And, watch our language closely. Just mentioning religion and science in the same sentence imparts implication of a binary that does not exist across any rational landscape of understanding behind the vast implications each word intends to convey. Pay close attention. The most popular entertainment today is rapidly demonstrating across art forms that thought forms commonly thought to exist fundamentally as juxtaposed binaries are actually more accurately thought as points along spectral tapestries. Logic dictates when perception in such a way realigns; no longer do inevitable or unresolvable dichotomies exist.

    With our help, tomorrow’s leaders will sort this all out just fine. 🙂

  4. Hey Bill,

    Actually, I don’t see the first 3 chapters of Genesis asking any questions at all. They make one declarative statement after the other confirming that the transcendent God created this universe we live in out of nothing. And I don’t find it at all confusing as opposed to, nothing, nothing, nothing, bang, everything, caused by nothing. That seems more like magic to me.

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