This column was published by UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on September 18, 2006.
This week’s column is dedicated to Al Vogel, Jane Orbuch, Bob Miller and Robert Jamgochian, my science teachers at Mendocino High School. With gracious good humor they indulged me as I attempted to discredit the legacy of Charles Darwin, equipped as I was, with a mere middle school diploma.
If starting at the very beginning is, indeed, a very good place to start, then September is the time when high school biology classes grapple with the origins of life. For many teachers this means facing the objections of students and parents who consider evolutionary science to be an offense against God.
In my younger and more evangelical years, I was only acquainted with the alternative to evolution proposed by most Christians. This was some form of “Creation Science,” that replaced the insights of Darwin and his intellectual descendants with a strict and literal reading of certain passages from the Bible that appear to tell the story of the cosmos’ earliest days.
But in recent years the movement to teach creation science in public schools seems to be losing momentum and is being superceded by theories of “Intelligent Design.”
Intelligent Design is a belief that the cosmos is so well ordered that it cannot have come into being as the result of pure chance. The inner working of the human eye, for example, or the circulation system of a giraffe, or the movements of the stars are all so wonderful, so miraculous, that their existence only can be explained as being the handiwork of a Creator. The appeal of Intelligent Design is that it is religious without being sectarian, and it affirms science without rejecting God.
I believe in Intelligent Design. As John Calvin once observed, the “skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.1) I concur, but I don’t believe that Intelligent Design should be taught as science because Intelligent Design isn’t science.
It is the work of science, using proper measurements and sound experimentation, systematically to explore and objectively to describe the universe in which we live, but it is impossible to quantify or verify the mind of God using scientific tools. Philosophers, not scientists, must ask whether or not the cosmos as explored and described by science is a well-ordered place, and theologians must ask whether or not such order points to a creating and sustaining God.
And there is some question about whether or not the creation points to an intelligent God. Thirteen years as a pastor has taught me to be very careful about extolling the perfection of God’s cosmic architecture. As a clergyman, it is my work to be present at times of great human tragedy. When a member of my congregation loses a loved one to an unpreventable malady, I share the sorrow. When a person’s mind has failed, throwing them into depression or senility, I walk with them. When the natural forces cause damage in the lives of God’s children around the world, I lead the congregation as we participate in a compassionate response.
For all of the wonder of nature, the creation is full of tears and profound suffering. Science cannot provide answers to the questions raised by tragedies such as cancer and AIDS, earthquakes and famine. These are questions for philosophers and theologians.
In order for our society to make moral sense of scientific discovery, and in order for us better to understand the forces behind natural calamity there must be a conversation between science and philosophy and theology. To converse, however, is not to co-opt, and when one discipline tries to do the work of the other, things get muddled.
So I say let our students study science, and let them be philosophers, too. Both are noble subjects. The students who are spiritually inclined won’t need the reassurances of a freshman biology teacher to remember that creation is a gift of grace; the students who are attentive to the fullness of life will know to look to the wisdom of their faith traditions for answers that science cannot provide.