Book Preview: John Ortberg – Boiling Kettles and Remodeled Apes

tea-place-1154699-1278x855 Juan Vasquez freeimages crop

Does science disprove our faith?We might start thinking about this by considering the question of whether science is the only reliable way to acquire knowledge. Science has great prestige in our day, so this is a really important question. Are there any other kinds of knowledge besides scientific knowledge? The short answer is yes, and if we don’t recognize that, it limits the knowledge we have to live by. Because science has made such amazing progress in certain fields like medicine and technology, some people claim that the scientific method, or empirical verification, is the only way to reliable knowledge. That would mean there is no such thing as moral, spiritual or personal knowledge. This view that the scientific method is the only reliable way to knowledge is sometimes called scientism.

Sir John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge physicist and an Anglican priest, and he may be the greatest thinker about faith/ science issues in our day. He has a really helpful illustration. He invites us to imagine somebody asking, “Why is water boiling in that kettle?” One person answers, “Because burning gas is heating the water,” and another person answers, “Because I want a cup of tea.” Which answer is right? Well, they’re both right. One person is talking about impersonal, mechanical causes. That’s what science tends to do. The other answer is framed in terms of a person and purpose and intention. It is not scientific in a mechanistic way, but it’s true and it’s terribly important. So science involves a method that is enormously useful to investigate a large part of reality, but it is not the only way to know truth. For example, human life is of great value. That’s true. You know that, but you can’t put it in a test tube. It is wrong to live for selfish greed. That is moral truth. Scientism is a dogma that says any dimension that cannot be exhaustively explained by the scientific method doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Is science the only way to know something reliably? No, it’s not. It’s very important, but it’s not the only way.

Sometimes we’re told that science has shown that the universe has no purpose: that it’s just a random machine. The late Carl Sagan said, “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost between two spiral arms in the outskirts of a galaxy which is a member of a sparse cluster of galaxies, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”[i]

Notice the value-laden words: insignificant, humdrum, lost, tucked away, forgotten. Those are not scientific terms, but tucked away, forgotten. Those are not scientific terms, but they’re weighted with meaning. The idea behind statements like this is that somehow science, by showing us how immense the size and the age of the universe is, has shown us that little tiny human beings do not have unique dignity in ways that faith has taught. However, Sagan did not invent the idea that there’s a contrast between the immensity of nature and the tininess and brevity of human life. The psalmist said thousands of years ago, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Precisely the same contrast was the object of serious reflection a long time ago. But the psalmist does not go on to say, “The way to settle this one is to look at the scale of stuff in terms of physical size. I think people are huge. I think the earth is huge and the sun and the moon and the stars are tiny, so we win.” That’s not what the psalmist says. The psalmist says, “Yet, God, you have created human beings with glory and honor. You’ve crowned them, made them something like transcendent beings.” Human beings are invested with a divine image. They have this capacity to learn and create. They have the weight that comes with being a moral agent, being able to make decisions and be responsible for them, and being able to care for creation. It’s staggering.

The nonhuman elements of the universe also evoke a sense of wonder in us that is remarkably stubborn. Last Christmas break, when I was surfing at Huntington Beach, I saw something I’d never seen before. Dolphins kept swimming by a few feet away from where I was, and a couple of them had a little calf. Just seeing a little dolphin calf in the ocean was quite extraordinary, but that wasn’t the best part. At one point I looked up, and there was a big wave coming in (relative to my surfing skills), and at the top of it was a silhouette of a dolphin. I had never seen anything like this. You see posters where a bunch of dolphins have been photoshopped in, but this was the real deal—a dolphin on a wave. Then the wave broke, and the dolphin turned parallel to the shore and bodysurfed that whole wave while I just watched it go by. Then it popped out and said, “Hi, John.” (No, it didn’t do that, but it did the rest of it.) I’ll never forget that. It was phenomenal.

Wonder is the indistinguishable realization not just that something is, but that it is good. It’s the human heart echoing those words from Genesis, that God spoke and it was so, and God saw that it was good. And it is. We know that. Wonder moves us dangerously close to worship. If you’re thoughtful, you have to ask, “Is our hunger for wonder and meaning a clue to something beyond material reality?” C. S. Lewis writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. [People] feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[ii]

But now wait a minute; isn’t it now clear from science that we’re part of this world? Just the products of evolution? This has become a hot-button topic. Evolution is a really controversial thing. A little boy comes to his dad and asks him, “Dad, where did human beings come from?” and his father says, “Well, we descended from apes.” The little boy goes to his mom. “Mom, where did human beings come from?” She says, “We were created by God in God’s image.” The boy says, “But Dad said we descended from apes.” Mom says, “Well, I was talking about my side of the family.” Funny, but is there something here similar to the tea kettle example? Does a scientific description conflict with a theological statement? Only if we understand the Bible as offering a competing scientific description.

Wheaton College Old Testament professor John Walton persuades me that the books of the Bible always emerged out of a conversation in their day. People get all kinds of goofy ideas about them if they assume, “I don’t have to begin by looking at the historical context and asking what the initial readers would have understood this to mean. I can just read into it whatever I would happen to read into it out of my own time and culture and agenda.” There’s a kind of arrogance in that mindset: a failure in humility. Walton has spent a lot of time taking a look at this. There was a conversation in the ancient Mesopotamian world: “Where did we come from? How did the earth get here?” But it was very different from the conversation or the agenda in our day, and it’s critical for how we understand Genesis.

I grew up in the church, and I didn’t know about that ancient conversation. I just assumed the Bible was a magic book and that Genesis had dropped down out of heaven. It was threatening to me to find out there was a very rich conversation going on, and of course the language and concepts of that conversation were used by God in inspiring the writer of Genesis.

I believe the best reading of it, just on biblical terms, is that it’s not about how God created, or how long it took, nor is it about the role of mutation or natural selection. Those questions were not around back then. Genesis lays out the identity of human beings and our place in the cosmos with matchless, world-changing truth. Thus it’s legitimate for science to explore the questions about how and how long.

I have seen too many young people in too many churches exposed to bad science, shoddy thinking, false claims and misguided ideas (maybe well-intended but still misguided). It’s easy to think we’re defending the Bible when we’re really defending a wrong interpretation of the Bible. Then I’ve watched when very often those really bright young people go off and pursue education, begin to read and discover they were misinformed. Then they think they have to choose between the Bible and truth. But they don’t.

On the other hand, sometimes secularists will misuse the language or theory of evolution to make claims about human identity that are false and destructive. For example, a few years ago, a study found that chimps share 99.4 percent of DNA with human beings. One researcher said about this, “We humans appear as only slightly remodeled chimpanzee-like apes.”[iii]“Only slightly remodeled”—implying, based on the percentage of shared DNA, that there’s really not much difference between human beings and chimps. If you really believe that yourself, or if you wonder if that’s really true, just ask yourself if you would have a chimpanzee babysit one of your children. Would you elect one to Congress? Would you date one? Would you hold one morally accountable for its behavior? Human identity, the human condition and human worth are huge questions. They’re not going to be answered by analyses of the shared percentage of DNA with other creatures. They’re not that kind of question.

Several years ago I was at a BioLogos conference. Francis Collins and a number of other scientists who are also people of faith were there. I was struck in talking with them by how lonely so many of them said they were spiritually. I can’t tell you how often I’d sit down with somebody at that conference and hear them say, “You know, when I’m at work and I’m with a bunch of scientists, they’re really skeptical about my faith. They’re suspicious about me.” Then they’d say, “When I go to my church, they’re really skeptical about me because of my science. I feel like I don’t have a place where I really belong.” The church ought to be a place where scientists can feel at home.

I want to say to all those who do science, who teach or do research or are otherwise involved in engineering or medicine or education or biology or chemistry or physics or neuroscience: you’re doing a noble thing. You are thinking God’s thoughts after him. You are reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture. You are obeying God’s command given way back in Genesis to exercise dominion, to learn about, to be curious and discover and steward the earth. Those of us who are not scientists can only shake our heads in admiration. We are grateful and humbled, and we cheer you on. We are so glad you are a part of the body of Christ. We’re so glad and grateful and proud to be part of a community with you. Keep on learning and keep teaching us! Be patient with us.

Let’s be people who are humbly submitted to the truth. So often in our day there’s a misguided notion that some people— secularists or scientists—are open to truth and that faith is about not listening to reason and believing whatever is written down in a book. That is simply not true. The Bible is part of a great thoughtful conversation that went on for a long time with real, thoughtful people. Jesus would be the first person to tell you to follow the truth ruthlessly, wherever it leads.

Has science proven that faith is irrational and God doesn’t exist? Not by a long, long shot. Even thinking about, reading and researching these topics gives me such a sense of wonder and awe about a God who could do this. Here’s a final quote from C. S. Lewis: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”[iv]We need the whole of us, brains and all, on this journey. God, help every one of us to be open and humble before truth.

John Ortberg is an author, speaker and the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area. His most recent book is All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know? Now that their children are grown, John and his wife, Nancy, enjoy surfing the Pacific to help care for their souls.

Taken from How I Changed My Mind About Evolution edited by Kathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump. Copyright (c)2016 by Kathryn Applegate, J. B. Stump, and the BioLogos Foundation. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

You can watch John Ortberg’s contribution to last month’s BioLogos conference here.

[i]Carl Sagan, Cosmos(New York: Random House, 1980), 193.

[ii]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 136-37.

[iii]Holmes Rolston III, “Genes, Brains, Minds: The Human Complex”, in Soul, Psyche, Brain, ed. Kelley Bulkeley (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 23.

[iv]Lewis, Mere Christianity, 77-78.

8 thoughts on “Book Preview: John Ortberg – Boiling Kettles and Remodeled Apes

  1. ianebenson April 10, 2019 / 10:01 pm

    Boiling the kettle to make tea can also be analysed scientifically – because we are beings that require water to survive, because people find tea an attractive drink – giving them a lift with the caffeine, and facilitating social interaction.

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    • Mark Strange April 12, 2019 / 9:33 am

      Ian please don’t confuse them. The Science and Belief crowd will accept any explanation for a theological point. The “wanting” of the cup of tea can itself be regarded as “impersonal, mechanical causes” – the interaction between cells and the firing of neurons. As the philosopher Simon Blackburn put it, Polkinghorne is philosophically ignorant and is in “despair at humanity’s capacity for self-deception” after reviewing Polkinghorne’s work.

      Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz April 12, 2019 / 1:36 pm

      Thank you for your comments Ian and Mark. I agree that there are some reasons for drinking tea that can be explained using natural science – thirst, for example.

      But I believe that not everything in life, and particularly the big questions of meaning and purpose, can be answered with natural science. I watched Peter Atkins and Lewis Wolpert lose a debate over that – not because the room was full of Christians, but because people recognise that there are other sources of meaning in life that are important.

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      • Mark Strange April 14, 2019 / 7:49 pm

        Ruth you miss my point. The whole academic discipline (Templeton funded ‘science and religion’) is geared to issuing such vacuous statements in place of argument. The Polkinghorne quote has been rehashed multiple times by members of Biologos and Faraday, as if illuminating some profound truth or insight when, in reality, it would embarrass a first-year philosophy student. The field worships scientists who say something nice about religion irrespective of its content. I find it interesting you mention Atkins and Wolpert both men have been greatly overmatched in debates, not against religious scientists of the Templeton type (none of whom are in Wolpert or Atkins’ class as thinkers), but by philosophers like William Lane Craig and John Lennox, who have little time for the vacuous and often dishonest rhetoric of Faraday or Biologos members. About ten years ago William Lane Craig demolished Francisco Ayala on the viability of Intelligent Design. Craig is not an advocate of ID but shocked that he

        ” []had heard Ayala lecture on Intelligent Design last year in China and was dismayed by the caricatures and misrepresentations he gave to the Chinese students. So even though I had never debated intelligent design in biology before, I decided to take on this debate to try at least to set the record straight.”

        These same distortions are repeated ad nauseum by Biologos and Faraday members, especially by Denis Alexander. It seems that these groups and individuals are way more concerned with vilifying those outside the scientific mainstream and bowing to the scientific authorities. A perfect example of my second point is the absolute science when Michael Reiss was kicked out of his job at the Royal Society. CiS were silent and keep silent when Kroto, Roberts and Sulston made it clear that religious people are not real scientists, are mentally deficient and incapable of objectivity. I asked Keith Fox about this matter years ago and got no reply. By the way listen to Fox in conversation with Michael Behe and later Stephen Meyer and tell me if you can take Keith Fox seriously again.

        As Denis Alexander when questioned if science and religion (again philosophical ignorance as the question can only have meaning when it means philosophical naturalism and theism) are compatible by Larry Moran he replied “I and the Faraday Centre ignore the truths claims of religion” Yep that would do it. But it also places the claims of religion in the ‘not even wrong’ box something that members of Biologos and Faraday seem to both promote and share.

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      • Mark Strange April 18, 2019 / 8:17 pm

        Dear Ruth, it is extremely rude to engage in conversation and then back out when someone says something that you do not like. Sad and pathetic.

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        • Ruth M. Bancewicz April 24, 2019 / 5:42 pm

          Dear Mark, Thank you for your engagement. I have recently returned from holiday and am quite happy to answer as many of your questions as time allows. I’m trying to see where you are coming from – I’ve read your critique but can you explain your own views?

          I think what Polkinghorne and others are saying is that science can only answer certain kinds of questions – questions that can be answered by weighing or measuring things. Beyond this are questions that science simply cannot answer. CS Lewis said something along these lines in his essay ‘The Language of Religion’ – poetry uses language that is neither precise nor scientific, but it expresses truth very powerfully.

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  2. Mark Bovill September 14, 2019 / 8:14 pm

    Mark Strange: just a word to the wise:
    Ruth isn’t being rude by refusing to engage in your trolling. You were lucky to receive a reply at all. If you wish to engage Ruth intellectually (and politely); you’ll find that she’s more than capable of refuting your arguments.

    Like

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