Following Scientists

Sometimes I feel genuinely guilty that the part of a sermon that sticks with me the most is one that I simply find incompatible with what I feel to be right (and often, not even the gist of the sermon, as you’ll see here). Now, I am probably towards the opposite end of the Presbyterian (PCUSA) spectrum from Dr. Goodloe and that’s fine; he being quite a bit more conservative where as I am fairly liberal. I don’t expect everyone in our large denomination, nor even our congregation, to agree with me let alone it’s leaders. To the contrary, the diverseness of both Presbyterians and GCPC are one of things I find most appealing about them.

As Jim teaches through various books of the Bible (New Testament, in particular), yesterday brought us to John again. The particular sermon centered around the versus where-in some of John’s followers worry about how many are going to follow Jesus instead (and why John is happy about that). However, one thing about Jim’s sermon yesterday, titled "All Are Going to Him!" [.pdf] stood out to me and I’ve not been able to get it out of my head since (emphasis & footnote mine):

[H]ow shall we respond to Jesus Christ? We shall be the disciples of Jesus Christ or we shall follow another. There is no other choice. Will it be Jesus, or will it be Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Hitler, Sagan1, or Dawkins? Whom shall we follow? We shall receive the baptism of Jesus Christ or we shall refuse it. There is no half-way. We shall go to Jesus Christ or we shall run away and go to another. No one remains unaffiliated.

Now, I don’t think that the mentioning of a number of scientists (in addition to an economist and brutal dictator) along side a handful of prophets was meant to bother me or anyone, but it unfortunately did. It bothered me for a couple of different, although possibly related reasons.

First, it is unfair to characterize science, philosophy and politics as something to be followed as a disciple, particularly in this context. To be sure, many of the thinkers listed have been seen as controversial to Christians and, to varying degrees, counter to its understood teachings (at least to some at the time). Freud, Nietzsche, and for this point, Marx while not studying nature were attempting to study and understand humanity. The held revolutionary positions, many of which are still debated today. However, they were never worshiped (to my knowledge) and no one ever relied on them for redemption. Further, they were thinkers with many ideas and accepting one of those notions does not require one to accept them all. One could agree that Freud was entirely correct in approach to psychotherapy and still reject his philosophy or vice versa.

As for Hitler, surely following his beliefs ran counter to the teachings of Christ and further the Nazi world certainly bordered on being a cult if any political ideology ever did2. However, Hitler was not the head of any religion but of a political party. Having many followers, no matter how despicable and evil it and it’s ethos was, didn’t make it a religion anymore than following Churchill, Kennedy, or Reagen were religions. A cult of personality is simply not a religion, certainly not when we are genuinely discussing theology.

Some scientists do certainly have their own cult of personality and certainly Darwin, Sagan and Dawkins made this list for that. But they are not a religion to be followed, either, any more than a human philosophy or a political ideology is and perhaps even less so. Science does not hope to govern or to dictate the acts of men. In general, it only seeks to uncover that which humanity does not govern. Just because I agree that F = m·a does not make me a disciple of Newton, but rather a person who prescribes to a theory of physical mechanics. Further, just because some other scientist has a theory that seems contrary to one’s faith does not make anyone who agrees with that controversial theory a disciple of that individual.

That being said, I come to my second issue. I suppose Dawkins more likely in this list for his pro-atheist, anti-organized religion rhetoric as much as his evolutionary biology teachings. To that end, this is why I find Dr. Goodloe’s statement just as opposable as I do Dawkins’. Science and religion are not in some sort of eternal conflict struggling for our minds and will. We do not decide between them. Science is, at it’s core the study of the natural world. If one believes in Christ and a God, then one believes that God made that world. The study of God’s creation is, in essence, analogous to the study of God’s word, but not in opposition to it. Of course, scientists may be wrong. So might theologians, correct? However, unlike theologians, empirical evidence will support or deny the scientist. Further evidence for or against any theologian, possibly by definition, cannot be attained in this world.

Science does not deny Christ and I find it odd that anyone would argue that being a disciple of Christ requires one to disavow science (or any single scientist). I don’t know that this was Jim’s intent, but certainly his unfortunate choice of people struck a chord with me (a dissonant one, anyway). I do see the theological value in arguing that one must choose one, and only one, savior. However, it is important to not confuse things that cannot and are not saviors with those that to some would be. To a Christian, by definition, there is no alternative but Christ. For others who do not know, still seek, or believe in another, they too can still understand the theological basis of the ultimatum. For the atheist, is a trivial choice as they believe in no savior. However, I cannot help but find it dishonest of us to characterize those who would study God’s natural wonders as being against Christ.

I don’t mean to be argumentative with Dr. Goodloe as first of all, this was not the main point of his sermon and secondly, I think the point he was getting at is valid from a theological standpoint. I just simply take issue with the chosen examples as it furthers what is, to me anyway, a false choice. I do not wish to make some sort of example of my minister and personally, I find Dr. Dawkins’ statements to be much more egregious in this area and the corollary of this post holds true for the so-called New Atheists as well. It’s just that hearing this from someone closer yesterday made me motivated enough to write on it.

  1. When I heard this, I actually thought Jim said "Satan" which really shocked me. Mainly, because Satan isn’t really something Presbyterians ministers preach a great deal on and further it really seemed odd on this list. Carl Sagan, no matter how I feel that he doesn’t deserve to be on this list, either, makes more sense given the context of Jim’s sermon. []
  2. This holds true for any current fascism as well. However, as Hitler was the example I’ll stick to the Nazi party of the 30’s and 40’s. []

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