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Exploring our thoughts: Science, theology meet

Jan. 26, 2010

Profs discuss unity, separation of two disciplines

By Caty Hirst
Staff Writer

Science and theology have been enemies since Nicolaus Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the universe, and the rift just widened with Darwinism and carbon dating of the Earth. Now, some Baylor faculty members are trying to unite science and theology, convinced the two do not contradict.

Dr. Donald Schmeltekopf, provost emeritus and director for the Center for Ministry Effectiveness, headed a conference at the First Baptist Church of Austin on Saturday entitled "Science and Faith Breaking Down the Wall."

Dr. Barry Harvey, professor of theology in the honors college, began the conference with a lecture entitled "What's God Got To Do With It: Why Theology and the Physical Sciences are Not in (Epistemic) Competition."

Harvey emphasized that the Bible and the physical sciences explore two different types of knowledge, which do not conflict or compete with each other. He gave the example of the creation story.

"The knowledge offered by the Bible aims at establishing a different set of relations with the world and the one who brought it into being out of nothing," Harvey said in an interview Monday.

The physical sciences explore creation by the changes that have occurred and what brings about those changes. He said the physical sciences seek to establish relations with the physical world though measurements, predictions, and manipulations. The Bible is trying to convey God's power and involvement with the world.

Harvey said the creation story helps the church see itself in relation to a triumphant God so that life and freedom can flourish. He said poetic images, such as God scooping up dirt to make the human being in Genesis Chapter 2, makes God's involvement with man and man's involvement with God intimate and concrete.

"The parables use material that is drawn from the everyday world, though they do not describe events that occurred at a certain time and place," Harvey said. "The parables are still true in what they tell us about God and God's dealings with his wayward creatures, even if that knowledge is not of the kind given us by either the writers of history or physical scientists."

Dr. Gerald Cleaver, associate professor in the physics department, followed Harvey with his lecture titled "Faith and the New Cosmology."

Cleaver outlined the basics of string theory, the fundamental particle of the universe, and talked about how human kind has perceived the universe in the past and the current understanding of the universe.

"It has gone from something very simple to a more accurate perception of reality," Cleaver said.

"For example, Genesis was written in the context of the three-leveled universe. Basically you have the flat earth, the ocean on which it floated, and then below that was the land of the dead."

Cleaver said mankind has gone from this three-leveled perception to a geocentric view of the universe, in which the earth is the center, to a heliocentric view where the sun is the center.

Scientists now know there are many galaxies, and Cleaver said there are indications in modern cosmology that there are many universes.

Cleaver said it is important to note that Genesis was written during a time period when knowledge about the universe was limited, and people must read Genesis with the new knowledge scientists have recently uncovered.

Dr. Phyllis Tippit, lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, has a doctorate in geology and spoke on Earth's evolution. At the conference, Tippit gave a lecture titled "Does Life Have a History?"

"We know the Bible is written in an ancient language and it was written in terms the people then could understand," Tippit said.

"The question becomes, if we go back with our knowledge, can we find that there still is truth there that is as applicable today as it was 4,000 years ago? And the answer is yes."

Tippit said the modern world is faced with a plethora of information the ancients did not have knowledge of. Many discoveries have challenged the perception of the world, such as dinosaur remains, carbon dating and evolution. She said fossil remains and DNA evidence have only augmented the theory of evolution and gives the example of fish.

She said scientists can trace the evolution of fish all the way up to reptile.

"You are hard pressed to find scientists today that deny life has changed through time," Tippit said.

"The question becomes how does the church deal with that? If you are a believer, that should drive you back to the Bible."

Tippit said part of the problem people have with understanding science and theology is that they read the Bible through a lens of habit and tradition.

"We see God, for example, as an engineer who builds the bridge and then goes away and leaves it. Or a potter who makes a pot and then sits back and admires it," Tippit said.

"But what if God is a gardener? Gardeners prepare the soil, they choose the seeds, they plant the seeds, craft the trees and prune the trees.

The great thing about gardeners is that they are always involved, and if God is a gardener, why couldn't he have created human beings through a process? The truth is, most of us don't think he is done with us yet."

Tippit said this understanding of God through the Bible and science can help answer large questions people have about evil.

"We worry about God and evil and we look at the Haiti earthquake and wonder why a good God would do a terrible thing," Tippit said.

"But if we look at plate tectonics we know [earthquakes are] necessary for life. They make the soil rich and the air breathable."

Tippit said it is necessary for Christians to accept science as real and then read the Bible in light of this knowledge, and that if the Christian community denies science then it will continue to leave scientists and other people out of the faith community.

Tippit said she was nervous about the presentation, but she said the audience was receptive.

"The people had lots of questions," Tippit said. "Some of them were science people who don't want to lose their faith. They want to find a way to find God at work in the world they live in."