Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Have you been watching Cosmos? If not, then you should be. For those of you who are not as excited about educational television as I am, here is the scoop. The original Cosmos was a 13-part television series written and presented by Carl Sagan. It was an engaging, inspirational, and educational journey through contemporary science that was intended to educate us regular people on cosmology, astronomy, physics, evolution, and the history of the scientific method. Those 13 episodes completely transformed the way that science is communicated with the world, and if you haven’t watched them, I would recommend doing so this weekend.

In the same spirit of education and enthusiasm, Neil deGrasse Tyson and his team have picked up where Carl Sagan left off and the result is the most engaging television program in recent memory. I can’t express how much I love this show. Both Tyson and Sagan share a common virtue that sets them apart from other science educators.

Wonder.

They look up to the stars and get excited like little kids. They talk about the versatility of carbon-bonds and you can hear their voices trembling with excitement. I can get behind that. We live in an incredible universe! There’s more to see than can ever be seen. More to do than can ever be done… Oh wait. That’s the Lion King…

The point still stands!

While I have been glued to my screen, there have been plenty in the church who have not been so excited. To be fair to them, each of the first three episodes have brought up something negative that religious folks have done to suppress the advancement of scientific understanding and/or portray religious people as superstitious and uninformed. The Church definitely did stand in the way of some scientific progress (and we still do it today), but it’s not as clear cut as it is often portrayed. That being said, we screwed a lot of stuff up. The Church is a bumbling bunch of failures trying to be faithful to God and usually getting a lot of it wrong. That’s fine! God’s faithfulness in the midst of our failures is one of our most important witnesses to the world.

However, while I affirm God’s grace for us, I think we can do better. First and foremost, we can stop treating God as the “God of the Gaps” that fills in the places that we don’t understand yet. A good example of this is Isaac Newton. He was one of the most brilliant men to have ever lived. He basically created Calculus in a weekend on a dare. He was able to explain the orbits of the planets with simple equations that changed the world. However, he could not figure out how those orbits remained stable despite disturbances from other planets that orbited nearby. He concluded that they must remain in orbit because God intervenes to preserve their orbit. So what happens to God when we discovered that this wasn’t true? God got a little smaller that day, and with every new scientific discovery, God shrinks to fit what few gaps remain. When we treat God like this, we inevitably set up a system that eliminates the need for God. It’s no wonder that so many people learn about evolution and forget about God. When God is only used to explain the things you don’t understand yet, then God will one day disappear.

The Roman Catholic Church in the 1600’s believed that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth and they had Bible verses to prove it (1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, Psalm 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5). They had taken their understanding of the way the universe works and propped it up with scripture. They had created a system doomed to fail because if their cosmology was proved to be wrong, then it would pull down their theology and their Bible as well. It’s no wonder that they felt so threatened by Galileo! It’s also no wonder that it took them until 1992 to apologize to the poor guy!

A similar battle has been raging for the past 100 years or so. Many Christians have used the Bible to explain how the universe (and life) came into being. That worked fine for thousands of years, but the past 100 years have seen a major paradigm shift in the scientific understanding of the beginning of all things. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that the theory of evolution (while not yet complete) is correct in its explanation for the diversity of species on this planet. Astronomers have found evidence for the Big Bang and as astrophysics develops, it becomes more and more clear that the universe was not created in six days. So it is no wonder that many Christian groups are up in arms! This is not the first time that we have used scripture to buttress our cosmogony, and it has never ended well. If we have chained our understanding of God and Scripture to our understanding of human origins, what happens when our understanding is proved to be false? We end up pulling our faith down with us. Is it any wonder that we live in a world that is increasingly unimpressed with organized religion? “Spiritual but not religious” has become the new axiom that our world lives by because after our crumbling cosmologies and cosmogonies buried our theology in a pile of rubble, the world was left with this sense of eternity that God has “set in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) but very few guides to help them along the way.

So what can we do? How can we hold onto our faith in God when scientists seem so keen on filling in all the gaps where God has so comfortably lived for millennia? More than anything, we need to be secure enough in our relationship with God to hold loosely to everything we think we know. One of the most important lessons that religion can learn from science is that we do not have all of the answers and once we think that we do, we have stopped being able to grow. Scientists willingly admit when they don’t know something. Science is done out on the edges of knowledge. When scientists at the Large Hadron Collider first identified the elusive Higgs Boson particle, they were somewhat disappointed because it behaved as they expected it would. Chasing ignorance is how we discover truth.

For us in the Church, that means more humility. When we encounter someone who believes something different, we must be humble enough to seek to understand them. When a new scientific discovery or a dramatic social change challenges the established position of any church, we must operate out of the assumption that we might be wrong. Maybe we aren’t! Maybe our original position was correct and the world around us needs to change. It will depend on the situation, but we will never know unless we are willing to hold our own beliefs loosely. We must be able to differentiate between the things that we believe about God and our relationship with God. The first sort of “knowing” is kind of like how I know that my wife is 5’3″ with brown hair. The second kind of knowing comes from spending time with her and sharing our hearts. The second kind of knowing is deeper and more essential. I know God in this way through prayer and by living with the Spirit. The first kind of knowing I get from books and classes. That kind of knowing might be wrong, but the second kind will not be shaken no matter what.

So what is God to you? Is God a living, sentient being with which you have an active relationship or is God a sort of padding that you stick in the gaps to make life easier to cope with? If God is simply the place where you draw your sense of meaning and purpose, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Seek out the living God that actively desires to be in relationship with you, and if you have that relationship, then your understanding of God can adapt and change while your faith remains solid. Then one day, you might watch an episode of Cosmos and learn something about God in the process!

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