Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter and Heritage Sunday in the United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2: 2, and John 20: 19 – 31. (Changes were made to the format on 26 February 2008).
When you are teaching any type of science the first thing that you want to get across to the students is the difference between facts and theories. Facts are the pieces of information that one gathers through experimentation; one uses all the senses to determine the facts. Theories are the result of looking at the facts gathered and attempting to determine what relationships exist between the facts and what possible facts may arise from further study of the situation in question.
But too often, we do not spend enough time on the very fundamental nature of science, i.e. experimentation and the development of facts. For convenience more than for learning, experiments done in teaching laboratories tend to favor confirmation of lecture information rather than the discovery of facts. While it is sometimes necessary to confirm what is presented in the lecture, it is often better for students to discover things that can be discussed or utilized in the lecture phase of their instruction. This approach yields a better understanding of how theories are developed.
What transpires from the confirmation process of experimentation is that theories are taught more as facts than as explanations. And, in the end, theories become facts. In today’s context, it is understandable then that many people do not understand 1) the differences between theories and facts and 2) the differences between theories presented in a scientific setting and those theories or explanations that are presented in a cultural setting. One primary example of this would be the development of the heliocentric (or sun-centered) model for the solar system.
This model places the sun at the center of the solar system and the earth and the other planets orbiting the sun. But, as anyone can tell, during the day, it is the sun that clearly moves across the sky. So how is it that we say that it is the earth that is moving when our senses tell us otherwise?
It is not until we expand our references that we are able to see what changes must be made in theories such as the solar system. As long as we did not try to fit other planets or astronomical evidence into the geocentric model of the solar system, it worked fine. But when we looked at the other evidence, such as the movement of Mars, we saw that any theory that places the earth in the center of the solar system had flaws in it. To that end, it became necessary to modify the model. Many models were developed that kept the Earth in the center but they did not work well and failed to suggest or predict future events in terms of planetary motion. Only when the old model of the earth in the center was “trashed” and a new model of the sun in the center created was mankind able to move forward in the study of the stars and the planets.
These changes came with tremendous opposition from the established church and lead to the persecution of Galileo. The church, for a variety of reasons, wanted the earth to be the center of the solar system and was not readily amenable to such revolutionary ideas. And even now, some five hundred years later, it is still apparent that there are some in the churches of today who are not willing to accept scientific evidence as real evidence in light of Biblical scriptures.
Part of our human problem is that we still don’t get the idea that faith and science are two separate ideas. Rabbi Michael Lerner adapted a section from his recent book, “The Left Hand of God,” for an article in The Nation (Science and the religious progressives (From “The Daily Dose” (Science & Theology News) for Wednesday, April 12, 2006) http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060424/lerner). In one passage, the rabbi focuses on the relationship between science and liberal forms of spirituality on the American sociopolitical landscape.
“Science, however, is not the same as scientism — the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification — all these spiritual dimensions of life — are dismissed by the ‘scientistic’ worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.”
From the viewpoint of a religious liberal, Lerner agrees with others — including supporters of intelligent design — who argue that science at times has overstepped its bounds:
“Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives, therefore, insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.
“So why has the [political and religious] left become so attached to scientism? The left emerged as part of the broad movement against the feudal order, which taught that God had appointed people to their place in the hierarchical economic and political order for the good of the greater whole. Our current economic system, capitalism, was created by challenging the church’s role in organizing social life, and empirical observation and rational thought became the battering ram the merchant class used to weaken the church’s authority. Many of Marx’s followers thought they were merely drawing out the full implications of their new worldview when they adopted a scientistic approach that not only dismissed God and spirit as being without empirical foundation but also reduced all ethical and aesthetic judgments to little more than reflections of class interests.”
In opposing scientism there is perhaps an opportunity for healing among the various religious and political factions in the United States. But there is also the risk that greater opposition to scientism will encourage those in the United States who wish to take on the entire edifice of modern science.
So we must balance science and faith. Any attempt to have one replace the other can only result in the failure of both. This doesn’t mean that we should reject science totally. After all, to do so would be to deny the existence of the evidence that provided us with the knowledge of the Resurrection.
And that poses the question for today? It is a question that evolves from the Gospel reading for today and Thomas’ insistence that he will not accept the evidence of the resurrection until he can touch the wounds of Jesus. What is the status of our faith?
As Methodists, our faith is based on four factors: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. These later two are the evidence that we seek to support what we know from tradition and our reading of the Scripture. It provides the balance that we need in order to understand why we need not be like Thomas.
If we reject the evidence that we see or hear because it conflicts with a Biblical interpretation, then we limit our knowledge as much as we would if we used science to limit our faith.
The Bible is the foundation of our faith; it guides and tells us why we are here. We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. We must listen and read the Bible very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that arise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. To do so would be a grave error on our part. If we hold that the Bible is fixed and unchanging, it becomes quite easy for us to use it as a means to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.
Shall we demand physical evidence when there is none? Shall we insist that what has been written must be accepted as the truth and such truths are not to be changed? Or shall we live our lives knowing, as Jesus told Thomas, “we believe though we have not seen?”
In his first letter to the disciples, John writes about the fact the he and the other disciples had seen the resurrection. There was no doubt about what they had seen and there was corroboration by others those first days after the Resurrection. There was no need for each succeeding generation to relive it; it had occurred and it had meaning. But it is what we do with our “newfound knowledge” that changes how we believe and how we live. It is clear from what Luke wrote in Acts that this meaning was more than just thought but rather was action as well.
It wasn’t just those first communities in the early days of the church in the Middle East that led to this denomination, the United Methodist Church, being here today. The Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in April, 1968 (which is why this is Heritage Sunday). Now, I come to this time and place as one who was confirmed in the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Like the Methodist Church, the EUB church has its roots in colonial America. The EUB church itself is the union of several smaller denominations that formed among the German speaking immigrants that settled in the middle colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland. There was, in those early days of this country, much interaction between the Methodists and the various churches that became the EUB church. Martin Boehm, one of the first bishops of the denomination, gave land to the Methodists on which to build a chapel. This chapel is still in use today.
But, most importantly, it was knowledge that the faith that each member of each branch of what was to become the EUB church was the same as the other members. Philip Otterbein, upon hearing Martin Boehm preach, proclaimed, “We are brethren”, meaning that each one’s faith was the same. It may have taken some 250 years to bring the various branches of the modern day United Methodist Church together but it was done because it was clear that each member of the denominations involved shared the same common faith. This could only be because the evidence through sight and sound was clear.
The meaning of the resurrection changed the lives of the people it touched. No longer were there poor or needy amongst the believers. All who believed came together in one community. It was clear that there was something happening to make the Gospel message come true.
But is it still true today? We live in a world where there are poor, where there are people hungry, and we are in a world where the view of some are repressed by those in power. It does not appear that much has changed since the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Yet, this is a time when we claim to follow Christ.
Perhaps we need to be like Thomas and demand the evidence that Christ is alive. Perhaps now is the time that we need to say, “are the poor taken care of, have the hungry been freed, have the oppressed been set free?” If we are to accept the Gospel message in our hearts, then our actions, our words, our deeds, and our thoughts must be in place. There are people in the world today who are like Thomas, who demand to see proof of the Resurrection. And we must be that proof! We must show that the Resurrection is true because Christ is alive in us.
It is now one week since the Resurrection. How has your life changed? Can others see in you the changes the world saw in the early church, where lives and the world were changed? Or are you living the same life as before? There is an opportunity to change before you today; there is an opportunity to see the Resurrection as truth by the way you live and act. But you must open your hearts and allow Christ to come in; you must open your heart and mind and let the Holy Spirit guide and direct you, just as it did the early disciples.
There is no longer a need to look for the evidence of the Resurrection; it is right there in front of you. You have the chance to be that evidence.