A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 17, 2016
Daniel 1:1-5 KJV
As you well know, we now live in a nation that is divided in several different ways. Perhaps it has always been that way; I don’t know. But it just seems to be so now more prominently than any other time I can remember over the past few decades.
If we listen to the world news, it doesn’t take long to realize that we are a nation that is divided politically. On one side of the fence we have the ultra-conservatives who are vying for the office of President. And on the other side of the fence we have those who are liberal or ultra-liberal. And there seems to be a great divide between the two, as well as between those who cast their support one way or the other.
We are also a nation that is divided religiously. On one extreme we have those who see things from an exclusively Christian point of view. Then on the other extreme we have those who try to be more open and inclusive and interfaith-minded.
Not so prominent and visible, perhaps, is a divide between what I would like to call the “science-minded” and the “religious-minded.” That is to say, on one extreme there are at least some for whom science is the only viable worldview, the only lens through which to see the world. A good contemporary example of this might be astro physicist Stephen Hawking for whom science is everything and who gives no place to religion at all. And on the other extreme, religion and a literal interpretation of the Bible or other sacred text is the only viable worldview, the only lens through which to see the world. A good example of this might be the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which emphasizes “biblical authority” and ignores many scientific findings and places dinosaurs alongside Adam and Eve some 6,000 years ago.
But for most of us here at this United Church, the tension between science and religion probably is not much of an issue at all. So in one sense of the term, I may be “preaching to the choir today,” as they say. And I would like to go on record at the start by noting that what I have to say today is not exhaustive by any means, or the final word on the matter. On the contrary, what I have to say is more of a discussion or idea starter than anything else.
But my premise is that both science and religion are our friends, and they should be friends with each other. Both science and religion have wonderful gifts to share with us, and they should be allies instead of enemies. But as you know, it has not always been that way, and it is not so in every community or in every case today. There are still many in our world, and in our country, who choose to cling to one or the other and feel that science and religion are at odds with each other. And for some, the twain never shall meet.
On the science side, there are definite gifts that science brings to us. And I am not a scientist, so some of you could enumerate the benefits or gifts of science much better than I. But these are some of the gifts of science as I see them, one who is not a trained scientist.
One gift of science has to do with the method with which reality is discovered or arrived at; the scientific method of hypothesis, experiment, collection of data, results, and so on.
Another gift of science has to do with facts. In many ways, science presents us with facts about how things actually are in the world. A classic debate between religion and science had to do with the prevailing worldview prior to Copernicus and Galileo. The prevailing view was that the earth was the center of our universe and the sun and everything else revolved around the earth, the center of God’s creation. But when learned men used science to explain why the moon went through phases and so on, the facts proved that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. However, such knowledge did not set well with the Church (organized religion), so Galileo was condemned for a number of decades. But eventually the facts of science won the day, as they almost always eventually do.
Another closely-related gift of science is science seeks to deal in reality rather than mystery. One area where science has proved to be of inestimable value is in the field of healthcare, both physical and mental. We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to science for medical advances and discovering that the cause of mental illness is often due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and the spread of diseases is caused by germs and bacteria that can be passed from one human to another, and not because of a curse, the work of the devil, demon possession, or the need for blood-letting, as religion used to teach.
We could go on, but all of us here get it—science graces our lives with many wonderful gifts.
But then, religion has its own gifts to share with us as well. And such is the real impetus for this sermon. Now, I have to confess that the idea for this sermon was a long article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in an October edition of the Wall Street Journal. Rabbi Sacks makes some good points about why religion remains so important to the world and to human experience in general. So I would like to expand upon Rabbi Sacks’s comments to formulate my own short list of gifts that religion (religion done right, that is) brings to us.
One gift that religion gives us is a sense of meaning. Rabbi Sacks observes, “Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning. That is why no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion.”1 Religion seeks to give meaning to those important life passages—birth, coming of age, marriage, suffering, and death—in a way that no other institution or entity in life does. A good example of this is the entire book of Job that wrestles with and seeks to impart meaning to the universal experience of human suffering.
Another gift of religion is direction. Religion offers the hope that we are not just random cells that have come together for a brief period of time. Rather, religion seeks to provide a sense of purpose to our lives and affirms that life is a sacred journey, both with the Divine and with others.
A third gift of religion emphasized by Rabbi Sacks is “a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life. . .” Science seeks to give us an explanation for the beginning of life on earth, but religion seeks to give us guidelines for making the most of life while on this earth in the context of human relationships. And so, the Jewish religion gave us the Ten Commandments to help us avoid mass chaos and live peaceably together in human community–“Thou shalt not kill, Thou shall not steal, and so on.” The Christian religion gave us the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount to show us how to live together in Christian community.
And following closely is another gift of religion that emphasizes the number one ethic of the life of faith—the ethic of love and compassion and service to others, especially suffering humanity. One of the greatest gifts that issues from religion should be the formation of a compassionate religious community—“the beloved community”—to use Martin Luther King, Jr’s term—where love, care, support, empathy, and so on are shared with members of that community and with the world in a way not found anywhere else, as celebrated in that wonderful hymn, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” Such a religious community pools its resources so as to feed the hungry, take care of and seek to heal the sick through religious-founded hospitals, establish homes to care for orphans, and so forth.
Rabbi Sacks sums up his article in one powerful, succinct paragraph when he says, “We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes of resolving conflicts, forgiveness for the injuries of the past and devotion to a future in which all the children of the world can live together in grace and peace.” Such seemed to me to be most appropriate thoughts for this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.
And so, it seems obvious that both science and religion do have unique gifts to offer us. And the two should not be considered incompatible one with another. My hope is that what I have said will encourage the more scientific-minded to have greater appreciation for the gifts of religion, and that the more religious-minded will have greater appreciation for the gifts of science. But also to celebrate these wonderful gifts of religion that are so relevant for this Martin Luther King weekend. May it be so. Amen.
1Jonathan Sacks, “Swords into Plowshares,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3-4, 2015, C-2.