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Sermon illustrations

Science

Back in Flatland

In this short excerpt, pastor and author Austin Fischer summarizes the late 19th century book Flatland as an analogy for the often-one-dimensional faith that exists our time:

In 1884, an English schoolmaster named Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a story about a two-dimensional world called Flatland, inhabited by various shapes (circles, squares, etc.). In Flatland, there is height and width but no depth—the shapes are stuck in two dimensions. But one fateful night, the main character, a Square, is visited by a Sphere from the three-dimensional world of Spaceland.

The Square is dazzled and dumbfounded, and when he tries to tell his fellow Flatlanders about Spaceland and a third dimension, he is locked up.

Over the last few hundred years, what seems to have happened to a great many of us is the exact opposite. Whereas we once understood we lived and moved and had our being in an enchanted three-dimensional world of limitless mystery and wonder, we’ve been duped into devolving back into Flatland. We’ve willingly locked ourselves up in a flat world under the pretenses that doing so would provide us control, comfort, and certainty. Science does it by rejecting all reality that cannot be measured in a beaker. Christianity does it by rigid biblical literalism.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer pp.1-2. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Charles Darwin’s Loss of Happiness

Charles Darwin, known for his theory of natural selection, noticed that his later life included a “loss of happiness.” While he never acknowledged that it might have been related to his changing worldview, which eventually rejected the idea of a higher power in favor of philosophical naturalism, it is hard not to wonder about the connection.

Darwin observed, “Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . .

I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Introduction by Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Rockville, MD: Serenity, 2008), 80–81.

Climbing a Difficult Mountain

Recently I heard a lecture by an English Methodist who is both a scientist and a Christian theologian. He was talking about the scientific debate over the Big Bang, and he used an image that I found quite arresting. He told us that physicists have pushed backwards in time to l0-47 of a second after the Big Bang.

I am not a physicist; I am not sure what that figure means other than that it is an infinitesimally small period of time. As physicists push back to the beginning of everything, the models of the laws of physics seem to unravel. Our mathematics can’t cope. Then he said something like this: I imagine some brilliant theoretical physicist sometime soon pushing back to the beginning of all things.

It will be like climbing a huge incredibly difficult mountain. And as the physicist struggles over the final intellectual ledge to see the beginning of creation in all its staggering immensity and intensity, That physicist will see Jesus sitting there waiting with a smile of greeting and welcome.

Taken from The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves Copyright (c) 2007 by Andrew Purves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Climbing the Highest Peak

In the final paragraph of his book, “God and the Astronomers,” the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow concludes with this statement:

At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.

He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, W.W. Norton.

Cutting Ourselves Off

I have a neighbor who is obsessively neat. He lives on ten forested acres, and every time he drove up his long, winding driveway, the disorderly dead branches on the Ponderosa pine trees bothered him. One day he called a tree-trimming service and learned it would cost him five thousand dollars to trim all those trees.

Appalled at the price, he rented a chain saw and spent several weekends perched precariously on a ladder cutting back all the branches he could reach. He called the service for a new estimate and got an unwelcome surprise. “Mr. Rodrigues, it will probably cost you twice as much. You see, we were planning to use those lower branches to reach the higher ones. Now we have to bring in an expensive truck and work from a bucket.”

In some ways, modern society reminds me of that story. We have sawed off the lower branches on which Western civilization was built, and the higher branches now seem dangerously out of reach. “We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of sacred streams,” writes Annie Dillard.

Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World Zondervan, 2003, p.19.

Keeping the Body From Overheating

According to Aristotle, the function of the brain was to keep the body from overheating. In The Parts of Animals, he noted that that the brain was a “compound of earth and water, which “tempers the heat and seething of the heart.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Presence in the Universe

Now, in our lifetime, scientists are finding ever newer evidence for what some religious people called presence in the very organizing energy of the universe—from fractals, to holograms, to electro-magnetism, to force fields, to gravitation itself—all of which invite us into a certain degree of mystery and non-explainability—and also participation!

The great scientists are revealed in their contentment to live provisionally with a certain degree of mystery! I wish we clergy were as patient. We seem to like certainty and answers—now. In our too literal attempts to explain and control presence, we often explain it away, and most people just lose interest in the deeper journey because they are told, in effect, that there is no “deeper” to be had!

Meanwhile, the scientists still search for the pattern behind the patterns, the seeming vibrational fields that hold all things together. We from the religious world often call these vibrational fields the divine presence or perhaps the Holy Spirit. As usual, religion intuits and gives metaphor to what science is now confirming and illustrating on ever new verifiable levels. Remember, truth is one (Ephesians 4:4–5) and will necessarily and in time be seen from different angles and at different levels—with ever more appreciation. How blessed we are to live in our time! There are, however, few teachers who can honor the different levels at the same time.

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

The Weight of a Soul

Right after the turn of the 20th century, a scientist named Duncan McDougall believed he had discovered the weight of a soul. He did this by weighing six patients right before they died and right after. The difference in weight, across the patients,  averaged out to twenty-one grams.

From this experiment, he decided the weight of a soul was twenty-one grams. Later studies intended to replicate McDougall’s findings were inconclusive and led to widespread agreement in the scientific community that the original study was flawed. Nevertheless, the popularity of the study was such that many people really believed that the soul had a material quality, and its true weight was in fact 21 grams. 21 grams has been featured since in a variety of popular popular media, including as the title of a 2003 film. 

Stuart Strachan Jr.

What Science will Reveal about the Origin of Man?

What science will ever be able to reveal to man the origin, nature and character of that conscious power to will and to love which constitutes his life? It is certainly not our effort, nor the effort of anyone around us, which set that current in motion. And it is certainly not our solicitude, nor that of any friend, which prevents its ebb or controls its turbulence.

We can, of course, trace back through generations some of the antecedents of the torrent which bears us along; and we can, by means of certain moral and physical disciplines and stimulations, regularise or enlarge the aperture through which the torrent is released into us. But neither that geography nor those artifices help us in theory or in practice to harness the sources of life.

My self is given to me far more than it is formed by me. Man, Scripture says, cannot add a cubit to his stature. Still less can he add a unit to the potential of his love, or accelerate by another unit the fundamental rhythm which regulates the ripening of his mind and heart. In the last resort the profound life, the fontal life, the new-born life, escape our grasp entirely.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, The Divine Milieu, Harper and Bros. Where We Come From According to Stephen Jay Gould (for contrast).

Yearning for a Higher Answer 

This paragraph from the scientist and atheist David Friend provides a stark contrast to a Christian conception of life, humanity, and the world we inhabit:

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available….

We may yearn for a “higher” answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers for ourselves…

David Friend and the editors of Life, The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, Little, Brown.

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