Book Review of Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth by Ben Sonquist

To begin, I’ll note that my first “reading” of The Greatest Show on Earth was of the audio book version. I highly recommend experiencing the book in this way. The book is read by Dawkins himself, as well as his wife Lalla Ward. Throughout the audio book Dawkins and Ward read the book in a conversational and engaging tone that make the science accessible and the experience enjoyable. The audio book includes an enhanced CD with a PDF containing many of the images from the book. The images are excellent and referenced throughout the reading. When I got the paperback version of the book I noticed that there were a few more images that were not included in the PDF but they came as a nice surprise and didn’t degrade my view of the audio book in the least.

Inside of my first semester as a biology student (these were the early days of my Christian walk as well) I was confronted with the famous assertion from the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in biology makes sense but in the light of evolution.” While not referencing Dobzhanky directly The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins demonstrates the evidence for the claim in the famous quote. Any budding biology student would be well served by reading The Greatest Show on Earth as a prerequisite to his or her coursework but the book is also instructive to Christians who are interested in exploring the continuity between their faith and the science of Evolution.

Dawkins begins by explaining how this book differs from his previous writings on evolution. Dawkins describes how earlier works explained natural selection and removed stumbling blocks to its acceptance but never explicitly laid out the evidence for evolution as a whole. The intention of this book is to present the positive evidence for evolution.
Dawkins’ described need for this book goes beyond filling a gap in his professional repertoire. Dawkins describes the increasing hostility toward evolution by influential church groups, namely those that hold to a young earth creation (YEC) perspective. In his strongest and potentially most offensive affront to YECs, he likens those who maintain a denial of evolution to holocaust deniers and their determined defiance of history in the face of overwhelming evidence. Dawkins asserts that the evidence for evolution is just as strong if not stronger than that of the holocaust and methodically lays out that evidence through 13 chapters and dozens of illustrations, photographs and figures.

While Dawkins is clearly writing in opposition to the YEC perspective his approach is far more educational than militant. Dawkins begins his crash course of evolution by addressing the term theory and its varied scientific and cultural meanings. Dawkins emphasizes that the term theory is challenging in itself because the word can have two very distinct, and even contradictory, meanings. In one sense (the scientific sense) a theory is a scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation of a group of facts or phenomenon. This explanation is confirmed by a wide range of experimental and observational data and is accepted as accounting for the known facts. In a second sense a theory is a proposed, speculative explanation that is not widely accepted.

Dawkins goes on to articulate why evolution is a theory in the first scientific sense. To do this he draws a comparison to the heliocentric theory that explains the size and position of the sun in the solar system. Dawkins asserts that when Creationists refer to the theory of evolution as “only a theory” they are either being mischievous or completely blind to the weight and significance the term theory carries in scientific terms.

The evidence for evolution begins in earnest in the second chapter and carries on through the 12th. Dawkins adopts a familiar and useful approach for initiating his explanations. Dawkins starts with artificial selection as an explanatory analogue to natural selection, then moves on to the subject of time and the various methods available for dating objects and the earth itself.
By introducing his readers to the successes and strategies used in artificial selection by breeders of dogs, roses and cabbage, Dawkins creates a bridge by which the reader can recognize the logic and efficacy of natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Dawkins describes how breeders mold their subjects (dogs, roses, cabbage) into the shapes, sizes, colors, etc. that they want by selecting for desired traits. This selection process is possible because of the inherent variation in all individuals. In any population of dogs there will be some individuals with big ears and some with small ears. If the breeder wants to make a long eared dog they simply select the long eared dogs for breeding. In this way the long ear trait survives in the next generation. Dawkins compares this process of artificially selecting for desirable traits by a breeder with the natural selection process that drives evolution.

Dawkins asserts that the process of natural selection is identical to artificial selection except that traits are “selected” by their ability to help an individual survive and reproduce offspring. In the case of natural selection, a breeder is not necessary because the advantageous traits are automatically selected when they help an individual survive and therefore pass on those traits to the next generation. Advantageous traits will continue to accumulate in the population over time and result in a gradual change of that population.

With a similar softening approach Dawkins starts with the science of dendrochronology to introduce the concept of time and the vast spans of it necessary for evolution by natural selection to take place. Dendrochronology is basically the science of tree ring counting. If you have ever counted the rings of a tree in order to estimate its age you have been an amateur dendrochronologist. What’s important about the tree ring method is that it has physical markers placed at regular intervals for counting. Dawkins goes on to show that methods such as radiometric dating are reliable because, like tree ring counting, they provide physical markers placed at regular intervals that are available for counting.

It is easy for young children to age a tree by counting the rings but it can be hard for even a well educated lay person to understand the isotopes and decay rates necessary for dating the oldest parts of the Earth. Dawkins allows his readers to understand more challenging scientific ideas that could be barriers to accepting the validity of evolution by first bridging them to more simple science concepts. This is where the brilliance of Dawkins as an educator shines and is a characteristic that is persistent throughout The Greatest Show on Earth.

Dawkins continues to bolster the case for evolution by addressing topics such as observing evolution in the lab, the fossil record and “the missing link”, developmental forces as a means for diversification, plate tectonics, phylogeny, and homologous structures and genetics. Throughout the text the case for evolution is strengthened by the science that is described.

While Dawkins stated in the preface that this book was not intended to draw people away from religion (he’d already written that book many times over) he’s not shy about pointing out the problems with a creationist perspective throughout the book and more specifically in the last two chapters. In the final two chapters Dawkins addresses the appearance of a designer and other issues such as pain, significance, and beginnings. To many Christian readers this could come off as an attack on faith and might even distract them from the science that is articulated throughout the book. I’m tempted to say that I wish the book would have been written just as it is but by a Christian author who could articulate the science while connecting with a Christian audience. (The Language of God by Francis Collins is a great book that is unapologetic about the science of evolution while intercalating a Christian worldview). However on further consideration I think facing Dawkins’ critical perspective of creationist dogma can be an opportunity for a mature Christian reader to understand and review his/her own beliefs.

Ben Sonquist is a teacher at STARBASE Minnesota, an educational non-profit in St. Paul Minnesota. Themmission of STARBASE is to inspire young people to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a BA in both Biology and Education. Ben serves at his church (Faith Baptist Church) as the co-chair of the Christian Education Board and teaches Sunday school classes for adults and youth on a regular basis. For two school years, from 2005-2006, he and his wife Amy led the youth group at Faith Baptist as the interim minister of youth. Ben is currently working with his pastor on a book project. The project is geared toward teens and seeks to communicate the cohesiveness of Biblical and scientific world views. Ben and his wife Amy live in Minneapolis with their three boys.  His blog is:

Brain fast-mapping and an innate way of seeing God by John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten is Pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, a Pastoral Science alum and a board member for the Center for Pastoral Science board member.  

In this article John explores the learning process known as fast-mapping and explores its implications from a spiritual perspective.

The Kidney, Homeostasis, and the Holy Spirit: A Sermon by John Van Sloten

In this fascinating and brilliant sermon, Pastoral Science alum John Van Sloten, pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, explores what the nature of the human kidney teaches us about the nature of God.

The Kidney, Homeostasis, and the Holy Spirit from New Hope Church Calgary on Vimeo.

Science and Faith: From Collision to Collaboration: Sermon by Richard Dahlstrom

2011 Pastoral Science Cohort Member Richard Dahlstrom preaches on the integration of Faith & Science.

Science & Faith: Collision to Collaboration from BethanyCommunityChurch on Vimeo.

Audio of the sermon is available here.

This sermon was also featured on BioLogos.

How the Large Hadron Collider reveals the mind of God by John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten is Pastor of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, a Pastoral Science alum and a board member for the Center for Pastoral Science board member.  In this article John explores the ways the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) helps us better understand God. Available from ThinkChristian here.

This Common Commitment: What Science and Christian Theology Have in Common by Ross Hastings

My interest in the integration of science and theology comes out of having inhabited both vocations. Within each, disbelief that this is possible has often been expressed from professed Christians, and many who are not.

‘How do you put those two things together?’ is the skeptical question I am often asked when I say in the occasional golf game that I have worked in both chemistry and the Church.

My interest in both theology and science arises also out of a curiosity to know the truth that “takes care of itself,” as Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton has written, in every realm of reality, and that sets us free. I am motivated by two faith commitments: first, that all truth is God’s truth, and second that all truth concerning the creation of the universe and its reconciliation is centered in the God-Man Jesus who said, ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6).

He is as the eternal Word, both the agent of creation and the revelation of God to us. In Him, God has both created and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to Himself. In Him ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col.2:3).

A Vigorous Integration
Therefore, fledgling Christian scientists may pursue truth fearlessly in careers in science, assured that no discovery will ever surprise or outsmart Christ.

In light of this, it is only appropriate for Christians to develop a curiosity for knowledge about creation and science that will evoke a sense of wonder and worship.

Any attempt to integrate science and theology must be vigorous, though always tentative and guided by the essentials of Christian faith, or historic Christian orthodoxy as this has been revealed in Scripture properly interpreted, and expressed in the Creeds. Christian theology and science in fact share a common commitment to the fearless pursuit of truth no matter its source, in a hands-on or empirical fashion. Both acknowledge that knowledge is gained by more than mere abstract reasoning.

This not only validates science, but also theology.

Theological discoveries are made in a fashion similar to how scientific discoveries are made. Scientists tend to privilege fact to what is scientifically verifiable, to the neglect of historical fact. In fact, both have merit. The development of the most important doctrine of the Christian faith, that is, the full deity and humanity of Christ and then, the Trinity, was in response to the historical and tangible experience of the apostles and the early church.
John’s particular description of this as sensual experience is intriguing: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1). Lesslie Newbigin writes in an essay entitled “The Trinity as Public Truth,” that the doctrine of the Trinity was the result of “a new fact .”

That new fact was the Resurrection.

Of course, science does require reproducibility of findings. However, given that historical facts do not allow such a possibility, forming theological knowledge on history is not absurd, but reasonable. We will have to wait to the end of the age to argue the reproducibility of the Christian experience of resurrection, but we can see some evidence of it in the regeneration of human believers and in the continuity of the church.

How Science has helped
Personally I have found that scientific training has served me well in exegesis — the critical explanation and interpretation of a Bible text — and theological thinking. Both entail forming hypotheses based on the available data, both are empirical in that sense, both share the rigorous application of intellect, and both ought also to appreciate the limits of intellect.

Science and Christianity are not as far apart as my golfing buddys’ incredulities suggest.

Science is also art
Michael Polanyi, a chemist and a philosopher, believed that “Science can’t be done without imagination and passion.” Another way to say this is that science is also an art.
Polanyi observed that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are shot-through with strong personal feelings and commitments. His most famous work was titled Personal Knowledge. Arguing against the then dominant position that science was somehow value-free, Polanyi sought to bring reasoned and critical interrogation into creative tension with other more tacit forms of knowing.

Christians may engage boldly with science in light of the realization that science is in fact Christian in its historical origins, and that a specifically Trinitarian, incarnational worldview has been more compatible with the pursuit of science than other worldviews.
The reason that this sounds counter-intuitive has a lot to do with Enlightenment prejudices. Doing science within a Christian framework was in fact the way in which science prospered best in the history of human civilization, as Michael Foster, an Oxford philosopher of the 1930s has shown. Foster sought to overcome the warfare language with respect to science and faith propagated by others. He demonstrated that the medieval Christian view of matter as created, and thus important, but not divine, made the study of science even possible.

Many nations of a pantheistic bent were too fearful of nature to study it by means of sensuous experience. Other nations, like the Greeks, viewed matter as unimportant, and could never advance science beyond abstract reasoning. Empirical science through sensuous experience took root, as my fellow Regent College professor, Loren Wilkinson writes, “through the Christian experience of the Creator-God of love who invented physical reality, and who in Jesus, became a part of it, [and] changed forever how we value that knowledge.” (“The New Story of Creation: A Trinitarian Perspective ‘What God does,’ Crux XXX, 4 (December 1994): 26–36.) Wilkinson continues, ‘like who God is, is inexhaustible, surprising and gracious. Knowledge comes through engaged experience, not detached contemplation.”

What Post-modernity has done
Interestingly, in this, the post-modern era, the compatibility of science and Christian theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ has edged closer together. Post- modernity has, by its honesty about the relative uncertainty of knowledge, done the Christian church a great favour, enabling us to engage in the public square with confidence that the assertions of everybody else in that square are also fiduciary — that is, based on faith in something (even atheism lives by an indemonstrable faith) – in nature. Post-modernity has exposed the gods of modernity as unreliable.

Christians should, of all people, engage in science fearlessly. It is a significant vocation in the fulfilling of the creation or cultural mandate given initially to the first Adam to steward creation. Scientists can, in Christ, recover the wonder of being priests of creation, humans who ‘give creation a voice’, and in so doing, play a crucial role in the caring of this amazing creation which God has entrusted to us.

If God has in Christ reconciled the creation to himself, it must have a future. We as the new humanity need to rise up, scientists included, to participate with God in that renewal. Christians need have no fear of engaging in the world of science, for we should have no fear of truth. We are simply worshippers of the Story-teller behind the cosmic story.

(This article also appeared in Faith Today)

Expert Call with Dr. Jennifer Wiseman of NASA

A fascinating Expert Call with Dr. Jennifer Wiseman of NASA, exploring the existence of Exoplanets and how she as a Christian believes Science has the capacity to increase our desire to worship the Creator.

Wiseman Expert Call Mp3
Wiseman BioLogos White Paper

A Midwife and Her Patient: Learning from Loss

A powerful radio program about life, loss and relationship. Available here from KUOW.

Science as Art

Fascinating article on NewScientist about the “Science as Art” contest @ Princeton. Read more here.

Additional Photos from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) available here.

Expert Call with Dr. Tjerk Straatsma

Dr. Tjerk Straatsma of Battel National Laboratories describes his scientific work, his faith, and the interaction between the two. Download the audio here: Straatsma-Final.

Bioethics Expert Call ~ Jennie McLaurin

Jennie McLaurin explores several cutting-edge bioethical issues, and also considers the need for a faithful framework in which we as Christians engage such complex issues. Download Audio

Science vs. Faith? Try this third alternative-by Richard Dahlstrom

In anticipation of an upcoming teaching series I’m doing on Genesis 1, I posted the first in a series of considerations on the relationship of faith and science.  You can read the initial post here.  A great discussion ensued in the comment section, and there was one significant comment that’s should be pondered in some depth.

Regarding the importance of our beginning assumptions they wrote:  Do they start with God’s word, or do they start with man’s ideas? Everyone has a bias (only some are willing to admit it), everyone has to make a starting point assumption a-priori concerning origins because we weren’t there.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this observation, because it is true that assumptions provide the framework through which we look at everything.  The great fissure that has occurred between the science and faith communities has happened precisely because of these assumptions which, on both sides of this debate, seem inadequate to me.

FAITH:  Biblical truth trumps Scientific Discovery.

This is the Galileo problem addressed in the previous post.  There were people who refused to even look through the telescope because the Bible says that from the “rising of the sun to the place where it sets…” at least three times!  In their desire to defend the Bible’s authority, history tells us that people of faith have, over and over again, refused to alter their view of the Bible when the scientific community challenges their views.

With God’s word as the starting point, the brilliant Martin Luther wrote:  There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around the sun….that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must invent something special.  The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down.  However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

It’s all so simple right?  Read the Bible literally, and you’ll know the truth, and where your literal reading conflicts with scientific discovery, the Bible is right and science is wrong.  I hope the limitations of this view is self-evident.  If not, be careful next time you drive towards the horizon; you might just fall off (see Isaiah 11:12 for a historic justification of a flat earth)

SCIENCE:  If we can’t explain it – it can’t be true.

Stubborn dogma isn’t solely entrenched among the faith community.  At its worst, the scientific community views its paradigms as infallible, as if they’ve achieved full “enlightenment” (pun intended).  Armed with their “complete” understanding of the universe, they’re quick to dismiss any miraculous events recorded in the Bible as evidence that the Bible is nothing more than a book of fables.  In thus “materializing” the universe, they are failing to recognize:

1. that their own world of science is constantly in flux, discarding or refining old theories as new evidence comes to light.

2. that there is much for which they will most likely never have an answer, including the big question of “first cause”

3. that the best science doesn’t pre-emptively dismiss what it can’t explain as “impossible”, but rather recognizes the fact that all is not yet known.

It’s easy to see how either of these starting points contribute to the chasm that often exists between the science and faith communities.  Both positions are flawed by their arrogance and reveal that their dogma resides, not just with their starting point, but with their conclusions.  Bad Science rejects anything that doesn’t reinforce an atheistic, materialist worldview.  Bad Theology rejects anything doesn’t reinforce a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Can you see that both positions are rooted in arrogance, and that this is the real problem? Can you see how the rhetoric and accusation from both sides will only serve to widen the chasm?  As a result, I’d like to propose a third, better starting point:

All truth is God’s truth: Scientist, and Christian, John Lennox, writes: “since God is the author both of his Word the Bible and of the universe, there must ultimately be harmony between correct interpretation of the biblical data and correct interpretation of the scientific data.”   If we can begin here, several very good things happen:

1. We begin to see the science and the Bible are both revelation from God, and as such can ‘co-inform’ each other, in complementary and compatible ways.  This is in keeping with the Bible’s declaration that the created universe declares the glory of God, and as such is worthy of both our study and delight.

2. Specialists both across and within disciplines can learn to listen to each other with humility, allowing their own views to be informed by  the other.

3. Both science and theology will be continually refined and enriched by the other.

So, rather than setting up science and the Bible as adversaries, and asking which you’ll choose, I’ll be teaching Genesis one from the starting point which declares that truth can be discovered through a telescope, a microscope, a math class, and the reading of Genesis.  It’s all good because it’s all about seeking to uncover what God is saying to us, whether through nebula, or Noah.

I welcome your thoughts.


To read more of Richard’s thoughts, check out his blog here.

Creation, science, Genesis: It’s time for a conversation-by Richard Dahlstrom

I was privileged to attend what I affectionately called “Science Camp” this past May, which was actually a gathering of pastors, theologians, and scientists, brought together for the purpose of discussing the intersection and interrelatedness of our various disciplines. It was one of the great weeks of my career as a pastor as fellowship, stunning creation (via Gulf Island beauty), and intellectual stimulation blended together for a life changing experience.

My theology, though, was challenged profoundly. Having grown up in a conservative Christian environment, I was taught that the Bible is authoritative and is to generally be read literally, unless there are clear reasons for viewing a section as poetry, metaphor, or parable. (I still believe that.) Francis Schaeffer (a sort of theological mentor), especially, fought for the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2, arguing that to believe otherwise was a slippery slope. I remember reading a word of his from somewhere (though I can’t site the exact location), where he said, “If Adam and Eve aren’t historical people in a time and space garden – then how can you know Jesus is a historical person dying on a time and place cross?” Check – and mate! With one word, the historicity of Genesis 1-3 was established as historical fact in my mind, a view reinforced by places like Creation Research Institute.

Not only was this stated positively as fact, but with it came a host of negative declarations towards anyone who believed in evolution. It was, I was told, bad science. It was, I was told, the key to atheism. It was, I was told, the greatest deception ever handed down to humanity.

Over the years my views on this subject “evolved” (pun intended) to a sort of theistic agnosticism with respect to Genesis 1, whereby, when teaching Genesis, I’d present evidence for a young earth, old earth, theistic evolution, and the gap theory – ending with “we really don’t know,” but the important thing is that God created it. I continue to believe that the most important thing is God created it.

And then I read The Language of God by Francis Collins. His science, history, and personal testimony has deconstructed my world. As an atheist, scientist, and leader of the human genome project, Collins came to Christ in a remarkable way whereby the avenues of science, moral law, and the beauty of the Cascade mountains conspired to shout a grand invitation to which he responded. He believes thoroughly in the theory of evolution, believes that the earth is terribly old, and believes that science and the Bible can co-inform each other, that science and faith should work together rather than adversarially. He believes that we can worship God by looking through the lens of a telescope or microscope. I’ve always believed that too, but with a bit of suspicion. Collins, and the science camp experience have given me the freedom, even the obligation, to explore the relationship of science and faith, and so I trust and hope that you will join me in the conversation as offer several blog posts in anticipation of the upcoming sermon series. I need your comments in order to help clarify the issues. Here are my assumptions at the beginning:

1. We need to stop offering a false choice for young people between the life of faith and the life of science. Yet this is precisely what we do when, in the face of overwhelming evidence, we cling to weak science out of a fear that the entire faith enterprise will come tumbling down if the earth is older than 6-10 thousand years. Collins (again, a deeply devoted Christ follower, evangelical Christian) writes: By any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology.

2. We can take the scriptures at their word. This surely must include Psalm 19, which tells us that the heavens are declaring the glory of God. If these heavens are declaring the glory of God, would they actually lead honest enquirers to believe that God has deceived us, by providing overwhelming evidence for a big bang, and incredible nuances and variations in the cosmos that conspire to create the perfect conditions for sentient life on earth and yet teaching us in His book that the earth is young?

3. The idea of an older earth is older than evolution. None other than St. Augustine believed that the creation narrative stood outside our normal 24 hour days. Further, he warned against prematurely developing dogma in interpretive matters about which we will always, necessarily, have limited knowledge. He writes, “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” Yet this is precisely what we do when we make young earth a basic dogma of faith. Pity the student who then is persuaded of other possibilities, for she may will then face the very problem Schaeffer feared above. Linking the historicity of Genesis with the historicity of the resurrection, she may well toss both aside – and that would be a needless tragedy.

4. We’ve played this movie before. The church was fully convinced that Galileo was a heretic because he taught that the earth rotated around the sun. He was excommunicated, his writings banned, and he lived out his days under house arrest. Convinced of one interpretation, the church declared war on science. It’s still happening today.

Oh, and yes, the church finally apologized to Galileo. In 1992. I hope it doesn’t take the creation/evolution debate 500 years to come to a close. With that in, please join the conversation and share, respectfully, your thoughts about why science and faith are so often adversaries, and what can be done address the problem.


To read more of Richard’s thoughts, check out his blog here.

Curiosity-by Keith Shields

On Sunday August 7, Discovery Channel premiered a new series: “Curiosity.” The first episode was a show entitled “Did God Create the Universe?” The episode was narrated by Stephen Hawking and presented his own arguments and scientific explanations. The show is available online here.

Stephen Hawking continues to be a man that both amazes me and frustrates me. I have a great deal of respect for him and read his popular works with enthusiasm. He has a very large platform for his ideas. He is highly respected and has become a “rock-star” in the scientific world. He is likely the most famous mathematician who has ever lived and he has received many awards for his work in both mathematics and physics. In more recent years he has become a vocal atheist and philosopher. Although he would say that philosophy is dead there is little doubt that as he speaks of cosmology (the nature of the universe) he often strays into the areas of philosophy and cosmogony (the study of how the universe came to be).

In this episode of “Curiosity” Hawking makes bold statements about how science can explain the universe such that there is now no need for God. He suggests that those who hold to a belief that God did create the universe are simple minded. He compares them to ancient Vikings who screamed at the “wolf god” to prevent it from eating the sun as they experienced a solar eclipse. He apologizes to people of faith and then firmly states that there is no God, no heaven, and no after-life.

Stephen Hawking’s reasoning goes something like this. First, Hawking says that we can mathematically analyze our universe in ways that allow us to “see” the creation of our universe right up to the “Big Bang” from which our universe sprang. So far, so good, Hawking and other physicists have the technical knowledge of math and science that allows them to analyze such things.

Second, he maintains that for
most things in the universe “it takes something to make something.” You can’t make a mountain of dirt without taking dirt from a hole in the ground. However, the universe, he claims, is the ultimate “free lunch.” Quantum physics suggests that subatomic particles can spring into existence out of nothing. I would want to check with physicists to see if they would agree that this is what is happening at the subatomic level. Perhaps others would express it as not knowing the source of such particles. But, for the moment let us concede this point to Professor Hawking. He states that when we consider anti-energy, anti-matter, and other universes, everything sums up to zero. So, as long as the net sum is zero, the universe can come to exist out of nothing (at least nothing in our universe). Okay, that was the hard one to understand. Hang in there for one or two more paragraphs before you give up on this blog.

Third, Hawking says that, at the Big Bang, time came into existence. Therefore, we cannot talk about a time when God existed before the creation of the universe because there was no time prior to the Big Bang and God could not be in a place where there was no time. Plus, we have filled in all of the gaps in our understanding of the universe and there is no need for God. Therefore, God does not exist. That, in simplified terms, is the argument Hawking wishes us to follow and with which he would like us to agree.

Okay, let us analyze this argument for a moment. Just because I don’t see a need for something does not mean that thing does not exist. Hawking might have convinced me of his argument if he had said that “there is an alternative explanation of how the universe came to be and the explanation does not require God.” I might grant him that and we could agree to disagree on which explanation suits our philosophical understanding (since we are now solidly in the realm of philosophy, theology, and cosmogony). But the leap from “we don’t need God to explain the origins of the universe” to “there is no God” is too great for me. Even other atheists have pointed out the weakness of this argument
. As for there being no time before the Big Bang, one can readily see that if God exists, He would surely exist outside of time. Einstein’s theory of relativity readily shows us ways in which God might indeed be able to see all of time at once and stand outside of it. Again, Hawking can say that there is an alternative explanation that does not require God but this is not the same as saying “God cannot exist.”

Curiosity, I am all for it! I think it is appropriate to ask the questions proposed in this television program. We should seek to learn all we can about this amazing universe. We should seek to explain how things came to be in the world in which we find ourselves. We should hear from scientists who wish to explore these topics as well. But science and mathematics are still not the only tools we use for analyzing our world. Philosophy and theology continue to be valid disciplines which add to our understanding of the questions and the answers. I usually appreciate the Discovery Channel programming and the way they challenge us to think, dream, investigate, and experience the world. Unfortunately, this program was more entertaining than it was educational. The questions raised and the answers given were far too simplistic and biased. As I look at this questions I find that they lead me to a greater sense of awe about the God who calls us into relationship with Him.

John Van Sloten’s Church in the News

New Hope Church, pastored by John Van Sloten who was a member of the 2010 Pastoral Science Cohort, was featured in the Calgary Herald last week in an article addressing the intersection of Faith and Science in N. American churches.  Click Here to read the full article.

Two Pastoral Science Alumnus Awarded “Scientists in Congregations” Grant

The Pastoral Science team is very excited to announce that two of our previous cohort members have been chosen by the Templeton Foundation as recipients of the Scientists in Congregations Grant. Our glad congratulations to John Van Sloten of New Hope Church in Calgary, AB, and to Cynthia Fantasia of Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA.

We very much look forward to seeing what you and your congregations develop during the coming year!

John Van Sloten Sermon: God Revealed in a Redwood

2010 Cohort Member John Van Sloten explores how the Giant Redwood trees of California & Oregon might help us encounter and stand in awe of the creator God.


God revealed in a Redwood from New Hope Church Calgary on Vimeo.


Although I have thought about the subject for years, I learned a new term today: “exotheology.” It is defined as the examination of theological issues related to extraterrestrial intelligence. Now lest you think I have completely lost my mind, let me point out that many gifted and creative writers have written on this topic. C.S. Lewis wrote a trilogy of books that grappled with the questions of what it might look like if humans travelled to other planets and found intelligent life.(1) Mary Doriah Russell wrote The Sparrow and Children of God as a means of wrestling with complex questions of evil and suffering in the world. In these two books intelligent life is discovered on a distant planet and Jesuit priests organize a scientific expedition to investigate. 

In addition to such fictional references, the Catholic Church has theologians dedicated to thinking about the implications of life on other planets. José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, has said that “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom.”(2)

One of the first places I came upon the concept of exotheology was in the lyrics of a song written by Larry Norman and released on his In Another Land album in 1976. In the song “UFO” he writes, “And if there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that He must know. And He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.”

Norman’s approach to exotheology is one valid perspective but is not the only perspective. Lewis, in the Cosmic Trilogy suggests that life on other planets may have taken a different path. He writes about other worlds where intelligent life had not yet fallen from grace with God and continued to walk in harmony with their Creator. Russell is much more interested in the theme of how we reconcile a benevolent God with suffering in the world but her books allow exploration of other ways God might work with persons on other planets.

Of course, we do not know if there is such a thing as intelligent extraterrestrial life and we do not know if we will ever discover such if indeed it exists. Yet, the thought experiments related to such speculation are helpful as we think through our “endotheology” (my own word for the opposite of exotheology) and how we understand our own relationship with a Creator God. As is often the case, C.S. Lewis has some appropriate final words on the topic.

“I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on Earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.” (3)

1) The three books known collectively as the Cosmic Trilogy include the titles Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
2) “Vatican scientist says belief in God and aliens is OK,” Reuters, May 14, 2008, and “Pope’s astronomer insists alien life ‘would be part of God’s creation,'” The Independent, 15th May 2008.

James Robinson Sermon: Science and the “Unknown God” of Acts 17

2011 Cohort Member James Robinson explores the way Paul’s sermon in Act chapter 17 might influence our understanding of the relationship between Faith and Science.

James Robinson Sermon 2011.05.29

Expert Call with Dr. John Walton

In this call Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College, author of The Lost World of Genesis One explores the way a contextually appropriate interpretation of Genesis 1 might influence our attempts to consider Theology and Science together. The audio of this call is available below for Cohort-only download below.

JohnWaltonCall-Final (right-click to download)