This past Thursday night, I attended a public lecture titled “Science as a Barrier to the Gospel?” by Arnold Sikkema, Professor of Physics at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC (my alma mater). The lecture was sponsored by the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation of which Sikkema is a past president.
There was much I appreciated about the lecture. Sikkema gently laid out some reasons to accept Big Bang cosmology and encouraged Christians who have been taught to view the Big Bang or evolution as contrary to their faith to consider that this conflict framework is flawed and wholly unnecessary for the Christian.
For me, the most important points came when Sikkema cautioned against Christian apologists who attempt to marshall science in their apologetics while not really understanding the science to which they appeal. In particular, Sikkema pointed out that Big Bang cosmology does not address the origin of the universe: while he never mentioned cosmological arguments as such, it wasn’t hard to see how his point would potentially constitute a clapback to those who blithely assume that T=0 is the same thing as “Let there be light.”
The lecture also seemed to me to be a bit of a missed opportunity. Sikkema referenced once or twice the fact that he had originally pursued a terminal degree in physics with the intent of showing how scientific theories of cosmic origins were false. But instead, he was eventually won over to accepting those very theories. His story sounds very similar to that of Denis Lamoureux, a biologist and theologian from St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, who has long been a leader in the dialogue between science and evolution. Lamoureux’ forthcomimg book, Struggling with God and Origins tells of his own move from young earth creationist to evolutionary creationist with three doctorates and a specialist in dental evolution. I thought Sikkema’s presentation would’ve been more engaging and memorable if he had built his themes around a personal narrative of his own journey of coming to critique fundamentalist Christian assumptions and embrace contemporary science.
Posing My Question
After the lecture, there was a Q&A and I asked Sikkema the following question:
the biblical authors do not have a concept of autonomous nature but instead regularly attribute natural events, and specifically natural disasters, as direct manifestations of the divine will. Thus, if there is an earthquake, volcanic explosion, or flood, it is attributed directly to the divine will. By contrast, today we assume there is an autonomous realm of nature and thus if there is an earthquake or volcanic explosion we attribute it to a fault line between shifting tectonic plates, and if there is a flood we attribute it to weather events like an atmospheric river impacting a flood plain. How do we integrate these two views? (paraphrased)
Sikkema’s response was disappointing, to say the least. He affirmed that he believed God judged people by causing earthquakes and volcanic explosions and floods in biblical times because the Bible says as much. But he also believes that there are no prophets today providing explanations of God doing so now so we can remain with our scientific explanations of these phenomena.
That’s his explanation.
Frankly, I find it very disappointing that a former president of an organization dedicated to the integration of Christian faith and science has not thought more deeply about the fact that the biblical authors assume a framework understanding of nature and divine action which is fundamentally contrary from that of most Christians today. When a spring flood hits the lower subdivision of your town in April, people don’t assume that God is judging the residents of that neighborhood. Rather, they conclude that the neighborhood is in a high risk flood zone which was vulnerable to an especially high snowpack and rapid melt.
On a macro-level, think of the Ring of Fire (pictured above) which is created by tectonic fault lines which produce a concentration of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Do we believe the people living on the Ring of Fire are especially subject to punitive judgments of divine wrath? If we don’t believe they are now, why would we believe they were so subject in biblical times?
The Near East is a seismically active area. If we don’t assume that the recent Turkey/Syria earthquake was a punitive divine judgment on all the people in this already war-torn area, if we don’t assume God was judging them by destroying their homes and burying them in concrete, why would we think God was judging ancient populations by destroying their homes and burying them in the rubble of toppled buildings?
The Problems with Punitive Divine Judgment in Natural Disasters
Sikkema later returned to my question during the Q&A by suggesting that perhaps we should think of the ravages of climate change as God’s divine judgment. That is a profoundly problematic suggestion. As I explain when I discuss this topic in my book Conversations with My Inner Atheist (promoted), a just punishment must be discriminate (i.e. limited to the culpable), proportional, and clearly identified as such.
For example, if one of your children violates curfew, you don’t ground all three of your children because that fails to discriminate guilty from innocent, you don’t beat the culpable child unconscious because that is not proportional, and you don’t suddenly ground him six months later without explaining why because that is not clearly identified as a punishment.
But when people are randomly buried in rubble in earthquakes (ancient or modern), there is no discrimination of guilty and innocent, there is no proportionality (e.g. what did an infant do to deserve having a cinderblock collapse her skull?) and there is no clear identification. Even in ancient Israel where prophets allegedly provided the message of judgment, it was not received by all those who were adversely affected.
A few years ago, I read a projection that there could be one billion climate refugees by the end of the century, most of whom would be within the world’s poorest countries most vulnerable to that catastrophic effects of climate change (e.g. Bangladesh). Do you really want to suggest that climate change is God’s just punishment for excessive burning of fossil fuels when God’s judgment upon the countries most responsible is disproportionately poured out on the countries least responsible?
I noted above that Sikkema offered some modest cautions against apologists who engage superficially with science to support their apologetic projects. I share that concern but Sikkema’s comments also highlight another concern I have that Christian scientists working on science and faith integration often have a woefully inadequate and superficial understanding of the theological, ethical, and practical issues at stake in a meaningful and deep integration of scientific understanding with Christian faith.