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The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters
The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters is an ordained ELCA minister and the Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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Faith & Science in the 21st Century Series Faith & Science in the 21st Century Series
Day1 presents the "Faith & Science in the 21st Century" Series, featuring outstanding theologians and scientists exploring vital issues of science and religion today. This series is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

God and Cosmos - Faith & Science Series Part 2

Psalm 8:1-9

19th Sunday after Pentecost - Year B

October 04, 2015

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We're very excited about the new Day1"Faith and Science in the 21st Century" formation resource from Church Publishing, Inc.!

Faith and Science in the 21st Century presents a way to start this important conversation. Built on existing audio files and videos produced by Day1 with assistance from a John Templeton Foundation grant, this series features notable faith leaders across the denominational spectrum in brief video presentations and longer audio excerpts on scientific topics in which they are experts.  Intended for use in a variety of settings, including congregations, schools, and campus ministries, it can be presented as an 8- or 16-session series of studies, but each session can also stand on its own for a one-time formation offering. Media files are available for download at a modest additional charge. This guide enables facilitators to foster fruitful discussions of each session topic. It includes an introduction about the program and how it can be used, and eight detailed session plans to utilize with a downloadable video sold separately on the Day1 website.

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Ted Peters: "As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known we were coming."1

Peter Wallace: That's the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters, and today we continue our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day 1.

Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life. Today we continue our exciting series of special programs. To introduce this week's preacher, here's our host, Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace: Thank you, Sherrie. Today we continue our special eight-part series of Day1 programs: "Faith & Science in the 21st Century, which is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In this series we're exploring together some of the major issues of science today with a goal of facilitating meaningful conversation around these issues particularly among people of faith. As we continue on our quest to engage the big questions that have riddled humanity since the dawn of civilization, we're delighted to have with us the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. A graduate of Michigan State University, Ted earned masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and a master of divinity from Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He is the author of numerous books of theology, ethics, and science and their intersections, including God: The World's Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era, and his latest, Sin Boldly! Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls. His website is www.tedstimelytake.com. Ted, thank you for being with us!

Ted Peters: It's good to be here with you, Peter.

Peter Wallace: You are associated with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. You serve as co-editor of the journal Theology and Science. Why would you say it's important to explore reality through both of those disciplines?

Ted Peters: We Christians believe that God created one world, and we also believe that that is the very world that our natural scientists are examining. In the Middle Ages, our ancestors had the concept of the two books. Well, one book was the Bible, to be sure; but the other book was The World of Nature; and our earliest scientists such as Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo, Isaac Newton, all believed in the two books, and when they were reading the Book of Nature, they were telling us about God the creator. So that's what we think in Berkeley at The Center for Theology and Natural Sciences.

Peter Wallace: You have been at the forefront of the evolution debate in recent years, advocating for theistic evolution. How do you describe that approach to understanding our beginnings?

Ted Peters: Well, I might start by answering what we are not. We are not members of the school of creation as a man, not members of the intelligent design school. About the year 2000 my friend and colleague Marty Hewlett, who is an evolutionary biologist, he and I decided to study the matter. So we went to the Institute for Creation Research, actually, in San Diego; and in order to find out what do the creationists really think. So we made friends of Duane Gish and Dr. [Henry] Morris, who is the founder. At one point Duane Gish says, "Do you know what's worse than a godless atheist?" We said, "No, what's worse?" "A theistic evolutionist!"

And so my friend Marty and I turned to each other and we said, "What are we?" So we named ourselves theistic evolutionists. And there are two ways to be a theistic evolutionist, a minimalist and a maximalist. The minimalist says, "I believe in the revelation of the Bible, and I really believe that science is a good thing and that the theory of evolution coming from Charles Darwin is really a good thing. It really teaches a great deal about the natural world. So the minimalist says, "I gotta have both--got to put them together." The maximalist will give you a whole theory about how God works through the evolutionary processes in order to not just create the world but also to redeem it. The great Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin would be an example of a maximalist.

 

Well, my friend Marty and I--we're kind of on the minimalist side. We love the science. We think that God works through evolution, but we also recognize evolution is just one more scientific theory among others, and a half-century from now it might get replaced with another one. So let's just say we want to respect the science, learn from the science, look for God's fingers at work, and see what we can find out.

Peter Wallace: You've also been deeply involved in efforts to consider issues of genetics and bioethics from a theological perspective, and the issues are manifold. Is there an underlying theme to how you deal ethically with genetics?

Ted Peters: When the human genome project began in the United States in the year 1990, we at The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley got a grant from the National Institutes of Health that deal with the theological and ethical implications of this exploding new knowledge about the human genome, and here is an issue that was very important. Is the genome the essence of what makes a human being? Well, many of the scientists thought that. And if that's true, then that's going to have importance for the way we Christians think about the human being.

Well, we looked into it and as it turns out, no, the human genome is not the essence of a human being. Very important to be sure, but not the essence. And so that does have ethical implications. Do we need to protect the human genome from playing God? By playing God we mean getting into the genome with wrenches and screwdrivers--you know, and changing it. No, we don't need to protect the human genome. It's not sacred. It's not holy. It's not your and my essence. And here is one of the really important implications, I think, for family life as Christians look at it. What makes a family is not the genome, not who your parents and grandparents are. It's really the love of the family, and I think that families that adopt children or take in children, right along with giving birth to children, perhaps even in exotic ways, it's the love that makes the family, not the genome. So that's what of the more important of our ethical findings.

Peter Wallace: Your frontier area of research is Astrotheology, reflections on space exploration--why is that of importance for you?

Ted Peters: Well, I've always had space in my soul. Better than having space in your head, right? And I just love things having to do with outer space; and for many years, establishment scientists just would pay no attention to issues having to do with extraterrestrial life. Well, then, in the 1990's the field of astrobiology just got so exciting because of the discovery of exoplanets. And so our field of astrotheology is an attempt to bring theologians and astrobiologists--that's astronomers and astrophysicists and people like that--together, to work on the religious implications of outer space and also the ethical implications of traveling to space. And also we want to get ready. Maybe the day is coming--maybe tomorrow--when space neighbors will drop in on us and we want to know do we invite them over for barbecue or not.

Peter Wallace: Your latest book has a provocative, albeit borrowed, title: Sin Boldly! A famous Martin Luther imperative. What's your purpose for the book?

Ted Peters: Well, I have both a spiritual and a theological purpose. The spiritual purpose has to do with so many of us who have what I call fragile souls. We want to do what is right. We want our inner souls to conform with God's justice; and you know, if we get too anxious about it, well, we don't flower, we don't flourish, we just are constantly nervous about doing the right thing. And there's something about the Christian faith that should make us bold and creative and energize us, so I wanted to make that point in the book. Then there's another phenomenon that is widely ignored in our society. It's what I call the broken soul. It's usually military people who've had service in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they lose their moral universe. What happens is that if the moral universe flies away, their soul flies away, and quite frequently they commit suicide. We understand that the number of suicides per day is just gargantuan, and so I want to think through that with the reader. Is there a way in which God's grace can have a meaningful relationship for people's whose souls are broken? And then, finally, theologically, I want to compare and contrast how to think about justification by faith, sanctification and good works in comparing the Lutherans with the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians in that book.

Peter Wallace: You've also written an espionage novel, the first of what we hope will be a series. It's called For God and Country, features a parish pastor, Leona Foxx, in a suspense thriller! Is this based on real-life experiences?

Ted Peters: Oh, it sure is! Leona, my heroine--it's a good thing she's fictional because my wife won't get jealous and all. Leona is a combination of myself when I was an inner-city pastor, but also a CIA agent who has a broken soul, which I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, who was tortured in a prison in Iran. And so I put these two characters together to make Leona, and she is a pastor with a conscience, and she's confronted with a problem of idolatry. Whom does she worship? The true God of Jesus Christ or the United States of America? The United States of America can easily become an idol, or can we be both a loyal American and a strong Christian at the same time? Anyway, Leona has to wrestle with these, and I have a lot of exciting things in there about science and technology. I explain how Iran is going to develop its nuclear weapons without us noticing, so if you want the hot news on these topics, read For God and Country. And yes, it's going to be followed with four more volumes.

Peter Wallace: Ted, your message today, the second in our Faith & Science series, draws from Psalm 8--a beautiful song of praise. Would you read it for us?

Ted Peters: I will. I'm going to read just from the first verses of Psalm 8. It goes like this:

1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Peter Wallace: Ted, your sermon is entitled "God and Cosmos." Thank you for being with us.

Ted Peters: It's good to be here.

 

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Sermon "God and Cosmos"

The Rev. Dr. Ted Peters

 

Imagine that you're lying on a beach. You're lying on your back and your eyes sweep upward. What do you see? The mighty luminescence of the sun. A few cloud tufts wisping in the breeze. And then you look beyond. You strain your eyes as your vision sinks into the distance, the impenetrable distance that seems to have no end. The magnificence of the heavenly vault impresses itself on your soul.

Now, imagine that you are lying on this beach 3000 years ago, perhaps in ancient Mesopotamia or the Indus River Valley. You've never seen an electric light bulb or a cell phone; you've never watched a tractor plow a field. What might you think? Our ancestors thought of this sky as powerful, overwhelming, regnant. It's easy to put ourselves into the shoes--or maybe better, the sandals--of an ancient Egyptian and view the sun as the sky god who delivers energy to our Earth.

It's easy to put ourselves in the shoes of someone 3,000 years ago shuddering at the destructive power of lightning and cowering at the blast of thunder. Ancient cultures told myths about a great war being fought in heaven. The lightning bolt was the spear of a great sky warrior, whose voice roared in the thunder. He was called Marduk in Babylonia, Indra in India, Thor in Northern Europe, Zeus in Greece, and Jupiter in Rome.

When I was a small boy growing up in Michigan--a state which really knows what a thunder storm can do--the sky frightened the wits out of me. When the thunder would clap, I would run to my bedroom and hide under the bed.

My mother would come in, laughing. "Why are you under the bed?'

"I'm scared of the thunder."

"Oh, don't be afraid of the thunder. It's only Thor up in heaven rolling his bowling ball."

It is into this ancient world where our biblical ancestors were born. Our Bible was written under this sky. The Holy Spirit may have inspired the Bible's authors, but these authors could only write about what they understood.

What the Bible's authors understood was that the sky is overwhelming in its magnificence, its beauty, its awesomeness. But they added something. The Bible's writers said there is no battle going on in heaven. There is no war between gods up there. The sun is not divine. Nor are thunder clouds and lightning sky gods or goddesses. Rather, these heavenly phenomena are mere finite creatures of an infinite God, a God who comes from well beyond the sky.

Remember Psalm 8 we read a couple of moments ago. God manipulates the sun and the moon and the stars with divine fingers. Or think about the first day in the Book of Genesis, chapter 1, where God just whispers and nothing becomes something. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

Well, this is all ancient myth, right? We modern people no longer fear the sky or even respect the sky, for that matter. We have conquered the sky through science and technology. We can fly in a jet at 30,000 feet and look down on the thunder and lightning. No Thor or Jupiter can send us crawling under the bed in fright.

In addition, we watch weather reporters on our televisions. Meteorologists read the technical instruments that tell us what the sky is going to do tomorrow. No matter how frequently their predictions are wrong, we still trust the meteorological report each day. We modern scientized and technologized people no longer need to think of Earth's measly little sky as infinite or powerful or holy.

But, much to our surprise, lurking just behind our sky, is another sky. A second sky. This other sky is outer space. Today, it's outer space that elicits from within our soul a sense of infinity, grandeur, and awe.

Let's call to mind the passage many think of as the gospel-in-miniature. John 3:16 NRSV: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." Now the Bible's Greek word for "world" here is cosmos. Our world today is no longer limited to Planet Earth and its measly sky. By the word cosmos we mean the Big Bang; we mean our sun and the solar system; perhaps 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, many of which have planets like Earth, and then perhaps another 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, and countless more planets, stretching 11 to 13 billion light-years distant from us. Our word cosmos means big, unimaginably big. Is God still bigger? Is the God of Psalm 8 now manipulating galaxies with the divine finger?

An article in a recent issue of Astronomy magazine asked the question: how large is our universe? There seems to be a scientific consensus that our universe is at least 93 billion light-years across. This means it would take you, flying at the speed of light, 93 billion years traveling time to visit your relatives on the other side of the universe. And, of course, another 93 billion years to get home again. You'll need a generous vacation policy if you do this very frequently.

Now some scientists disagree with this estimate. They contend that the universe is infinite. It has no size, no limit. Now which is it? 93 billion? Or infinite? Well, regardless of who's right, we can certainly conclude one thing: the cosmos is big. Is God still bigger?

Space is big, not only in space but also in time. Most astrophysicists agree that our universe began with a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. It may expand for another 50 to 100 billion years before it burns out like a candle.

What is so fascinating for Bible-believing Christians is that this scientific account of cosmic history looks a lot like what a Jew or a Christian would expect. What the Bible tells us is that God's relationship to the world of nature is historical in character. The world begins. What follows the beginning is a history, a drama, a story. God makes promises; and then God fulfills these promises. Among those promises is this one: a new creation is coming! This new creation will consummate and fulfill the entire history of the present creation. This new creation will include a resurrection of the dead and abundant life in God's everlasting kingdom. You and I are still awaiting fulfillment of this divine promise.

God is the Alpha and the Omega of all things. We've just talked about the Omega. Let's go back to the Alpha. Let's go back to the beginning of creation.

The beginning of all things is most puzzling to scientists. The initial conditions at the time when the Big Bang first banged contort and flabbergast the human mind. There seems to be a beginning to time, a moment when Time = zero, when t = 0. What were the conditions at the first moment, when t = 0? Curiously, these initial conditions were finely tuned so that we here on Earth would eventually come into existence.

This fine tuning is called the Anthropic Principle. According to the anthropic principle, the initial conditions were such that intelligent life would eventually evolve. It appears that our early universe was fine-tuned so as to prepare physics for evolving biology and prepare biology for evolving intelligence. Try this for an example. If gravity had been stronger or weaker by just 1 part in 1030, then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist, making life impossible. Or try this one. If the initial explosion of the Big Bang had differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1066, the universe would have either collapsed or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible. This list of "accidents" or "convenient coincidences" goes on and on. And these facts stun our scientists.

One scientist, Freeman Dyson, who is a physicist at Princeton University, sees a connection between the Big Bang and your and my life today. "As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known we were coming."[1]

Another scientist, Owen Gingerich, emeritus professor of astronomy at Harvard University, sees the fingers of God at work. Let me quote Dr. Gingerich: "I accept that the physical constants have been fine-tuned to make intelligent life in the universe possible and that this is evidence for the planning and intentions of a Creator God."[2]

Instead of lying on the beach sand looking at the sky, we today look through telescopes and monitors and computer graphs. Yet what we see is just as marvelous and awesome as what our ancestors saw. The universe is as intricate as it is massive, as mysterious as it is understandable, as wondrous as it is glorious. And today we realize something the ancient Psalmist missed. It's not merely the sun and the moon that are moved by God's fingers. God's fingers lit the fuse on the Big Bang, hurling galaxies upon galaxies upon galaxies through time, creating space. Asteroids and comets and black holes and cosmic background radiation and dark energy--and perhaps even earthlike exoplanets with earthlike creatures--all belong to God's dynamic and changing creation.

But the Psalmist made another point that remains true today, namely, regardless of how large our cosmos might be, God still loves you and me individually and intimately. When Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism about five centuries ago, he commented on the opening of the creed--and you know how it goes: "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Luther then asked: What does this mean? Here is his answer: "I believe that God has created me together with all that exists."[3]

Now it may sound arrogant to put "me" prior to "all that exists." But, think again. God is both beyond and intimate. God is both cosmic and personal. Regardless of how big the cosmos, God is fully and without remainder present in the depth of your soul and my soul. "God is closer to me than I am to myself," said St. Augustine.

Our cosmos is big. But God loves each and every creature, including you and me, directly and eternally. Our God does a lot of loving.

Let us pray. O God of our creation and our redemption, you've created a cosmos of such beauty, magnificence, and mystery. We thank you for our very existence, for the privilege of living as your beloved creatures. We thank you also for the message of the gospel, for the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection into your new creation. Inspire within our souls a divine love for all that you are making. Amen.

 

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Sherrie Miller: Now Ted Peters offers some final thoughts on his message today with our host Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace: Ted, one of the problems people of faith must wrestle with when considering the big issues of science is how we employ Scripture. As you point out, the Holy Spirit may have inspired the Bible's authors, but they could only write about what they understood, which is, that the sky was overwhelming in its magnificence and beauty, and also that these heavenly phenomena are mere finite creatures of an infinite God. Would you say more about how we should view the Bible as we consider these matters of the cosmos?

Ted Peters: God speaks truth to you and me in ways that we can understand, and our understanding is determined in large part by the world view that we share with people around us. One of the founders of fundamentalism in America was a Princeton theologian named Benjamin Warfield, and he's the one that formulated the doctrine of Scripture being inerrant in its original autographs. Now Dr. Warfield said that the Holy Spirt would whisper into the minds--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--but those minds would then translate what the Spirit had said into the language they spoke. He used the word concursus for this. Isn't it interesting? That the minds of Matthew, Mark, and Luke--and John--are part of what made the Scripture what it is now. If you're a fundamentalist, then you recognize that the Bible could only talk about the world it knew, even though the Spirit was speaking, so there's no mention in there of a Chevrolet. Right? The city of Atlanta is not mentioned in the Bible. But it does reflect the world of the time. Now here's a little fact a lot of people don't know. Dr. Warfield, who gave the fundamentalists the doctrine of inerrant Scripture, was also a Darwinist; and Dr. Warfield said that God created the human race through evolutionary processes through the process of concursus, which is the same one by which the Bible was written. So, now to get back to your question, we have to take the theological message of the Bible and try to understand it in light of the world we live in today, and that world today is really influenced by modern science. Modern science is not truth; it's just a very learned way of understanding the world. So we have to put together the theological message of the Bible with the scientific understanding of the world in order to have our own understanding of how to be a faithful Christian today.

Peter Wallace: You explained the early universe was, according to the Anthropic Principle, fine-tuned so as to prepare physics for evolving biology and to prepare biology for evolving intelligence. Even minute variations of conditions and attributes of the Big Bang would have precluded the possibility of life, and you said these facts stun scientists. Do they have any response?

Ted Peters: The answer is yes, indeed. What is so amazing for us that these questions about the possibility of God having designed the universe arose from within physics. It wasn't religious people that raised these questions. It was the physicists. Well, those of us who like God and we kind of like to think about God's work in the universe, we think the Anthropic Principle is just great. But it drives the atheists crazy, because they don't want a scientific theory that looks like it requires God. So what has risen among some atheist scientists--and I'm thinking of Stephen Hawking in England, in particular--is to come up with an alternative account for the fine-tuning. Everyone agrees on the facts our universe is fine-tuned. But how do you explain it? Well, God is a possibility. Accident is a possibility. Well, nobody is going to buy that, so Stephen Hawking and some others have come up with the theory of the multiverse. That is to say there are a large number--actually, a gargantuan number of universes--everyone tuned slightly differently. So, believe it or not, Peter, there's another Peter in another universe right now who is almost but not completely identical with you. And this then removes the wow factor from our universe and makes it not unique, and it makes it very prosaic.

Now if you'll allow me a couple more seconds, here is something that is really ironic about the multiverse theory. It's based upon the principle of plentitude, which says every potential gets actualized. Now believe it or not, that's a theological principle that our medieval theological ancestors held, and they threw it away. But it's been picked up now by the physicists, and so the point is there is no empirical evidence of any seriousness that there is such a thing as a multiverse. But it looks good if you're an atheist and you want an alternative explanation to the Anthropic Principle.

Peter Wallace: The writer of Psalm 8 notes that regardless of how large our cosmos might be, God still loves you and me individually and intimately, you said. That's pretty mind blowing considering the circumstances, isn't it?

Ted Peters: It really is, but one of the themes that I've noticed throughout the Bible, and it's dramatic in the New Testament is this paradox. On the one hand God is beyond. God is beyond our thoughts. God is beyond anything we can imagine. God is transcendent. But at the same time God is intimate as well, so close to us. St. Paul says in Romans that sometime when we're praying there's this guttural something-or-other that comes up from deep within; it's the Holy Spirit from within. So it's this contrast between the beyond and the intimate. So at Christmas time, on the one hand, we can think of Jesus as a sweet little baby in a manger, that's the intimate God. And then we can sing, "Angels, we have heard on high," you know, and that's the sensibility of the beyond at work. And it's right there is Psalm 8 so dramatically

Peter Wallace: Ted, what's one thing from your message today that you hope our listeners will keep in mind this week?

Ted Peters: I think it helps us to appreciate God if we think about how big the cosmos is and recognize that there isn't anything that isn't a gift to us from the gracious hand of God. And God, of course, is not the same thing as the cosmos, to be sure, but if we can appreciate the cosmos and appreciate the scientists who help us to realize what's going on--well, that's just one little secular way, so to speak--in which we can have a greater appreciation for God in this creation.

Peter Wallace: Ted Peters, thank you for being with us!

Ted Peters: It's good to be here with you, Peter.

 


[1] Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper, 1979) 250.

[2] Owen Gingerich, God's Planet (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 152.

[3] Martin Luther, "The Small Catechism," The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 354..

 

The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.


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