November 2, 2009

How Many Lutherans Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

As both a scientist and believer, I’ve always been baffled by the attitude many believers and churches have towards science. For me, discovering something new and unexpected in God’s creation is always an opportunity to find out new and unexpected things about God Himself. Yet many believers and churches tend to be react with cynicism, fear, or downright hostility towards science. Scientists are cast as promoters of some subversive godless agenda, in spite of the large number of professional scientists who actually do believe in a personal, prayer-answering God.

Over the next few blog postings, I’m going to explore some of the issues that lie at the heart of this attitude of skepticism, fear, and hostility, and how to deal with them.

The first issue I’m going to address is: Resistance to Change

I’m sure most of you have heard the answer to the question posed in the title of this blog. The punch line to “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” is, of course: “None. Lutherans don’t believe in change.”

My observation is that most Christians (Lutheran or otherwise) are exceedingly uncomfortable with change. Sure, we might enjoy seeing new places or trying new restaurants. We may get excited about living in a new community, or starting a different job. We may even be open to changes in styles of ministry or worship.

But when it comes to change that threatens to radically alter part of our belief system, how many of us who call ourselves Christians can honestly say that we eagerly consider evidence that goes against, and may even prove us wrong about, a position we’ve not only held dearly, but taught others to follow?

If we’re honest, we’d probably all say that whatever belief system or world view we happen to hold, it’s something that we’re quite comfortable with, and aren’t really interested in changing it. We like to surround ourselves with others who share the same world view, saturate ourselves with teaching that reinforces it, and reject any new information that might present a challenge for it (a tendency known as "confirmation bias"). We see radical new ideas as an attack on what we call our “traditional” positions, develop a defensive posture, resist change, and adopt the label “conservative” (where the dictionary definition of conservative is: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”)

When believers adopt a conservative attitude toward new ideas, science presents a challenge. After all, science is all about discovering new things. And throughout history, these new things (such as the roundness of the earth, the orbits of the planets, the size and age of the universe, biological development and complexity, relativity, and string theory) are often radically surprising, counterintuitive, and revolutionary to our understanding of the world.

This is not to imply that all change is good. A conservative resistance to destructive changes is sometimes necessary. The trouble is, it’s much easier to automatically adopt the conservative, change-resisting position on everything, than it is to think through each issue separately. And sometimes, that can get us into trouble. Let’s look at some examples:

In New Testament times, change was represented by the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, who came preaching a message that threatened to radically alter the traditional understanding of God and the Old Testament law. Resistance to change came from the conservative religious leaders of the day (most notably the Pharisees), who were determined to protect God’s chosen people from being led astray by this radical new teaching, which was obviously contrary to the traditional understanding of Scripture. Their solution: refuse to listen to Jesus, and silence Him to prevent others from listening.

In the early 1600s, change was represented by Galileo, who had the audacity to state that Copernicus’ theory that the earth and planets orbited the sum was no longer a theory, but a fact, proven by a new invention called the “telescope”. Resistance to change came from conservative church leaders who were determined to uphold the truth of scriptures, which clearly described the earth as a flat surface covered by a hard dome or “firmament” (Genesis 1:6-17) that “cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1). Their solution: refuse to look through Galileo’s telescope (which some called an instrument of Satan) and prevent others from listening to him by placing him under house arrest and preventing publication of his writings.

Today, a battle rages over the issue of biological origins and development. Radical change arrived on the scene 150 years ago, when Darwin came up with a theory that species developed from other species through a process known as natural selection. Now, scientists (even those who call themselves Christians, such as Francis Collins, or biology professors at most evangelical colleges) are claiming that natural selection is not just a theory, but a fact proven by a new invention known as “genome mapping”. Resistance to change comes from conservative Christians, who are steadfastly determined to uphold what they perceive to be a literal interpretation of Genesis.

Now I enjoy discussing evolution, intelligent design, and creationism, as long as those discussions focus on scientific evidence for and against each position. However, most believers who take a strong position against evolution, do so using the same arguments that were used in the 1960s, and ignoring genetic evidence discovered in the last few years. It’s not their conclusion (for or against evolution), but the nature of their arguments, that tells me that if they had been born in a different time, they would likely have sided with the flat-earthers and the Pharisees. To their credit, a lot of believers with whom I’ve had this discussion, have reluctantly agreed with this assessment.

For those of us who are resistant to change, is there is a way to approach both science and scripture in a way that doesn’t compromise either? I believe there is. More about that in my next post.


  1. Very interesting read, and challenging. I don't think any Christian wants to be lumped in the category with the Pharisees. One would think there should never be a true disagreement between scripture and science if they are both truth.

    A convenient option is to assume that the scripture in reference must not be meant to be taken literally. It is fairly evident that 6 days of creation is easily interpreted as 6 periods of time without compromising the belief in "inspiration." However, in reference to God's method of creating man and woman in specific events listed in the Bible and decide based on the genetic code that it must have been accomplished through evolution is difficult to accept even for a biochemistry major.

    I don't think a belief in a 20 billion-year old universe or evolution takes away from a belief in God's amazing creative ability, but I think it is dangerous to go down the road of deciding that the Bible is not literal if it goes against science. To assume this is to potentially rule out all miracles unless they could have happened in some scientific way.

    The other thing I feel is relevent is that those believers such as those opposed to Galileo who do not accept a changed point of view are rejecting a scientific way of thinking and pushing the scientific community away from God. The pharisees were rejecting God Himself and His plan for salvation which is a bigger problem than rejecting science.

    Thanks for challenging us to think. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Scott.

    The concern about "going down the road of deciding that the Bible is not literal" is very valid, and something I will be addressing in a future post. The fear is that denying the literal interpretation of any passage amounts to denying the validity of all Scripture. That was one of the arguments used by Galileo's detractors.

    But the fact is, we go down that road all the time. There are countless passages (references to a flat earth covered by a hard dome among them) that we don't think twice about interpreting figuratively. Jesus' use of parables was a perfect example of how God has always communicated eternal truths about Himself in the context of that culture's understanding of the world around him. Reinterpreting the context of the message, as our understanding of the world changes, never changes the eternal truths that were being taught.

    I did struggle a bit with including the "Pharisee" example along with the "Galileo" example, but see the parallel as this: both were revelations of something new. One was a direct revelation of God Himself, and the other a revelation of something new in God's creation (that secondarily showed us more about God). You're right, they're not of equal consequence. But in the context of this discussion, they were both illustrative of our natural resistance to new perspectives that don't fit into our predefined box.

    Thanks for reading, and keep the comments coming.

    [By the way, the universe is 13.73 billion years old, not 20 billion. But I'll assume you were speaking figuratively. ☺]

  3. Thanks, Phil! You nailed it! Learning that there is a scientific explanation of the Red Sea parting or manna in the desert does not make them any less miraculous. I think it's even more awesome that God created a world so intricate that great scientific minds continue to find Him in their deepest analyses! KA