WARNER ROBINS -- As a young lad, Scott Petersen was encouraged by his father to watch the original “Cosmos” TV series, created by Carl Sagan.
Petersen found the series fascinating thanks to Sagan’s ability to make science relatable to a broad audience.
“When ‘Cosmos’ came out (in 1980), my father shared it with me,” Petersen said. “I actually purchased the ‘Cosmos’ book. It was exciting to think about.”
Petersen ultimately chose a religious life over a scientific one, becoming an Episcopalian minister. But the ideas raised in the original “Cosmos” never faded away, and when he heard that Fox was reviving the series with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, he saw an opportunity.
“How often is there a question where (it’s examined by) science or faith?” he said. “You don’t have to have an ‘either/or.’ You can have both,” he said.
Petersen, the reverend at All Saints Episcopal Church in Warner Robins, is presenting a series of sermons for his parish that will ask people to question their beliefs to see if they can meld science into their religious ideals. The sermons began this past Sunday. Petersen said members of the Episcopal faith tend to be flexible in their thinking rather than bound by a strict set of religious tenets.
“As we explore science and faith, we wrestle with and affirm two central truths,” Petersen told his parishioners. “We can hold to the truth that life evolved over billions of years. (The second truth) is that the universe we share and breathe and hold onto is one that’s being shared by God. Our living faith in Jesus Christ is true. The affirmation of the first truth doesn’t mutually exclude you from the other.”
Petersen went on to describe a spectrum between pure faith and pure science. At one end, he said, there are people who believe in a “young Earth” -- that is, an Earth that’s only about 14,000 years old, based on literal calculations made from the Bible.
Petersen said people who subscribe to this view often have difficult challenges, such as questions about how dinosaurs existed. Often, Petersen said, those people will say dinosaur bones were hidden in the Earth as a test of faith.
“I’m not belittling them, but I do think it’s a hard position to hold,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum is a purely scientific approach that is atheistic in nature. He told his congregation about the book, “The God Delusion,” by noted scientist Richard Dawkins, that dismisses all religions in explaining how the world works.
In between the two poles, Petersen said, there are philosophies that include both science and faith. For example, he said, intelligent design is another faith-based argument holding that because the universe is so complex, God must have had a hand in creating it rather than evolution happening naturally and randomly.
As an example, Petersen pointed to the evolution of the eye and how complex the organ is. Petersen said some people believe that something that complex couldn’t happen through random change.
It is possible to marry science and faith, Petersen said. He noted that the Rev. John Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest who got a doctorate in physics from Cambridge. Polkinghorne has written several books that explore these questions and maintain that Christ and science aren’t mutually exclusive.
After the sermon, many parishioners of All Saints said they found the topic thought provoking and look forward to the other sermons in the series.
“I thought it was very good,” said Jimmy Eubanks. “It’s a topic that most pulpits probably shy away from, but he took it on. ... It’s definitely something that needs to be talked about, thought about.”
Some members of the church have scientific backgrounds themselves -- and also a strong faith.
Rusty Blair, an engineer, is a member of the church, along with his wife, Sheri.
“I think (the sermon) was brave because it crosses boundaries for a lot of people,” he said. “They don’t want to go there. I recognize that we don’t understand everything and that there are concepts we don’t have a firm grasp on. I can accept things on faith.”
Physician Bill Freeman called the science-vs.-faith argument “very complicated.”
“It raises a lot of tough issues for Christians,” he said. “I don’t know the answers. It probably raises a lot more questions. Science slants more in my thinking, but I don’t think being a scientist excludes me being a Christian.”
Petersen told his parish that even if there aren’t clear answers to the science-vs.-faith debate, it’s worthwhile to explore. He closed his sermon by saying the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was wrong when he said “God is dead.”
“God is not dead,” Petersen said. “He is within all of us to be discovered anew.”
Petersen’s next sermon, this Sunday, will compare the search for black holes to the search for God. Both are phenomena that can’t be seen, but rather are measured through the effect they have on the things that surround them.
Petersen’s final sermon of the series will be May 25.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 478-744-4334.