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Whitworth College Spring Convocation Address 2007

Feb. 8, 2007
Bill Robinson

The World that God So Loved
Deuteronomy 33:13-16
John 1:3, 3:16

It has been my practice at the opening convocation of the spring semester to focus my remarks on the Heritage Week theme. The theme of Heritage Week this year is science. Last year it was art. Last year I was in my sweet spot. This year I'm in a different spot – not the sweet one. For example, two weeks ago I was with LeAnne Chaney, Finn Pond and John Larkin. Wanting to demonstrate my grasp of their field I offered the insight that science is really good at small stuff. LeAnne added, "And big stuff too, Bill, like the universe." Finn's response was, "You need to spend more time in the science building." And the non-tenured one in the group kept his mouth shut. Actually, I love science. I particularly enjoy physics and biology. I had a bad experience with chemistry.

In my junior year of high school, I cheated on a test in Mr. Thompson's chemistry class. I'm still ashamed of that. I remember thinking that John, the guy to my right, knew more about chemistry than I did. If the truth were told, I thought everybody in every direction knew more about chemistry than I did, but his was the only test I could see. I don't remember the question, but the answer I copied from John's paper was "trace." Instantly, I felt awful. I felt even worse when I found out it was the wrong answer. Crime doesn't pay. So that night I decided I should call my teacher and confess. After that I felt better, partly because confession is good for the soul, but mainly because he told me he'd seen me cheat. I still feel bad that I cheated. Chemistry has never been the same. Please don't cheat. Seriously.

I consider it such an honor to address you students at the beginning of every semester. I work hard to prepare addresses that are worthy of this honor. So when something interrupts my preparation time, I feel a little guilty. Such is the case this morning. I had set aside Jan. 15 to celebrate the abundant contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to begin preparing for this convocation. Instead I underwent another back surgery. My doctor removed two discs and fused three cervical vertebrae. My titanium count now rests at 10 screws and two plates. I have changed my driver's license from being an organ donor to being a scrap-metal donor. Can't you see that big magnet picking me up and angling me toward the junkyard? "There goes Bill." But to my delight, I have been assured that by mid-April I can resume all the sports I love, the ones that wrecked my back in the first place. That promise is relevant this morning because it is made possible by 21st-century science. Today's medical technology offers us a fullness of life unimaginable to generations before us. We live our lives in the debt of scientists whose intellect and imagination create time, health and pleasure. So on Jan. 15, rather than prepare a speech about science, I experienced science.

This morning I would like to spend a few minutes thinking about the relationship between faith and science. Science blesses us, enchants us, mystifies us, scares us, comforts us and, most of all, enlightens us. It even enlightens our understanding of God. Theologians ask the question, "What does God tell us about science?" Scientists ask the question, "What does science tell us about God?" Science is to God's creation what hermeneutics is to God's Word. In a sense, our scientists at Whitworth could be considered forensic theologians. We need to examine all three expressions of God's revelation – Jesus Christ, Scripture, and creation – if we are to know God fully.

I have two questions I would like you to consider this morning. Your answer to my first question requires scientific understanding. The question is, "How will you steward God's creation?" As loath as I am to make verbs out of nouns, "steward" is an important verb. We do not own creation. We tend it. Somewhere in the Pend Oreille County Courthouse, there's a document saying that we own a chunk of property in Tiger, Washington. Actually, we're tenants. God owns the property. My brother served in Indonesia as a missionary pilot. He had his own plane, and he was his own mechanic. He didn't actually own the plane, so it would have been bad stewardship (not to mention stupid) for him not to take care of it. I suppose he could have said, "This is my plane, and I can trash it if I want to." But that would have angered the owner and shortened my brother's life.

Last Friday, in its fourth assessment since 1990 of global warming, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a grim assessment of the future of the planet. This international network of climate scientists concluded for the first time that global warming is "unequivocal" and that human activity is the main driver, causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950.

The science is compelling. According to Harvard climate expert John Holdren, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Since 2001, there has been a torrent of new scientific evidence on the magnitude, human origins and growing impact of the climatic changes that are under way. In overwhelming proportions, this evidence has been in the direction of showing faster change, more danger and greater confidence about the dominant role of fossil-fuel burning and tropical deforestation in causing the changes that are being observed." In other words, we are damaging the airplane. And it's not our airplane, although both we and our children need to fly it.

As some of you know, I am one of the 86 signatories of the Evangelical Climate Initiative. I signed the document for two main reasons – science and faith. I find the science convincing, and I believe this is God's world. Now I am trying to make decisions for Whitworth that honor creation, and I am trying to live a creation-caring life. The art building, which, if we can soon find another million dollars, we will start building this summer, will be the greenest building on campus. And the science building and performing-arts center that follow the art building will be even more environmentally friendly. But we need to do more, as a college and as individuals. We need to contribute to the restoration of this beautiful garden God has created. Please try to think specifically about your answer to the question, "How will you steward God's creation?"

My second science-and-faith question is one I have been trying to figure out since I was a college student. The question is, "When does God allow his physical laws to determine the events of life, and when does God break his laws of nature?" In other words, when does God stand back and when does God get involved?

I first began dwelling on this question when I was a college senior, majoring in philosophy. I was intrigued by a 17th-century rationalist named Gottfried Leibniz. He began his argument with the proposition that God was the author of all existence. So far, so good. He went on to propose that a perfect God would create a perfect world; in fact, a perfect God would create the best of all possible worlds. From that he argued that God's perfect laws in the best of all possible worlds would require no intervention, no tinkering. In other words, Leibniz made the classic deistic case that God created the world and then basically just let it spin.

This theory does not enjoy the support of Christian doctrine. Scriptures present a God who included freedom in the best of all possible worlds, and when that freedom was abused, God became involved, redemptively involved, in the created order. Ultimately, God took on the form of sinful flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The creator of a perfect, God-centered world became the savior of a fallen, self-centered world.

The polar opposite of Leibniz's God is the God of the guy who, once again, leaves late for a meeting and finds a parking spot right in front of his destination. He is sure that the God of the Universe is also the God of the Parking Place, who has intervened on his behalf. I imagine that God has supplied parking spaces. And it may be possible that an all-powerful God would not intervene on behalf of millions of children who die from malnutrition while he's saving a place to park for someone who is chronically late; I just don't think it's likely. I imagine that lying somewhere between these two extremes is God's intervention pattern, but it is hard to know when and why God breaks into the course of human events.

In some cases, God explains the basis for intervening: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…." But God's intervention for the sake of the world makes better sense to us than his intervention on behalf of some individuals and not others. Take, for example, the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. When Jesus found out that his friend Lazarus had died, he cried.

Why did Jesus cry? He knew that he was going to resurrect Lazarus. He as much as told the disciples so before he arrived at the tomb. Maybe he just felt sad that death had claimed another victim. Maybe he empathized with the family, particularly Mary and Martha. And why did he raise Lazarus, but not others, from the dead? What was it about Lazarus that prompted Jesus to reverse the laws of nature? Why does God choose to heal some people and not others? I prayed during Christmas break that God would heal the mother of a student who is here today. It didn't happen. I don't know why. But I know that Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, whom he brought back to life; so I'm certain Jesus weeps when our moms die – when for reasons unknown to us he does not do a miracle, but allows nature to take its course.

I would like to suggest several ideas about the relationship between God and nature.

  1. God's physical laws are as much a part of creation as the mountains and the seas. They were established by God to govern the universe. As our scientists will tell you, the nature we see in a laboratory can be just as magnificent and beautiful as the alpenglow we see on the snow of Mt. Spokane. 
  2. God does not overrule his laws of nature lightly. Jesus respected the science of his body when he was hungry in the desert and when he was thirsty on the cross. In scripture and in life, miracles are extraordinary, not ordinary. 
  3. Sometimes God is upset by his own creation. Neither Leibniz nor any other deist can accept literally the story of the flood. God was upset with the way in which the people he created abused the freedom he created. So he intervened. Jesus was upset with a fig tree that failed to bear fruit, even though it was out of season. Jesus wept when nature took Lazarus. It is wrong to claim that because God chooses not to prevent an auto accident from happening, he is pleased with the outcome produced by his laws of physics. 
  4. When it comes to God, the "Why?" question is seldom the best question.

Bonnie and I lost a 23-year-old friend to a strain of cancer with a 90-percent cure rate. Six weeks before she died I asked her if she was angry with God. "Not really," she said. "I'm going to die because I'm in the wrong 10 percent, and I think God feels bad about that." That's not a very spiritual answer, but it could very well be the right answer.

One day Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road, and they saw a man who'd been blind from birth. They asked Jesus whether the man was blind because he'd sinned or because his parents had sinned. You don't want to think about that too long if you're a parent, because the only way it isn't the parents' fault is if the man sinned before he was born. Anyway, Jesus said, "Neither. You're asking the wrong question. This is a situation for showing the works of God right now, while I am in the world."

I would like you to think about that answer. And I would also like you to think about a better question than "Why, God?" Whether God performed the miracle of healing your daughter or did not perform the miracle of healing your mother, "Why?" is not the best question. The best question to every situation, whether you're anguishing or celebrating, is "How can I glorify God in this moment?"

A few days ago I walked up to a friend of mine who serves as president of a college in Illinois. I have been praying for his wife over the past five years. She has an inoperable cancer that doctors expected to claim her life several years ago. Timidly, I asked my friend how he was doing, afraid to ask about his wife. "Just okay," he replied. "The cancer is in her liver. Our doctor cried when he gave us the latest diagnosis." But then my friend brightened and said, "But God has given us today. I have learned to live in the present, to love the present and thank God for the present. Every day is a gift, Bill."

It shouldn't take a tragedy or a miracle to learn to live in the present. We live in a created world that is filled with beauty and symmetry and love. I am very confident that our relationship with creation influences enormously our ability to live in the present. I remember as a freshman in college standing on a roadside in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, tilting back and forth between regret that I was alone in the presence of such beauty and hope that someday I could share that moment with someone I loved. I have reflected on those few minutes often. What a shame that I lost the splendor of the present.

We need to drink in all that is beautiful and good about our world, about today. What does it mean to you to follow the example of Brother Lawrence, the monastic potato peeler, and practice the presence of God? Do know the presence of the Holy Spirit and do you see Christ in the wonders of his creation? Rejoice! This is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice! These are the people who are made in God's image. Rejoice! We're ready to plunge into a new semester. And best of all, rejoice! For now is the time to head to Saga. Have a great semester.