Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Science and Psalm 148

Psalm 148, a “Hallelujah Psalm” written several millennia in the past, provides readers with an opportunity to praise the Lord for events in our environment which currently may be considered in a scientific context. Contemporary commentators promote diverse views of how our science and faith are (or are not) connected. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne strongly promotes his belief that there is no room for both science and theological faith within a scientifically informed understanding of our world. Reasons to Believe president Hugh Ross promotes the belief that science and faith both exist compatibly in the pages of Holy Scripture. Coyne uses the term accomodationism to express his view, claiming that there is no room for science and faith/religion to be mutually supportive.

Hugh Ross has successfully distinguished between science and theistic faith by using other terms—hard concordism and soft concordism. Hard concordists look to make nearly all scientific discoveries agree with some scripture passage.” In the same blog post (6/22/12) Ross describes soft concordists who agree that “…a literalist hermeneutic does not apply to all Bible passages.”  

The 148th Psalm is not scientific in the modern sense. It does not enumerate huge distances (verse 1), locate the domain of angels or the hosts of heaven (verse 2), or describe the physical processes occurring at this moment on the sun, moon, and shining stars (verse 3). Neither does it mention (verse 5) the process of the original creation act—a divinely produced, instantaneous flash of energy and matter inflating from an infinitely tiny singularity. (Psalm 148:4 warrants special commentary later in our post.)

Verse 5 commands us to “Praise the Lord,” imploring us to focus upon the fiat creation: “For He commanded and they were created.” Fiat creation occurs by decree…an act of the Creator. Sometimes the decree is carried out instantaneously; sometimes it is executed over time. We remind readers that God is timeless—not constrained by human time frames. Therefore, even when galaxies, stars, the sun, and planets condense from dust and gas to solid bodies over enormous periods of time, they may still be considered acts of divine creation by fiat. 

Verse 6 conveys awareness of time: forever and ever. Human time is linear, advancing from past to present, and from present to future. Time is a scientific concept. The ancients conceived of time long ago. The concept has been refined in our modern day. So have concepts of ‘the sciences.’ Oceanography is a modern science with early origins in Old Testament times. Sea creatures and ocean deeps (verse 7) have been contemplated for thousands of years.

Topics in meteorology have often been referenced in scripture. In particular, in verse  8 we become aware of fire (perhaps a geological/volcanic connection?) followed by hail, snow, mist, and stormy wind. These topics delight today’s meteorologists. Geologists identify with mountains and hills (verse 9). Not to be overlooked, biological scientists are inspired to study fruit trees, cedars, beasts and livestock, along with creeping things and birds (verses 9-10).

The science of Psalm 148 is an example of phenomenology—experiences we enjoy from our senses. Some scientists connect the term to an early 20th century philosophical movement highlighting experience and consciousness. In the interest of “keeping it simple,” we revert to our pure sense experiences to define the term: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Phenomenology is not a science, but it is closely related to careful observation. Phenomenology requires skills of observation, part of the backbone of modern scientific method.

Verse 4 contains a reference to the “waters above the heavens.” In ancient Middle East cosmology many writers described a solid vaulted dome called the firmament which separated the ‘waters above’ from the ‘waters below.’ Earth itself was a flat disc on which the dome rested. Many civilizations utilized this imagery in that pre-scientific day. Also conceived were the “pillars of heaven.” The Hebrew Scriptures were focused on the purpose of God’s creative work rather than scientific details we have uncovered in the 21st century. 

Detailed scientific knowledge of the chronology of physical events relating to the initial stupendous creation event—the beginning of time, space, matter, and energy—was not known by physical cosmologists until late in the 20th century. Much more knowledge remains to be discovered. Ancient scribes did not pretend to be  scientifically accurate in the days when scientific method was yet to be formulated in the 2nd millennium AD. We need not wonder why they incorporated metaphors and imagery in their writings.  

Meanwhile, we rejoice worshipfully at the phenomenological descriptions of Psalm 148 and many other Old and New Testament Scripture passages. We minimize naysayers who complain that the Bible is not “scientifically accurate” in the face of the paucity of scientific knowledge three millennia in the past. The Hebrew ancients were pre-scientifically attempting to understand their universe.

Psalm 148 closes with exhortations to the Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children! They are to ”Praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. (Scripture translations from ESV.)