The final chapter in Keith Ward’s book The Big Questions in Science and Religion focuses on the question of divine action. This is, in essence, the biggest question for a religious worldview interacting with modern science: What does God do? Ward begins by emphasizing the need to address such questions from a well-informed perspective: “Unfortunately, in religion, many people who are unable to cope with the complexities of academic theology tend to think that they have a better grasp of spiritual realities than mere scholars. But that is rather like the thousands of people who think they can disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwinian evolution, even though they cannot solve differential equations or do not know how to identify a gene” (p.245). Beginning with ancient ideas and traditions, Ward moves into the modern context by raising the possibility that stories of miracles may be symbolic, and that even God is, in the view of some religious believers, “a figurative symbol” (p.246). Yet even if one rethinks the nature of and our relationship to an ultimate reality, “If there is such a reality, God, it will affect the nature of the universe” (p.246). And going further, “If there is a God with a purpose for human lives, it is almost inconceivable that God should not communicate that purpose and the means to achieve it…It is extremely unlikely that God should have a goal for the universe and do nothing in particular to bring it about” (p.248-249). Without giving blind allegiance to any prophet, ancient or modern, it is conceivable that there may be individuals whose insights in the realm of religion and spirituality are exceptional and worth listening to and perhaps even following, as is true in so many other areas and aspects of life.
Ward returns to process philosophy as an approach to theological thought that avoids the notion of a God external to the universe intervening in its otherwise closed system. Yet one option that Ward does not consider is that, just as the notion of emergent properties is so important in avoiding reductionism, might it not be appropriate to envisage God in such terms, not as a supernatural substance or entity that pre-exists the universe, but as the “soul” of the universe? Just as many find it necessary to reinterpret the meaning of such language as “soul” and “mind” as emergent from physical organisms but nonetheless emphatically real, might it not be helpful to envisage God in similar terms, not as outside the universe or in the space between its physical components, but as emerging from the relationship among and between the universe’s complexities? What holds Ward back is his sense that one needs an initial mind to provide the matrix for the universe’s regularities (p.259). Ultimately, I find such metaphors helpful as well, and since none of this language is literal description, there is no need for me to quarrel between the two sets of symbols, although Ward, having acknowledged that we do not know what the most fundamental nature of physical reality is, seems determined to go beyond the evidence in asserting that “Ontological primacy must be given to consciousness and its contents” (p.259). Consciousnesses remains something of a mystery, but this need not lead us to deny the possibility of its explanation in terms of emergent properties.
Ward acknowledges that he can only offer “an inconclusive conclusion” (p.269). But he does make some very important points on the final pages of his book. First, “The major philosophers of most world faiths…stress the unknowability of the Diving Essence, as the infinite reality underlying all the appearances of finite worlds. This is not some modern revisionist idea of God. It is the classical idea, which is as far from any anthropomorphic conception as you could get” (p.269). Second, he emphasizes that an individual’s personal religious experience cannot be independently verified by another person, and thus, while arguments from personal experience will not necessarily be considered convincing, this is not a matter that science can settle (p.270). Finally, science cannot test for intention, purpose, and meaning, and neither are such things incompatible with science. Ultimately, Ward “ends” in an open-ended fashion, stating that the question of whether the world cries out to be explained entirely in materialistic terms, or points beyond itself to a Primordial Consciousness as source and ground of all things, “remains the biggest question of all” (p.271).
What strikes me again and again is how the universe seems to contain such order, beauty and transcendence that it seems to point beyond itself, and such regularity, chaos, law, and intelligibility that it seems to require explanation in scientific terms. For me, it is the desire to do justice to both these aspects of our existence, the simultaneously explicability and mysteriousness of the universe, that keeps me exploring both science and spirituality, both reason and religion, as ways to get to know it and myself better.
Ward’s book has been an enjoyable read, offering a fascinating exploration of what are indeed some of the biggest questions related to the interface between science and religion. Even those well-read in this field are likely to find it useful, while those new to these topics will hopefully get a sense of just how wide and deep these waters are, and how many aspects of the natural sciences, the history of religions, theology and philosophy intersect at key points, and how often a thorough investigation of the best and most insightful contributions to human knowledge over the past few millennia still leave many fundamental questions unresolved. I recommend Ward’s book, not because it answers the “big questions” but because it helps us to understand what the big questions are, how to answer them to the best of our ability, and how to live with the fact that many of them we may never be able to decisively and finally answer.