In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI had a historic conversation from the Vatican with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. He said that science and scientific exploration were “a powerful stimulus to reflect on the limitless heavens and meditate on the creation of it all, we are struck by the mysteries of His greatness.”[i] He suggested that faith and science are partners. Yet at times they seem to be balanced on a pole during a walk across a high-wire.
Official church policy has not always reflected agreement with scientific findings such as the need for and the beneficial use of condoms to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In other cases natural disturbances like floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes have been described by some religious voices as examples of God’s judgment for societal sins. Go further back and the absence of critical thinking contributed to odd beliefs like the sun’s rotation around the earth, prohibition of allowing women to vote, Christianity’s justification for slavery, segregation, colonialism, and the ability of women to turn into cats and fly on broom sticks. Fortunately, these views all changed, but God didn’t.
Science and critical thinking without the benefit of religion can encourage men and women to become self-deluded, all-knowing gods. Religion, when its leaders are humble and conscious of the awesome burden of trust given to them, keeps us grounded. It reminds us that no matter our achievements they are insignificant to those of God’s. Religion absent science and critical thinking is ignorance, superstition, and an all too often convenient excuse to stay within spiritual safety zones.
Science and religion are sometimes an inefficient check and balance on the other. They need to be carefully and properly mixed like ingredients in a fine recipe. As noted above, they seem more like humankind walking on a high wire holding a pole with religion on one side and science on the other. In general, religion has embraced the benefits of science. At the same time its leadership seems threatened by certain scientific evidence and critical thinking that appear irreconcilable with some dogmatic or doctrinal teachings.
This gives rise to apathy, disrespect, and disenchantment for faith and religion. It contributes to the ongoing decline in church attendance. The institutional church must carefully consider new truths revealed by Holy Sophia (Divine Wisdom).
The popularity and worldwide following of Prof. Stephen Hawking is no doubt due in part to a leadership theologically, intellectually, and philosophically confronted by advances in science or critical thinking that challenges long-held views. Prof. Hawking, scientist and outspoken atheist, noted recently that the brain is a “computer” that will “stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”[ii]
Albert Einstein, an extraordinarily spiritual man, probably would have disagreed. The embrace of Hawking and other outspoken atheists like Christopher Hitchens reflects religion’s inability to accept what seems like threatening change, but is in fact Holy Sophia revealing another truth.
Grasping God’s mysteries regarding the contentious issue of homosexuality is one example of the friction between religion, science, and critical thinking. In the United States the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers have long accepted that homosexuality is a “normal variant of human sexuality.” Homosexuality is not “a diagnosable mental disorder.” Those suggesting otherwise “are often guided not by rigorous scientific or psychiatric research, but sometimes by religious and political forces opposed to full civil rights …”[iii]
Despite such a sweeping statement many religious leaders are steadfast in their opposition to reexamine their positions. This opposition contributes to discrimination and extraordinary emotional and spiritual pain. It’s another example how the faithful can crucify Jesus and further secularism in America. They mobilize their churches, parishes, and congregations to fight growing acceptance of homosexuality. Many charge that civil unions or marriage equality is a threat to the “sanctity of marriage.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, however, Massachusetts, home of gay marriage, has the lowest divorce rate in America. States with the highest divorce rates and usually with the greatest opposition to civil unions and marriage equality tend to be those politically described as “red states” with some of the highest divorce rates and with a very high percentage of self-described social conservatives.
There are loud declarations that secularist culture is trying to impose new values on the Christian community. Pop culture is trying to make God accommodate its immoral views. Fear not. God doesn’t change. What changes are personal and communal views due to the benefits of science, knowledge, and critical thinking. It is Holy Sophia at work. It is her subtle, ongoing presence standing ready to share wisdom and guide us if we choose to ask.
Holy Sophia, the Holy Spirit, to whom we seek guidance during prayer, is teacher (Proverbs 3:11); knowledge (Isaiah 11:2-3); discernment (Proverbs 7:5); rational spirit (Wisdom of Sirach 7:22-30); and the power of comprehension (Wisdom of Sirach 1:17). “Evil,” ignorance and superstition included, “cannot overcome wisdom” (Sirach 7:22-33). Sophia “is the tree of life” (Proverbs 3:20).
© Paul Peter Jesep 2011
[i] David Murphy, “Pope Benedict Dials Up International Space Station,” PCMag.com, May 21, 2011. See also Robert Z. Pearlman, “Pope Benedict XVI Makes 1st Heavenly Call to Astronauts in Space,” FoxNews.com, May 21, 2011.
[ii] “Heaven for Sissies, Genius Theorizes,” EdmontonJournal.com, May 28, 2011.
[iii] Commission on Psychotherapy by Psychiatrists (COPP), Position Statement on Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation, May 2000, Psych.org.