On Science and Religion

The great artist Andy Goldsworthy in the documentary about his work, Rivers and Tides, is seen gathering roots and twigs at the base of a tree in his home in Scotland. He stitches these small pieces of fibrous matter together to form a beautiful man-made web that hangs precariously from the branch of a tree. What this signifies to me is the power of the imagination to make order out of chaos, to bring objects, discrete “things” into relationship in order to convey a sense of wholeness and meaning.

We recently sponsored the visit of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim to Brigham Young University. They are both directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and are executive producers of the new fantastic film, Journey of the Universe.  Check out their websites for an immense treasure of information on religion, science, and the environment. Their visit provoked a lot of good discussion, especially on the topic of finding ways to make religious sense of the scientific story of the origin of the earth and of life on earth. The importance of building these bridges between science and religion should be obvious. We are more advanced than ever before in the history of the world in our understanding of the workings of this universe and yet we seem to be sliding backwards in terms of scientific literacy. Religion remains a vital source of moral motivation and it provides the most profound feelings of belonging and meaning in our universe. But it is also true that data alone are not going to change behavior. What motivates and changes behavior is when information is placed within a meaningful framework and when we can then see its importance to our relationships—with others, with the earth, and with God. Otherwise information is like so many twigs lying about on the ground with no reference to any thing else; data are seen as mere isolated objects.

So science needs the world-making forces of not only religion but of art as well. It needs the power of narrative, the beauty of visual representation and music, and the aura and moral authority of religion’s cosmological reach. We should not fail to notice when science moves us. It is usually when it is presented in a compelling way, when it is described with poetic and philosophical artistry and when it becomes clear what it means to us in our particular circumstances. I am profoundly grateful for such people as Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim and the many other brilliant minds in our country who seek to make science morally and spiritually valuable to us. Despite the noise and attention given to such atheists as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and despite the nonsensical reactions of religious people who are anti-science, many great writers and thinkers in the sciences, in theology, and in the humanities have advanced an understanding of the world that does not argue for mutually exclusive choices between religion and science. I only wish that our education system would pay more attention to these developments. I am thinking, for a few examples, of such writers as Marilynne Robinson, Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, John Haught, Cormac McCarthy, and others.

It was clear to me in watching the film and in the fascinating Q&A afterwards with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim that we make strides in our own theological understandings to the degree that we are willing to think through the implications and meaning of the universe as we currently understand it, rather than overly worrying ourselves about perceptions of difference between faith and reason, between religion and science. It sounds odd to put it this way, but I felt a profound increase of love for God, for the world, and for truth. I have never spent much time worrying myself about how to reconcile science and religion. I know others feel the same but do so because of apathy. I believe it is an expression of my faith to be open to science, to trust that truth is all that I am required to believe in and to understand that my understanding of things is much too inadequate to use as a basis for arriving at any final conclusions about reality. That is not to say, however, that I am indifferent to science or that I can easily dismiss it because it is a form of knowledge still in formation. It is the nature of life that we are always confronted with the need to make decisions, as Wendell Berry has aptly noted, when we nevertheless possess perpetually inadequate information. We need to learn to act with only partial understandings. But act we must and err we will. But the risks, it seems, are far greater in willfully ignoring what we do know or willfully delaying the need to make decisions. I am thinking most specifically about such matters as air pollution and its effects on public health, about climate change and its impacts on the poor, and our shocking rates of biodiversity loss. Such willful dismissals are not attitudes of faith but of fear. They are not based in faith or in reason but in radical and irrational certainty. In that sense, denialism of science is profoundly irreligious.

 

 


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