As I was reading Karl Giberson’s Seven Glorious Days, my two year old grandson began singing the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” as he played one of his imaginative guitars. This bit of synchronicity pointed to the creative interplay of theology and science as adventures of imagination and creativity.
Could it be that, despite the attempt of creationists to make science conform to a one-dimensional, unimaginative, and literalist understanding of scripture, scientists and people of faith have something in common – a sense of wonder at the vastness of the cosmic adventure and a desire to make sense of the world in which they live? No doubt, theologians and scientists look at the universe from contrasting perspectives, but contrast does not mean opposition; it recognizes that there can be more than one answer to certain of life’s most important questions, all of which complement each other and add to our understanding of ourselves and the universe.
Alfred North Whitehead once noted the irrationality of certain scientists having as their purpose the quest to prove that the universe has no purpose. The very continuity of the evolutionary process suggests that if we are purposive and intentional beings, then this a sense of purpose must be present in simpler as well as more complex organisms than ourselves. Whitehead, known for his creative work in both mathematics and cosmology, also asserted that the teleology of the universe is aimed at the production of beauty, that is, complexity, diversity, novelty, and intensity of experience.
While scientists cannot prove the existence of what my fellow process theologian Patricia Adams Farmer describes as a “Beautiful God,” the world can be seen as a dynamic and emerging theater of divine beauty, wonder, and glory. The possibility of artistic, creative, imaginative, and adventurous creatures like ourselves was present in the very beginnings of life (the big birth of the universe) and emerged through the interplay of intentionality and chance, novelty and order, purpose and randomness over the immense journey of the universe. The character of the evolutionary process was not predetermined but had a variety of possible pathways, emerging as a result of the interplay of wisdom and chance, one of which was the birth of homo sapiens and its ongoing evolution.
Yes, it is possible to see ourselves as living in a meaningless universe, but it is also possible to see our meaning-making and moments of self-transcendence as part of a gentle providence working through cells and souls. This providence does not control or coerce but works as the call forward amid the randomness and repetitiveness of the evolutionary process. This providence is not an external reality: although it cannot be reduced to the cosmic process itself (pantheism), it is the wise and personal energy that embraces all things and permeates all things, luring them forward by its adventure of spirit. As the panentheist proclaims, “God in all things, and all things in God.”
There need not be competition between people of faith and scientists. In fact, if the early Christian declaration that “wherever truth is found, God is its source” reflects God’s inspiration of all quests to understand the universe, then people of faith should train their eyes to see God’s presence in the laboratory, the Hubble telescope, the Higgs Boson, the fossil field, and the medical theatre as well as the meditation hall and sanctuary. Perhaps Robert Jastrow is correct when he notes:
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends
like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer
the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of
theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Yet it may not be such a bad dream, but the discovery that our adventures of the spirit – motivated by wonder and the desire to know – are blessed activities, witnessing to a Wisdom beyond and within that embraces and inspires every quest for truth. Scientists and people of faith can venture forth, seeing the world through the lenses of each discipline, and joining in common cause to heal this good earth.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Karl Giberson’s new book, Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and Patheos. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.