by Susan Barreto, editor
Is it arrogance or ignorance?
In a recent religion and science discussion here in Chicago, a casual comment stuck with me and showed how far we have yet to go. The retired pastor commented that the church had traditionally been arrogant when it came to engaging with science.
An old sermon from John Wesley, certainly seems to fit the bill. The founder of Methodism wrote: “Earthquakes are set forth by the inspired writers as God’s proper judicial act, or the punishment of sin: sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect, of his anger.”
Few Methodists today would agree with those words as we see the people of Haiti still struggling with the aftermath of an earthquake in the past year.
While the topic of discussion earlier this month was related to a book on scientific stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, the comment on the church’s arrogance left me thinking about how far Christianity has come with its recognition of science. Whether it is talking about stem cell research, genetics, neuroscience or physics, do pastors and their parishioners know any more going into 2011 about how developments in these arenas and their impact on their faith and their future anymore than a pastor in 1811?
More importantly, do religious leaders ever comment on science in a positive way today? I would say that if society still sees faith communities as arrogant, this is perhaps due to non-fundamentalists remaining silent in the public debate with the New Atheists. Is this due to ignorance of science or lack of interest in the dialogue?
I would say — and the subject of this month’s profile, Philip Clayton — would agree that it is a fear of not presenting a unified or correct stance on when it comes to defending faith in an age of almost miraculous scientific discovery. All of us can agree that medicine in particular has offered many people hope, whether they are fighting cancer, heart disease or even diabetes.
The ignorance comes in when we think that scientism or fundamentalism will go away due to the false methodologies behind them. In a paper called “Can Liberals Still Believe that God (Literally) Does Anything?” Clayton writes: “The goal is to offer a proposal that is philosophically rigorous, theologically adequate, responsive to science – and one that is potentially credible for thinking persons today.”
This all still leaves me wondering, though, how can I as a non-theologian and non-scientist approach scientism without describing my faith in an arrogant matter. First off, it starts with educating oneself and actively looking for ways to inspire curiosity in others. As Covalence continues to grow in scope, we hope to provide more opportunities to learn and ask more questions.
At the end of the day, self-led education seems to be one approach to holding a constructive discussion, whether it is with family, friends or scientists or pastors. I would say, however, that it begins with wonder, as it did for the emerging citizen scientists of the Romantic era in Europe. This wonder leads to awe and awe leads to inspiration, which leaves another “I” word behind – ignorance.Sometimes getting to the root of the issue is a challenge in religion and science. It is often left at science explains the "how" and religion explains the "why." While this is the approach taken by many in the public square, it seems that the real discussion often gets lost.
Not helping is some of the current talk that has been broadly disseminated via the Huffington Post and other media outlets as of late. Much of this approach has dipped into the juicy center of religion and science, but then gracefully bows out when the stakes get to big for religion. Then just when things were getting one-sided from the New Atheists perspective, you have the guru of self-promotion and marketing throwing his hat in the ring — Deepak Chopra.
Deepak gives us one of his classic lists in looking at science and religion. He talks about a new creation story that has yet to be born based on a metaphysic that unveils a proto-consciousness. He says that "the raw ingredients of mind may be inherent in Nature at the quantum level." I for one am not sure what that means, but another of his seven statements is purely pantheistic in that a deity may exist in every atom and molecule as the tendency to evolve.
Then in summarizing his thoughts he makes another confusing statement. Namely that any "new creation" story will need to not contradict quantum mechanics, while at the same time saying the quantum theory has reached its limit and physicists refuse to admit it. Maybe the back and forth ping pong match is an intentional way of gearing up for a new book in what is becoming a growing area of interest among the public as they try to see themselves as more than DNA and more than a cousin to the chimpanzee.
To be sure, Chopra has a large fan base along with a fair number of critics, as most personalities in the self-help realm can attest. At the same time, he shows how important it is for Christian theologians and other religions to make their own internal dialogues about science public. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has done just this with the work going into its statement on genetics.
While I do agree with Chopra that saying that the human consciousness was a random accident is going to be a hard thing for a scientist to defend, I don't think we should expect a scientist to search for the fingerprint of God on every last inch of creation.
The point is that God is there throughout creation and is a positive force for improvement in creation, but not the creation itself. The details of that relationship maybe are not important, but in keeping that idea of God at the center of creation many scientists of faith are able to have a greater appreciation of their own work. At the same time, the faithful can be drawn into the awe of it all without compromising their own beliefs.
Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.
Covalence, December, 2010