Theology and Culture, Theology and Science, Vatican

On the boundaries of science and faith

I recently watched a few episodes of an interesting Science Channel series called “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.”  The series journeys through popular boundaries of science and the potential intersections with science fiction.  For example, the most recent episode dealt with the possibility of extending human life to near-immortality, cryogenics, and transforming matter into energy—all with excellent graphics, a compelling storyline, and, of course, the enchanting voice of Morgan Freeman.

This particular clip sounds remarkably like Teilhard…except, of course, the implication that humans will be able transform into energy on their own…but its entertaining nonetheless!

As the above clip shows, the series enjoys the occasional brush with God, the afterlife, eternity, or somewhere in between.  To their credit, Discovery actually does a pretty decent job, following a strict routine of “pose question, offer some answers, doubt answers, ask questions, end episode.”  Harmless, to a certain extent.  Lots of TV shows have their brush with the divine (or their version of it).  Its catchy, popular, and sometimes gets people ratings because of the apparent scandalous insinuations (see: Da Vinci Code and related TV spots).  In the world of TV shows and God, “Through the Wormhole” could almost be considered respectable.

But what of its popular and catchy questions?  What happened before the Big Bang?  Is there an afterlife?  What if science proves that aliens exist?  How did life begin?  Often, in the science/faith dialogue, these seductive questions seem to come to the front.  Mention “science and theology” to someone, even many theologians, and these “boundary issues” are often the first areas that people talk about.  Its as if some implicit fear exists that God would really be affected if we discovered that an inordinate number of universes do actually exist, or if the universe seemingly popped into existence from a dimension-less pre-Big Bang state, or if earth is not the only planet with life in the universe.

In a compelling article, Cardinal Paul Poupard, the former director of the Pontifical Council on Culture, remarks that since both the Church and science seek truths, Christianity has nothing to fear from any truths that science may offer. He echoes the late Holy Father’s words when he proclaims: “La foi ne craint pas la raison, l’Église ne craint pas la science.”  “Faith does not fear reason, and the Church does not fear science.”

Unfortunately, however, we often do fear science, and the Church often seems to fear science.  We fear, perhaps, the scientific unknown–the idea that scientists are on the verge of discovering some universal truth that will shake us to the core.  But just like Stephen Hawking’s baseless allegations that God isn’t necessary for creation, these fears rely one on thing: God not being God.  If God is shoved into a specific human-created box, then yes, perhaps some science is to be feared.  If one’s idea of God is “the old man that created the Big Bang” or “the force that holds us to the Earth,” then the discoveries of string theory or gravity might relocate your faith to something else.  But if God is God–i.e., One who noone can truly grasp, One on whom millions of books have been written, One for whom billions search each day, One who is both active in our daily lives and throughout all of existence–then a new scientific theory, no matter how interesting or different, should only slightly cause us to blink.

Anyone familiar with philosophies of science, however, will realize that our theological outlook on life is often intrinsically tied to our scientific outlook.  While this is far too small of a space to enter into to the intricacies of this notion, suffice it to say that no matter what vision of the universe the apostles held, God’s love centered their lives and God’s presence called them to the corners of all known existence.

When it comes to the boundary questions–i.e., the edges of scientific thought–I would advise extreme caution.  Like the sirens of Greek mythology, these questions lure almost anyone near with their tantalizing hours of endless speculations, yet can devour the reckless wanderer by unknowingly placing God (and, thus, one’s faith) within a small, cramped box.


Boundary questions are like these dark, foreboding sirens.  Unless you’re tied up to strong mast of, perhaps, people of strong faith, plug your ears!  [Credit: John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens]

Instead, when you think of “theology and science,” think of the many ways in which science affects us and forces us to make theological decisions in everyday life.  Think of, perhaps, the choices you make at the grocery store, during doctor visits, in buying clothes, in purchasing a car.  Think of the quest to end nuclear proliferation, of the enormous benefits of modern psychology and how exactly they can be used in a faith environment, of the role of fossil fuels, of explicit violence in video games, of the value of beauty in nature, of the dignity of human life.
These are the questions of science and faith today.
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About John Slattery

John is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. He recently received his Master’s degree in Theology from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, and, long ago, did his undergraduate work with the Jesuits at Georgetown University. His research interests lie in historical and systematic interactions between Christianity and contemporary science, including traditional theological and philosophical discussions of “faith and reason,” “natural philosophy,” and “natural theology.” He finds much strength in the theological value of liberation-related theological writings, especially in their ability to speak of classical systematic dialogues. In addition to all this, John is a proud father of three little ones and is kept from drifting too far into the clouds of academia by his amazing wife.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “On the boundaries of science and faith

  1. These reflections on the tension (perceived or real) between faith and science, are an interesting example of some of the deepest flaws of American Evangelicalism as discussed by Mark Noll in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, which is causing a certain stirring in me to pray more fervently for an increased pursuit of science by Christians of all varieties.

    Posted by Marcus Baeder | August 1, 2011, 5:02 pm
  2. Thanks, Marcus! An interesting article I read the other day actually blamed the science/faith tension on the enlightenment thinkers. According to that author, as far back as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, theologians have understood that the Bible wasn’t meant to be a scientific text but a theological one. Even around the time of Newton, science and faith were much better friends with each other than enemies. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that certain theologians and scientists alike began to see science and Christianity as foes and arch-rivals. Anyhow, I’d be interested to see what Noll has to say on the subject–I’ll have to put it on the short list for this year!

    Posted by John Slattery | August 1, 2011, 7:39 pm

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