by Ilia Delio, OSF
Many people ask, why is it necessary to pay attention to science?
What does religion have to do with science?
Historically, the foundations of modern science are found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with the Old Testament and its emphasis on an orderly, rational and contingent world. In the New Testament the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ underscore the openness of matter to spirit and the presence of God in creation. Patristic writers such as Saint Augustine encouraged study of the natural world. Creation bore the footprints (vestigia) of God and understanding the natural world (scientia) could help deepen one’s faith. The influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology peaked in the Middle Ages where Aristotelian cosmology was joined to Christian theology in the brilliant synthesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, to know God (religion) was to know the world created by God (science, from the Latin scientia or knowledge). Science was necessary for theology because a mistake about creation could lead to a mistake about God.
It is startling to read that, according to a recent Gallup poll, less than forty percent of the American public is familiar with the basics of modern science. To the popular mind, science is completely inimical to religion: science embraces facts and evidence while religion professes faith in God. However, the Christian faith contains deep truths with philosophical consequences that make conceivable the mind’s exploration of nature, including the human’s place in creation, the revealing nature of God and the ways in which God freely creates. The cosmos, and the laws which govern it, do not form a self-explanatory system; they point beyond science and call for a deeper philosophical and theological foundation that can address questions of ultimate meaning and value. Religion speaks to us of the intelligibility of the universe, of its fruitfulness for life and its persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. Religion can articulate what science cannot grasp, the aim and purpose of an evolutionary universe. A world without religion finds it hard to explain how “something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity,” as John Polkinghorne wrote. Modern science challenges us to widen our beliefs, not to become rigidly fixed in them. It inspires us to awaken to something more awesome and deep at the heart of created reality. Science needs religion because theism makes more sense of the world and of human experience than science alone but religion needs science to prevent it from falling into idolatry and worship of false absolutes. Science cannot prove the existence of God and Religion cannot prove the existence of quarks but scientific discoveries can ignite “questions of the more” that religion alone can address.
I just returned from the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference, the world’s largest gathering of scholars interested in the study of religion. More than 1,000 events took place during the annual meeting with a plethora of academic sessions, workshops, meetings and receptions attended by almost 10,000 participants. Of this vast network of religious discussions, no more than a few sessions focused on science and religion and none really deepened the engagement of these disciplines. One session actually provided a postmodern critique on why science and religion should not be integrated into a unified vision. When I left the conference I had a headache reflecting on the spread of interpretations that included race, gender, science, power and authority. The postmodern critique not only rejects a cosmic meta-narrative but it actually thwarts any type of unified system of thought as being subversive of subjective experience. It wants to ensure that power and authority lie in the personal subject and not in an overarching system. While I sympathize with this critique to some extent, the fact is that there is nothing that binds us together as a human community. Religion now has a thousand different meanings and “God” is a philosophical and theological symbol open to interpretation. So what is the glue?
“Religion now has a thousand different meanings and “God” is a philosophical and theological symbol open to interpretation. So what is the glue? “
This question, the “so what” question, is the one I want to focus on. The postmodern critique has unwittingly created a society where indifference, intolerance and entitlement thrive; a society riddled with deep anger issues, low-level depression and radical distrust. Many people feel isolated, alone and abandoned and thus ripe for consumerism, where the mall becomes the cathedral of transcendence and brand names constitute one’s identity. Where we are, as Sheri Turkle states, “alone together.” And yet, science and religion tell us otherwise, that we are not alone but deeply entangled. Quantum physics has disclosed a radically interrelated universe, a cosmic communion, where nature is a vast network of interconnected energy fields. Religion, in its root experience, is a deep connection to the source of all life. Jesus of Nazareth was a deeply relational person disclosing a deeply relational God. How do we find a deeply relational God in a deeply relational universe? Teilhard gave a profound and succinct answer—love. As he wrote in one of his essays, “love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.” In his “Essay on Chastity” he ignited the human heart with his phrase “the energies of love”: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
What exactly are the “energies of love?” In Teilhard’s thought, they are center to center attractions. We do not have to get too “heady” to understand how love binds all life together; we simply have to get out of our isolated ivory towers. Yesterday, I invited an amazing woman by the name of Karen Prushaw, to speak to my class on living and working with the homeless in Philadelphia. Karen graduated first in her class throughout her academic career, from high school (Holy Child) through college at LaSalle University and law school at the University of Pennsylvania. She practiced law for ten years and one year took a break to volunteer at St. Francis Inn for the homeless in Philadelphia. While mopping the floor and feeding the poor, God spoke to her in a deep way; she relinquished her profitable law career and started living and working with the homeless full time, and has been quietly doing so for the last 27 years. She does not earn a salary, she has no pension but what she has is a heart completely open to meeting God in the person she encounters. Every person she said has beauty and dignity; every person has a name and a history. To call each person by name; to raise up the fallen by looking into his or her eyes and saying “you are loved” – this is not only a religious act, it is the unity of cosmic life. Karl Rahner wrote that the whole cosmos has a fundamental unity in the one God who creates it, sustains and empowers it, and brings the whole to completion. God is at the heart of evolution as the power enabling a creature to go beyond oneself and become something more. This transcendent power is the power of love, the power of relating to the other as more than oneself and yet intimately related to oneself. Jean Vanier said that to love another person is to reveal to another his or her own beauty; when we do so we lift one up from an isolated existence into the full flowering of community of life. Teilhard wrote, “creation can be effected only by an evolution process of personalizing synthesis” because love is the structure of the universe. Science can tell us how evolution works but love is the reason why. God is the name of irresistible and unquenchable love at the heart of an unfinished universe.
Ilia Delio, OSF is a Franciscan Sister of Washington, DC and American theologian specializing in the area of science and religion, with interests in evolution, physics and neuroscience and the import of these for theology.
Ilia currently holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University, and is the author of seventeen books including Care for Creation (coauthored with Keith Warner and Pamela Woods) which won two Catholic Press Book Awards in 2009, first place for social concerns and second place in spirituality. Her book The Emergent Christ won a third place Catholic Press Book Award in 2011 for the area of Science and Religion. Her recent books include The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love (Orbis, 2013), which received the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award and a third place Catholic Press Association Award for Faith and Science.
Her most recent book “A Hunger for Wholeness” was published in 2018.
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Reading for an evolutionary age
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