Monday, April 13, 2015

Healing the gulf between religion and science

Recently, I heard the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham speak at a meeting of the North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) chapter. She described her journey from being a mother and homemaker to Episcopal priest and environmental activist. The catalyst for her journey was an invitation to join the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Board. EDF Board meetings began with expert presentations on environmental issues that included overfishing, pesticides, deforestation, and climate change. Her expanding knowledge of those problems prompted personal questions about why the other group to which she was strongly committed – the Episcopal Church – thanked God for the gift of creation but was silent about environmental harms. Through conversations with friends and neighbors from various religious traditions, she discovered that their faith groups were also silent about environmental concerns. Seeking answers to explain this apparent disconnect, she went to seminary, eventually sought ordination, and founded IPL.

Canon Bingham never answered the question at the nexus of her personal transformation: why have religious groups been slow to join the environmental movement? However, her question intrigued me. Reflecting on my education, reading, and spiritual journey, I found three answers, each troubling.

First, post-Enlightenment societies and most of their religious communities treasure rationalism; they widely regard emotion as untrustworthy. Illustratively, mid- twentieth century Christian movements with a non-rational focus, ranging from centering prayer to charismatic renewal, consistently failed to gain sufficient momentum to move from the margin to the mainstream. Philosophy and the theory of evolution had already combined to end most theological interest in natural revelation. Concomitantly, persons who sought to experience God's presence in the awe (an emotion!) evoked by nature's majestic beauty were dismissed as romantic transcendentalists. Scriptural and liturgical references to creation became relics, perhaps cherished relics, but nonetheless relics, vestiges of a prior era's faith.

Second, during the Enlightenment a chasm developed between theology and science that largely persists into the present. One explanation of the chasm is benign: few people are intellectually able or have the time and resources to acquire expertise in both religion and science. Theologians and scientists often focus exclusively on their discipline, remaining silent on other topics. Stephen Jay Gould's proposition that science and religion constitute non-overlapping magisteria sanctions this specialization. Another explanation, in which religious people have been complicit by default, is far less benign: the Enlightenment brought with it scientific reductionism, the belief that science is the only valid source of knowledge. By definition, God, if conceptualized as the transcendent Other, is excluded from scientific study with its requirements for observation and measurement. Similarly, religious believers by privileging their scriptures as a source of revelation create a closed interpretive worldview not subject to scientific investigation. Having compartmentalized religion and science, a majority of Americans incongruously (if not schizophrenically) believes in a supernatural God, values science, but also rejects the theory of evolution.

Third, a majority of the non-religious and religious appear to worship at the altar of Mammon. Scriptures and theological doctrines that might enjoin humans to value and care for creation as responsible stewards receive a narrower, skewed interpretation. For example, the Christian tradition, particularly Protestantism, too often interprets God's injunction for human's to exercise dominion over creation as God's authorization to use, even to exploit, the natural world exclusively for human benefit and the production of wealth. In fact, that text correctly understood within the larger biblical context calls Christians to act as God's stewards, caring for the well-being and health of all creation.

If we are serious about caring for creation, becoming responsible stewards who end ecological abuse and remediate past harms when possible, then each of those answers implicitly represents a call to action. Integrating science and theology is essential for wholeness, ethics, and earth's future. Thankfully, there are positive moves to bridge the chasm between religion and science, such as the work of the Templeton Foundation and process theologians. Easter, with its emphasis on resurrection, is an appropriate time to adopt spiritual disciplines shaped by these concerns to support those efforts.

Emotion balances and completes reason; indeed, the two are inseparable. Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek character, the Vulcan Spock, caricatures the idea of the emotionless human; Spock's extreme rationality emphasizes that he is only half-human. A religion that aims to be completely rational is a religion devoid of love, transcendence, beauty, mystery, and meaning. A restorative Easter discipline can be (re)connecting with nature by spending time in or with the natural world, intentionally leaving electronic and electric devices behind. Enter into the mystery and emotion of creation by meditating daily on flowers or trees, regularly observing the sky, or weekly walking in a park or rural place.

Achieving integrity and wholeness requires bridging the gap between religion and science. Science, for example, can reveal the causes and possible solutions to ecological harms; religion shapes and motivates our response. Scientist and bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori decries the climate change that science shows humans have caused; she proclaims that responding is a Christian moral imperative because climate change harms God's earth, the poor, and the most vulnerable. This Easter, try setting specific, measurable goals to reduce energy and water consumption, to reuse items instead of purchasing new, and to recycle rather than trash the unwanted/unusable.

Jesus famously declared, "You cannot serve God and Mammon." Pope Francis emulates his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis has taken high profile, sometimes startling steps as a moral exemplar and leader, to call people to return to material simplicity. He lives in a guesthouse suite, travels in an inexpensive automobile, spends time with the poor, and encourages Roman Catholic Church leaders to live modestly. Instead of following Lenten fasts with Easter excesses, culturally symbolized by bunnies and baskets, adopt a discipline more conducive to life abundant: grow organic food, buy locally produced goods, walk instead of driving, etc.

Integrating science and religion is good for creation, Christianity, and us.


Anonymous said...

That’s an interesting point about the inability of centering prayer, charismatic renewal (e.g. Cursillo), etc to take root permanently. These days the fad seems to be the Daily Office and/or Compline prayed in open churches. I doubt it will survive long, either. And I’ve seen other fads like ultra-high celebrations of the Eucharist already start to fade.
Self-styled Anglicans in the U.S. may find that it was much easier to found new congregations and hierarchies during a period of strong emotions than to sustain those communities and hierarchies over decades as the emotions dissipate. In that sense, Anglicans too are being assimilated by rationalism.
Reintroducing the essential emotion of love into the church and (more so) into society is full of difficulties. It’s much easier on leaders to stay in the rational domain even if that’s not authentic to God’s call – and even if ecclesiastical rationalism, in an ironic way, reinforces the aversion of most people to religion these days.

George Clifford said...

I think your observations about rationalism and the difficulty of reintroducing emotion are on target. I would nuance the phrasing a little: the illusion/delusion of rationalism, recognizing that pure rational thought is impossible.

Anonymous said...

Fr. George----Just finished reading “Healing the gulf between religion and science” and would like to make a few comments----It is not uncommon to find professionals despite their training to prefer to “play it safe” or isolate themselves from controversy. The late Dr. Jack Kevokian remarked that most doctors are afraid of losing either their income and or reputation and would not do the “right” thing. Whether one agreed with him or not is not the point but he has to be given credit for his courage and conviction. Secondly we are a consumption based society and the economy benefits tremendously from it----Thanks for your contribution----From Dotun Olagoke