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Do Science and Religion Have Anything to Say to Each Other?

Do Science and Religion Have Anything to Say to Each Other?

In a recent column in USA Today (Monday, October 11, 2010, page 11A), Jerry A. Coyne argued that "science and religion aren't friends."  Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, disputed as "bunk" the idea that "science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mututally improving dialogue."  His conclusion?  "Science helps religion by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to offer to science."  And how does science demolish religion?  By "relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones."

The premise for Coyne's assertion that science debunks religon is the old "God of the gaps" concept.  This concept was described by Carl F. von Weizsacker in The World View of Physics (trans. by Marjorie Green, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952, Pp. 156-157).  Weizsacker, who was a Christian, described how "God" has become an ever-shrinking stopgap in our knowledge.  He noted that Issac Newton believed that "God" should be invoked to explain the "gaps" or holes in our knowledge of the universe.  He also observed that "such gaps are usually filled in in further development, and science cannot rest satisfied until they are filled in."  So then, with the advance of scientific knowledge of the universe, God and religion "find themselves in continuous and dishonorable retreat."

We are approaching the moment when physicists will be able to eliminate the "God of the gaps" altogether.  Brilliant physicists like Stephen Hawking think they are getting close to a "theory of everything" (TOE), by which they will discover the basic laws to explain all of the processes of nature.  Then there will be no need anymore to evoke the idea of "God" to explain anything in the universe.  All the gaps in our knowledge will be filled.  Hence the confident assertion of Coyne that science is capable of rejecting the claims of religion as "bunk."

But not so fast!  The progress of scientific understanding should be commended.  I assume that soon physicists will possess a TOE.  Yet the assumption that TOE would make God and religion obsolete is mistaken precisely for the reason that neither philosophers who do metaphysics nor theologians subscribe to the Newtonian concept of a "God of the gaps."   The "God of the gaps" is not the God of philosophers or of theologians.  

Coyne is probably a good scientist, but he is no philosopher or theologian.  Even after TOE is proposed, philosophers will continue to speak of Being as the source of all becoming in the universe, and theologians will continue to speak of God as the Creator and the universe as God's creation.

The question with which philosophers and theologians are concerned is, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  Even after physicists possess a theory of everything, and thus can explain all the laws of the universe, the question remains why this "something"--the laws of all becoming--exists?  The answer is that the universe exists because God creates it.

If we say that all of the laws of the universe are created by God, it sounds as if we are saying that God is the "cause" of them.  Aristotle taught that God is the final cause of everything as "the Prime Mover."  Yet the idea of God as the "cause" of everything is a misleading way of thinking about God as the Creator.  The problem with this idea is that causation occurs in time and space, and thinking of God as the "cause" of everything implies that God is part of time and space.  This would be the ultimate "God of the gaps" theory.  But, creation is different from causation!  Creation, however it is conceived, is the origin of all time, space, and causation.  Creation is not a factor--not even an ultimate factor--in time and space.  As St. Augustine showed in his Confessions 1500 years ago, God did not create the universe in time, for time is itself an aspect of the created universe.

So then, when Genesis says that "in the beginning" God created the universe, this "beginning" should not be understood as an event in time, for time is created with the universe.  Rather this "beginning" points to the origin of all things in the eternal Being of God (cf. Sergius Bulgakov, trans. by Boris Jakim, The Bride of the Lamb, Eerdmans, 2002, p. 53).  We might say that God creates the world out of God's own self as a gift--as long as we do not imply that God is the world or a part of the world, but only that the world of time and becoming owes its origin and laws of becoming to the eternal Being, will, power, and love of God.

The Christian doctrine is that God is Person.  As Person, God has God's Being in God's own self.  God created the universe because of God's love.  Since God is love, God freely chooses to create the universe as that which is not God to be the objext of God's love.  The world is created by the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit as a divine act of love so that the world, which is not God, may share in God's own life.

We struggle to find human concepts and words to articulate the mystery of God's creation of the world.  The only possible way of thinking theologically is by analogy.  Analogy is necessary for the practice of theolgy because of its unique subject matter.  God is not a creature like us who are limited; yet there is a similiarity between us and God.  We may get a kind of grasp of God's creation of the world by thinking about God's creativity in terms of our creativity.  Because we human beings are persons, we possess a spiritual freedom which ables us to be creative.  Our creativity is not a mechanical operation;  our creativity in any endeavor can bring into being something surprisingly new.  In a similiar fashion--although all of our analogies are never adequate--we think of God's creation of the universe as the emergence of the utterly new from the divine Person.

Faith in God as Creator continues to be compelling to many rational people because the concept of God is that of Being which is not dependent upon anything else for it existence whereas the universe does not have within itself the principle of self-existence.  The universe is intelligible as being which is dependent upon God as self-sufficient Being.  Moreover, the majority of physicists think that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, and therefore the universe is exposed as that which is deficient in self-existence.  Perhaps thinkers like Coyne would retort that the birth and death of our universe is only a part of some cosmic process by which there is a series of universes, or that it is only part of a 'multiverse."  This speculative idea would go beyond the capacity of science to know, and  would constitute, not physics, but metaphysics.  Thus this concept of some cosmic process would violate the scientific method which Coyne supposes is the only source of real knowledge.  At any rate, such speculation would amount to a virtual belief in some cosmic principle as "God." and so we would then have, not competition between science and religion, but competition between two theologies, something I am sure Coyne would not want to engage in.

When human reason deeply considers the matter, it sees that the concept of God as the Creator is more plausible than the idea that the universe requires no explanation for why it exists since God is clearly the explanation for God's own existence because God is eternal and self-subsistent; but, the same thing cannot be posited about the universe as we know it.  Thinkers like Coyne have no way of even addressing the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?'  The intellectual advantage of faith in God as Creator is that it can supply an answer to that question, namely that the universe is created by God because God is love, and out of love, God creates the universe to be that which is not God to be the object of God's loving purposes.  If the atheists retort that the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?'  is meaningless, then they expose the nihilism of  an unhealthy mind which they are trying to impose upon the culture.

As i stated all along, the idea of God as Creator is a matter of faith.  Faith is our response to divine revelation.  We claim that there is knowledge given to us by means of revelation as well as knowledge we can obtain by the scientific method and the operation of human reason.  Coyne denies that there is any such thing as revelation.  Why?  Because of a philosophical assumption--materialism.  Coyne claims that there is no revelation because science cannot discover it.  Well, of course, it is impossible for us to know revelation by means of the scientific method.  This method is productive in increasing our knowledge of the material world, but it is not designed for any other kind of knowledge (and, TOE is not really a theory of everything, but only everything in the material realm).  Nor is this limited method capable of yielding knowledge of metaphysics or theology.  To make the assertion, as Coyne does, that this is a materialistic world because it is the only world the scientific method can discover is a philosophical claim--indeed, a sheer prejudice.  When Coyne makes this intellectual move, he is playing by the old-fashioned rules of an ancient philosphy of materialism and not by the rules of modern science.

As recipients of revelation, we acknowledge that we were not  "present" at the "beginning."  No, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to say, we are "in the middle" (Creation and Fall, MacMillan, 1959, p. 14).  In other words, God revealed God's self in the story of Israel and Jesus Christ, and , on the basis of this revelation, God speaks God's Word to us now.  The God who encounters us is revealed to us as the " I am who I am," who is the Creator.

Science and religion are capable of being friends, or, perhaps more realistically, adult partners in conversation about the whole of reality.  Religion does have something to bring to science--a serious awareness of the limits of science and its incapacity to do the work of metaphysics or theology.  Education in philosophy and theology provide the intellectual equipment and awareness to detect when good scientists over-reach the limits of their own discipline and make naive philosophical assertions which in fact violate the methods of science and potentially harm the overall well-being of the human race.  Most of all, religion brings to human life, even the life of scientists who are truly broad-minded, meaning and the possibility of a knowledge based upon reason's exploration of the truth disclosed in revelation.