Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Empirical and the Divine

First Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I am an ecumenical reader (and now, podcast listener). I try to make sure I am hearing all sides of a story. It's easy to read the things we agree with, and cheer inwardly at our own good sense - "look, this published writer agrees with me!" - and it is much harder to read, and even give points to, The Other Side.

Recently, I listened to two podcasts: one on Catholicism (which, with all its "faith traditions" and "Liturgies of the Word" and "charisms" sounds an awful lot different than the Catholicism I grew up with), and one from the Center for Inquiry (the podcast is called Point of Inquiry), a pro-science, anti-religion think tank affiliated with the University of Buffalo.

Neither was surprising. The particular Point of Inquiry I listened to was an interview with Ann Druyan, wife of Carl Sagan. A self-professed agnostic, she was nevertheless full of "awe" and "wonder" at the profundity of creation, and expressed a desire to "know what life was all about" before she died.

The Catholic podcast, on the other hand, was painstaking in its attempts to demonstrate, by empiricism, what "God wanted us to do," and what "God's purpose" was for us - even how God wanted us to chat with Him.


The scientists want science to effect us like religion - wonder, amazement, humility, and awe in the face of the expansiveness and constant surprizes of creation. And the religious want us to reasonably and through research come to the conclusion that this, not that is God, because it can be proven.

I laughed as I listened to the scientists insist that science was always open to new and extreme ideas - oh, really? tell that to Louis Pasteur. Scientists demand that we believe Science has the answers to all human problems - suspiciously like God, isn't it? And the odd thing is, the more we learn, scientifically, the more we realize how much we simply don't know, and how wrong we have been in past declarations.

I laughed, likewise, as I listened to the religious podcast try to set limits on God by trying to define Him - to profess to "know" what He was all about. Yes, if we believe that there has been revelation, we can say we "know" certain things. But how can we be so absolutely sure we have it all figured out? Isn't God a lot greater than that? How do we wrap our feeble little minds around eternity, for example, or free will? Some thing we simply have to resort to Faith to accept.

I have never understood why science and God can't co-exist peacefully. If anything, it seems the divide is ever wider, and ever more stridently expressed by adherents of one or the other. It seems to me that, whether the Universe was made for man's delight and entertainment, or whether we are simply another small part of it, there still has to have been some Prime Mover. No matter how many mysteries Science unravels, there will always be the twin mysteries of the first moment, and more profoundly, WHY? These are things that mortal man, fixed as he is in Time, will probably never be able to understand. We can only hope that at some point in our existences, whether they are one or many, we will have advanced enough beyond our human limitations to begin to comprehend. And for that, we need God.

I have also never understood why atheists/agnostics resent our need to characterize God in ways that we can understand, or our need to express organized humility in the face of the profound. I doubt that God really cares if we say the Rosary - and perhaps God really did ask that we do so, understanding that human beings like pattern and repetition, and that our minds will be more open to His presence as we meditate - but I sincerely doubt that the Rosary is for him. That does not make it a bad thing to do. And because we humans are wayward creatures, who needs rewards and punishments to keep us keeping on, is there anything necessarily wrong with the Catholic Church urging us to say the Rosary?

In the final analysis, I think religious people are more tolerant of atheistic scientists than the other way around. The more than science discovers, the more amazing we learn God must be to have created all this. Just because we can understand a phenomenon does not make it any less wondrous - or any less likely to have originated in the mind of God.

Nor should believing that God is responsible for all this deter us from trying to understand it. Note, I say "understand," and not "alter" or "control." With great power, as Spiderman tells us, comes great responsibility. It is our belief in God and our attempts to understand God's purpose, that set limits for us - not in our understanding, but in our use of the wonderful things we discover.

I watched an old episode of The X-Files last night - Ice - in which a mystery creature is turned up in an ice core. The creature infects human hosts and causes them to become violent, ultimately destructive. Mulder wants to study the creature. But since it kills, Scully wants to destroy it so that it can't infect the population. The age-old face-off between science and ethics. Should we have developed nuclear power? We won't know until we learn one day if nuclear power may save us from freezing in the dark.

Mankind's greatest hope is in the wisdom of men of science informed by strong, dare I say it, religious beliefs. Discoveries of the world, the universe, around us, governed by a respect for that creation and its laws and purposes, is the only way we can survive. And I think that ultimately, God does want us to survive.

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