Last week, Catholic theologian discussed issues concerning the alleged conflict between Christian theology and evolution. This week the discussion moves to the values of science and religion, and the relationship between theology and ecology.
Chris: You have said that science “should have nothing to say about purpose, values, or God's existence,” but aren’t there choices to be made here about the scope of science that cannot be determined in advance?
John: Methodologically speaking, science has nothing to say about purpose, meaning, value, importance or God. Ever since the beginning of the modern age science has increasingly divorced itself from such preoccupations, and this is all to its credit. Science adopts a deliberately self-limiting method of inquiry that seeks to understand the world only in terms of physical causation, and to express this understanding as much as possible in mathematical terms.
Chris: What exactly are you referring to by the term ‘science’, though?
John: We have to distinguish between science as a fruitful method of inquiry into natural causes on the one hand and the cumulative body of scientific discoveries that this method has produced on the other. I think there’s no question that scientific discoveries, such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Hubble rightly arouse theological interest and deserve theological comment. The idea of God, therefore, cannot remain exactly the same after we have looked at the body of scientific discoveries, and especially evolution and cosmology, as before.
Chris: Are you suggesting that theology has every right to comment on the theological implication of scientific discoveries, but nothing to do with scientific method?
John: Science’s expansion and enrichment of our understanding of creation can only expand and enrich our sense of the infinite resourcefulness theology has always attributed to the Creator. But we should not confuse philosophical or theological interpretation of scientific discoveries with scientific method itself, for as soon as we start commenting on scientific discoveries, and especially when we start holding forth on whether the natural world as seen by physics or biology points toward or away from God or purpose, we are no longer doing science but philosophy, metaphysics or theology. And here we have to be very careful to reveal our assumptions, our basic beliefs, and admit that in our comments on theological questions we have gone far beyond the restraint and purity characteristic of scientific method.
Chris: What would you say about the recent comments by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that contemporary cosmology rules out the existence of God?
John: It’s really not a scientific claim at all. Rather, it’s their own private philosophical speculation about the universe as they see it. No equations, no matter how elaborate, lead directly to atheism. Between Hawking’s equations on the one hand and his ideas about theology on the other lies a tortuous subterranean corridor consisting of cultural and personal experience, memory and affectivity that remains largely out of sight. The fact that Hawking is a renowned expert in a particular (and hence always limited) area of scientific inquiry does not by that fact situate him in an especially privileged or authoritative position to comment on the question of God’s existence. Indeed, by doing he merely shows that his primary ideological commitment, like that of Dawkins, is to scientism, the belief that science alone is now in a position to provide answers to timeless theological questions.
Chris: I would prefer to call Hawking a positivist, as I suggested before – and indeed, Hawking has actually expressly used this term to describe himself in the past. I would say it’s always a mistake for a positivist to wade in on questions about God, because the decision to base one’s reality on scientific evidence excludes in advance any possibility of commenting on transcendent questions, essentially by definition.
John: Yes, there is no way to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that science is the only reliable guide to truth and that, since science cannot find purpose or God, the latter does not exist. Scientism (or what you prefer to call positivism) says in effect that people should take nothing on faith, but it takes faith—as distinct from inductive knowledge—for anyone to embrace scientism. Isn’t there something self-subverting about this belief?
Chris: Charles Taylor introduced me to the terms for eighteenth century “dangerous religion” – superstition, for belief in magic, enthusiasm, for people who are certain they’ve heard the voice of God, and fanaticism, for those who are willing to act beyond the established moral order. I’d consider ‘scientism’ to be effectively ‘enthusiastic positivism’ – a legitimate belief system just taken to the extreme of premature certainty.
John: My point is that, logically speaking, much contemporary atheism is mostly rooted not in science but in an uncritical belief for which there is no scientifically demonstrable evidence.
Chris: I heartily agree. But for me, the problem isn’t this belief, but merely the way certain people slip into treating it dogmatically. I believe positivists are an important part of the contemporary secular world, and my only objection is when they attempt to monopolize certain topics – and oddly, topics that you would think, essentially by definition, they had no interest in.
John: Carl Jung once said that what people affirm or deny is not as relevant psychologically speaking as what they keep talking about. And today, I believe, there is as much impassioned talk about God as ever – even by atheists. What are the psychodynamics of this obsession? Each case is different, and so I will not mention any names here. But if the strident demonizing of atheists by religious zealots is a way of refusing to acknowledge their own repressed doubts, how are we to interpret the name-calling, labelling and hatred expressed against religious believers by some allegedly disinterested and high-profile ‘scientific’ writers and blogsters today?
Chris: You have said that “the pro-life ethic has been associated too narrowly with issues surrounding human sexuality.” This comment was specifically aimed at engaging pro-life people with environmental issues, but I was fascinated by the concept that the ideals motivating opposition to abortion could be understood in a wider context that was being obscured in some way.
John: I am pro-life, but I hope in a way that is more consistent than that of many conservative Christian pro-lifers. It is completely unacceptable to my own understanding of Christian life and faith, for example, to be both pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time, as many conservative Christians including some conservative Catholics are, in spite of papal condemnations of the death penalty.
Chris: Are you calling for a refocus of the pro-life ethic within a wider context, or are you suggesting that the current ideals behind the pro-life ethic need entirely rethinking?
John: Scientific discovery has shown how intricately connected cosmological and biological processes are to the lives of each one of us. Ecological awareness, for example, has situated human life within a much wider web of life then we had noticed until after Darwin. Science has made us aware of how previously hidden evolutionary factors have brought us and all other species of life into being. Our capacity to swing our arms freely, to stand upright and to live in cooperative arrangements with our fellows, for example, has been in preparation for many millions of years by a wondrous story of evolutionary experiments that await further narration. Our new understanding of genetics also fortifies the biblical sense of our kinship with all other living beings. So a combination of biblical inspiration and contemporary science leads me to a much deeper sense of gratitude and reverence for the seamless garment of life–and hence for the need for ecological responsibility.
Chris: There seems to be a growing ecological concern in contemporary Christianity.
John: I’m certainly not alone among Christians in thinking these thoughts today. Many of us now want to connect the moral passion of pro-life ethics with a wider sense of life than we could ever have gained apart from scientific discoveries. This is only one of many ways in which scientific understanding – stripped of superfluous materialist interpretation – can enrich theology and ethics.
Chris: Charles Taylor said that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.” Can I get your commentary on this as a Catholic who is deeply engaged in public debate?
John: As a Catholic born prior to the Second Vatican Council that took place in the 1960s, my life and theology have been deeply shaped by the spirit of reform leading up to and immediately following that event. I still draw strength from the movement toward renewal that occurred then. So unlike conservative Catholics today, I have no desire to go back to a pre-conciliar, often world-weary, religiosity. Unfortunately, under the present Pope there seems to be a drifting backward into a style of Catholicism that I no longer identify with, and which countless other Catholics I know don’t embrace either.
Chris: If the Catholic faith has a public relations problem, in so much as there is a tendency for many non-religious people to presume the Vatican’s views represent the beliefs of all Catholics, how much of the burden of correcting this misunderstanding lies with the Vatican and how much with Catholic Christians at large, so to speak?
John: In this respect I should point out that, in spite of what many people think, Catholicism is a very broad tent that embraces many different styles of spirituality and theological understanding. There are many ways of being Catholic, and I’ve always felt the liberty to embrace science and love of Earth without succumbing to what I take to be the suffocating ideologies of secularism, scientism and scientific materialism.
Chris: This seems to have been Taylor’s point too.
John: My interpretation of Catholicism, which is by no means unique to me, has been one that keeps the world open to an always new and unpredictable future. I consider the point of Christianity to be that of opening up a sense of the future and hope for the whole world. I think of God as continuously offering a new future, not just to people, but to the whole universe. The ongoing creation of the world and the evolution of life are possible only because of this invitation. In this sense ‘God’ may be understood as what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called the Absolute Future. It is this (biblical) God who opens up the future and “who makes all things new,” and not the Elegant Engineer of design-obsessed ID proponents and evolutionary materialists, that I connect to the ‘grandeur’ of life that Darwin uncovered.
Chris: Religious conservatives presumably vilify you as a liberal – it seems to me that in the United States ‘liberal’ has attained the same kind of disdain that was traditionally poured into the words ‘godless’ – or even ‘Communist’!
John: When conservatives complain about ‘liberal’ Catholic theologians such as myself I can always tell them to go back and read the documents of the Second Vatican Council! I also refer them to one of the most important twentieth century religious thinkers who, though he died in 1955, quietly influenced the atmosphere of the Council. I’m referring to the Jesuit priest, geologist and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who started developing an evolution-based theology as early as the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a Catholic today I still draw much inspiration from this innovative thinker who taught us how we can love God without turning our backs on the world and that we can love the world fully without turning our backs on God.
Chris: I was wholly unaware of Teilhard’s work prior to reading your books, and remain fascinated by his unconventional theological views, which you seem to be helping spread to a far wider audience.
John: Contrary to the almost pathological fear of modernity by early twentieth century Catholicism, Teilhard embraced the world and evolution fully, and without materialist overtones. He emphasized that there can be no kingdom of heaven apart from a renewed Earth, and in doing so he presaged much that the Second Vatican Council officially taught.
Chris: You clearly believe that religion can – perhaps even must – evolve.
John: Religions are as capable of evolving as any other living phenomena, and if they don’t evolve, they die. I could not be a Catholic today if I thought that somehow this faith is not itself capable of evolution and self-transformation. As a theologian I have been fortunate to taste the rich resources in the tradition for ongoing renewal. In any case, although I do not approach his thought uncritically, I think Teilhard has provided a model for many Catholics who are alarmed by the movements toward retrenchment that are now occurring in some, although by no means all, strains of Catholicism.
Chris: Personally, I find Catholic intellectuals such as yourself and Charles Taylor to be thoroughly uplifting. Growing up, I could not understand Catholicism at all – reading both you and Taylor has shown me that part of the problem was that I wasn’t really being shown the nature of the Catholic experience of faith at all. I’m grateful to you both for showing me a wider vision.
John: Thanks for this opportunity. I think your questions are right on, even if I can respond to them only inadequately here.
John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.