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Science and Religion

The newspaper recently (01/13/14) carried an obituary for Ian G. Barbour, a Carlton College professor who taught physics and religion and published writings on the subjects, with a positive passion for both.  Dr. Barbour is a kindred spirit.

Some there are who wonder how on earth Dr. Barbour could do it, this faithfulness to both science and Christianity.  I'm not one of those who think the one negates the other.  Never have, probably never will. But I'd be quick to admit, as one who has pastored souls for a lifetime, that in the public mind (whatever that is) and certainly in the press (which always enjoys a conflict) the two seem unalterably opposed. 

More than one smart aleck thirteen year old has posed me the question about the sons of Adam having to marry their sisters, as if to show the fiction Holy Writ is. A few confirmands tried to make me believe they were genuinely confused when their science teachers told them the earth was 5 billion years old, while Genesis shrinks the time to a few thousand; and, pastor, who's telling the truth?  Still I persisted for fifty years preaching on Genesis and most of the other texts that are cited by those with a shallow understanding of the Bible and of science.

If some fundamentalist purveyors of faith insist that "the Bible says it, I believe it, and that's that," not a few of those possessed with a scientific mind-set are intent to exclude any possibility of the existence of anything that cannot be measured by man and his instruments.

Humility, not just a little, a lot, would serve either faction exceedingly well in the search for the truth.  Which, that search, is all we have in either intellectual pursuit, never finding the absolute truth.

I could go on and on (and maybe you're afraid I will) about the dependence of science for its origin and its a prioris (meaning basic assumptions) on western religion.  And I am capable of waxing poetic about the mythopoetical; but I'll spare you the necessity of logging out at this juncture, and go on to a less complex consideration.

Namely that science and religion are two different, often very different, approaches to the same reality we name human existence. Science is dedicated to finding out how; religion, why.  I oversimplify, of course, but the distinction is useful. When I want to know how the creation came into being, I ask Einstein and his colleagues.  When I want to know why that creation continues to manifest a cruel and self-destructive bent, I ask Moses and his heirs.  When I wonder what the future has in store of marvel or technological surprise, I consult Popular Mechanics or Bill Gates; but when I worry about the uses, beneficial and perverse, to which those surprises will be put, I seek out those voices steeped in experience divine and human.  When I listen to novelist Tom Wolfe celebrate the latest discoveries about the functioning of the human brain, how each of us is encoded from our beginnings with patterns of behavior for a lifetime, I shake my head in dismay that anyone, let alone a poet, would dismiss so readily the mystery of the human psyche, a mystery that has engaged the wisest souls in every generation.

Friends have overheard me claim that if I weren't a pastor and practical theologian, I might have been an auto mechanic or a Wall Street financier... which is not to denigrate the paths not taken, but to illustrate the inclinations, the diverse and yet for me harmonious inclinations, of my own soul.

Hardly a day passes but I am moved to thank the good Lord (!) for the benefits science has visited on my generation to make our lives easier, more productive, and a lot longer.  I walk on bionic knees.  This morning I twice phoned my grandson in Thailand on his cell phone half a world away and he sounded like he was in the next town down the interstate.  I maintain, and am happy to do so, a fleet of three autos for our family.  My mornings begin with a virtual visit to the local bank to reconcile accounts.  UPS delivers me clothes and TV sets and stationery and prescription drugs ordered over the internet.  The ATM spits out cash for luncheon pizza.  Google helps me solve crossword puzzles (but, no, I refuse to consult Rex Parker).  Well, you get the picture... and, if it's still hazy, consider, please, what you are doing at this moment and how it could be I got to you.

But life, finally, isn't just Ford Fusions and prosthetic joints.  Life is poetry.  Life is song. Life is aspiration. And, yes, life is love, about which, love, the best science can do to explain it, is the cliché that it's an itch you can't scratch. If the most basic circumstances of our lives fall within the scientific realm, the most ennobling and satisfying belong to the religious or spiritual realm.

Somewhere in my senior year at college, psychology major that I was, I read with surprise that those people most adept at understanding the intricate meanderings of the human psyche were not Ph D's in my chosen major but novelists. Poets.  Artists.  They are the most capable of making those leaps of the imagination to another's mind and heart, usually because they have plumbed the depths of their own souls. That's from whence religion emanates.  That's what the Bible addresses.  Like a friend in exercise regularly says to me as we both stand naked in the shower room, "It's a mystery"; and he means just about everything, the whole human experience, a mystery at whose edges science nibbles and on which religion feasts.               

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