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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Science, Religion, and Defining Terms

One sexy, thinky debate/discussion topic that arises regularly is the relationship between science and religion. ("Are science and religion compatible?" "Has science defeated religion (or vice versa)?" And so on.) For this topic to generate as much light as heat, two clarifications must be made before debate begins—and they pretty much never are.

First, what is "religion"? To frame the polarity as between "science" on the one side and "religion" on the other is to bias the discussion from the start. That's because those who prefer "science" to "religion" are almost the only people who lump all religions into one category called "religion." Few actual religious people do this.

For example, I read part of a book by one partisan of science who lumped together Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Notice the word order here: to this author, the ideological Other is a thing called "fundamentalism." It happens to have a Christian species and an Islamic species, but fundamentalism is the genus. But very few Christians and Muslims think of it this way. To them there is no Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Rather there is fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist (Wahhabist) Islam. They are two different religions, two different genera. They each have a species that is similar to its counterpart in some way, but those are really quite different animals, like a blue jay and a blue whale. In fact, fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are the least likely in their respective religions to see themselves as proponents of "religion" in general or to see each other as fellow "fundamentalists."

It does no good to talk about the relationship between "science" and "religion" because different religions have different postures toward science. Different tribes and traditions within a particular religion have different postures toward it. For that matter, even the same tribe or tradition may have different postures toward science in different places or at different eras of its existence.

Let's take as an example the popular whipping boy, evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity earned its antiscience reputation in its fundamentalist phase in the early 20th century when Darwinian evolution was the flashpoint. But few people know that in America before the Civil War, evangelical Christianity wasn't just pro-science, it drove science; antebellum developers of "natural history," as it was known then, were motivated by religious belief. Today the posture of evangelical Christianity toward science is muddled and mixed. There is still much fear, suspicion, and disinterest. There are also many evangelicals quietly working in the sciences along with a few luminaries like Francis Collins, who headed up the Human Genome Project and currently directs the National Institutes of Health, and Stamatis Vokos, who is a pioneer in physics education.

The point is that it only confuses matters to talk about the relationship between science and "religion" in general. To do any good you must get much more specific as to what religion you're talking about.

The second clarification needed is, do we mean science or Science?

Lowercase-"s" science is composed of two things: a method and a body of knowledge acquired through that method. Uppercase-"s" Science is also two things: a philosophy and a culture that reflects, reinforces, and passes on that philosophy, which combine to orient their adherents to ultimate things. In other words, Science is a religion. Admittedly, it's a rather unusual religion; it's hard to think of many religions that deny the existence of the supernatural, either ontologically or merely functionally, as a major tenet, or who make rejection of faith an article of faith. (They call it "reason," because most of them have not studied epistemology.) However, it does have points of contact with certain strains of Buddhism, and perhaps Science is another tribe or tradition of the secular religion I wrote about previously. Uppercase-"s" Science's appeal is not as broad today as it was during Isaac Asimov's and Carl Sagan's careers, but it is still very much alive.

I don't know enough about Science to sketch its contours accurately, but I can give you an example of what I mean. There is a marvelous series of electronica songs and videos called Symphony of Science that use "auto-tuned" statements by popular scientific thinkers. My favorite, "We Are Star Dust," features supercool astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson "singing," "We are part of this universe; we are in this universe . . . the universe itself exists within us. . . . We are part of the heavens. . . . We are star dust in the highest, exalted way, called by the universe, reaching out to the universe with these methods and tools of science."

Tyson (and the others in the song) are talking about how all heavier elements were "cooked" and built inside stars that later exploded and sent their "enriched guts" flying through the galaxy. These elements gravitated toward each other and collected into planets and the things on those planets, including people. So all the atoms in our bodies were once part of a star—we are star dust.

But note how Tyson expresses this scientific conclusion. "We are part of the heavens," a carefully chosen, old-fashioned term from an age when the sky was more than a physical location but also a spiritual one in people's outlook. "We are star dust in the highest, exalted way." Very complex star dust, certainly; living star dust, indeed. But highest and exalted are statements of ontological value, honor, and significance, categories that do not exist in science. "Called by the universe"—really? The universe as a sentient, deliberate, communicative entity summons humans to "reach out" to it and establish a communicative link—this universe that "exists within us"?

I don't know how far to press these out-of-context comments by Tyson; I don't know how literal and accurate he means them to be. Perhaps he just has a natural gift for poetry that can't help but find an outlet. Maybe he is so driven to interest people in the science that he loves that he uses provocative, figurative speech to seize their attention. Or maybe there is something primal within him that longs for contact with a transcendent being that he doesn't believe in that shapes his language. In any case, the statement about where our atoms came from is science. But how Tyson states it is Science.

One listener commented, "Now, this is art. All songs make you think about future and universe. Science's 'Gospel'." It is Science's praise-and-worship music—actually, I listen to it to worship too.

Naturally, you arrive at quite a different answer if you ask about science and religion versus Science and religion. Answering the question about science and religion means observing religious individuals' comfort employing the scientific method and interest in its results. But answering the question about Science and religion is really about Science and other religions—it's a question of comparative religion.

Now, I expect that many adherents of Science believe that you aren't really committed to science if you don't believe in Science and probably even reject the distinction between science and Science. I think they're wrong on both counts.

In sum, as with every question, answering it starts with defining terms. "What's the relationship between science and religion?" That depends: what do you mean by "religion"? What do you mean by "science"?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Loving Enemies and the Selfhood of Jesus

Luke 6:27-38 is one of those really tough passages of the Bible. It starts with, "But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies . . . ," and it just continues from there.

Verses 27-30 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are stronger than you, people who hate you, curse you, mistreat you, hit you, take from you. You're supposed to let them do it, give them more besides, and try to help them by action and prayer.

Verses 31-36 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are weaker than you, people who need help and money. You're supposed to help them even if though they won't thank you and lend to them even though they won't pay you back.

Verses 37-38 sum up the preceding. Don't judge or condemn the people who molest you or mooch off you. Instead forgive them—that's the only way you'll be forgiven too. Give to them—in due proportion you will get far more back, or you won't if you don't.

There are several reasons that I strongly resent Jesus' commands here. I resent losing my stuff. More, I resent losing my pride. I resent still more losing the boundary between me and someone else. The fact of invasion is more abhorrent than the result of invasion. Worst of all, I think, if I don't defend my boundary, who will? And why would anyone defend my boundary if I don't?

But it occurs to me that Jesus himself was never invaded. Losing stuff to those weaker didn't violate his boundary. Losing his life to the strong didn't either. In fact, no matter how severe the demand or the drain, it never made him less than he was, nor does he ever betray a suggestion that he felt that it did.

The reason is that Jesus' selfhood was extremely tightly constricted around one thing, which he mentions in v. 20: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you." Jesus' self was 100% secured in God's soon-to-come government. Therefore, no loss was really loss. Nothing begged of him, demanded of him, or taken from him was actually him. It was all flimsy, disposable, temporary stuff that would soon be replaced by the real thing, where he really was. Even the life in his mortal body was easily given, as it was temporary too. Jesus' essential Jesus-ness, the stuff of him that he could not yield without losing some of himself, was in heaven with the Father beyond the touch of anyone who might invade it. It could not be touched, was eternal and imperishable, and would very soon be revealed to replace whatever people might think they were taking from him now.

Jesus knew this. If I knew it that well, if 100% of my treasure was in heaven and speedily on its way to earth and that fact was beyond doubt or question to me, then Jesus' commands about loving my enemies would suddenly become much more achievable. Because even though it might look to all the world like I'm being taken advantage of, I would not experience it that way. There is nothing anybody could take from me that was part of me. No possession would be part of me; not even my mortal body would be part of me, really. My life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Nothing taken from me would be a violation, because none of it is mine, or me. From that vantage point, the worst that any enemy could take from me seems really pitifully small and easily forgiven.

On the other hand, even though from one point of view Jesus' selfhood was tightly constricted in heaven, from another vantage point it was expansive enough to encompass all of creation. He is, after all, the Word of God through whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together (John 1:1; Col. 1:16-17). Because his selfhood includes everything, again, nothing could be taken from him and his boundary could never be violated. No one could ever invade him, because there is no outside of him from whence to invade.

It's funny: we tend to think that as human Jesus suffered but as God he didn't. As to injury, this is certainly true. The man Jesus of Nazareth in degradable flesh could be deformed, crushed, and minimized, while the Son of God (who Jesus is) could not be any the less God than he is, no matter what one might pretend to do to him.

But as to the experience of pain, I rather think that the reverse is closer to the truth. It was as human that Jesus' selfhood was perfectly committed to the security of heaven, just as he commands ours to be. But it was as God that Jesus' selfhood extends across the cosmos, encompassing everything. And therefore every disorder, injustice, wrong, and sin Jesus feels acutely, like an internal disease. Though he is not compromised by it, if he centers his attention on anything narrower than the perfect beginning-to-the-end totality of it all, he must be incomprehensibly pained by the least evil.