Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of Canada - Franciscains du Canada
Ordo Fratrum Minorum
Too much is made of the conflict between science and religion. Conflict between them happens, but when it happens, it is really about underlying assumptions which are about religion. Only a fool would argue that science answers religious questions. However, while science must not be confused with religion, science a very important starting point for religious reflection. This is why I like the idea of a Gold Mass, or a special mass for scientists. I am in Vancouver today for just this reason—the Gold Mass celebrated at St. Mark’s Chapel at UBC.
The religious attitude is the attitude of reverence that we feel when we grasp the world with our minds and understand, rather than just react. Understanding is more than just describing what is there; understanding points to something higher, a purpose, something that calls from up high and beyond our reach yet close to us at the same time. The religious attitude is about awe and wonder. This reverential attitude in response to the success of science is almost universally shared by scientists, whether they share my faith in a personal God or not. And it is very important. Without such an attitude of religious reverence towards science’s results, science degenerates into technocratic tyranny that destroys the human spirit.
Another part of the scientific attitude is its critical stance towards received knowledge, and this is why there is the perception of a permanent conflict with religion. Scientists know the importance of being skeptical until we have gotten rid of all the false assumptions that we make in the haste of daily life. True knowledge comes only by slow and hard work and critical evaluation of what we know or, more accurately, think we know. Science is a process of discovering an objective core after peeling off the many layers of our subjective understanding of things. For the skeptical scientist, true knowledge is like gold tested by fire—insights that appear like the precious gold as it is freed from its contaminants and the mineral matrix of the rocks in which it is found.
Of course, the imagery of “gold tested by fire” is taken from Scripture, which is why I used it to make the transition to religion. Radical skepticism rejecting the possibility of human knowledge is ruled out for those who accept that science yields true insights and reveals a rational substructure of reality that goes “all the way down.” Without becoming a radical skeptic, it still makes perfect sense to subject religious convictions to the same degree of scrutiny. For this, however, we have to step back and look again at the bigger picture. Science did not come out of nowhere, but was itself a slow and careful development exploring the powers and limits of classical philosophy of nature.
In classical philosophy of nature, everything acts akin to human acting, with intent and purpose and application of its inherent powers. It is an intuitively appealing understanding of the things in nature, as it applies the understanding of our own acting to what we see in nature. It is an enchanted view of nature, akin to the first religious stirrings of the human race. The development from medieval philosophy of nature to modern science is a departure from this view through recognizing that any kind of intentional acting is limited to conscious and rational beings—in the end, just ourselves. It is in this process that we we separate two principles in our understanding that are unified in our existence: mind and body, or matter with the laws we discover in the sciences, and the human mind that expresses itself as purposeful acting. This separation is the reason for the mind-body problem of philosophy, and its intractability without entirely subduing one part under the other in either idealism or materialism is a consequence of this bifurcation of ways in the beginning of the scientific enterprise.
Yet, by separating the two ways, the human spirit is revealed in its distinctiveness and originality within matter governed by mathematical laws of nature. It also shines forth like gold tested by fire. There are two developments that begun in medieval philosophy and set the agenda for the modern age: the path towards modern science, and the path towards the recognizing the individual dignity and individual rights of the individual human person—not individual in solipsistic isolation, but individual as one member of the human community that recognizes dignity, rights, and obligations in each other.
This is why for the scientists who does not lose sight of the big picture the abstract God of mathematics, the God who is merely the lawgiver of a mathematical universe, is not credible. The first origin of the world must be personal, must be personal to have the power to express personal being. And it makes perfect sense for this personal God to express himself in a personal way—as God taking on human flesh, as Jesus of Nazareth, walking among us, the Word of God of my faith. The same skeptical scrutiny that led me to abstract naïve intuitive concepts from my understanding of nature to reveal the underlying lawful structure also revealed the rationality of my understanding of God, as personal, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the incarnate God among us.
Too much has been made of the conflict between faith and science, and much too little has been made of the deep mutually supportive relationship between them for those who share my Christian faith. I look forward to the Gold Mass, to join my colleagues from the sciences in prayer, and to ask for God’s blessing on their work.