There is a need to reflect on this reality of science in all categories of society and human activity: in every culture, in classrooms, in politics, in business, in everyday life, and, yes even and especially in religion and the spiritual path. There is a need to reflect on what this reality is and what it isn’t. I am not going to do that here, but I am just pondering how and why there is an urgent need to confront a strange hostility to science that appears in some of these areas of our social life. You see it in climate-change denial; you see it in the approach and attitude of many toward the pandemic; the anti-vaxers, etc. These you can see almost every day in the news. What you don’t see very often, or openly expressed, is the distrust of science or the outright rejection of science, as in the anti-evolution attitudes of many religious people.
This is what I would like to consider now. And I want to stay within the bounds of Christianity because this is my tradition and for all practical purposes it encompasses probably the majority of Americans. The problem goes way back, and it is quite complex and multi-layered. But I would like to begin like this: long ago I lived in a formal monastic setting. It was a deeply contemplative life and silence was a key characteristic of the day- to- day life. But when we did talk, the topic often pertained to what interested us most: the Christian monastic and mystical tradition and other such traditions. Unfortunately, however, at times our enthusiasm for “our thing” made us speak critically of the rational, the scientific, etc. It was as if life could be lived truly in this “us vs. them” duality of vision: the rational-scientific v. the intuitive-mystical. But to be honest, the “other side” carried its own share of hostility to us “mystics.” When I was studying theology in a very liberal seminary, one of my theology professors said one day, “Those people over there [pointing to a neighboring major state university] think what we are doing here is just a notch above witchcraft.” Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but not too much! I know from personal experience that quite a few of the scientists and intellectuals over there thought most of religion was nonsense, hocus-pocus, make-believe, which most smart people outgrow. So, admittedly, there was/is a problem on both sides of these human endeavors.
But, like I said, I will stick to “my side,” the religion side. Even as I say this, however, we must remember how religion of any and all traditions is embedded in a very real cultural matrix and a real quagmire of historical facts. The fact is that there is a long anti-intellectual strain in American culture that forms the basis of the anti-science attitude. Just for a starter, there is the universal tendency for the less educated to distrust, even dislike the more educated. You’ll hear the word “intellectual” used in a derogatory way in many segments of American society(this is not to deny that there can be a nasty snobbishness in “smart” people). There is a whole political dimension to this also, but we won’t get into that. Where we really hit the wall, however, is with a certain American religious sensibility, both the Catholic and Protestant kind.
What you have to remember is that basic New Testament Christianity somehow got transformed into an authority and power greedy machine called the Church. This sought to dictate to the whole of the human reality what is and isn’t true. Note the Galileo affair; note the torture and burning of witches and heretics; note the banning of books; note the alliances with reactionary monarchies instead with emerging democracies; etc., etc. Needless to say there was a reaction to all this, and one effect was the eviscerating of the authority of all Christianity. Rational philosophy and science became dominant, and it seemed like there were two worlds: the religious, the spiritual, the mystical; and the rational, scientific. Both claimed a kind of priority or dominance over the whole; neither was right. On one side, fundamentalism and conservative religious movements emerged; on the other, atheism or just pure secularism, a detachment from all religious considerations, as if religion was merely a matter of “feeling” and not thought.
When I was a young boy, my initiation into religious experience was through science. I was engrossed and fascinated by the awesome nature of the universe around me. Science was a window on something utterly mysterious, absolutely beautiful and truly majestic. When I looked through my small telescope at the Andromeda galaxy, I was seeing this fuzzy glow that was over 3 million light years away, meaning that light had been traveling for over 3 million years….I was looking back into time before the dawn of humanity. And this was the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way! How immense and incredibly vast this world was! And then just think of the intricate, complex, perfectly harmonized body chemistry going on in our bodies to keep us alive moment to moment. Go outside and you see in the mountains the enormity of tectonic forces at work under the earth’s surface—John Muir thought he was in God’s true cathedral when he was in the Sierra’s and Ansel Adams sensed the transcendent in the presence of the mountains. Or look into the face of any living creature and you will see that mysterious spark of life in each and every eye. The Real is the true icon of the Transcendent, and true science is the handmaid, the servant of the Real. Science does not obscure or diminish the transcendent; it brings it more to our sensibility. When ancient people stared at the night sky, they mythicized what they saw and did not realize the enormous reality that was so apparent, so THERE. When science emerged and we began to understand this incredible world embracing us, it should have only enhanced true religiosity and true spirituality. (But the Church was more interested in controlling people and missed its true calling.) People who want to use science to diminish religion have not really opened themselves up to what science brings to the human heart. And people who fear that science destroys religion, have neither true religion nor true science in view.
One last point: when science and rationalism became a major paradigm in Western culture, seemingly threatening the spiritual (and why that was so was largely the problem with the ongoing religiosity), there were many different kinds of reactions as I mentioned. One of these, which was at least interesting and had something authentic about it, was the Romantic movement in the arts; another, more radical attitude, was manifested in Russian Christianity (among many other places), the radical Slavophiles and religious philosophers. Their attitude can be summed up like this: if the choice is between the truth and Christ, then I always choose Christ. One is tempted to say that this is an absurdity, but in fact these folks explicitly said that the embrace of “the absurd” was essential to faith. In other words, if 1+1 =2 is against my faith, I reject that 1+1=2….why can’t 1+1 equal 3? In this worldview faith and reason are in a hostile relationship, and reason and scientific evidence are a threat to my faith. (There is a long history of a misinterpretation of Tertullian, seemingly saying “I believe BECAUSE it is absurd.” This is a gross error in historical transmission; not what he meant at all; but this misinterpretation traveled through history and entered certain existentialist writers of the modern era. Also, another gross misunderstanding is one of attributing this attitude to Zen, wrongly seeing Zen as an embrace or irrationality when it is emphatically a transcending of the rational scope of our minds. You don’t get a lobotomy when you take up Zen!)
In any case, what is sad about these people is that they don’t realize that any and all truth, all that is true, no matter whether grand and profound or trivial or miniscule, whether utterly clear or faint, each and every truth is a messenger of the Transcendent, a window on the Absolute. Yes, even 1+1=2, in its own trivial, tiny way is a messenger of the transcendent….if you know how to read the message. And so is the chemistry of that blade of grass, and the nose of the bear that can smell your sandwich from a mile away, and so are the billions of galaxies with each one carrying billions of stars, and so is Aristotle’s analysis of the political community, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the beautiful mathematical symmetry of great architecture, and so is …… but you have to learn how to read the message.