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God, Science, and Religion

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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Maybe you saw it. Maybe you even read it. Time Magazine author David Van Biema and the weekly magazine's editors "stage(d) a debate between atheist author Richard Dawkins and evangelical scientist Francis Collins" and published it in the November 13, 2006 issue of Time. It was a cover story with the provocative title "GOD VS. SCIENCE" with the "VS." highlighted in red. Paradoxically, the cover illustration was a representation of the double DNA helix ending in it the beads of a rosary, with a crucifix at the end. Paradoxically, I say, because that symbolic representation seemed to show continuity between science and religion (at least the Christian religion) as opposed to the title of the article.

So two authentic scientists are brought together to address this issue: "We revere faith and scientific progress, hunger for miracles and for MRI's. But are the worldviews compatible? TIME convenes a debate."

What's wrong with this picture? The first and fundamental mistake is the title. A debate between two scientists about Religion and Science is a discussion about two profound, important and yet, distinctive human experiences and endeavors. It is not a debate between God and the scientific study of the world. It is a debate between two human beings representing just two of a whole range of ideas regarding our understandings of our existence. Secondly, the title journalistically casts the issue as already decided "God VS. Science." This is so bad, it is offensive to the intellect. It is an absurd setting up of the issue, since the scientist in the debate who recognizes the truths and value of both science and religious faith, is described in the article as a "forthright Christian" who affirms concurrently the majority view of most Christian thinkers, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant, that properly understood, science and religious perspectives are not antagonistic, but complementary.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, who is the representative of an atheistic approach to the issue, is the author of the book The God Delusion. Dawkins is a well-known and respected scientist in the field of evolution. He speaks clearly about, and seeks to convince the reader of the total irrelevance of religion to the human endeavor. Reading his part of the discussion shows that he is basically interested in the inability of religion to explain how the world works.

Chosen to represent the so-called "God" side of the debate is Francis Collins, honored Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who was in charge of a cadre of 2,400 scientists for the mapping of the human genetic code. Collins does not argue that God is, or for that matter, Religion is contradictory to Science. Like most informed and educated Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious thinkers, Collins sees room and necessity for both Religion and Science. Scientists like Collins accept that there is a wide variety of understandings regarding the relationship of religion and science. The Time article mentions several authors from the scientific side, calling them "informed conciliators."

It is impossible to go into detail about the Time debate in this short editorial, to adequately describe it. I recommend if you are interested in this issue that you read the article. Here, I think it is important to highlight the Eastern Orthodox Christian approach to the relationship of Science and Religion and to point to a specific connection between this position and what both Dawkins and Collins say about it, ending with an viewpoint about the relationship of Religion and Science.

First, a little theology, or as the article describes it- a religious "worldview." For Eastern Orthodox Christianity the most important thing to be said in this context is that in God's very being, "God is unknowable."

The reason for this is that God, by definition, is self-existing and therefore uncreated. God is simply there and always has been. God is the only uncreated reality and is different from the physical universe that we live in. That means that the understanding we have of the world we live in, the laws, rules and processes that describe it can't simply be transferred to God. When we use our language and ideas (the only one's we have) in talking about God, we are only trying to describe the indescribable. Its more like poetry or art than measurement and experiment. God doesn't fit in any human test-tube.

So then, how can we talk at all about God? Excellent point! There are two responses that have to be made to this. The first is that we must recognize that God transcends (exists outside of, goes beyond, doesn't fit) any of our human ideas and categories about anything! St. John of Damascus, summarizing the tradition in the 8th century put it this way, "God is unknowable and incomprehensible; and the only thing knowable and comprehensible about God is God's unknowability and incomprehensiblity" -a fancy way of telling us that the very identity of God is unknowable to the human mind!

Interestingly, both Collins and Dawkins agree. Collins says, "From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God's existence is outside of science's ability to weigh in." And, remarkably, Dawkins agrees: "If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion has ever proposed." Remarkable! Collins, Dawkins and St. John of Damascus agree!

Then, how can we say anything about God? The only way to say much more than that there are real reasons why God has to exist (human arguments from nature), is for God to reveal things about the divine existence to us. And so it is. Nature religions East and West, say that the world does just that. The social and wisdom religions of the East say the revelation comes from within. The three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, say that prophets were inspired by God to reveal the truth about God. Of these, only Christianity says that God revealed Himself in a Person -His Son, Jesus Christ.

Of course, thinking about and passing on these claims of the revelation of God requires human language which can't really describe the One who indescribable! So not only does revelation barely convey what we should know, it needs to be interpreted. And how do we discern which of all of those claims of God's revelation is the most full, true and adequate? We compare, judge and decide what to believe. We call that Faith. And, if we are to trust the Christian revelation, faith cannot and should not be coerced.

Nevertheless, for Jews, Christians and Muslims, one of the things their different records of revelation communicate is that God is the Creator. The first thing I learned in Seminary about the Creation chapters of the Old Testament was that we should not read these as science, but rather as a revelation about the human condition.

And this was so, because in the Eastern Christian tradition, respect for the scientific endeavor was and is very high.

For example, the 4th century Church Father, St. Basil the Great, wrote a book on the Genesis account of the six days of creation. Basil used the science of his day to provide help in interpreting the Bible account. St. John of Damascus included three parts in the book quoted above. That part was about the Christian Faith, but it was preceded by two other parts, one of which we would call "Science" today, and the other we would call "Psychology" today. The whole of his book is called "Peghe Gnoseos" - Fountain of Knowledge.

In both books, the "science" they describe and use has become totally outdated. But the important thing for the discussion today is that the study of this world as it is, is included in Eastern Orthodox Christian concerns, and that we must realize that the scientific effort is constantly changing. Previous views are corrected, revised, updated and more deeply understood. The Eastern Christian perspective acknowledges that and respects it.

But Science is out of its method when it seeks other kinds of meaning. People who turn science into philosophy or even into religion, as some try to do, not only confuse and distort science, they do it a dis-service. When science describes the world as it is, it fulfills its goal. When technology uses science to improve human life, it accomplishes its mission. When both seek to become sources of revelation themselves, they corrupt themselves and their methods, and those who do it betray their disciplines.

The revelation of God about the human condition, its goals and God's concern for human forgiveness, spiritual growth and ultimate relation with the "Source of All," belong to another sphere. For Eastern Orthodox Christianity, God's revelation helps unite us with the redeeming work of the Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. It leads us to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit and in through life in the Church. And it tells us of the One transcendent God, Who is the source and Creator of all that is - including our world and each and every one of us.

For Orthodox Christianity there cannot be any fundamental conflict between the authentic scientific endeavor to understand the created world and the Christian endeavor to unite us with God and be transformed through grace into what we were created to be -"the image and likeness of God." Understanding the created world is good and necessary and useful. It is part of our human calling to pursue it. But the larger and more ultimate part of our calling was described long ago by St. Paul in his letters to the Christians in Rome and the city of Colossae in Asia Minor:

"Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans12:2), and; "put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Colossians 3:10).

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 20-Mar-07



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