Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#140. Religion Has To Be As Reasonable As Modern Science

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Post #140 is an April, 2004 review of Paths from Science towards God: The End of All Our Exploring by Arthur Peacocke (Oneworld Publications, Oxford. 2001)

Peacocke is a British biochemist, noted (if I remember correctly) for his work on the physical structure of DNA. He is also an Anglican priest. His bio says “founder and former Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford, and winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.”

His attempts here (in this “Paths” book) to deal with the relationship between science and religion are far and away the best I’ve seen. Many such efforts are still at the stage of asking whether religion and science are compatible (as in “Can a Christian believe in evolution?”).

Peacocke’s work is much more sophisticated. He makes two main points. One is that, to be credible, religion not only has to take into account the worldview of modern science but that it also has to be as reasonable as modern science. His second main point is a delight for me: there is a significant convergence between the contemporary evolutionary worldview and the basic perspectives of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The situation is complicated, however. As Peacocke says, modern Western science was born of a Greek mother and an Islamic midwife, and for many centuries, science and religion were seen to be distinct but compatible areas of knowledge. But since the time of Newton and the Enlightenment, the gap between reason and revelation has widened considerably, and in the last 150 years, since Darwin, it has become unbridgeable.

On one hand, intelligent educated people (who may have little scientific information, yet share in the general cultural orientation to scientific rationality) find the perspectives of religion less and less meaningful. They vote with their feet and the traditional churches are increasingly empty.

On the other hand, conservatives and fundamentalists opt to reject scientific data and the reasoning that goes with it; they adhere, instead, to religious views long rejected by biblical scholars and theologians. Their churches are filled to overflowing.

Peacocke’s view is that the basic scientific worldview that has emerged in the last few centuries is not only not incompatible with the Christian perspective but in fact leads to it. That’s what he means by “paths” in the title of his book, Paths from Science Toward God.

It’s an excellent book. Not lite-reading, to be sure, but not ponderous either. It does require close reading, however, and its British style and Anglican context are especially refreshing. There’s no verbal fluff and little reference to Roman Catholic or American views as the standard norms.


Can religion, and specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition, be presented and understood as being reasonable-- as reasonable as science? Can the Western religious tradition become as acceptable to intelligent educated people as Western science is? Peacocke’s answer is “yes,” obviously; but he goes far beyond that. His orientation is to global humanity’s religious experience, and his claim is that, in the light of the evolutionary worldview of modern science, traditional biblical insights are, in fact, an especially good way to talk about the religious meaning of life.

Contemporary educated intelligent people will doubt that. Conservative fundamentalists will deny it. A tremendous amount of educational work needs doing.
The anti-scientific view opts for heavy reliance on external authority (of book, individual or institutional organization); it also opts for matter-spirit (body-soul) dualism, a cosmos which is static (and roughly 4,000 years old), and a transcendent-only divinity which exists outside the world but who, on specific occasions, interacts with it.

This fundamentalist stance includes beliefs such as eternal hell for sinners and unbelievers, a literal interpretation of the bible and a historical understanding the fall of Adam and Eve. It pictures Jesus as all-knowing, and understands his physical suffering as the payment of a debt to an angry wrathful of God for our redemption. Most people, educated or not, religious or not, don’t know that these are ill-formulated beliefs which religious scholars and theologians have long abandoned.

As Peacocke says, “What is thought by educated people to be contemporary Christian truth lacks credibility” and so “public truth suffers.” What was accepted 150 years ago and what is seen today are, as he says, “practically two different religions.” Today, thanks both to science and serious religious scholarship, we see differently. And better.

His whole point is that we need to make our own both a contemporary scientific worldview and a contemporary understanding of Christian beliefs.

Reason works in all aspects of culture, Peacocke points out. “Detectives, archeologists and plumbers all use the same basic methods. Science just does it more systematically.” The issue is whether popular religious belief can allow itself to be open to truth and revise its perspectives: can it be free, critical, and not rely on external authority? Can it take into account what has been learned since 1850, and go with tentative explanations which best fit the data-- just as science does?

The public knows that science can be validated and that authoritarian religious claims can not. Science’s focus is the intelligibility of world; religion’s focus is the world’s meaning. To be credible, belief has to be as intelligible as science. Belief, like science, has to be reasonable; i.e., based on experience. Religion needs to be able to justify itself in terms of content not source. The great need is for religion to outgrow its dependence on external authority and an external divinity.

Christianity has, in fact, continually adapted to contemporary experience and changing circumstances. St. Paul adapted the original Jewish experience of Jesus to the understanding of diaspora Jews. St. John’s gospel adapted it to the Hellenistic worldview. The “two Gregorys” and St. Basil (the famous Cappadocian fathers) adapted it to Neo-platonism in the 4th century. And in the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas adapted it to Aristotle.

But Christianity did not adapt well to the Newtonian and Darwinian perspectives; it did not reformulate its vision in terms of the modern scientific worldview. That gap began to be closed, however, since 1950 in the academic world; but those efforts have never filtered down to the people in the pews. They and the public at large remain unaware that what their understanding of the Christian perspective needs to be updated.


In the contemporary convergence of science and religion there are three areas of updating that need to be considered: 1) our understanding the world as it is, 2) our understanding the world as a cosmic evolutionary process, and 3) our understanding of communication to the world from its source.

Chapter 3: World as it is. [STASIS]. WHY ANYTHING? There must be a Source, utterly other, mystery, abyss, ultimate, self-existent; somehow containing diversity and rationality and being at least personal. [I.e., the wo-wei, no-thing-ness from which comes every thing, Mother of all that is....]

NB Swimme-Berry’s goal of the cosmos: “fullness of differentiation, the deepest subjectivity and the most intimate communion.”

Peacocke’s statement that there must be a source as the answer to why is there anything ISN’T sufficient. It gives an answer to “Where did it come from?” but not to “What’s it FOR?” I.e., what’s missing here is relationship (communion) and I think it precisely this lack which causes Peacocke to say “we can’t know anything about the eschaton.” If source is at least personal, and produces diversity and subjectivity, it surely also is interested in relationship/communion. Surely....

TIME. Thought of as a linear sequence to which God is present at every point. A good model, but not valid if future doesn’t yet exist (and so is not yet knowable except in terms of what’s possible). Need: to understand the Ultimate as not outside time but relating to us (and all) within it.
Time has a direction; entropy is time’s arrow. Clearly, new things emerge, new levels of complexity result (the brain and human consciousness included), which are thus aspects of the cosmos. I.e., aspects of the Ultimate manifesting and remaining steadfast (faithful in the OT sense: merciful) as new things emerge.

This is the basis for any eschatology, but no facts are available [says Peacocke, while I think it may be possible to reason to some eschatological realities just as it’s possible to reason to some fact re the Ultimate based on the existence of the world. Something like: if things exist as manifestation of the Source, they will persist.]

ONE and MANY. World is unity and diversity, with levels of complexity, each new level of organization not reducible to lower level things. There is sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics... none of which is reducing to lesser organized level. Wholes act differently than their parts. New entities not needed (life added to matter, psyche/mind/spirit added to body).

[NB: Neither is there needed an entity “culture” added to human social groupings; it is “simply” their activity at a complex level, just as mind-soul is complex activity of brain-body and life is complex activity of organized matter. I.e., what emerges isn’t a new thing so much as a new complexity of activity. {Thus church, eucharist and transfigured cosmos can be understood as new emergent levels of activity to humanity and culture and thus cosmos.}]

WHOLE-PART (TOP-DOWN) CAUSATION. There are many dissipative systems, where order emerges from chaos: boiling water, genes, social activities, economics, etc. The newly emerged whole has its own ways of acting, not reducible to the parts of the whole. If creation is a whole, its source is acting from within it. No need for external intervention, from outside.

INFORMATION FLOWS FROM WHOLE TO PARTS. Science points in this direction for seeing world as a whole [“interconnected meaningful whole”], a system of systems, which is the Ultimate’s manifestation. Unpredictable events would be so even, then, to the Ultimate.

BRAIN, MIND, PERSON. Person conscious awareness isn’t a thing, an entity, but an activity at a very complex level of organization. Our own uniqueness [abyss, mystery] as persons who act via our bodies gives some idea of how the Ultimate acts via (from within) the world.
Again, just as we persons communicate with one another via the things of the world, so the Ultimate which is “at least personal” can communicate with us via the things of the world too.


Chapter 4: World evolving. [DYNAMIS]. EVOLUTION. Jewish-Christian-Muslim beliefs all come from a static world [of Babylonian cosmology], such as Fall of Adam and redemptive-debt paid for by physical sufferings.

The dynamic worldview of modern-evolutionary science challenges this static perspective. It can be seen as threatening, but it is in fact a stimulus to creativity and growth toward a globally acceptable theology.
Darwin“ism” and the new cosmology show us a dynamic world and thus a dynamic creator. A theology that doesn’t adapt to this new situation is dead; can only become extinct.

TIME-SPACE/MATTER-ENERGY... LIFE... PERSONAL CONSCIOUSNESS... DURATION. In all this, are pre-human life-forms only by-products of the process? Or do they have value in themselves? Are they somehow manifestations of the Ultimate that are good and of significance in ways that we can hardly begin to make sense of.

NATURAL SELECTION. Not a struggle for survival, especially or even figuratively (says Peacocke), but involves things like good adaptability to environment, best use of food resources, best care of young and good social cooperation. Deaths of individuals is pre-requisite for genetic advance. No need for outside intervention for any of this.

CHANCE AND NECESSITY. There’s not just chance but also regularity (patterns, laws), so that life and psyche are inevitable, given enough time.

HUMANS. Because there was no golden age in the past and no “Fall”, the “work of Christ” needs to be re-thought in terms of forward movement, evolutionary transformation. The real issue is “Where should we be moving?”

ETHICS (BEHAVIOR). That social behavior is based on genes is a relatively new idea, but it’s an obvious aspect of evolution.

TRENDS?? Definitely. [Peacocke presents what in Swimme-Berry terms are called “diversity” and “subjectivity” but he doesn’t seem to see communion as an evolutionary goal.]

SUFFERING. Pain is inevitable result of nervous system and brains (needed for personal consciousness) and higher things need to incorporate lower into themselves. Older needs to give way to allow for new.

GOD AND WORLD. Thus, suffering is unavoidable and the only reasonable thing is to think the creator suffers via its expression as world. Since all birth and creativity takes much effort/pain, we by our suffering share in the creator’s suffering.
As co-creative creators, we share in the suffering of the creator in its self-giving (“self-emptying,” says Peacocke) which IS the world’s evolutionary development. This self-giving suffering is CREATIVE ACTIVITY, and somehow overcomes the evil which comes from human freedom.

RISK. Question: If creation is the Ultimate’s expression, what is being manifest by human evil? Answer: That freedom from the intentions of the creator is part of the intentions of the creator. Somehow, freedom even from the intentions of the creator, is a good. And thus human evil is somehow part of the intentions of the creator and in that sense somehow itself a good.
Whatever could that good be? The world’s source suffers via the world and via human freedom risks its own intentions, in demonstration of how willing it is to give itself. [How wonderfully this understanding is imaged in the epitaphios thrinos icon as image of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world!]
The primordial sacrifice is the creator’s self-giving even to risking its own intentions being violated.... Something like that. But there is also a gnostic/Gnostic interpretation, that the Ultimate as creator screwed up in wanting/needed evil due to human freedom. [No easy answers, still!]


Chapter 5: God’s action in the world. PROBLEM. Judeo-Christian tradition believes God acts in world. How, without interfering from the outside? Question of how the Ultimate can act without interfering has been seriously studied in last 20 years; study instigated by Vatican Observatory (1987 Berkeley Center conference) is light-years away from popular Christian belief in miracles.

POST-MEDIEVAL VIEWS. Asks “What’s there? How do those things relate? Are there patterns?” This led to sense of mechanistic predictability, especially via Newton, astronomy, etc. But predictability is not as easy as once thought, on many levels (such as chaotic systems and quantum events).

WHOLE-PART INFLUENCE. Maybe the Ultimate influences the world in a whole-part (top-down) way; the action would be from within itself but as it is in relation to world; which is the LOGOS concept. People have believed God does communicate. How can we understand it?


Chapter 6: The sound of silence. The ISSUE: How can we understand the widespread experience of divine communication in a way that it is not seen as something coming from “the outside”?

REVELATION. Human communication is always is mediated by things, including the brain. The same must be true of divine communication.

GENERAL REVELATION. The created in-process world itself is understood to be divine manifestation.

RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. Communities and traditions have language and symbols available in art, thought, liturgy and devotional actions, etc., that can serve as the “things” for divine communication.

SPECIAL REVELATIONS. Some communications seem to serve to initiate communal experiences.

REVELATION and RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. Note that all these distinctions (above) are somewhat blurry, and they happen as well without as within established religious traditions. So the issue is: Can we understand the Ultimate as communicating personally in a top-down (whole-part) way?

The basic idea is that the personal communication takes place no differently than from a human person, via things and events that are perceived as meaningful.
So there could be meaningfulness at a new level of complexity (the way there can be consciousness from life-forms and life from non-living matter), and it would not be reducible to sociology or psychology or biology or chemistry, etc. (Call it “mystical”?) [OK, if what that means basically is “Not easy to talk about.”]
NB: No intervention from outside is needed, no non-natural mediation is called for, nothing “supernatural” is required. And it is real communication, via sounds, images, symbols, etc. (also in terms of the conditions of the brain activity, etc.)

[Peacocke needs a somewhat better section on kinds of religious experience. He’s a little vague on that; fuzzy.]


Part III: Where all this takes us: attempt to validates humanity’s global religious experience via talk about religion/theology in light of 21st c science. Five chapters:

Plea for openness, world as non-dual, world as sacramental; logos, sophia and the uncreated energies; trinity, incarnation and grace.

Chapter 7: Plea for Openness. Several aspects of understanding of divine creator differ here from the more traditional ones, including the idea that the Ultimate is not seen as apart from but involved in the cosmic process and that the Mystery acts on the world and communicates with human persons from within rather than externally to the world.

For these abstract ideas to be accessible to personal and communal belief, they need to be enriched with images and symbols, rites and stories, art.... What’s here is addressed not to wobbly Christians but the general educated public, aware of science and its dynamic worldview, but often theologically uninformed.
Especially strong is the need for a dynamic understanding of Creator relating to the world which is consistent with what’s known from science of the cosmic evolutionary worldview.
Church services can only be meaningful is they relate to public truth, not to external religious authorities or outdate biblical interpretation. If Christianity is to be evangelical and catholic, it must be more open, radical, liberal, so that it can be respected as public truth for all humanity.

2012 update: my notes end here, except for two bits of biography and the titles of the next four chapters:

Chapter 8: The World as Non-dual.

Chapter 9: The World as Sacrament.

Chapter 10: [participation via] Logos, Sophia and the Uncreated Energies.

Chapter 11: Humanity’s global religious experience is valid in terms of Xn understanding of Trinity, Incarnation and Grace.


About the Author: The Center's 1999 Witherspoon Lecturer, Dr. Arthur Peacocke is a widely published biochemist and past chairman of the British Biophysical Society. Founder and current director of Oxford's Ian Ramsey Centre, Dr. Peacocke has devoted more than 25 years to exploring the relation of science to theology and his work on the attendant philosophic questions earned him the Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University. A priest of the Church of England and former dean of Clare College, Cambridge, he is a founder of the Science and Religion Forum in the United Kingdom as well as the Society of Ordained Scientists. His most recent books include: Christ and Prometheus? A Quest (1988); Encountering Marx: Bonds and Barriers between Christians and Marxists (1977); and The Faith We Confess: Ecumenical Dogmatics (1984).

Peacocke bio info: Dr. Arthur Peacocke was born in 1924. He is currently a Warden Emeritus at the Society of Ordained Scientists and Hon. Chaplain and Honorary Canon at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. In 1973, he was awarded the Le Conte Du Nouy Prize, and in 1986 he became an Academic Fellow at the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. He is the Vice President of the Science and Religion Forum and of Modern Church People's Union. He is also a Council Member of ESSSAT, The European Society for the Study of Science And Theology. In 1971, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England.


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