Anglican Perspectives: Science and Faith, Class 7 (final)

Above all, these classes have sought to renew your imaginations in the area of the sciences and their relation to Christian faith and living. The goal has been to renew your minds in the living faith of the Tradition of Mere Christianity, with an emphasis on Anglican contributions, so you can appreciate how the sciences and the faith can live very well together and not have any intrinsic relation of conflict.

The basic principle from the side of faith is that “in Christ all things hold together.” Thus the knowledge about the world from robust contemporary science and the knowledge of God and humanity from robust Christian faith can mutually enrich one another, as affirmed by Anglican thinkers like Alister McGrath (Oxford), Sir John Polkinghorne (Cambridge), and Simon Oliver (Durham), and others such as Pope John Paul II or Dr. Francis Collins. This permits us to meet what I like to call “the Feynman Challenge,” discussed in the Introductory class and in a post of mine.

The following points sum up much of what we have been covering:

  • Science gives us a special, fruitful way of knowing of the world, spanning vast ranges of space and time, from the cosmological to the sub-atomic scales of the cosmos. Much of what science discovers is surprising. The concept of an evolving cosmos need not be inconsistent with robust Christian theology grounded in Scripture.
  • Science can not and does not tell us what is right or wrong and does not tell us what is the meaning of existence.
  • Nor can science explain why science is possible in the first place. That is a “metaphysical” question that transcends science itself.
  • “Faith,” as a matter of basic trust in some kind of “first principles,” is necessary and essential for either science, religion, or any other human endeavor. Christian faith is eminently rational even as it recognizes mystery and the limits of knowledge.
  • All human knowing has a similar 3-fold structure based on reality, society, and the self: (1) a true basis in Reality, (2) a social order, or community, that mediates knowledge through its normative practices and language, and (3) personal appropriation through active engagement within such a community (“do the homework”).
  • All truthful knowing must be faithful to the Reality is seeks to know.
  • Psychology and neuroscience tell us that the left and right hemispheres of the human brain “know” the world in fundamentally different ways (both are needed for normality): focal, analytic (“scientific.” “impersonal”) for the left, contextual, wholistic (“imaginative,”personal”) for the right. Reductive “scientism” and religious “fundamentalism” both originate in an excessively left-hemisphere mode of knowing. A proper “imaginative” grasp of reality needs both hemispheres, but especially the right.
  • Science and theology both use models and analogies for understanding. All analogies have an “is” and “is not” structure, where the latter is as important as the former. It is the right hemisphere of the human brain that “makes sense” of analogies and metaphor.
  • Scientific theories give us a way for “seeing” and understanding the world.
  • Scriptural words have a depth of meaning we have lost: God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, chesed and emeth, grounding the world with stability and faithful providence; truth as alethia, manifestation, showing forth, uncovering; beginning as arche, ground or source; Word as Logos, rational order as well as speaking; love as kenosis, self-emptying, self-giving, as with the Incarnation of Christ.
  • “Seeing” the hand of God in the world requires a proper attuning, a humility and purity of heart in seeking the truth. The habits and practices we put into place in our lives orient us to how and what we know. Christians attest to the grace of God and the power of “liturgy-assisted reasoning” within the community of faith.
  • The idea of Creation as expressive of the relation of God and the world is a very powerful one in its classical conception, as articulated by figures such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Creation is good and for the sake of our being here to participate in God’s own life (as adopted sons and daughters) as a gift of love, evoking praise and worship.
  • Modern people live in a flattened “Immanent Frame” devoid of transcendence, separating fact and value, truth and goodness, head and heart; thus, knowledge of the real comes through a-moral science, whereas goodness and value are relegated to the private subjective domain. Such a framing renders God implausible, faith irrational, and reduces meaning to the subjective construction of autonomous selves.
  • Christianity affirms a radically different understanding of all of reality: the immanent cosmos is a gift of an all-enfolding radically transcendent Creator God of love, whose very Being is understood in terms of relations among a Trinity of Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a world infused with meaning, if we only have the eyes to see.
  • The active human imagination is a prime place where we image God and come to know and “see” the transcendent enfolding order made manifest in physical reality. This principle can be correlated with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, many great poets, and even what we know of our brains and embodied existence from modern neuroscience.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, affirmed the necessity for a partnership between religion and science in his book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (2011):

We need both religion and science. Albert Einstein said it most famously: ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.’ It is my argument that religion and science are to human life what the right and left hemispheres are to the brain. They perform different functions and if one is damaged, or if the connections between them are broken, the result is dysfunction.

Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as subjects. Science practices detachment. Religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise. Science is the conquest of ignorance. Religion is the redemption of solitude.

Rabbi Sacks goes on to say, regarding the three great Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam):

What made Abrahamic monotheism unique is that it endowed life with meaning. That is a point rarely and barely understood, but it is the quintessential argument of this book.

The meaning of a system lies outside the system. Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God, the God who stands outside the universe and creates it, made it possible for the first time to believe that life has a meaning, not just a mythic or scientific explanation.

Monotheism, by giving life a meaning, redeemed it from tragedy. The Greeks understood tragedy better than any other civilization before or since. Ancient Israel, though it suffered much, had no sense of tragedy. It did not even have a word for it.

To put it differently using a term introduced to this class: the meaning of the Immanent Frame lies outside the Immanent Frame. To try to situate meaning inside such a frame by a flattened reductive scientism is to render the world meaningless, or what may be worse, to render it as having only self-generated subjective meaning that is essentially nihilistic. Such is the public irrationality of the postmodern world in which we live. Only the reality of an enfolding Transcendent order given by the God of love known to the Abrahamic monotheisms rescues the Immanent Frame from the tragedy of meaningless fate and chance. Rabbi Sacks has put his finger on a decisive difference between the Greek and Hebraic conceptions of Reality. Both conceptions have fed Western Civilization in deep ways. Christianity draws upon both, but in different ways. A meaning-filled redemption from tragedy also restores to our world the possibility of seeing goodness, truth, beauty, love, and rationality as objective aspects of a good creation. In such a world, science and religion can be complementary and mutually supporting, just as the two hemispheres of our brains should be. Rabbi Sacks has said it very eloquently.

Poets also speak eloquently. Malcolm’s Guite’s recent biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) makes a case for the restoration of the imaginative cosmological vision of Christianity, using the framework in Coleridge’s great work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to tell the story of his life. It could have been a tragic life but was redeemed by Coleridge’s steadfast refusal to let go of his Christian faith, and, in the end, a willingness to rely on the kindness of others to help him. Coleridge had profound philosophical and theological insights into the hazards of an unimaginative scientific rationalism typical of his era. In his Biographia Literaria of 1817, Coleridge wrote (using his capitalizations): “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the external act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Recall that “I AM” is God’s proper name told to Moses in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3:14.

What Coleridge means is that the little “I am’s” that “we are” participate through our active imaginations (imaging God) in the great “I AM,” in Whose Imagination (the Mind of God) are all things that are.  All things participate in an inexhaustible depth of being that is granted them by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the eternal Source (arché, “beginning” in John 1:1) of all there is. Our imaginations participate in a small and finite way in the creative power of the Creator as our minds obtain their grasp on the reality in which we live. This is why science is possible, why we can know Reality. Both the Creator and our creative perceptions have a role to play in how we participate in the being that is granted to us. This is how Guite puts it in his book, Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

For Coleridge, the physical universe, which is the supposed ‘object’ of our perception, is not something that merely strikes us from the outside, but something that is, as it were, being formed continuously, both from our side of it by our perceiving imaginations, and from an apprehended but as yet unknowable other side beyond it.  … Even so seemingly so simple a thing as perception itself, let alone composition or art, results from the active powers of our imagination, meeting and reflecting the active power of that Imagination which is always causing all things to be.    

Coleridge’s profound insight coheres with Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of our “active intellect” through which our “intellectual soul” (to Thomas) “in some way is all things” (see previous class).

Malcolm Guite himself is an Anglican priest and an active poet who has written sonnets for each of the “O Antiphons” of the Christian Advent liturgy (they are so called because they all begin with the word “O”). His sonnet “O Sapientia” (“O Wisdom“) bears repeated rereading and reflection:

 I cannot think unless I have been thought,
 Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
 I cannot teach except as I am taught,
 Or break the bread except as I am broken.
 O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
 O Light within the light by which I see,
 O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
 O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
 O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
 O Memory of time, reminding me,
 My Ground of Being, always grounding me,
 My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
 Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
 Come to me now, disguised as everything. 

How does one see the hand of God in the world? See with your active imagination and receive the gift you were made to see: “Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring, Come to me now, disguised as everything.”

Poetry can say things that a vast amount of prose can never reach. It is appropriate to end with a line from Dante, one of the world’s greatest poets. This comes from a sermon given in 2016 by Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London:

To give shape and meaning to life we need to inhabit narratives capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes. Not only stories are needed but communities to inhabit them.  …

… Christmas is the breaking through of a vision for this world and the world to come which embraces all other visions and which the greatest poet of the Christian West, Dante, saw and celebrated at the conclusion of his great poem, the Paradiso:

“All the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume by love”.

The love of Christ holds all thing together. His story is capacious enough to hold science and faith together. The Christian community needs to inhabit that story confidently, for the sake of the world.