Friday, November 04, 2005

Perennial conflict

This morning's Boston Globe reports comments by two highly placed persons in the Roman Catholic Church which offset the recent essay by Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna regarding intelligent design. Cardinal Paul Poupard or the Pontifical Council for Culture urges the faithful to respect the findings of science, lest they slip into fundamentalism. Professor Gianfranco Basti of the Pontifical Lateran University reiterates Pope John Paul II's assertion that evolution is more than a hypothesis: "There is proof," say Basti. One suspects that since Schonborn's intervention in the American dustup (facilitated, apparently, by the Discovery Institute), Rome has been cautioned by Catholic scientists fearful of a resurgence of anti-science sentiment. If so, the intervention is warmly welcomed.

The perennial tension between religion and science is built into the nature of those institutions. Religion, as practiced by most religious people in the West, is organized certainty. Science, as practiced by almost all scientists, is organized doubt.

That is to say, the foundations of religious truth -- revelation, tradition, the institutional authority of churches -- are contrived to preserve an inflexible orthodoxy. The foundations of scientific truth -- empiricism, quantification, mathematical reasoning, critical peer review -- are meant to ensure a steady evolution of reliable knowledge.

If you plucked an ordinary person from the Middle Ages and brought her into the modern world, she would be astonished at the progress of science. Not much would strike her as unfamiliar about religion.

There will always be tension between two systems that make claims to cosmological truth but hold truth to different standards. Western science and religion, in particular, are placed at odds by a philosophical dualism at the heart of our culture: natural vs. supernatural, immanent vs. transcendent, body vs. soul, natural law vs. miracle. If we could go back, say, to the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius in the 5th century, and have the Church come down on the side of Pelagius rather than Augustine, we might ameliorate the present tension between science and faith. But, of course, history cannot be remade, and the tension endures.

There are, however, a growing number of people -- a minority to be sure, although amply represented in the commenters to this blog -- who embrace a non-dualistic scientific cosmology, yet remain attuned to mystery, mindful of beauty, receptive to the grace that flares now and then from a person, animal, plant, or even a stone or a star. We are happy to celebrate community, treasure self-transcendence, participate in rites of passage, join in songs of thanksgiving and praise, and live, as best we can, so as not to harm our fellow humans or rend the fabric of creation. We have no Creed, no dogmas, no God who favors our faith above all others, and, by the same token, no wars of religion, no heresies, no autos-da-fe. When we die, we die, but we live in the hope that, having lived, we have left the world a better place -- or at least no worse than we found it.