Friday, June 30, 2006

The war of science and faith -- Part 2

One of the most self-transcendent moments of my life was when I entered almost alone Sainte-Chapelle in Paris on a radiantly sunny day when those walls of gorgeous stained glass were ablaze with light. Whatever religious fervor it was that inspired medieval architects and craftspersons to build this astonishing structure was still very much in evidence. For me it was a sense of overwhelming beauty and an appreciation for that quality of the human spirit that lets one rise above the sheer doggedness of survival.

Traditional religion has three components: a shared story of the origin and history of the universe; a collective response to the mystery of the world; and public expressions of praise and thanksgiving, including liturgies and rites of passage. The conflict of science and faith centers almost entirely on cosmology, the shared story of the world. The cosmology of the builders of Sainte-Chapelle was different from mine. But I would be happy to sit in that radiant space and listen to a choir sing a Te Deum or an ensemble play the sacred music of Bach. Which is to say, I can reject Christianity's archaic cosmology and still identify with the spiritual and aspirational aspects of that faith.

It is the archaic cosmologies embedded in faith traditions -- which invariably include privileged access to a deity or deities -- that have nourished over the centuries crusades, pogroms and jihads. The beauty of the new story, the scientific story of the world, is that it is universal -- the first cosmology with global, transcultural credentials. I know of no instance of violence perpetrated on behalf, say, of natural selection or the Big Bang. Strip away the archaic cosmologies and the world's faith traditions would offer a rich and beautifully diverse tapestry of self-transcendence and praise.