Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dreams of a final reconciliation

In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, the Noble-prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg writes: "Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy."

There is, of course, an important difference between scientists and religious fundamentalists. The latter believe their truths are inalterably true, inerrantly revealed by the divinity. The scientist's truths are tentative and open to amendment. But I know what Weinberg means. It's my religiously liberal friends that I have the hardest time understanding.

Take, for example, the Feast of the Assumption, which Catholics recently observed, obligatorily. The day celebrates the infallibly proclaimed doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed bodily into heaven. That is to say, her former soma is not intermixed with the soil of the Middle East, but resides forever intact and entire in some other place. I ask my liberally Catholic friends about this, and they wave their hands and say that none of this is meant to be taken literally, that its all a mystery, or that the truths of faith (such as the Assumption) are metaphorical, etc. In fact, I rather doubt that here is a Catholic academic theologian anywhere in the world who takes the doctrine literally.

Then why? And if the Assumption is merely metaphorical, why not the rest. The entire Creed -- a compendium of politically formulated 4th-century dualisms -- coexists in shaky connosance with the unitary world revealed by science. Push my religiously liberal friends on any of this and they hem and haw and say things like "God is love" or "God is graciousness" or "the mysteries of faith are beyond human understanding, which is why we call it faith." And I hear Steven Weinberg whispering in my ear: "The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless."

Well, not exactly, I'd respond. By all means let's refine our concept of God to make it plausible. In fact, let's refine it all the way to a robust agnosticism. And let's stop talking about the Assumption too, and all the other supernaturalist falderal that religious liberals feel obliged to wear like an uncomfortable suit of clothes.

And you know what? When we stop the theological waffle, it just may turn out that scientists and religious liberals have a lot in common. An abiding sense of wonder and mystery. A felt ethical responsibility to lift the world out of pain and squalor. An urge to join with one another in communities of celebration and thanksgiving.