Monday, October 18, 2010

Sci-fa redux

Barry linked us the other day to an article in the Boston Phoenix about Brown University biologist Ken Miller. Miller has distinguished himself as an advocate for keeping creationism and intelligent design out of our public school science curricula. He is also a committed Roman Catholic who experiences no incompatibility between science and his faith.

I have never met Miller, although we have exchanged a couple of e-mails. I've read and enjoyed most of what he has written on science and faith. He is certainly a far better scientist than I ever was, and he writes well to boot. We share a Catholic background, and the early influence of Thomas Merton.

We have ended up on opposite sides of the church door.

I have many friends and colleagues who, like Miller, are good scientists and professed Catholics. I have often fantasized pursuing the following sort of interrogation.

I'd start with a question like this: In 1950, Pope Pius XII infallibly proclaimed in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here are the key sentences in this much longer document:
We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
Do you believe (I would ask) that the very atoms of Mary's body are somewhere other than the dust of the Holy Land, fully intact, as the dogma would seem to require?

If the answer is yes, then that's the end of the conversation. Further discussion will get us nowhere. Let's go have a beer.

If the answer is, "Uh, no? You have to understand the dogma in the context of its time. It's symbolic. Metaphoric. Etc.", then I would want to proceed through the doctrines of the Church, searching for the place where "metaphor" becomes "literalness." The Virgin Birth? The multiplication of the loaves and fishes? The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead? His identity with the creator of the universe? Personal immortality? The resurrection of the bodies of the faithful? Answered prayers? And so on.

Having found a boundary between metaphor and presumed fact, I would want to know why one believes literally in some of the story and not all of it, since there is zero reliable evidence for any of it, and I'd want to know why the miracles of the Catholic faith are more to be believed than the miracles of Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, or, for that matter, astrology, homeopathy, or intelligent design.

If we get to the end of the story and it's all metaphor, then I would whip out Ockham's Razor and wonder what's the point. We are really then not so far apart -- the "it's-all-a-metaphor" communicant and I -- with only a door of archaic myth between us. And the conversation comes to an end.

A myth is as good as a smile, I say. Let's go have that beer.