Stanley L. Olsen
Stanley L. Olsen

Augustana College
Sioux Falls, SD

Stanley L. Olsen
Chair of Moral Values

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The Foolishness of God: Science and Religion at the Millennium

David W. Oxtoby
Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Physical Sciences, University of Chicago

Chapel Talk at Augustana College, Sioux Falls SD
November 17, 1999

Scripture: Job 38: 1-30

God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind thousands of years ago: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" How does he speak to us today? This is a modern age of science where the knowledge of mankind has grown exponentially and the power we hold to control and change the earth is daunting. Do God's words in the Bible relate to this new world? How do science and religion connect to each other at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Let me describe three different approaches to this passage of scripture and to the science-religion dialog as seen from the point of view of a practicing scientist and believing Christian.

The immediate reaction of many modem scientists to this passage would be: "What foolishness!" In those days, ignorant people believed that the earth was flat and rested on foundations, and that the oceans were separated from the sky by God's action! Now we know better: the earth is round, and water was released to its surface from the interior during its formation billions of years ago. When God asks Job "Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?" many modem scientists would answer "Yes; we have sent airplanes into the clouds and brought back snow and hail. We have analyzed how they form in our laboratories and understand the physics behind the weather." How foolish God must be to think that we would not figure out all these natural phenomena!

The consequence of this first type of reaction to scripture is to think of science and religion as in conflict with one another. Each holds and defends territory while attacking the territory held by the other. In this view, science has reason to feel triumphal; it has explained or at least shed light on natural phenomena that were previously the realm of mystery and superstition, showing that much in the world is the consequence of rational physical laws, not action by an intervening deity. In this scenario of conflict, religion is on the defensive, protecting its territory by trying to prevent certain teachings of science from being presented to the questioning minds of children.

This first model of the science-religion interaction is based on a scientific model of reductionism. If we work hard enough, we may hope to learn the basic laws of physics, which together can explain all of chemistry. That in turn will provide the fundamental understanding we seek for biology, which will account for the brain and behavior, which ultimately will explain human sociology. It may take a long time, but eventually we will reach a theory of everything, perhaps with some minor details to fill in and keep academics at colleges and universities busy. There will be little place for religion in such a brave new world.

This reductionist dream of science is now increasingly discredited, however, in part through the discoveries of science itself: the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, the deep theorems of Gödel in the field of logic, and the discovery of the "sensitivity to initial conditions" in the modem theory of chaos. Scientists now emphasize the connections between different layers, but argue that each level has its own internal logic than cannot be reduced to that of a layer below. This tolerant and flexible approach to science has as its corollary an approach to the relations between science and religion that is built around peaceful coexistence. In this view, science and religion each have separate domains that do not really impact on one another. Science deals with the real physical world around us, and its consequences for living species, reaching even into areas such as psychology and sociology that attempt to understand human behavior. Religion is a personal matter, connected to questions such as an understanding of death and the purpose for our lives.

In this second scenario, the reaction of a scientist to the passage from Job would be not "What foolishness!" but "What poetry!" We should not attempt to read such a passage from scripture literally, but instead derive deeper human truths from it. Science may explain how snowflakes form, but it cannot explain the special feeling we have on a night in December when those first flakes start to fall. Science may explain and even prevent certain forms of cancer, but it cannot answer the personal question that we ask of "Why should this person die now?" Religion is needed to deal with the emotional and spiritual questions in our lives.

This second approach to the relation between science and religion is set out very clearly in a recent book by the noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, entitled Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. In this book, Gould argues for a NOMA principle, where the acronym "NOMA" stands for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." A "magisterium" is "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution." Gould describes himself as an agnostic toward religion, but he clearly is quite tolerant of religious claims as long as they stay within their proper domain. In his words "The magisterium ... of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisteriurn of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap ... To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.

What a clean, healthy, modern, tolerant view this is! Let's just stop fighting and understand each other better. As long as science and religion each stays in its proper comer and avoids treading on the domain of the other, everything will be fine. Gould calls such a response one of "mutual humility," which surely suggests that it is sheer arrogance to try to go beyond this convenient formulation.

And yet ... I cannot feel satisfied with this resolution. I have two basic problems with Gould's proposal. The first is an instinctive reaction: this is not humility but arrogance! How can we as humans say to God "This is our domain and this is yours"? How can we isolate God's action to a conveniently limited area and separate it from the rest of our existence? The second problem I have is that I find it deeply unsatisfying to think of my own existence as divided into separate, unconnected pieces. This is the view of life that says: Monday to Friday I am a scientist at work, Saturday a husband and father at home, and Sunday I go to church and think about religion. This is not enough for me. I search, as we all do, for an integration of myself with my experience and the world around, a holistic picture of life and its meaning.

Such attempts at integration do not come easily. They are much messier than the clean separation recommended by Gould. I don't see any way to avoid them, though. When I learn a beautiful new result in science I marvel at the magnificence of Creation, not in the literal way of assuming that God has just caused some particular phenomenon to occur, but in the deeper recognition of God's wisdom in setting such an incredible universe in motion. When modem genetics poses deep ethical questions, it is not possible for me to separate the science from the moral values. I can study and learn about the roles of genetics and the environment in affecting behavior, but ultimately I feel myself making choices out of free will. The choices I make come out of a relationship with God, but they have direct consequences on the people and the world around me. At a fundamental level, it is not possible to separate the brain and the body from the soul.

If science and religion are each to address the basic questions of existence, they cannot help but overlap with one another. This messy process of interaction can lead to conflict or it can lead to useful dialog, in which people speaking different languages talk with each other. It is this third approach to the science-religion divide that I see as the healthiest, and as the challenge we face in the next century.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote to a congregation divided by factionalism. He said to them: "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment." [I Corinthians 1: 10] I think that Paul's words speak to a divided world today as well, and carry a meaning for the scientist who reads the passage from Job as a message of foolishness. As Paul writes, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? ... The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." [I Corinthians 1:20, 25] As we listen to the words of God out of the whirlwind, our reaction must be one of humility in recognizing the small place of humanity and humankind's scientific discoveries in the fullness of creation, but also one of awe at the personal relationship established with us by our God.


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