Thursday, May 29, 2014

Science, faith and oversimplifying

Many thinking people have various objections to religious belief, many coming from the head rather than the heart. One of these is that, while we long for a comprehensive view of the world, faith oversimplifies the complexities of reality and conflicts with what reason tells us.

Damon Linker made this point last month on the web. He goes on:  "The tendency to oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it's especially acute in matters of religion. . . .There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole.  A pluralistic whole."

My recent research on Jesuit scientists in history came to mind as I read that statement. I was reminded of my own education by men of faith who were also scholars; they did not see any necessary conflict between science and the life of the mind, on the one hand, and religious belief on the other. They gave us who were their students a sense that every difficult question should be looked at in the broadest possible context.

A principal example of this approach is the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin, a distinguished geologist who was also a mystic and philosopher, a passionate intellectual who died in 1955 (under Vatican censure because of his then-radical views of evolution that are now accepted). He did not oversimplify but sought to make connections that he perceived in the natural world he studied.

Teilhard's writing is difficult--full of general assertions that are often unclear--and I have been wrestling with understanding him for some years. Lately, I have returned to him, reading two books that help clarify the essential points where his stance as a scientist and his Christian faith come together in a holistic vision.

Like many Jesuits, Teilhard remains on the edge--or at the point of intersection between the world and God. He went further than most with a comprehensive view of life that is seen from the evolutionary as well as the spiritual perspective.

He came to see evolution as more than physical: it is also, he insists, psychological and spiritual--and sacred. Because of the Incarnation, he sees the presence of God in all things, even in the unfolding over time of the evolutionary process through what he calls the energy of love.

Dante speaks of love as the divine energy that moves the planets--a mystical and poetic medieval idea that Teilhard, with his deep understanding of the physical world, advances in daring ways.  Ilia Delio has written several books on the relation between science and religion from the perspective of Teilhard, and her explanation of what love means in his writing is the first one that makes sense to me.

In stating that the "physical structure of the universe is love," that love is the building power even in molecules, Teilhard seems to mean love is that which unites. The inherent tendency to unite--even at the molecular level, says Delio--means that "to be" means "to be united."  Being is relational and exists for the sake of giving. "I do not exist," she writes, "in order that I may possess; I exist in order that I may give of myself."  (emphasis added)
(Teilhard has invented a whole new metaphysics, it seems.)

Cosmic life is essentially communal, and the energy of love is not a romantic cliché but a principle (for Teilhard) that involves giving and sharing; being comes from union, and "union is always toward more being."
If this makes sense, as it is starting to for me, we can see what Delio, along with Ursula King and others, mean when they say that Teilhard's vision is a way out of materialism; reality is not only that which can be known empirically.

Rationalists would say that love is secondary to knowledge; mystics like Teilhard would put love first: they add a whole new dimension to the understanding of reality by insisting that love is the goal and purpose of all knowledge, that is, the love-energy that drives the evolutionary process toward an fulfillment in the cosmic Christ.  (It seems that Dante in 1321 was on to something!)

And you thought, maybe, that science and religion were inevitably opposed?

There is in Teilhard's vision, however difficult it may be to articulate, an underlying optimism, rooted in faith and in the conviction that all things in their relatedness, their love, are leading human nature through evolution to a final fulfillment at the end of time that is positive. How could love not be positive, hopeful, and optimistic?

If you want to learn more about Teilhard, see Ursula King's biography Spirit of Fire (I found it moving) and Delio's The Unbearable Wholenss of Being, a challenging read that might serve as an introduction to Teilhard's own books, The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu.

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