IF YOU follow the debate on the relationship between science and religion, it is easy to come to one conclusion. There is nothing new under the sun. One side declares: science is eroding old superstitions, such as belief in God and miracles. Oh no it isn’t, the other retorts: the very fact that the universe can be understood, and science is done, suggests a cosmic mind. And so it goes on, with variations on the theme.
But, last month, I attended a conference where I felt that a different approach emerged. It was organised by the Fetzer Institute, an American philanthropic organisation that supports “building the spiritual foundation for a loving world”. A group of scientists and thinkers, of various faiths and none, had gathered to discuss the possibility of substantiating that vision — although, early on, it became clear that a question hung over us: would we have anything new to say?
It seemed unlikely. The mood noticeably shifted, however, when we considered things from a different angle. Perhaps it isn’t the arguments about religious beliefs and scientific discoveries that matter; rather, it could be the attitudes that people adopt. After all, if you consider the stance of believers and non-believers alike towards what is known about our world, and what is unknown, one feature stands out: the vast majority confess feelings of awe and wonder.
The impressive scale of the cosmos; the delicate intricacies of evolution; the beauty of the theories derived — not everyone agrees that the heavens tell of the glory of God, but few doubt that the heavens tell of glory.
THIS is a different starting-point that encourages an open-minded attention to life, and it is not just a footnote. Scientists experience their work as a vocation, to contribute to the increase of knowledge, and share with Einstein the sense that the “eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility”. Philosophers and theologians since ancient times have agreed that their inquiry begins and ends with wonder, to recall Plato and Aristotle. Psalmists, poets, and sages sing of it, and popular science positively trades on it, as films about nature and images of the cosmos attest. One of the atheist participants at the conference summed it up: “Mystical experience is a human birthright.”
Such attention will show that life contains real suffering and terror, too. There will also be hot disputes about the meaning of the science and the validity of spiritual interpretations. But what is striking is that a sense of mystery can transcend these difficulties, without denying them. It can stand over and before them. It’s a “minimal and robust” sensibility, Fetzer’s president and CEO, Robert Boisture, suggested, that is found across all cultures and times.
But what use is marvelling? In an age of encroaching climate change and widespread political turmoil, isn’t amazement an indulgence? The point about stoking awe is that it lights fires. Besides nourishing the desire to probe the mystery, as the sciences and religions do, it can kindle a sense of engagement and gratitude. And with gratitude arises a further, crucial response: the experience of care: caring for others and for the world.
THIS was a central plank in Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On care for our common home, to take one example. With praise in our souls we can see, the Pope writes, that humanity does not have “dominion” over nature, but that nature forms “a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect”. That, in turn, fosters the “struggle for justice, love, and peace”.
It happens when a path is followed. That is necessary, because to sustain and extend the sense of kinship and solidarity, individuals and groups need stories and sets of practices that cultivate virtues, challenge people, and enlarge the spirit.
Further pain and fear will be encountered along the way, as well as disagreement and animosity. Fundamentalisms of various types are always a temptation. So tackling such defences is a must, which is why, at their best, religious faiths and wisdom traditions provide resources and means to grow the human soul, and resist its contraction. They tend to put the experience of mystery first, as opposed to issuing moral demands, because then the energy to stay the course can be found. A growing awareness feeds the roots that can sustain virtue fruits.
Such a vision needs to be developed, for sure. It must stimulate practical programmes, too. But the shift from arguments to attitudes feels right. Science and religion are not locked in a zero-sum game. Cultivating a “spirituality sensibility”, as another participant said, offers another route. It is inspiring, and a relief, because something is bigger than us all. As the poet W. H. Davies said, “Beauty’s glance” is enriching. “What is life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?”