Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science
A Summary of Chapel Talks from the 2012 Conference
The Questions That Empty the Room - or Sanctuary - or Lab
Rev. Richard Gilbert
JULY 29: Have We Reached “the End of Science”? as John Horgan suggests in his book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age? Have we reached the limits of the models we use and are just filling in the details? I have concluded that the true mystery is not so much how reality is ordered, but that it is at all - that we are in the midst of all this. Perhaps we'll never understand this mystery of the universe because we are part of that mystery. It is possible that at the center of things is not an answer, but a question.
Do the big questions really have no answers? Can we ever know the ultimate truth? Have we reached the end of science? My answer is the theory of the infinite onion - from inside or out - we peel away layer after layer discovering ever new truths. Sometimes we laugh; sometimes we cry. But if we never find THE TRUTH, it is clear to me that pursuit of truth matters, and it matters very much.
JULY 30: Are We Stripping the Earth of Its Mystery? As science probes more deeply into reality, are we stripping the natural world of its mystery and beauty? Does science try to go too far in explaining things so that we are left with no thrill of discovery and mystery? Who “owns” the earth? All of us have a long way to go to get beyond our sense of owning the earth, to learn to live with the mystery of creation, to truly respect that interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I have named our cottage “Gilbert’s Folly,” for it seemed an investment full of financial risk. But there on the shores of Seneca Lake I have “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars (Walt Whitman);” I have been enthralled by many a sunset; I bathe in its waters almost as a ceremony of cleansing: I take my evening reverie at the beach waiting for the Great Blue Heron fly-by. I still have work to do, but for a time I am content, for I live in the mystery of this tiny corner of the cosmos and am both glad and grateful.
JULY 31: Is the Whole Greater than the Sum of Its Parts? Consider the scientific analysis of the orchestra in terms of sight and sound. Does this convey what an orchestra is? When we analyze life, is it more than its chemistry and biology and sociology? Gaia? God? Kirkley Mather, Harvard biologist, defined science as the “self-correcting discipline of the human mind.” Edwin Prince Booth, professor at Boston University School of Theology, defined religion as the “self correcting discipline of the human spirit.” Their view is summed up in the words of my seminary bible professor, Morton Scott Enslin: “Let your findings determine your feelings, not your feelings determine your findings.”
At their best, each discipline is self-correcting, which suggests a certain humility, a certain curiosity and a certain urge to grow. What I think is missing, however, is that we are not science; we are not religion. We are whole human beings who see the world through one or more lenses – in this case a scientific lens and a religious lens. Before we are scientists or religionists, we are people. The whole – that would be each of us – is greater than the sum of our parts. Science and religion are simply disciplines we practice.
AUGUST 1: Does God Play Dice? Was “It” an Accident? Why is there something and not nothing? Whitehead said that "God is the binding element in the world." However, I tend to agree with the mathematician Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace. When Napoleon asked about the role of God in his scientific model, he said, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” Nor do I need a Grand Designer to stand before the complexity of creation rapt in awe. Isn’t it enough to grasp creation as a natural but mysterious process of which we are part – a process which calls forth our deepest religious response?
I picture our understanding of creation as a loose-leaf bible. When we discover new truths, we proudly add a page, only to discover that next week or next year or next century that hard-won truth must be replaced by a new truth which explains reality more clearly. The pages never quite fill the notebook. Just as we approach the bindery, believing truth's revelation is at last sealed, we have to change pages yet again. Our task becomes not to bind the book, but to keep it open — and keep on reading.
AUGUST 2: What Happened on the Eighth Day? Darwin’s Intelligent Design. No issue in the famous religion/science debate has caused more problems than evolution. So what will happen on the 8th day of evolution that Darwin so carefully catalogued and interpreted? We are awe-struck observers of the great 13 billion year history of the Cosmos from the Big Bang, or the Great Radiance, as some would call it – the first great evolutionary epoch; we have inherited the 4 ½ billion year history of life on this planet, a second evolutionary stage. Now we are engaged in a third stage of evolution – humanity’s cultural development – how we create our history on this earth in this cosmos. We have work to do. This is the 8th day of creation.
And so here we are on our immense journey, standing in a throbbing cosmos, the meaning of which we cannot comprehend, but the majesty of which we experience. No gods will call us to bow down and worship; instead we will stand on our own feet and glory in the passing speck of time given to us. What will we do with this 8th day of creation? Essentially we humans are "trapped between an Eden that never was and a utopia that never will be." What shall we do with this wonder while it is ours?
AUGUST 3: Does the Earth Have Moral Rights? There is a general consensus that human beings have moral rights, but what about the earth? Is there a limit to what we ought to do to satisfy human “needs,” a limit defined by the earth itself? Although I am a creature of the 21st century, a pragmatist, rationally-minded and emotionally reserved - I am a mystic at heart. There is something holy about the earth that I cherish. Creation is not of our doing. Life is a gift beyond our comprehension or deserving. We are compelled to humility.
This earth I stride is part of the cosmic divinity in which I live. This globe on which I reside is holy to its very core. These animals with which I share the air and water and space do delight me, yet they are not here just for my pleasure. They are something of value in and of themselves.
These hills and mountains which surround us are holy ground; these quiet places of earth are sacred groves, not only for my spirit, but themselves as worthy of worship. This air I breathe is sacred stuff, and I seek to keep it clean not only for my sake, but for the pureness of its own being. I am a mystic and I make no apologies. This Great Living System is shot through with holiness.
We are all more human than otherwise – we are first and foremost human beings, citizens of the planet who have a responsibility to save the future. That task requires the expertise of scientists who comprehend our eco-system; it will also require the compassion of religionists who experience the earth as sacred.