Religion & Science Lay Dialogue: Motivations, Theology, and Process
Genesis and Motivations
Since I was very young, I have been fascinated with science, technology, and mathematics. I followed the space program religiously, became a fan of science fiction, and eventually went into the new, futuristic field of computer science and software engineering. For nearly 30 years, I have been involved in the development of software to operate and support the technological progress of telecommunications from simple voice over copper to delivery of multimedia interactions. Throughout this time I sensed, but could not articulate, that there was something significantly missing from my understanding of science and technology.
Some 15 years ago, I discovered my call from God to enter the pastoral ministry. During this time, I facilitated various adult spiritual discussion groups. During one of these discussions, one of the participants made a very interesting, but not uncommon, claim. Given time and effort (and money), science will solve all of our problems. At one time, I would have accepted this without debate. But now as I was progressing through my seminary education and growth, this claim rang hollow. I could no longer believe that science could save us. That a faithful parishioner clung to this belief alerted me that here was work to be done. How do we balance the amazing efficacy of science with our faith in God?
I was fortunate in seminary to work through a class on the dialogue of religion and science with Professor Roger Shinn. This is when I discovered my missing piece. Reality is not just discovered by science. There is a whole aspect of reality hidden to science and revealed in faith. I became an avid reader of the many works on the interaction and dialogue between religion and science, and enjoyed the ferment. My mathematical background proved to be very valuable when I was offered process theology and this became a cornerstone of how I viewed reality.
As a pastoral minister, I wanted to share this discovery with parishioners and help them apply it to their lives and spiritual growth. All of us are surrounded with the fruits of science and technology. Even if we are not particularly knowledgeable or comfortable with science and technology, we still are impacted by it both positively and negatively. Therefore, I began a series of adult education programs on the dialogue and interaction between science (including technology) and religion. These programs range from the basic cultural attitudes about the relationship, to specific topics such as creationism and evolution, clones and souls, to the impact on faith of extraterrestrial life.
In general the participants who are attracted to these seminars are people with some understanding of science and faith and who are not, in general, hostile to either. This allows for a vigorous and open discussion that encourages understanding and growth. Over the seven years that I have facilitated these seminars, I have observed a number of benefits to participants:
1. Clearly one result is that participants become more aware of the issues around the interaction of science and religion. They are given an opportunity to systematically review the issues and ponder them. They discover that the issues are not esoteric and that they can understand the science and the issues.
2. In this process, they are given the opportunity to cogently critique the issues. They are empowered to be participants in the issues. Within the seminars, they can realize that they are competent to have an opinion worthy of consideration. Hopefully, this translates into their public and personal lives as the desire to participate in the wider public forum.
3. Further, among many participants, scientific language is more acceptable than religious language. This scientific language gives participants permission to discuss religious topics about which they would otherwise feel uncomfortable discussing. For example, in a discussion of the question, do clones have souls, the group quickly agreed yes and then launched into a discussion of what was a soul. Thus, a wonderful side effect has been to encourage many liberal and secular folks to think about spiritual and religious topics. No longer are the topics medieval, but modern and even futuristic.
4. And lastly, participants can realize that their faith need not be undermined by science. If their faith is intentional and they are willing to grow spiritually, science in the mode of this dialogue can offer them a wonderful, exciting and contemporary input to that growth.
Over the years that I have developed this ministry, a certain theology, process, and curriculum has emerged. Please note that I use “science” to include its offspring “technology.” It is through technology, that most people encounter science. Also, I use the term “lay” to mean not only lay people as opposed to ordained clergy, but also lay people as opposed to scientist. Any particular “lay” group may include clergy and scientists, but most will be truly lay people. That the group is peppered with professionals results in additional knowledge and discussion, when properly balanced with the theology and process described.
The goal of the seminars is to open participants’ hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility and results of the positive interaction of science and religion. A number of principles are needed to reach this goal:
1. The discussions are ecumenical. In order to keep the dialogue opened and to encourage everyone to participate, we operate on the principle that God reveals the Divine Self through many faith traditions. God is ineffable and more than we can ever know or read about, or think about. God cannot be “boxed” into anyone’s book, tradition, or theory.
2. God is mysterious, but mystery does not close exploration, but opens it. To say that God is mysterious is not to assume that we should not try to understand God. Rather, to say that God is mysterious is to believe that whenever we learn something new about God, that new thing will open a new door to be explored. There is always more to learn about God and God’s creation.
3. God provided us both with nature and revelation to learn about God. The nature of God and the intent of God is not only learned and explored through tradition or scripture, but is also discoverable in the creation. One does not supplant the other. Both are needed. Ignoring revelation limits our understanding to just the discoveries of science. Further, if we ignore faith and revelation, there will be questions in science that cannot be answered. Similarly, ignoring science limits our understanding to the historic revelations of scripture. We soon find ourselves fencing ourselves off from nature, because we can no longer reconcile our faith with our experience. Both disciplines are needed for us to learn about God.
4. Nature is a gift of life and the associated science a gift of wisdom. We are not alienated from nature, but a part of it and we draw our biological life and nurture from it. That nature is orderly and contingent is by the grace of God who gives us the intellect and wisdom to understand the complexity and beauty of nature and reveals the Divine Self therein. God wants us to use these gifts in cooperation.
5. And therefore, we are called to be stewards of the creation. We cannot be good stewards if we do not understand what we steward. Not only are the scientists and technologists called to this, but also all of us are called to be stewards. Therefore, the dialogue is an essential act of faith.
In the same way, that a theological framework is needed, a process framework is needed to insure that a comfortable, discursive, and helpful discussion will ensue.
1. The development and fruits of the dialogue are NOT just for academics. Given the impact and ubiquity of science and technology and the universal yearning for God and the spirit, everyone has an investment in the ferment of science and religion in dialogue.
2. It is imperative that people of faith be informed. They need to be informed both in science and in faith issues. This does not mean that they must become “scientists” or “theologians”, but that there needs to be a sufficient understanding of the science and technology to understand the importance of the issues raised by science and a sufficient appreciation for the theological and ethical issues raised.
3. Agree to disagree. The beliefs, ideas, questions, and thoughts of everyone must be respected. We will not necessarily agree on conclusions. Our goal is to open up the topics and hear many viewpoints and possibilities. Then each person in their prayers and thoughts can integrate these into their spirituality.
4. Give and take. However, everyone has the freedom to challenge another’s statement. Without the dialectic of statement and challenge, new ideas often lay fallow and cannot be explored. In the end, we will agree to disagree and shake hands, but during the discussion, it is necessary to be willing to debate. Then each participant hopefully will gain new insight into the nature of God and God’s will.
Each class session needs to be structured along these process lines. A structure that I have found workable and helpful is:
1st. Describe the theme of the session. In just a few short sentences I describe what we are up to in this particular seminar. This frames the following discussion.
2nd. Review the underlying science and theology. This is the point where I outline the science and theology. The many books available in bookstores today on science, and science and religion have proven invaluable in presenting this portion of a class.
3rd. Pose questions for discussion. This is the most important part of the class and often this overlaps with the review section. I encourage participants to ask questions throughout the seminar and frequently I will set aside my own agenda when an interesting and useful discussion arises from the review. Not uncommonly, this discussion will segue into questions I had in mind.
4th. Suggest possible conclusions and results. Though the intent is not to impose a conclusion on the participants, I will list possible conclusions and results. These are not only conclusions reached by the authors of the source material, but also include my own and the class’ suggestions.
It is important to choose topics of interest and to balance the esoteric with the practical. I try to alternate practical and esoteric topics to provide participants with the needed balance. Participants often keep up with the newspapers and news magazines and know when there is a breaking story of science. Frequently, these popular media will also raise ethical and religious questions. This is an important source around which I can develop a series. Two recent examples are cloning and genetic engineering. Such topics as raised in the media and the popular mind provide a practical assessment of our faith and the world around us.
But another source is the scholarly literature in the science and religion movement. These often result in more esoteric discussions, such as: Is mathematics real? Where is eternity? These topics allow participants to stretch their faith and their thinking into spiritual realms that have suffered from our instrumented, functional culture. Realms, such as eternity and salvation, can be opened with fresh ideas and fresh possibilities.
Finally, I maintain class notes, articles, class history, and a schedule on the Internet to permit participants to review the notes and to advertise the seminars. This site has also informally extended my ministry beyond my physical classroom. I have “hits” on the site from across theUSA and reports that the material has proven useful.
I have hopes for this ministry to continue its nurture of faithful, lay people. But I would like to see it extend beyond its current bounds:
1. Add clergy classes. Not only are lay people affected by the impact of science and technology on faith, clergy are also impacted. But they are doubly impacted, since if they are not aware of the fruits of this dialogue, they risk being unable to minister to their parish to the fullest.
2. Link the classes with a seminary. It behooves academics and seminaries to be aware of and be involved with the needs and concerns of ordinary, everyday people. Participating in these classes and facilitating them would provided seminaries and universities with a surprisingly useful and interesting input.
These seminars are an exciting addition to the dialogue of religion and science. I hope that the current process can be expanded to include more of these “lay academies.” The wider the discussion, the more rich and fruitful will be dialogue.