At some point in Rev. Eric Elnes’ recent conversation with Rev. Michael Dowd about religious naturalism, my hyperactive brain flashed on a scene from one of my favorite British mystery series, “Inspector Lewis.”
Lewis (sitting outside a pub gazing at a glorious sunset): “Look at that sunset! When you’ve got that, who needs God?”
Hathaway (Lewis’ sergeant and a former divinity student): “God is in everything.”
To me, that one brief scene epitomizes the challenges we believers face today in the battle between faith and science.
As those who watch the series on PBS know, Detective Inspector Robert Lewis has lost his faith in God because a hit-and-run driver killed his wife. Detective Sergeant James Hathaway left seminary when a longtime friend killed himself after Hathaway condemned him for being gay. As police officers they see the worst of humanity and struggle to come to terms with it, often at great emotional expense. Lewis is the empirical observer devoid of belief but not of kindness and compassion. Hathaway retains his faith even as he endures his own loneliness and the evils that humans do.
Together the characters represent two sides of the conflict between science and faith. Like Lewis, an old hand at procedure, we observe, we investigate, we document, we frame hypotheses, we test our evidence and we repeat as necessary. This constitutes Lewis’ reality.
Yet behind the rational process lingers the spiritual meta-question that dogs Hathaway: Where is God in all of this? This is the Mystery beyond all mysteries. Is God playing hide-and-seek in the universe like a giggling child, waiting to be discovered by playmate or parent? Is God’s universal presence so transcendent that immanence goes unseen by mere humans, as when Lewis observed the Reality of sunset but missed its divine Mystery?
Or could it be that, like infrared and ultraviolet light, God’s presence remains invisible to the naked eye but appears to those whose spiritual lenses are tuned to a broader spectrum?
It’s the third question that many, including me, find to be the real crux of today’s discussion about the relationship between religion and science, particularly in the area of climate change. Michael Dowd correctly argues that the issue of climate change represents today’s greatest challenge to Planet Earth’s continued existence and that of all its inhabitants. Yet changing the narrative – the story that frames the debate over acting on climate threats – turns not on proving or debunking the science. Instead the priority for 21st century Christians who live in an age steeped in science must be to witness constantly to God’s involvement within and beyond observable facts.
Changing the narrative on God’s action in the cosmos, as well as humanity’s place, requires changing hearts in order to change minds in public discourse. For example, in Texas where I live, a recent study by religion professor at Southern Methodist University uncovered a shocking prevalence of religious indoctrination in Texas public schools. I say it’s “shocking” because what’s being taught is not only creationism that ignores evolution science, but “end times” theology that posits no need to worry about saving the planet since Jesus will return soon and all true believers will fly off to Heaven.
Witnessing publicly to the religious validity of new scientific findings will require not only faith, but also courage. It will take courage to stand up to political forces that prefer the theology of creation dominance which shores up both power and profits. As Brian McLaren pointed out in his outstanding book, “Everything Must Change,” such a system is killing this world that God so loves that S/He sent Jesus to teach humanity a better way of living.
It’s this better way of living, what Michael Dowd refers to as “right relationship” among God, humans and creation, which calls us to seek God in all things. As a spiritual director who believes that God is indeed present and active in all creation, my calling is to help people calibrate their “spiritual lenses” to recognize in their lives the active divinity that I sometimes call “transcendent immanence.” What worries me is whether enough of us can come to this new awareness of and appreciation for the Reality and the Mystery before we destroy the only planet we have.
Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and veteran religion communicator. Her websites are United Methodist Insight, a forum for discerning God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church, and Watermarked, a blog on spiritual direction and Christian discipleship.