Of all the creatures of God’s creation, only humans seek to find meaning in their lives. This search for significance drives men and women to create paintings on the walls of caves, to craft pottery and baskets, to compose music that rivals the sounds of angels, and to write sonnets that speak of love desired, lost and gained.
The search for meaning propelled the authors of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon to write poetry that has survived down centuries about the miraculous intangibles of life – love, honor, duty, sin, repentance. These were not fabricated from whole cloth, but from the observations of their influence on the lives on men and women. Yet these observations could not track the orbits of the planets nor plumb the hidden structure of the atom.
The search for significance also has compelled men of science from the Greeks to today’s notables such as Brian Green and Neil DeGrasse Tyson to observe, record, experiment and deduce theories based upon empirical data. Thousands of scientists have weighed, measured, charted, tested and theorized from their observations, but have yet to discern the mysteries of the human heart and soul.
Ironically, before the scientific era, theology was known as “the queen of the sciences,” presumably because it was one of the few disciplines to teach higher-order critical thinking. Today, theology’s intellectual throne has been usurped in turn by a host of claimants, from Newtonian physics to Heisenbergian quantum mechanics, floating about in the probability fog generated by Schrödinger’s cat.
We seem to find ourselves in the perpetual debate over the superiority of science or religion in solving the question of human significance, when in reality these pursuits are two halves of the same coin. Religion wrestles perennially with the “why” of human existence, while science struggles to determine the “how.” Neither can reign supreme in the other’s domain, for they operate in separate yet interlocking spheres.
A case in point: Several years ago I served as the interim choir director for an extremely liberal congregation. In an online search for new music for the small but game group of singers, I came across a song reflecting a new emphasis of the United Church of Christ: “God Is Still Speaking” by Marty Haugen. I liked its call-and-response melody and its prophetic words.
To my utter shock, the choir completely overlooked the social justice aspects of the lyrics and made fun of the concept that God could still speak through everyday actions. Some members of the choir derided its poetic imagery as “utterly unscientific.” They even made up an on-the-spot parody, twisting the “God is still speaking” line to “Bob is still sweeping.” I was so embarrassed and hurt by the reaction that I couldn’t defend my choice. Needless to say, we never sang it as the anthem I intended and it languished in the music library.
Now, some years after that incident, I have conversations with progressive Christian leaders who are beginning to lament the dearth of mystery and poetry in their highly rational theology. At the same, some evangelical Christians, especially younger ones, seem to have no trouble holding symbolic mystery and empirical science in creative tension. A prime example of this phenomenon is Rachel Held Evans, an immensely popular young theologian, author and blogger who happens to live in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the infamous trial that sought to convict and imprison a young science instructor for teaching Darwin’s theology of evolution. Although highly fictionalized, the classic film “Inherit the Wind,” summarizes this debate well (plus you get to see incredible actors from Hollywood’s golden era such as Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and even Gene Kelly in a sardonic, non-dancing role!).
If we are in the period of convergence as many of us believe, then we have to give ourselves permission to approach science and religion from their respective contexts of “how” and “why.” If we are to love God with our heart, soul and mind as instructed in scripture, then we must apply ourselves to finding where faith and science intersect. Granting each discipline its own integrity, we look more closely for the places where these two queens of intellectual pursuit can fit together and bring a fuller richness to the whole of human experience.
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 Christian discipleship and spiritual direction.