I recently subscribed to Scientific American, the iconic popular science magazine. In other seasons of culture, the previous sentence may have read more confessional than I intend it, but as the latest installment of the “Star Wars” franchise has proven, geekiness is having something of a moment.
While I wouldn’t claim to be much of a geek myself (and I use that term with the same reverence as one who would gladly claim it for themselves), I’ve long been an admirer of the world of science and scientific research, an admiration that, despite popular notions, both informs and is informed by my faith rather than being in opposition to it.
And I’m not alone. In fact, you could say that geekiness is having a moment within the church as well.
One need look no further than the popularity of writers like Rob Bell and Richard Rohr, both of whom draw heavily from the well of scientific research. Bell’s 2013 book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, itself at times reads like an issue of Scientific American (or better, an eccentric friend’s late night summary of an issue). Rohr’s approach to spiritual direction, while rooted in Catholic teaching, draws heavily from the fields of psychology and neuroscience.
In her wonderful book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris quotes John Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and editor of The Christian Century, as noting in a sermon what a “wonderful irony” it is that so many clergy are intrigued by science and find it to be so deeply spiritual. He points out that the science that many Christians felt over the centuries to be “our greatest threat … is now teaching us the ancient truth about mystery, a truth that used to be ours; that when it comes to ultimate truth, the most appropriate posture is modesty, silence, reverence, not propounding, shouting, condemning, excommunicating.”
Amen, and amen. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that there are plenty within the scientific community who are guilty of the same “propounding, shouting, condemning, and excommunicating.” Hubris, like humility, is not bound to any particular world view.
Nonetheless, Buchanan is right: there was a time when awe, mystery and wonder were understood to be the substance of theology and the bare essentials of an authentic journey of faith. But the Enlightenment changed all of that. Rather than do the hard and humbling work of integrating new discoveries from the world of science, archeology and biblical criticism into a more robust faith, much of mainstream Western Christianity retreated to the bunker of fundamentalism, in large or small ways. In doing so we denied ourselves so many opportunities to marvel at God’s handiwork and experience these root spiritual phenomena in favor of a uninspired, know-nothing “blessed assurance.”
This has been to our absolute detriment, and has created generations of numinous-starved believers who were encouraged to we settle for a God no bigger than their own expectations. And this a very small God indeed.
In the same chapter, which happens to be titled “Truth,” Norris also quotes Einstein, who said he sees no contradiction between science and religion and that the “distinction we make between numbers and angels may turn out to be a matter of terminology, and the problem one of translation.”
I’m just one issue into my new subscription, Einstein’s wisdom is already ringing true.
In the “From the Editor” section at the very beginning of the February issue, in reference to a recent breakthrough is the possibility of another planet in orbit somewhere beyond the boundaries of our known solar system, Marietta DiChristina observes, “It’s striking how much of astronomy involves looking for indirect clues to something unseen.” How many theologians, since Paul first spoke of a glass dimly lit, would say something similar of the journey of faith?
Just a few pages later from the “Advances” section, an article discusses the latest attempt in the quest for hard evidence for “dark matter,” the as-of-yet-hypothetical, invisible material that most astronomers believe accounts for five-sixths of all matter in the universe. Since the 1980s researchers have been on the hunt for the particles believed to make up dark matter, which are called “weakly interacting massive particles,” but better known by their perfectly self-deprecating acronym, WIMPs. The advent of a new technology has given hope to their discovery, but has also led believers in this theory to a crucial juncture. If the WIMPs don’t show up soon, they might have to reconsider the very nature of that which they seek. As one researcher put it, “On the one hand, we know it exists, but on the other hand, we know very little about it …. If we don’t see it, that tells us the dark matter has turned out to be more weird and wonderful than we had originally guessed it might be.”
Is it dark matter, or is it the Holy Spirit? Or might Einstein be right and in the end will the difference turn out to be one of terminology and translation?
In the meantime, to borrow from Barth (or a quote often attributed to him), I’m going to keep holding my Bible in one hand and my Scientific American in the other, and trust that my God will be bigger for it.