This first post in my new blog will introduce the idea of approaching God from the secular point of view, exploring both the ideas of science and traditional religion to identify areas in which they are seen to be in conflict as well as areas which, with minimal reinterpretation, they can be seen to be in harmony.
From Love to God
In my previous blog, “The Phenomenon of Love”, I addressed love as an objective, empirical phenomenon, rather than an intuitive emotion, a prompt to procreation or a response to a moral imperative from a supreme being.
I’ve offered this perspective based on the writings of the French paleontologist and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who spent his life attempting to reconcile the teachings of Christianity with the findings of Science. He believed that the increasing volume of scientific discoveries, particularly that of evolution in the nineteenth century, actually provide more of a common ground with religion than a dividing line. He saw in these discoveries an understanding of the cosmos as an integrated, cohesive reality in which science and religion were just two of the facets of the of a single reality.
My post “The Teilhardian Shift”, summarizes how he saw the emergence of the concept of evolution as leading to an understanding of an evolving universe which encapsulates both the incredible infinitude theorized by physics in the big bang on one hand, and the swarm of living things evolving to consciousness on the other.
He saw the principle of cosmic evolution as the act of simple entities evolving into more complex forms under the influence of fields of energy, repeating endlessly over the long passage of time. Thus he understood that this principle applies equally well to the increased complexity and potential for union at the simplest level of physics as it does to the increased consciousness and potential for union of the human person brought about by the energy of love.
This energy of love, and its effect on the evolution of the human person (at both the level of the human species and of the human person) without recourse to God or religion, can be seen as a principal, universal, unifying cosmic force that can be trusted, should we give ourselves over to it, to make us whole.
In the “Secular Side of God” blog, I want to take up where I previously left off. Basing my approach on the new perspective on the universe as summarized in “The Teilhardian Shift” (above) I’d like to address reality is a “whole”. There is not one reality for science and a separate one for religion: if there is one single, underlying force driving the ongoing evolution of the universe it ultimately must be seen to be the same for science as for religion.
So, What’s the Problem?
A quick glance at the many Utube videos on the subject of “science vs religion” will provide evidence of the gap, even the hostility, in the understanding of reality between these two great systems of thought.
The more militant of the atheists will gleefully point to the failures, even the evils, which have been perpetrated by religion, as well as the flimsiness of its many, mostly outdated, metaphors. The very fact of generations of conflict between Christian sects provides them evidence which belies the basic Christian message of “love thy neighbor”. They point with triumph to the superiority of objective data and the empirical process of proof by experiment over the intuitive and subjective experiences of prophets and mystics as well as the enormous disparity of belief found in the many diverse communities of believers. The scandal of disunity within Christianity (cited by one cynic as “Christians divided by their love of Christ”), the generations of genocide, murder and corruption which are seen in the early history of Europe, and the difficulty of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with the emerging discoveries of science are all cited as evidence of the inadequacy of traditional religions to address the problems of modern life.
Believers will defend themselves based on the authority of their holy books and the importance of their expressions of morality to the laws of their societies, supported by the general belief in the primacy of the “Golden Rule” as a cornerstone of stable society. Most believers also adhere to the notion of an afterlife, which, lasting for all eternity, is held up as a more important goal than any to be found in this life.
If the many polls on this subject are to be believed, the majority of persons, at least in the developed countries, and particularly in the West, lie between these two poles. Most scientists, it is thought, have no problem with the idea of a supreme being and the value of morality. Most believers find no difficulty in extending their understanding of God to include a belief in creation over time. According to a May, 2009 Pew poll, most Westerners who adhere to the principles of Christianity, do not take issue with the general findings of science. That said, at least in the United States, fifty-five percent of conservative Christians continue to disagree with the most literal expression of the theory of evolution and disagree with the notion of a long, extended period over which this evolution occurred. According to this poll, about half of Evangelical Christians believe that humans and other living things have existed in their current forms since the beginning of time. They are joined in this belief by conservative Muslims. Current publications in the areas of “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design” also articulate this point of view.
What’s at Stake?
Behind these overt battle lines, however, is another, more subtle issue. While debates continue on the subject of “faith”, history abounds with examples of its effect. Believers see it as that which will insure an afterlife, but most psychologists understand it as the basic, underlying factor of human energy, without which even the simplest action becomes difficult. As Robert Goddard comments, “We are called to make decisions, the consequences of which are unknown at the time.” The object of faith, the intellectual concept which powers our action, may derive from many things: other people, political institutions, philosophies and of course, religion. But to boil it down to an energy that powers our action, it must be ‘internalized’. This is one reason for the persistence of religion: it offers a basis for faith.
Taken at its extreme, atheism insists on the absence of meaning, which implies the absence of an absolute as the basis of faith. Most believers understand this as a threat to their grasp of reality, their basis of faith. In their view, science is capable of undermining those beliefs which are necessary to a full life, if not continuation into the next.
Doesn’t science offer an explanation of all things, the atheist would ask, removing the necessity for adherence to a superstitious, sentimental thinking based on outdated myths, fairy tales even, that no longer have any roots in the discoveries of today? Don’t all of science’s “correct” explanations of the phenomena by which we are surrounded replace the need for deities, angels, and other supernatural intrusions into everyday life? Do humans today really need recourse to such childish thinking in order to make their way through the complexities of life? Is it not time to accept that we just need to “suck it up” and get on with life on our own power? Shouldn’t any faith needed to fuel our action come from within?
On the other hand, how is the meaning found through meaninglessness going to provide anything but an ultimately dry, intellectual, impersonal shell of belief? How does such an empty concept hold up against the belief that whatever is at the root of all things can be understood, sensed and felt as being “on our side”, and hence be a trusted, faithful basis for our action?
On, still, the third hand, how can such a warm, personal belief, while it might well warm the fires of faith, be anything but irreconcilable with facts and a return to the childish need for deities and angels?
Taken to the extremes, we seem to be left with two alternatives: science without faith or faith without science; the meaninglessness of meaning or belief of the unbelievable.
So, What’s the Alternative?
Teilhard maintains that if reality is unified, existing as a “whole”, then these two frequently combative points of view must somehow be brought into cohesion. He and the theologian/philosophers that preceded him, such as Maurice Blondel, sought to re-examine traditional Christian beliefs and metaphors and reinterpret them based on the new vistas of science which had opened as a result of understanding the unfolding universe in terms of cosmic evolution.
Teilhard sees the basic beliefs of Christianity as very compatible with what he understands from Science. “Basic” is the keyword here, as a lot of the inconsistent metaphors of Christianity (especially those grounded in a medieval world view) have the potential to be rethought, and Teilhard (as did Blondel before him) certainly does that. Teilhard firmly believed that the basic Christian message is, of all the religious expressions, the most compatible with these new unfolding discoveries of science, and it is the goal of this blog to explore these compatibilities.
If true, his approach offers a way of understanding the “source of the universe”, the “ground of being”, the “supreme being”, the “ultimate principle of reality” which is faithful not only to the findings of science but to the essentials of western religious belief as well. It paints the secular side of God.
…And, What’s the Approach?
Knowing full well that no outline ever survives full contact with development of the content, I’ll nonetheless take a stab at how I plan to address this subject.
I’ll start with a brief overview of the major tenets of religion and the history behind their development. As I was raised and educated as a Catholic Christian, you can be sure that this section will be biased accordingly, but other expressions of belief will be included. From there I’ll do the same with Science.
I’ll then revisit the ‘Teilhardian shift’, which takes a look at scientific thinking in a way which link it to religion. I’ll expand this post with an overview of the scientific concept of evolution in its most basic manifestations: the entities which appear in the process and the fields of energy by which their appearance is influenced. This in turn will be expanded to relook at the current appearance of these manifestations: the energy of Love and the human entity and their appearance in the evolutionary continuum. (This is effectively a restatement and summary of the earlier blog, “The Phenomenon of Love.”)
Understanding how energy and entities play out in the unfolding of the universe permits the concept of God to be readdressed, and the next posts will do so from both the viewpoints of science and religion. I’ll pay particular attention to the phenomenon of complexity and how it becomes the key thread of both a more unified understanding of evolution and a concept of God that is compatible with both this and the basic tenets of religion. This is the cornerstone of beginning to understand God from the secular perspective, or, in the words of Teilhard, “a clearer disclosure of God in the world”.
Once this viewpoint is established, I’d like to relook at religious belief from Teilhard’s viewpoint. I’ll start with some historical approaches, such as Deism, then go into detail on some reinterpretations of such subjects as spirit, sin, morality, creation, grace, the Trinity, the afterlife, and some of the more controversial metaphors frequently criticized by non-believers.