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Return to Index Page of God and Science
by Charles P. Henderson, Jr.

The first edition of God and Science was conceived and written in New York City and Athens, Vermont. In New York, where I live, I am constantly aware of how profoundly this civilization is shaped by science and technology. As I walk the streets and avenues of this great city, it often strikes me that I am not treading upon mother earth; rather, I am traversing a maze of concrete and steel. In New York one walks over a labyrinth of wire and pipes -- telephone wires and sewage pipes, power lines and steam conveying pipes. Beneath all this plumbing and electrical equipment, there is the vault of the subway system. In New York we are surrounded on all sides by the products of human inventiveness: giant buildings soaring upwards, jet aircraft circling overhead in intricate patterns, satellites in orbit around the earth itself. Here we live in a cocoon of science and technology that is evident to the naked eye.

Traveling north toward Vermont one gradually peels away layer after layer from this crust of civilization. Cities are replaced by towns and towns by villages, and gradually the fields and mountains prevail. On the hillside where I did most of the writing for the first edition of this book, I am surrounded by trees and flowers; my writing companions are field mice and a beautiful pair of cedar waxwings, creatures of yellow and black, brown and gray that feed upon the mulberries and blueberries growing in front of my cabin. Here it is possible to enter into a direct relationship with the land, with clouds and sun, with nature, and with nature's God. In Vermont, I am aware there is an infinite, qualitative difference between living in a world which is generally believed to be the direct creation of God and living in a culture shaped by human hands, and it is the city which prefigures the future. Even in Vermont the forests are invaded by snowmobiles and chain saws, while acid rain slowly wrecks havoc among the trees. More importantly, even in this remote location people have come to see the world through the lens of science, and technology provides the tools and instruments which are mediators in our relationship to the natural world. Here television and radio interpret changes in the weather to be the result of shifts in the direction of the jet stream, cold fronts, or high pressure zones which trace their path across the surface of our planet. Photographs of the weather maps are received directly from satellites through a giant disk antenna located in a neighbor's wheat field. It sits there in eloquent testimony to the all-persuasive presence of technology.

In the years since the first edition of this book was written, the presence of technology has become even more apparent in such rural settings. Though I still prefer to write in the country, technology has beaten a path into the secluded room where I work. Whereas, the first edition of God and Science was composed with pencil and pen on yellow legal pads, the hypertext edition takes shape before my eyes on the active matrix screen of my laptop. Whereas the first edition took several months to translate from my handwritten text into the format of a book available in bookstores, computer mediated communications technology has made it possible to move revised chapters of this book to Net in a matter of minutes!

No wonder that more and more of the events that transpire around us are understood from a scientific perspective while fewer and fewer of those events are considered to be, as your insurance carrier might still put it, an "act of God." We understand wars to be the result of geopolitical conflicts among nations and empires; crime rates reflect underlying societal pressures; the rate of unemployment is tied to policies of giant bureaucracies; the innermost feelings of the individual are understood in scientific perspective as events in the chemical and electrical circuitry of the brain. To be sure, in the past ten years, there has been rising popular resentment against a purely "scientific" understanding of reality. Fundamentalist religious leaders who would replace scientific research with biblical revelation, and new age thinkers who reassert the authority of personal experience, intuition and emotion over reason have become unwitting allies, together undermining confidence in a future shaped by science. In this context, "spirituality" has become a catch all category inclusive of the most unlikely bedfellows: Gregorian chants re-engineered for synthetic, digital soundtracks, traditional "faith healing" linked with herbal medicines in therapies that promise better results than may be achieved by "western medicine," the ancient arts of astrology and alchemy combined with perspectives drawn from twentieth century depth psychology, the perennial philosophy of medieval mystics married with post-Einsteinian quantum mechanics, all speak of a hunger for knowledge and meaning that science and technology alone will never provide.

Still, however widespread "belief" in God remains and however popular "spirituality" becomes, there remains a yawning gap between popular professions of faith and the ways in which people understand the important events of daily life. Whereas the God of the Bible was clearly Lord and Sovereign of all, on a day-to-day basis, people do not see God as being that involved either in the events that transpire on a grand scale among nation states, or in the smaller realm of personal experience. And ironically, much of new age spirituality continues to explain everything that happens in the here and now to be the result of causes that are far from Supernatural. An astrology that ties our fate to the stars, herbal medicines, re-incarnation, out-of-body experiences, all speak of events that transpire within the space-time continuum.

Rather than seeing God as directing our fate from afar, we have come to view ourselves as the arbiters of our own destiny. For many people this new view of the world brings with it a sense of freedom and liberation. There is a sense of exhilaration in the discovery that we are responsible for our own future. Yet with our new freedom we are also forced to bear the burden of human choice. In a scientific and technical age almost everything has to be decided from scratch. We are presented with a choice of fashions and a choice of foods, a choice of life-styles and even a choice of religions. Rather than standing in awe before nature, we stand bewildered by the magnitude and complexity of our own decisions.

Science and technology have given us the power to change and mold the environment itself, to interfere in the process of human reproduction, to create life in a test tube, even to invent new life forms if that is our will. When this book was first written, the most obvious manifestation of technology's reach and power was our nuclear weaponry. In the 1980's the world still stood divided between East and West, with the two great superpowers holding each other hostage to the threat of total annihilation.

Today that threat has greatly diminished. In the meantime we have become more and more aware of technology's more subtle powers. DNA research and successful experiments with cloning, point to the ability of technology to interfere with the basic processes of life. Information technologies appear to be capable of opening up the storehouse of human knowledge to larger and larger numbers of people, while at the same time making it possible for others to invade our privacy and manipulate our opinions in frightening new ways. Today the dark side of science is seen not in an "evil empire" threatening destruction from missile silos far away, but in the inventions and innovations of our brightest and best, who have unleashed powers neither they nor we can begin to understand or control. Meanwhile, popular discussion of chaos theories, deconstructionist philosophies, and the "new physics," have made it still more obvious how little we understand about the new forces which science and technology have unleashed upon the world.

Whether one contemplates the widening gap between rich and poor, the chasm that appears to be deepening everyday between the information "haves" and "have-nots;" whether one looks at the world situation at large or the confusion and disorder in our personal lives, it is apparent that we have not achieved mastery over the very systems we have created. The culture of technology is in some ways as confusing, as bewildering, and as awesome as the world of untrammeled nature, and we no longer have the solace of saying, by way of explanation, that current events are the direct result of divine intervention.

All this is devastating to the foundations of traditional religion. For it is and always has been the unique claim of biblical faith that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One in whom all things cohere. On the surface at least it would seem that this is a most unlikely time for such a claim to be put forward with persuasiveness. In this age of science and specialization reality itself seems to be divided into several distinct categories. Like the sections of a news magazine, our consciousness is carved up into separate subheadings: news of the world, the arts, fashion and sports, science, and then, of course, religion which itself is divided according to denomination, sect, and type. In fact the New York Times has an editor to cover religious news, and Time magazine reports religion in a brief section at the "back of the book." Likewise, those directories and search engines that catalogue information available on the Internet, often place websites with references to words like "God" or "spirituality" in some obscure category at the bottom of their directories, even though such sites are proliferating exponentially. The subliminal message communicated by such methods of mapping the universe of human interest is that God resides in some remote corner of the world. This is not all that surprising given the secularism of both news media and new media professionals, but the world view reflected here stands in sharp contradiction to the Judeo-Christian tradition. A God who can be relegated to the back of a book or seen as belonging to the periphery of consciousness is not the God of the Bible.

Yet today God suffers not so much from direct attack by atheists or agnostics but from the willingness on the part of the most devout believers to allow reality itself to be compartmentalized into entirely independent realms. A God whose rule is limited to the private realm of religious experience has already been reduced to a position of impotence. With God so marginalized is it any wonder that a sense of spiritual malaise looms over the whole of western culture?

As almost everyone from the President to a local news commentator would affirm, we face a spiritual crisis, but the severity of the crisis is not to be measured in statistics on church attendance, changes in conventional morality, or opinion polls measuring the popularity of God. The problem is basically a failure of religious imagination. The present situation requires a new way of thinking about God commensurate to the challenge presented by a culture of science and technology.

Perhaps the greatest single obstacle to this task of reconstruction is the widely perceived conflict between science and religion. For several generations of Americans, the ideas and intellectual movements associated with science have been seen to be antithetical to faith. At the same time, the impression has been created that religion is fighting a rearguard action against the advancing armies of human knowledge. As we learn more and more about the great mysteries of life, there seems to be less and less justification for belief in God. Whole generations of college students in the period since World War II have been introduced to the idea that God is merely an intellectual crutch. God belongs to the old world of myth and superstition, soon to be replaced by the new world of high technology. Of course, God still scores high in the opinion polls, but for many of the college graduates who have now become the shapers of secular culture God is seen as a philosophical dinosaur whose time of extinction is near. God's only remaining purpose is to fill the remaining gaps in human knowledge and answer the yet unanswered questions.

This situation has been exacerbated by religious leaders who have taken a defensive posture in the face of the new science. The very idea that all truth claims must be challenged and tested through a process of rational inquiry has been seen as a threat to the authority of the Bible and the church alike. In other words, the fundamental approach to knowledge which we call the scientific method is felt to have a corrosive effect upon religious doctrine and tradition. Tragically this defensive attitude in the face of modern science is evident in the work of the world's greatest theologians, not just those who insist on the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures. For example, religious leaders of no less importance than Dietrich Bonhoeffer have surrendered practically the whole domain of human knowledge to a God-less science:

Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the "working hypothesis" called "God." In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that every-thing gets along without "God"-- and, in fact, just as well as be fore. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, "God" is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.(1)

Accordingly, many theologians have retreated from the task of entering into dialogue with the secular world, and both science and religion are left to pursue their private interests, largely in a state of isolation. This situation is tragic for both the scientists and the theologians, and it is doubly tragic for western culture as a whole. For, if God can no longer be seen as the organizing principle of reality, then our whole world view, our value system, and even consciousness itself are split right down the middle. Fortunately there is now reason to believe that this impasse between the secular and the sacred is not a permanent condition. This book is written in the conviction that the stalemate between science and religion can be broken and our situation of conflict can be resolved, if scientists and religious leaders alike become aware of the similar crosscurrents in their respective domains.

There are several developments in the culture of technology which set the stage for a rapprochement with religion. Reflect, for example, upon the implications of a global system of communication as well as the popularization of certain ecological perspectives like the "Gaia Hypothesis," both of which heighten public awareness of the interdependence of widely separate peoples and their environment. Consider the scientific findings which expose the mystery, unpredictability, even the lawless character of the natural world. Ponder the implications of a depth psychology which emphasizes the irrational and the role of the unconscious in human behavior. Take account of those political theories which emphasize the interconnecting structures operative in the political and economic sphere. It is surprising how many of these apparently unrelated phenomena are consistent with a view of the world which arises from a biblical theism.

In a world where all the contestants for ultimate allegiance suffer from a lack of credibility, a biblical theology can do its work of exposing the false idols and icons of culture with greater success than ever before. In a world where interdependence is seen not only as a fact of life but also as the basis for a new ethic, a biblical faith raises the question of depth. At what level and in what dimension of depth does interdependence become normative? In a world where scientific research makes it increasingly clear how much mystery and paradox there appears to be at the heart of all things, theism can continue to define the mystery as a manifestation of the holy. In a world increasingly aware of the complexities, hidden depths, and tragic cross purposes of the human personality, the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular can point to the possibility for redemption; that is, for the unification of consciousness under the rule of a just and loving God. In a world where all religious experience is held up to a critical analysis and attack, theism can continue its work of exposing the element of faith which is hidden within every doubt. Above all, advocates of a biblical faith can point to the divine presence which is above and beyond every flawed conception of God.

In what follows I will attempt to show that there is no better way to begin one's search for a deeper faith than at the doors of doubt. The major criticisms of religion which have been put forward in the past two hundred years, largely in the name and under the banner of modern science, must be taken with utmost seriousness. One must pursue all the reasonable arguments of contemporary atheism, for behind them all may be found the resources for the building of a great and deeper faith. When one pursues the precise logic of skepticism, one discovers nothing less than a new case for theism. When one carries the new scientific theories to their logical conclusions, more often than not, one discovers surprising confirmation for the most ancient insights of religion. In fact, all the arguments that are used today in defiance of God may be turned inside out to be used in God's defense.

This book takes the reader on an intellectual pilgrimage through doubt to faith, through science to religion, through the unrelenting rigor of skepticism to the threshold of what may be a profound religious awakening. I will look in some depth at the questions raised by the major scientific movements of the modern period. I will examine critically the challenges to religion that have been put forward in the names of Einstein and Freud, Darwin and Marx. I will examine those illusory boundary lines separating science and religion, sexuality and spirituality, church and state in order to discover, at those very points where God has been felt to be most problematic, new insights and signals of God's presence.

If God is truly the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One in whom all things cohere, then it should be evident that the apparently separate realms of our personal and public life, our politics and our organized religions, our arts and sciences, are in fact fused together under the rule of God. This book is conceived in the belief that the theism of the Bible, mediated and interpreted in the light of modern science, may be the only effective means we have of binding together the broken pieces of our lives and moving forward with a renewed sense of purpose and grace.

In the course of making this case I circle back in time, first to the opening decades of the twentieth century where the cross-currents of science and religion meet in the work of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Finding, especially in Freud, that religion and science appear to be in a state of opposition, I trace the roots of this conflict back to the work of Darwin and Marx. In their writing we see the gathering force of what I have called "scientific atheism." In their work and in reaction to it, the argument is made with greater and greater force that in order for science to be thoroughly scientific it must be thoroughly separated from religion. At the same time, we observe religion in a steady state of retreat. Though the nineteenth century opened with leading theologians firmly convinced that science provided strong support for faith and that one could construct stronger and stronger arguments for God, the century closed with science and religion practically at war with each other. Meanwhile, the very effort to prove the existence of God was abandoned by the theologians themselves.

Working forward toward the present, I examine the works of two theologians who tried valiantly to break the stalemate between science and theology, namely, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich. Fighting in many ways against the mainstream of theology in the first half of the twentieth century, these two men succeeded in setting the stage for reconciliation of the scientific and the theological. They also laid the foundations for a new case for theism. In chapter 7, I examine the work of two writers who exhibit the extreme paralysis of thought that continues to work against the reunion of these sister disciplines, and in chapter 8, I follow the trends in twentieth century theology since Teilhard and Tillich, trends that work toward such a reunion. In the dialogue which is now taking place at the interface between science and theology, I find that the ground has been prepared for the construction of a new proof for the existence of God, an argument which springs as much from science as from theology, a proof more powerful and compelling than all the old proofs put together.

1. Dietrich Bonheoffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, revised and enlarged edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 178.

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

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