Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 12, 1998
For two centuries or more, science has sought to bury religion. Now the tides may be turning. Faith is the next frontier for modern man.
At Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Stanford universities the weightiest intellectual debates today revolve around a renewed ‘dialogue’ between science and religion, between the material and the spiritual. As prominent political scientist and theologian Michael Novak wrote recently in * The New York Times*: “a sea change in the realm of ideas is taking place”.
The rise of the scientifically-knowledgeable modern man — majestically powerful in his abilities to conquer the environment, eradicate disease and harness the atom — did away, seemingly, with the need for old crutches. Man that was in control of his destiny and could fly to the moon no longer needed ancient wisdoms to soothe him. The weak and fearful, we were told, cling to medieval beliefs; not the brave, not the mature nor the cultured.
But this most atheistic of all centuries, as Vaclav Havel terms it, now may have reached the edge of enlightenment. “Secular humanism is showing its limits, unable to answer the most basic moral questions”, writes Novak. Why are our sentiments about justice so strong? Why should we be moral, especially when no one is looking and no one is harmed? And considering the wanton slaughter of millions over this past scientific century, you have to ask: is reason adequate to its own defense?
Significantly, it is the most successful and powerful thinkers of today that are asking these questions, at the peak of their intellectual careers — out of triumph, not weakness. Havel (literature and politics), John Polkinghorne (physics, Cambridge), Allan Sandage (cosmology, Berkeley) and the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (philosophy) – are among the elders who found that to discover God one does not have to be driven down on all fours.
Pushing this search forward is the incredible fact that, at the turn of the millenium, the findings of science and the reflections of religion have begun to merge.
Take for example, the Biblical creation story. Prof. Nathan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan University’s physics department has demonstrated in his provocative book “In the Beginning” (a best-seller published worldwide in nine languages) that the very latest scientific discoveries in particle physics, cosmology, molecular biology, geology and other disciplines bring us into remarkable correlation with the story told in Genesis chapter one.
The Vilna Gaon predicted this convergence of disciplines, basing himself on the Zohar. The time will come, he wrote hundreds of years ago, that “the gates of knowledge above” (“the heavens” – see Genesis 7:11) and “the fountains of knowledge below” (“the great deep”) will be opened and combined. And indeed, science is becoming today an important tool in clarifying key biblical passages and understanding the holy writ.
George Johnson, author of the 1995 work “Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order”, recently detailed for * The New York Times* science supplement the intensity of the new discourse. Berkeley (of all places!) has established a $13 million “Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences” and this month held a four-day international conference on “Science and the Spiritual Quest”; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is running a $1.3 million ‘religion and science dialogue’ program.
The Templeton Foundation has started a new magazine called * Science and Spirit*; and this fall PBS will broadcast a $200,000 documentary featuring interviews with scientists about God. Top university presses are publishing on the topic too. “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity” by Polkinghorne is one of the most colorful books in this genre.
What is the outcome to-date of all this ‘dialogue’? To start with, academics have learned to recognize that both science and religion spring from the human obsession to find order in the world, and that even science is based on a platform of beliefs and assumptions. After all, no one can prove that the universe is mathematical or that the same laws which seem to hold today can be applied to the distant quasars or to the first moments of time. “These are among the core tenets of the faith called science, marking the point at which reasoning can begin”, writes Johnson.
As science continues to draw its picture of the physical world, each question it answers inevitably raises more. And thus, the “majesty and grandeur of the cosmos, in its vastness and its stupendous dynamics” — as Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik termed science — has left room for the “morality and majesty of humility”. For religious awe.
As we approach the millenium, a new global attempt is underway to reconcile fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world. To boldly go where no modern, “enlightened” man has gone before. Towards a bridging of the great divide between science and religion.
Can we in Israel get past our bitterly-divisive religious-secular civil wars in order to join this exciting intellectual adventure?