I once heard an anecdote of the de-christianization of society that went thus. At the time of its religious founding, Harvard University’s seal depicted two open books and one closed – signifying the branches of human knowledge (Humanities and Sciences, I presume) and the concealed Divine knowledge. At some point, a little-noted milestone in the inexorable march of secularity, the third book yawned open and, full of hubris, we palpated the gods. The commentator (anyone have a better memory than I?) saw this as a negative, and I was inclined to agree with him at the time.
Now, in the face of some recent clusters of stimuli – an article in The New Republic asserting the incompatibility of science and revelation, Charles Darwin’s birthday, and some silly Facebook arguments on unrelated topics that went round and round in maddening circles – I want to reëvaluate that position.
For just about everybody, reflective or not, the Universe is either a closed or an open question (true also in theoretical physics, where we cannot yet make the call as to how violent the galaxies’ redshift will become, whether the space we call home will collapse on itself or rip apart). Either everything is subject to a scrutiny that will presumably reveal all, but must be revised in the face of any convincing evidence to the contrary (call this “scientific”) or it is to be filtered through an authoritative consciousness whose word we must trust above our senses (call this “revelatory” – I do not say “religious”).
The folks at Harvard seemed to want it both ways with the closed-book seal, and I believe that some other “bridge” groups still want it both ways – take the Intelligent Design community, which accepts all the more certain scientific theories but, when it begins to get “weird” (complex evolutionary reasoning, exotic particles, quantum entanglement, the anthropic principle) immediately surrender to a Higher Intelligence. The problem with this is not that they have a concept of the supernatural (and they do, deny it as they might in the courts of Kansas) but that they want to use it as a prop for a house of cards that is unlikely to be as delicate as they think it is. Because science has a way of figuring things out that seemed impossible at first; this tendency opens people up to embarrassment when they simply attribute difficult questions to “God.”
The same goes, I’m afraid, for some a priori accounts of religions themselves. Faced with the idea of a possible interpolation in the sacred text, or an uncomfortable pronouncement by a religious leader, they throw up their hands and end up with a whole host of angels swooping down to give Moses the knowledge of Hellenistic words coined thousands of years after his death, or whispering into the Pope’s ear that homosexuality is a disease (something geneticists might awkwardly disprove pretty soon too).
I don’t mean this as an attack on traditional religion at all. I consider myself to be part of that tradition, in fact, and always have, despite my morphing thoughts on the triangulation among fact, reason, and revelation. Here’s my query: doesn’t this “god of the gaps” business, where a deus ex machina gets written into nature where (and only where) an evident contradiction has been spotted, actually shortchange God, religion, the church, and us? Reason is humanity’s greatest gift, and to abdicate it – even abdicate it to the church – is surely a genuine self-abuse. Certainly, the world is scary when all the books are open. But this is the frightening freedom to which our faculty of reason entitles us, and I begin to suspect that not using it is to bury our talent under the ground.
To answer the usual criticism, I also do not think that this is to make “man the measure of all things” or an act of hubris. The real hubris would be to declare that reason can certainly solve every problem. That is every bit as untestable an assertion as the wildest claim of divine intervention. But to dismiss what is plain to the eyes with absurd arguments about the “apparent age of the universe” or what-have-you cannot really satisfy our innate inquisitiveness. I would like to submit to your comments and questions this idea: that in subjecting everything to real, honest, and humble inquiry, we are most closely fulfilling what it means to be human, and therefore, to inhabit the imago dei. Thoughts?