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Essay

It is difficult to find a language in which faith and science can speak to each other. For some, faith and science are competing systems of thought, and an intellectually responsible person must make a choice between them, especially when it comes to questions about the origins and development of life. For others, faith and science each have a place, but can have nothing to say to each other because they operate in entirely separate spheres. It is our hope that art, with its capacity for metaphor, can translate between these schools. With that in mind, the greater part of this issue is given over to fiction, poetry, essays, and art that explore the intersection between faith and science, with special attention to evolution. In this guest editorial, poet and physician Brian Volck asks us to consider that perhaps faith and the sciences are not mutually exclusive ways of apprehending reality but rather “musical lines in a polyphonic score.”

 
NOT LONG AGO, while walking on the Navajo reservation after sunset as the southwest horizon’s showy magenta yielded to purple and black, I spied the planet Venus, dressed as Hesperus, the evening star. Just below, closer to the now hidden sun, stood the fainter disk of Mercury. I walked on, pondering the evening’s beauty, until gathering darkness revealed further up the ecliptic—the plane along which the visible planets appear to course—the ruddy glint of Mars. Three planets, descending in line like ships sailing to harbor, heartbreakingly beautiful to conscious creatures, like me, who live so briefly. It was an unmerited gift, a moment of grace, a reminder to be grateful, attentive, and kind while there’s still time.

Even as night settled over the desert, I could still make out the jagged silhouette of Dook’o’oosłííd, the Navajo sacred mountain of the West—named the San Francisco Peaks by Europeans—its snowy crowns faintly visible in the dying light. I’ve hiked the peaks and found them an island of ascending wonder, where meadows give way to pine and fir, then to aspen, and finally to treeless tundra near the summits. As a reader of geology, I also know the peaks as an immense, eroded stratovolcano, its inner fires quenched many centuries ago. One way of seeing them doesn’t negate the other. To walk in the chilly shade of an aspen grove on rock that once flowed underground as superheated magma invites contemplation, not debate.

I turned my gaze back to the planets, knowing that what appeared to me as tidy alignment masked a vast, complex geometry. Venus and Mercury are closer to the sun than earth, and seen only low in the sky at sunrise or sunset. Mars orbits half again as distant from the sun as earth, and—to earthly observers at least—not so closely tethered to the horizon. The little I understood of astronomy did nothing to diminish the mystery before me, but enlarged and deepened it. It’s true, however, that my ability to know and name what I saw didn’t make me special nor what I saw more beautiful. The gift and mystery abide, independent of names and explanations. My Navajo friends tell me such visionary moments are hozhoni, from their nearly untranslatable word hozho, which rolls beauty, wholeness, harmony, and balance into one glorious immensity. A Navajo doesn’t summon or control hozho. One walks in it.

Beauty and her dark cousin, the sublime, invite us to walk mysterious borderlands outside the rigidly enforced binaries (knowledge versus belief, myth versus truth, subjective versus objective) preferred by theologically naïve champions of faith or the sciences’ loud proselytizers. Fundamentalism, a disease of malignant certainty, blinds dismissive antitheists like Richard Dawkins as much as young-earth creationists like Ken Ham. It may have been easier to believe in such things as unmediated, certain knowledge sixty years ago, before philosophers of science abandoned hope that scientific language might be purged of all metaphor, interpretation, and assumption. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s glib assertion that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it” is true, but not to the degree he seems to believe.

Fruitless squabbles between self-appointed champions of the sciences and faith—two ways of apprehending the real—typically proceed without intellectual humility. (Note: I prefer “faith” and “the sciences” to the falsely monolithic proper nouns “Religion” and “Science.”) The books of nature and scriptural revelation tell us precious little in every sense of the phrase. What treasure we learn from them floats in frail ships on an ocean of unknowing, a mystery into which our paths to knowledge make tentative voyages, but few grand discoveries. Oceanic mystery dwarfs the fleet.

The sciences and faith speak different languages and shouldn’t be expected to say identical things in identical words. They’re musical lines in a polyphonic score where pungent dissonances enliven overarching harmony. In describing, in their own ways, the nature of things, they remind us how all we take for granted is, in fact, utterly contingent. Consider some examples:

 

The universe need not be beautiful.

 

Evolutionary theory has ways of explaining human attraction to beauty as conferring some biological advantage, or as a secondary effect of some other adaptation. Such explanations appear untestable, more like Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” than rigorous proofs, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They imply, however, that things might have turned out otherwise. An evolutionary biologist can’t point to a forerunner of Homo sapiens and say, “Whatever evolves from this creature must, of necessity, hunger for beauty.”

Yet scientists often cite the beauty of a theory as reason to consider it seriously—an odd criterion if beauty truly lies in the genome of the beholder. Albert Einstein’s highest praise for a good theory or piece of work was not that it was correct or exact, but that it was beautiful. Physicist Paul Dirac found great beauty in mathematics that displayed symmetry, economy of form, deep connections with other mathematics, and maximum structure from the simplest inputs. There’s no scientific reason things must be this way. That images from the Hubble telescope or the internal structure of crystals appeal to us aesthetically is, scientifically speaking, a happy accident, a stroke of cosmic good luck.

The person of faith who sees the universe as God’s creation out of nothing (ex nihilo) has the advantage of seeing beauty as objective, part of the nature of things rather than an internal, subjective response. Tradition holds that God isn’t capricious, but a sovereign God could have made things otherwise and still called creation “very good.” The beauty of the universe is, theologically speaking, gratuitous, a gift, and we are blessed to inhabit it.

What these two ways of seeing might suggest to the person of faith is the patience and self-emptying (kenosis) of the God who loves and sustains creation rather than micromanages it. God is a great artist who, trusting the materials, lets them find their internal logic rather than impose rigid order from the beginning.

 

The universe need not be intelligible.

 

When Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687, he didn’t explain what made objects fall to earth or planets revolve around the sun. He showed instead how gravity works mathematically. That Newton’s equations suggest gravity works across a vacuum and at a distance infuriated followers of René Descartes. But the Cartesians’ complex theory of gravity, full of vortices whirling in invisible ether, ultimately lost out to Newton’s mathematical simplicity.

Much later, when Einstein reimagined gravity not as a force but as a bend in space-time, he borrowed mathematics devised only fifty years earlier by Bernhard Reimann. Reimann had been exploring what sort of geometry permits parallel lines to intersect, a theoretical interest he never anticipated would have such important applications.

There are, of course, matters humans appear incapable of understanding for the foreseeable future, such as consciousness itself. Nevertheless, that mathematics—a language in which I have scant fluency—should so often divine what little we know of the universe isn’t merely astonishing; it’s truly unreasonable. Unless the universe is made from math itself, waiting to be discovered, there’s little reason this human construct should consistently and reliably describe how things are. Evolutionary theory may propose that the intelligence necessary for early humans to survive and flourish on the African plains is sufficient to propose the theory of general relativity. The conjecture seems another reasonable, if untestable, happy accident. Once again, it could have been otherwise.

Persons of faith have historically found in the intelligibility of the universe a path to God. The psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” To rejoice in and study the nature of things is a good in itself, a way to approach—if not finally arrive at—the mystery of God. It’s what medieval theologians—drawing on older sources like the first-century-BCE Jewish Book of Wisdom—called the analogy of being (analogia entis): the order and beauty of matter can, if only by analogy, lead the believer to a deeper love of God.

My brother, John, is a painter. He helps me see new patterns in artworks I already love, intuits intricacies of brushwork and color in ways I don’t pretend to grasp. His vision neither negates nor replaces mine, but complements it, rendering more wondrous the work at hand. So, too, the sciences don’t lead me initially to love and understand creation and creator, but to love in deeper, more complex ways.

 

The universe need not be.

 

Another intriguing aspect of Newton’s mathematics is gravity’s magnitude. If gravity were slightly weaker than it is, the matter of the universe would have scattered so rapidly after the big bang that stars would never have formed. No early stars, no carbon. No carbon, no life as we know it. No life, no consciousness to wonder at the universe. If, on the other hand, gravity were slightly stronger, the universe would have long ago collapsed in on itself before the advent of stars, carbon, life, and consciousness. The strength of gravity, along with many other aspects of the so-called “anthropic principle,” make the universe appear unaccountably fine-tuned to our presence in it. Cosmologists may explain this away with multiverse theory, hypothesizing that many universes bubble up from primordial chaos, each with physical constants lending relative stability—or not. How, though, does one detect another universe? Let me know when you have an answer. It’s a dazzling thought experiment, another reminder that things could be otherwise.

Before modern western theologians lost their way attempting to “prove” God as a being demonstrably necessary to the workings of the universe—a category error resulting in the ever-shrinking “god of the gaps”—learned men and women understood that nature raises a radical question: “Why is there anything at all?” Forget what you think you know about Thomas Aquinas’s “five ways” as supposed proofs of God’s existence. Aquinas understood God as faith’s revealed answer to a reasonable question about the totality of creation. To persons of mature faith, creation is taken for granted only in the sense that God grants all things in an unnecessary eruption of grace. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the twentieth-century philosopher whose engagement with Christian theology was as profound as it was impossible to summarize, perhaps put it best when he wrote, “What’s mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.”

 

The point of these examples is not to suggest that faith and current scientific theory inevitably harmonize, or worse, that the two should be forced to agree. Yet if faith and the sciences aren’t identical, neither are they mutually negating truths, armies in a war between belief and reason. No knowledge stands alone, unsupported by some element of belief, a commitment to seeing available evidence one way rather than another. As for reason, Robert Oppenheimer—who wrestled with the moral implications of his role, as director of the Manhattan Project, in producing humanity’s first great weapon of mass murder—had the intellectual humility to say, “Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it.” Good theology, especially in its apophatic or negative forms, recognizes that faith and revelation stop short of the full mystery of God, pointing the way without ever truly arriving. Philosophically literate scientists likewise concede that even the most rigorous scientific theory offers a picture of reality that remains, ultimately, beyond human grasp. Rightly practiced, both faith and the sciences end not in certainty but in awe, wonder, gratitude, even love. I know no better place to end.


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