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Earth Day, Science Marches and Christianity

April 22, 2017

Today I hope you’re at least hearing and seeing a lot about “Marches for Science” and other commemorations of Earth Day.  Better yet, have participated in one, which I confess I’ve not been able to.  Would have loved to.

Science and theology, together, are at the top of my interest list.  These days most people think of them separately or discuss the conflicts between “science and religion”.  And not without basis.  In the day of Isaac Newton (pictured) theology was still “queen of the sciences”.  Most top scientists were also churchmen (virtually no women yet).  They weren’t necessarily bucking the Church, either, though sometimes major conflicts arose.

Over the course of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, specific points of conflict (as Galileo experienced, building on Copernicus, who was a better “politician”) morphed into what we might think of as one giant point of conflict.  It’s still with us in a variety of ways.  Hopefully, today marks a new level of consciousness which will lead toward increasing resolution and greater collaboration between science and religion (including its political expression).

I can’t go into detail in a short blog post, but I want to feature another little-known scientist-theologian of the 20th Century to highlight the core of this conflict… one of “paradigms”.  (This term was popularized just around a half-century ago, mainly through Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and hardly needs defining now.)  The person is Alfred North Whitehead.  “Scientist” mainly as a mathematician of some notoriety, working with Bertrand Russell.  He understood well both Einstein’s relativity and budding “quantum mechanics” in his working days of the early to mid 20th Century, first in England and then the US.  But he turned to philosophy, having had a solid foundation in Christian theology in his youth.

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A. N. Whitehead, Father of Process Thought in British/American form

The result? “Process” philosophy and theology.  It’s too much to cover, here, even the basics of the approach, which I’ve done before on this blog.  For my purposes now, I’ll say that Whitehead has been that rare kind of intellectual who devoted himself to understanding and integrating data coming from all kinds of sources.  Here, I mean “data” as not just objective measures but information impressed upon us in what might be called “intuitive” ways and abstract thought experiments.

So you can see, in that statement, how he was addressing the gap that had developed, and bothered Whitehead perhaps more than most thinkers, between “objective” science and “subjective” religion (or even non-religious philosophy).  Objective had come to be valued much higher than subjective.  The subjective was rightly seen, though in a distorted manner, as ephemeral, flighty, undependable.  Also not “practical”.  The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution had pushed us to prioritize the practical… material results.  Of course Christianity, by the 20th Century, had already begun its serious counter-attack, or at least self-defense.  This was basically “fundamentalism” and a doubling down on pre-scientific orthodoxy.

But science was certainly not slowed down much, if any.   So many Christians merely compartmentalized the findings and work of science separately from the beliefs and traditions of their religion (mostly Christian, in the West).  They particularly did so if they worked in science.  And a disproportionate number of scientists were or became atheists.

Now, shelves and shelves of books have been written on “science and religion” since the early days of Whitehead and a parallel track of “process” via the Catholic paleontologist-theologian, Teilhard de Chardin.  So why do I feature Whitehead and his accomplishments, built upon by many other philosophers and theologians?  Because his understanding of reality was applied particularly to one general line of Christian faith, akin to “old-line liberalism” and growing out of it primarily, yet differing from it significantly.

And that view, Process theology (in a single term), I would contend along with many of my Process friends, is a very “practical” one.  It happens also to be an inwardly satisfying and intellectually sturdy way to approach oneself and the world.  I should add “God” in as well, but I do it last because the way Whitehead and Process have understood God is a good distance from the traditional or dogmatically orthodox view.

And the “clincher”: that understanding of God-in-process, as a primarily relational being, not only allows for but elevates the importance of science and particularly the earth sciences, on this Earth Day and day of Marches of Science.

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