Tikkun Magazine


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The Responsibility of Theology to Science

by Joan Roughgarden

Artists who create icons and sacred music often describe their activity as a form of prayer. I think too that if nature is understood, in some sense, as the work of God, then seeking to discover the ways of nature through science might also be experienced as a form of prayer. For this reason I felt drawn to applaud one assertion in particular made by Rabbi Arthur Green in Tikkun's March/April 2010 issue: "The evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time."

I thank Tikkun for inviting me to join the conversation on God and science that Rabbi Green, Peter Gabel, and others started here this spring. I write as an evolutionary biologist and will begin by offering my response to Rabbi Green's piece on "Sacred Evolution."

I agree that religious teaching might prosper from reinvesting stories of origin (or creation) with new meaning rather than having religious teachings continue to be, as Rabbi Green puts it, "over-involved with proclaiming the truth of our own particular stories" from the sacred texts of our several denominations.

Yet, I demur from his recommendation that we should instead "understand the task of the theologian to be one of reframing, accepting the accounts of origins and natural history offered by the scientific consensus, but helping us to view them in a different way, one that may guide us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality." Or, as a later commentary in Tikkun by Bruce Ledewitz puts it, accepting a framework of "science first and religion adapts." This framework places great, even unquestioned, faith in the ability of scientists to offer a correct account of the processes in nature, a faith that will seem misplaced the more one delves into what scientists actually conclude from the evidence they actually possess.

I do not challenge the scientific method, of course, nor doubt scientists' ability, in principle, to deliver accurate and correct knowledge of what happens in nature. Experiments, tests of alternative hypotheses, and new technologically enabled probes of the microscopic and of outer space do objectively reveal the state of nature -- that is, when scientists actually bother to do all the experiments, bother to entertain alternative hypotheses, bother to use the latest technology, and so forth. And who is to demand that the science informing theological inquiry be the best available science? We will get (eventually) the best available science on matters such as molecular motors and global change because much profit depends on the results. But who cares about the quality of the science informing theological reflection? Hardly anyone. And so those few scientists who do venture into offering summaries of what their science means for religious and ethical concerns are free to make up nearly any story they want. The problem is not so much a question of personal recklessness by individual scientists, although that happens too; the problem is mainly the ideological uniformity of scientific peer groups.

The subdiscipline of evolutionary biology that pertains to how family life is organized in birds, mammals, and other vertebrates, teaches -- according to Geoff Parker, an evolutionary biologist in the United Kingdom -- that family life is now understood as a "cauldron of conflict," featuring sibling-sibling, parent-offspring, and parent-parent conflict. A diagram of all the routes of conflict presumably present in any family is called a "battleground." But it emerges that the word "conflict" enjoys a special meaning in this area of science. Conflict is assumed to remain present, by definition, regardless of whether it has been "resolved." That is, suppose you buy a car from a dealer. There is an initial conflict of interest, wherein you (the buyer) want to buy the car on the cheap, and the dealer wants to take you for a ride. But after haggling, you drive away with the car and the dealer pockets the cash -- conflict resolved; matter settled. In evolutionary biology, however, the conflict is assumed to remain present even once the deal has been struck. Because of their peculiar understanding of "conflict," evolutionary biologists -- mostly those at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and Imperial College, who talk primarily with one another and review each other's manuscripts -- can confidently declare in a private language that conflict in family life is universal and unceasing. And Rabbi Green can then accept this narrative, writing:

We will not understand our own human nature without taking into account the fierce struggle we underwent to arrive and to achieve the dominance we have over this planet ... [we need a] reformulation by a new and powerful harmonistic vision, one that will allow even the weakest and most threatened of creatures a legitimate place in this world and will call upon us not to wipe it out by careless whim. This is the role of today's religion.

Clearly, the project of reformulation will be quite different, perhaps even unnecessary, if the scientific account of the universality of conflict is incorrect.

So, I do not agree with Rabbi Green that science is first, and religion adapts. I do not agree that the task of the theologian should now be one of reframing what science says in order to guide us to a more profound appreciation of science's reality. I do not agree that the task of theologians is to provide a reformulation of contemporary science featuring a new harmonistic vision. Indeed, I think that Rabbi Green's plans for a future theology abdicates the humanistic responsibility to critique science. Instead, I think the task of theologians (and ethicists, more generally) should be to hold scientists' feet to the fire, to insist again and again that the scientific account of nature supplied by scientists be true and accurate. This will require a new generation of theologians trained and experienced in the ways and content of science, and a new generation of scientists drawn from different backgrounds from those that have traditionally supplied the exclusionary corridors of academia.

Rabbi Green reveals a progressional view of evolutionary history and emphasizes the distinctness of humans from other animals with a focus on the mind. He refers to "the entire course of evolution, from the simplest life-forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain" and adds:

It would also be disingenuous of me as a human to say that the emergence of human consciousness, even the ability to be thinking and writing about these very matters, is nothing more than a small series in the unfolding linear process wrought by natural selection. Yes, that is indeed how we came about. But there is a different meaning to human existence that cannot be denied. The self-reflective consciousness of humans, combined with our ability to take a long bio-historical view of the whole unfolding that lies behind (and ahead of) us, makes a difference. Yes, all creatures are doing the "work of God" by existing, feeding, reproducing, and moving the evolutionary process forward. But we humans, especially in our age, are called upon to do that work in a different way.

I see no grounds for a progressional view of evolutionary history. I see no justification for singling out any species-specific character such as the brain in humans, echolocation in bats, and the wingspan of the wandering albatross. I deny there is any different meaning to human existence compared with that of other species.

To the contrary, our sense of emotion has a much longer evolutionary history than our brain, and is more tried, true, and refined. We have less risk of error when listening to our body and feelings than to our minds, and I suggest the most reliable route to God is through sensation rather than thought. Indeed, I suspect that most, perhaps all, people of faith are drawn to companionship with God by a shared feeling of community rather than by theological reflection.

Turning now to the March/April 2010 essay by Peter Gabel, I find I'm at once inspired, yet puzzled, by his call for "sacred evolutionary biologists." Mr. Gabel writes:

To understand the sacred drama of the evolutionary process, we need the help of evolutionary biologists who are not neutral observers in the classically liberal sense, but who connect the sacred within themselves to the sacred dimension of what they observe in the natural world.

I would like to think that I could help answer this call. Yet, I wonder what this call might mean in practical terms. After all, whatever is in nature, simply is. My own sense of the sacred cannot change what is actually happening in nature. A sacred perspective might supply a disposition to propose hypotheses during the course of scientific research that might not occur to, say, an atheist scientist, especially hypotheses that pertain to a ubiquity of sharing, cooperation, and negotiation. Widening the variety of hypotheses for evolutionary phenomena beyond those that typically occur in a strictly secular perspective would surely improve the chance that scientific investigations yield an accurate and reliable account of nature. And the picture of nature that emerges might be more appealing than a purely secular account provides. I hope this assessment of what the call for sacred evolutionary biologists will produce is consistent with what Mr. Gabel has in mind.

Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary ecologist and biology professor at Stanford University, is the author of The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness and Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist.

Source Citation: Roughgarden, Joan. 2010. The Responsibility of Theology to Science. Tikkun 25(6): 37

tags: Eco-Spirituality, Science, Spirituality