January 6, 2005
Editor's Note: Today's issue of Sightings features two articles: a column by Dr. Eric Weislogel and a response from Prof. William Schweiker.
Science and Religion in Dialogue
In his comments on British philosopher Anthony Flew's recent admission of the
existence of God, William Schweiker claims that among the effects of this former
atheist's 'conversion' will be the following: "The cottage industry of
religion and science will have more papers to publish, better to get tenure"
and Flew," Sightings, December 16, 2004).
Schweiker's claim, offhand though it may be, evidences at least two misunderstandings that should be noted. The first misunderstanding, surprising because uncommon, is that, to date, publishing in the field of religion and science has not been the fast track to tenure or professional success. This is so because of the second, quite widespread, misunderstanding the idea that the religion-and-science dialogue is a "cottage industry." A cottage industry is, according to Merriam-Webster's, "a small and often informally organized industry," one often conducted in private homes. The connotation is that science-and-religion exploration is parochial, idiosyncratic, and marginal to the larger intellectual and academic world. This misunderstanding is shared, alas, even by many of those scholars and thinkers who are working in this arena.
But, recognized or not, the fact is that the science-and-religion dialogue far from simply being a niche intellectual industry instead goes straight to the heart of humane learning and the core curriculum of liberal education. Science and religion are two main paths we human beings have taken in our efforts to know and understand ourselves, our communities, and our cosmos. The religion-and-science movement is not (or ought not to be) attempting to develop some new academic discipline; rather, the community of scholars and religious practitioners engaged in it are helping us all to re-learn the art of "seeing the forest for the trees," helping us to transcend (while respecting) the various academic disciplines to reach toward unity of knowledge, a trans-disciplinary integral wisdom. The movement is attempting to mitigate the deleterious effects of our "analytic obsession" in our pursuit of knowledge. While respecting the power and success of our methodology of breaking all of reality into smaller and smaller bits in order better to know it, the religion-and-science dialogue is attempting to provide a complementary mechanism for synthesis in thought and understanding.
There is, perhaps, a third misunderstanding evident in Schweiker's comments: Anthony Flew's change of mind is more or less insignificant to the broader religion-and-science dialogue and, in itself, is unlikely to spur on much more than a little journalistic notice. As one man's considered point of view, Flew's position might have been wrong prior to his recent change of position or it might be wrong now. His revised view will not provide grounds for a research program.
The main point of Schweiker's piece, however, is indisputably correct, and well worth reiterating: "Explanations of DNA" and, I would add, all the other wondrous discoveries of science "are to be sought and treasured; they provide limits on plausible claims about God's interactions in the world and aid in grasping the meaning of the integrity of life. Yet removed from the labor of justice and love, these scientific conclusions are hardly the stuff that brings forth lives worth living."
Indeed, we should hope that justice and love continue to animate our scientific, no less than our religious, pursuits.
Eric Weislogel, Ph.D., is the Director of the Local Societies Initiative of the Metanexus Institute in Philadelphia, whose mission is to explore foundational questions by fostering the constructive engagement of science and religion.
Agreement and Misunderstandings: A Response
One of the great things about Sightings is that people actually read it! My little essay "Faith and Flew" has evoked various responses: a pastor thankful for the ideas and their usefulness in the pulpit; general readers gripped by the issues discussed; a Chicago NPR program that wants to feature the topic in an open conversation between myself, the host, and another scholar; an invitation by Phil Hefner on behalf of Zygon, the premier journal on the interface of religion and science in the this country, to publish the essay in expanded form. And now one more response from Eric Weislogel, Director of the Local Societies Initiative at an important institute dedicated to these matters! What's a scholar to do? Usually the ivory tower is a bit quieter. But then, tracking the hubbub of public discourse about important religious matters is part of the mission of the Martin Marty Center. That is why folks read and write Sightings articles.
The great nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher thought that most of the time human beings misunderstand each other. That is why we have to work so hard to attain the precious gift of understanding. And that is why many thinkers believe that hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, is at the core of humanistic inquiry. Thankfully for me, Dr. Weislogel, in his response to my essay, understood my main point. In fact, he judges that it is "indisputably correct." I could not have said it better myself! Yet agreement having been attained on the main point, my worry is that misunderstanding still abounds on lesser matters. Let me try to dispel these confusions and thereby aim at the good called understanding.
First, dictionaries are great things, especially when they are on computers and can run spell checks. That being said, a dictionary can never capture the vitality of living language and how terms and ideas are used in a variety of ways: rhetorically, idiomatically, just good old shop talk. This is why we update dictionaries. While Dr. Weislogel reached for Webster's, all I meant -- and I think a lot of us academic types mean -- by the expression "cottage industry" is a thriving academic venture that is getting stuff done and advancing careers. I wish there were more of them in the academy! I like the idea of scholars getting tenure to work on important matters, and hope that the science-and-religion discussion flourishes.
Second, Weislogel insists that the science-and-religion discussion is aiming at "a trans-disciplinary integral wisdom" because it mitigates "the deleterious effects of our 'analytic obsession' in our pursuit of knowledge." The "religion-and-science dialogue," he continues, "is attempting to provide a complementary mechanism for synthesis in thought and understanding." Bravo! I do not see where my essay denied that aspiration, even if it opens epistemological and hermeneutical issues beyond the scope of the essay. My only plea was for acknowledging growth in religious understanding just like the growth in other domains of knowledge, such as science. I think Mr. Flew simply misses or denies that possibility.
Finally, I can certainly accept that some people will not find Flew's comments important for their work. But I think we should admit that scores of newspaper articles, radio programs, and published interviews with Professor Flew show that at least some people think these matters, when philosophically considered, are, well, worth considering. And that is all I attempted to do in my short essay, and I tried to do so from the perspective of theological ethical reflection indebted to the biblical traditions.
I am not sure that these few words will secure complete understanding, a goal we probably ought not expect to reach, despite our strivings. That being said, I am profoundly happy that at least the main point of my essay has found the support of this important leader in the science-and-religion dialogue. For that simple fact, I am genuinely thankful.
William Schweiker is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago.