Recently, I have been reading and engaging in discussions about the Christian faith and modern culture. The essence of these discussions holds that many in our Western culture no longer accept the idea of “something beyond the physical world”. Some no longer validate the cultural myths and narratives that provided the guidance for how people should conduct their lives; it may seem that many question the role and existence of God in our lives. Many of these views expressed by persons who identify themselves as secularists and/or atheists leave Christians unsure how to respond.
Recently, secular society appears to embrace the role of science to answer the mysteries of life. The answer to these questions largely seems to eliminate the Divine and our cultural collective sense of self. It seeks to replace it with the enlightenment of science and technology. Now, I am not a Luddite and I certainly agree that science and technology has made our lives materially better and easier. We live longer and, perhaps, more comfortably than our ancestors. But, I wonder if our science and technology, as an unintended consequence, separates from ourselves-our “humanness or human nature”. I wonder if this separation from our “humanness” embodies also a separation from our God and love for others.
Two of the functions regarding science involve the ability to predict and control. Through science, some believe that we can eventually know everything. Recently, there was an announcement that science has discovered a process to create a child from the DNA of three persons (Seattle Times.com, February 27, 2014). Will this scientific “breakthrough” be another brick in the wall that separates us from our humanity and the sacredness of life?
Several weeks ago, while listening to NPR on the radio, two scientists were discussing death. Admittedly, I did not catch the story at its beginning, but what I heard grabbed my attention. One said, in summary, “If we could exactly reconstruct the atoms in our bodies to where they were before death, we could live again. This would be the way to overcome death.” As a Christian who believes in life after death, this dialogue seemed bizarre. It struck me as the “Atheist’s Existential Crisis”. Once my atoms are taken apart I will no longer exist and if science can rearrange my atoms then I can come back to life. I immediately thought, in my naiveté, that if a rock had lost some of its atoms and I was able to rearrange the atoms back into the rock’s original configuration, then the rock could come to life. The scientists made no mention of God, or any after-death belief systems. I couldn’t help but think of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “God is dead”. But if God is dead, then so am I. I wonder, in my simplicity, if those who experience the “Atheist’s Existential Crisis” have an underlying anxiety without hope; their lives similar to that of a rock. Once you are dead, you are dead and the meaning of life is meaninglessness. As a Christian, John 3:16 saves me from the “Atheist’s Existential Crisis, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).
A number of writers propose that the Christian belief in God and living a religious life in today’s world is naïve and simplistic. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, a biologist, The God Delusion, Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and Seth MacFarlane, producer of the new TV Show, Cosmos, argue that a secular and atheistic belief produces a more ethical and better functioning society. They praise the superiority of atheism through the process of science. It is science, they maintain, that gives “Man” his significance and power. Michael Novak, in his book, No One Sees God: the Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, writes the atheist’s purpose is to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity”. Frequently, they assert that the Christian Church actively blocked the march of science and the understanding of our world. But is this realistic?
The first question to ask is what is science? Science epitomizes a construct or way of thinking. It represents a useful tool for analysis and if rigidly followed is helpful. Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Science can only focus on what is observable and only those observable “things” which can be quantified or counted. Science, using statistical-mathematical concepts based on probabilities, determines if the “event” has a greater statistical chance of occurring other than as random event. (Gambling in Las Vegas is based on probabilities.) Science describes the process of “how” but it cannot explain the “why”. Why has its origins in Philosophy; why coupled with “non-material” or non-observable concepts aligns with Theology, a branch of Philosophy. In short, science is only a tool that can help us to develop some ideas or theories about how material and observable “things” function. It cannot, due to its limitations, answer all questions.
Secondly, secularists and atheists attack Christianity and the Catholic Church, in particular, as unscientific and as a barrier to science. Fr. Robert Barron, in the website, Strange Notions and in his Word on Fire website, argues that many of the prominent scientists were religious. Fr. Barron writes, “The great founders of modern science—Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Descartes, Pascal, etc.—were formed in church-sponsored universities where they learned their mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Numerous other priests and religious such as Fr. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who wrote extensively on paleontology, and Fr. Georges Lemaître, the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins represent a small sampling of Christians expanding the sciences. I would dare to say that the concept of science and scientific inquiry stem from Christianity. It is Christianity that affirms the intelligibility of the natural world. Fr. Barron, writes in the Strange Notions website, The Cosmos and One More Telling of a Tired Myth, “all of the founders (of science) would have imbibed the two fundamentally theological assumptions that made the modern sciences possible, namely, that the world is not divine—and hence can be experimented upon rather than worshiped—and that the world is imbued with intelligibility—and hence can be understood. I say that these are theological presumptions, for they are both corollaries of the doctrine of creation”.
So, what are we as Christians to do? The first thing to do is what not to do. We cannot ignore the secular culture and we cannot ignore those who denigrate the Christian Faith. We must evangelize and share our faith. We must pray for those who do not believe and for those who are “weak” in their faith. Secondly, we must be better informed of our faith and willing to share it. As St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “preach the Gospel by our actions and when necessary use words”. Our faith, our love of God, the Father in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ demands to be shared with others. This sharing must be done with courage and mercy, with love and generosity. Finally, as previously stated, we must pray and allow the Lord to use us in proclaiming the Gospel.
God Bless You.
A Fellow Pilgrim,
JMJ is not connected to any Diocese or Church and relies on private donations.