The Sisters of The Good Samaritan - Protection of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults
April 2012

Reflecting on Dawkins vs Pell

There are many theologians within the Catholic tradition who provide us with both the language and understanding to bring together the scientific understanding of the universe and the spiritual dimensions of our lives, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

On Easter Monday, the ABC’s Q&A program featured a live debate between evolutionary biologist, author and militant atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, on topics of faith, science, history and morality. The show attracted an audience of 863,000, its highest since the coverage of the 2010 Federal election; an indication that faith and God are still of great interest and challenge to Australians.

The next day media headlines included: “Dawkins and Pell battle it out in one hell of a debate” (Sydney Morning Herald), “Adam and Eve? That’s just mythology, says Pell” (The Australian), “Pell, Dawkins wage battle of belief” (The Age), “Heated debate between Cardinal Pell and Professor Dawkins” (CathNews).

When I read these headlines, I thought I must have watched and listened to a different program! Heat or battle I did not observe. I thought it was rather tame, with two disconnected arguments. Neither argument met the other while discussing the profound topic of the mystery of God; one came from a purely scientific point of view and the other from a metaphysical or philosophical perspective. Neither of them expressed any interest or real understanding of the other’s discipline. Each came from a position of certainty so there was no meeting of minds.

In its headline, The Australian reported a level of surprise when the Cardinal described the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve as sophisticated mythology, and it dismissed mythology as insignificant (as had Dawkins the night before). Any well educated Christian would be fully aware of the implications of this profound religious myth. All cultures have sophisticated myths which tell the story of their search for meaning in life. I was surprised that Dawkins, an avowed atheist and intellectual, knew so little of the body of religious knowledge that he was rejecting.

It became clear to me that science cannot explain ‘the why’ of human life and therefore its meaning and purpose. Science can and has improved our knowledge and understanding of the way the physical world and universe work and we should seek to constantly update ourselves with the findings of science.

Similarly, theology is an ever-evolving discipline. I was disappointed that the Cardinal based much of his reasoning on the metaphysical tomes of the Greek philosophers and Thomas Aquinas. In the last 700 years, scholarly insights into Sacred Scripture and theology have given us a wealth of theological writing which engages positively with developing scientific knowledge.

Surely our human journey calls us to delve both intellectually and spiritually into the meaning of life, and to explore our capacity for goodness and love within the human community and the created order. These are realities beyond science; these are spiritual and theological realities.

There are many theologians within the Catholic tradition who provide us with both the language and understanding to bring together the scientific understanding of the universe and the spiritual dimensions of our lives. Throughout the history of the Church, Basil of Ceasarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, Catherine of Sienna and Duns Scotus, to name but a few, have enriched our lives. In our own time, I think of Karl Rahner, Teilhard De Chardin and our own Australian theologian, Denis Edwards.

Denis Edwards speaks of God as Creator Spirit. Both Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell referred to God as “He”. For many people this reference can be utterly confusing and limiting. It confines the image of God to a human category; it attempts to limit one’s horizons in trying to speak of the mystery of God. It is far from the Creator God portrayed in the Christian Scriptures. In his book Breath of Life: The Theology of Creator Spirit, Edwards writes: “The Creator Spirit can be thought of as the power of becoming, the power that enables the self-transcendence of creation in the emergence of the universe and the evolution of life on earth”.

At the heart of our tradition, Bonaventure of the thirteenth century captured the meaning of life in these words: “You exist more truly where you love than where you merely live, since you are transformed into the likeness of whatever you love, through the power of this love itself”. Such is the attraction of a Creator God of love whom we Christians celebrate in the Risen Christ.

At Eastertide, Christians celebrate an extraordinary spiritual mystery, a mystery of belief that goes beyond the confines of scientific investigation and our limited worldview. It is a question of faith in one who was resurrected. This is not a blind faith, but one founded upon 2,000 years of storytelling, practice and scholarly research.

Therefore, I would suggest that our minds and our hearts need to expand well beyond the limited debate we experienced last Easter Monday on the ABC’s Q&A program.

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict.

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