Engaging in science-religion dialogue

Clare Condon SGS
Photo: Annie Gordon

Science and religion are separate and distinct disciplines, but surely we must learn from the engagement of one discipline with the other, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS*

“There is naivety in just saying there’s no God,” the eminent physicist, Professor Brian Cox, said in an interview with The Telegraph back in 2014. Brian Cox seems to be agnostic about the existence of God, but he does not dismiss it outright. In the same interview, he also said that profound questions about cosmology and human existence “have not been discussed widely; they need novelists and artists and philosophers and theologians and physicists to discuss them”.

Science and religion are separate and distinct disciplines, but surely we humans must learn from the engagement of one discipline with the other. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes: “It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality”. (No. 199)

“Stargazing Live”, the recent ABC TV series presented by Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro, gave us a broad and insightful exploration into the universe and life. It was mind-blowing for an amateur like me. During the three-part series a new solar system was even discovered!

The magnitude, the beauty and the complexity of the cosmos is beyond my ordinary comprehension. I stand in awe and amazement. Both the BBC series “Human Universe” and the ABC series “Stargazing Live” left me spellbound and full of questions about the meaning of life for us here on this planet earth.

What are the deeper and wider questions of our existence? Why are we here, and what is our ultimate purpose? These are questions that science alone cannot answer. These questions require philosophical, theological and spiritual responses which constantly grapple with the discoveries of the sciences.

As a committed Christian believer, and at a time when we are celebrating the Feast of Easter, I am left wondering anew at the discoveries in recent times by astronomers and physicists about the very nature of the universe and what exists beyond our planet earth. These facts leave me with new questions of how to understand the Jesus phenomenon – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago, and the implications that reality has for our lives now in 2017.

At this time of incredible cosmic discoveries, we ordinary believers need new paradigms to understand the meaning of our lives and our connectedness with the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ within such a complex universe. We need a new language to assist us in understanding this world as we daily come to know the universe with greater knowledge and clarity. The images of God portrayed by prior generations of philosophical and theological concepts need to be re-examined and articulated in new ways so that our faith can seek new understandings for this time and this place.

Again, as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si: “Science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both”. (No. 62)

There are theologians in the Christian tradition who are engaged in such thinking, writing and dialogue, but I fail to encounter the fruits of their scholarship within the daily life of the teaching and preaching Church in local diocesan and parish communities. There is a great gap, even a chasm, in bringing our faith into relationship with the physical cosmic world as it is understood today.

One such theologian who is a leading figure in the search to understand the mystery of the cosmic Christ in this twenty-first century is Australian theologian and priest Denis Edwards. In his book Partaking of God, Denis Edwards writes:

“The central source for a Christian theology of divine power can be found in the life and teaching of Jesus and its culmination in his death and resurrection. The cross reveals God’s power as working through self emptying, limitless love. The resurrection proclaims that this love is not impotent, but the most powerful thing in the universe, bringing life in its fullness to the whole of creation.”

If we take these new theological reflections seriously, then our image of God is profoundly one of infinite love. So much of the language in the teachings of the Christian faith, doctrine and sacramental experience must find new meaningful expressions and explanations.

To be at such a crossroads in philosophical and theological thought, in dialogue with science, can be unsettling for some who hang onto expressions of the faith which belong to an age prior to these explosive scientific discoveries. Theological thought needs to be “grounded in a fresh analysis”. (Laudato Si, No. 17). Leaders in the Church need to take bold steps to engage Christians in such discussions or a living and dynamic faith will wither on the vine.

The Feast of Easter is a reminder to us that the resurrection of Jesus is mystery, and for all the scientific discoveries, we are still confronted by this mystery of divine love and the power of love in our own human encounters. As Denis Edwards writes:

“When we look to the death and resurrection of Jesus we can find out a great deal about God’s way of acting. Even when Jesus cries out ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me: yet, not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14:36), we find that the way of this Abba is not that of overturning human freedom or the laws of nature. This Abba is with Jesus in his suffering, holding him in love, and acting powerfully in the Spirit, transforming failure and death into healing and liberation, raising him up as the beginning of life for the whole of creation. God’s way is revealed as that of accompaniment in love, as transformation in the Spirit, as resurrection life”. (Partaking of God, p.113)

I agree with Professor Cox; it is naïve to conclude from science that there is no God. Our everyday discoveries, our relationships of love, and our creative endeavours lead us to realise we do not have all the answers. Our earthly journey is always one of growing more deeply into the mystery of this extraordinary universe, and this God of divine love.

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

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The Good Oil, April 18, 2017. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

8 Responses to “Engaging in science-religion dialogue”

  1. Diana Law says:

    Such a pivotal area of dialogue for us all, Clare. Thank you so much for keeping it in the foreground of our movement forward towards completion in Christ, to whom the “whole of creation groans”. Your leadership will continue far beyond our coming Chapter!

  2. Jeanie Heininger says:

    Thanks Clare for your rich reflection. I too watched the ABC TV program with Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro and was transfixed. The wonders of creation seem more pertinant during the Easter Triduum celebrations.

  3. Diana Law says:

    In this age of awareness of our interconnectedness with each other and the whole of creation, such dialogue is pivotal. Thanks for elaborating on this particular dimension, Clare. It helps to propel us into that strata of existential responsibility in our unique role, personally and communally, within the creative pulse and fulfillment of the Universe in Love. Thank you so much for your tireless and effective leadership!

  4. Pat Hearity says:

    Two blackbirds have just taken their daily bath in my bird bath, BUT it is pouring rain ! Does this describe our magisterial church ? New story, new language, new symbols, new liturgy and theological paradigms are needed as you describe Clare. An excellent article, thank you. If I might add, the love dynamism of the Trinity enlivens all the cosmos. Perhaps a new way of gazing in contemplation , being absorbed within the Trinity , as well as reflective conversations and study may break open set patterns and draw us into the unfolding Mystery. This Love moves one to action. Pat

  5. Marie Casamento says:

    Thanks Clare for your very reflective article. I too was overwhelmed by views of the cosmos, the beauty, the immensity and the opening up of new paradigm shifts. I too think we need a new theology and new way of marrying science with religion. Here at Cobbitty fog has begun to shift, sift and shuffle my view of what I am constantly seeing anew. I see the challenge as seeing with new eyes. Marie

  6. Edwina says:

    Dear Clare,
    I experienced your article as a kind of gift. A gift that invites the reader to shake off the well worn and stereotyped ways of looking at our faith and science; things many say argue against each other. Yet the scientists that achieved the most in history also had a deep faith. Their discoveries usually made their faith stronger. Remarkable books & writers on the interface of Science and Religion include:
    1. The Great Partnership by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
    2. Awe-filled Wonder by Barbara Fiand
    3. Scientists of Faith by Dan Graves
    Thankyou for such an inspiring article.

  7. Pat O'Gorman says:

    Thank you for this great article Clare. Conversations about cosmology, shifting theological paradigms, our place as a human being in this universe and the mystery of God need to feature large in our interactions in Church. It is another example of the failure of our teaching and preaching to engage meaningfully with the reality of people’s lives and our growing understanding of this incredible universe. Thank you

  8. kevin treston says:

    Thanks Clare for your article. You are so right about the massive gap between what is happening in the scientific world and how the gospel is preached and celebrated in the parishes. Slowly, oh so slowly, the Christ story within the wondrous story of the universe is being recognised. I often wonder about the focus of theology in the seminary for our future priests.

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