A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 47 (November 1994): 63-72.

This Month:

Science, Religion, and Volleyball

Science is science and religion is religion and never the twain shall meet. It is a wondrously convenient formula for not thinking very seriously about either science or religion. We came across an article a while back in which a journalist visited with a group of Jesuit astronomers who man the Vatican observatory in the American Southwest. How do they square their science with their theology, the journalist wanted to know. The repeated answer, given with some impatience, is that the two have nothing to do with one another. The journalist was not satisfied with that, as well he should not be. Science tells us about the world, and theology tells us about the God who created and sustains the world. Therefore science tells us important things about what God is doing, and theology tells us important things about the source and ends of the world that is the object of scientific interest.

Nonetheless, scientists and theologians conspire to make sure that never the twain shall meet. Scientists typically exhibit the greater cognitive confidence. They are often contemptuously dismissive of theology, while theologians are frequently glad enough to be left alone, undisturbed by inconvenient challenges from the scientists. An instance of the contemptuously dismissive is provided by Dr. David E. H. Jones of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, better known by his pen name, Daedelus. Writing in the British journal Nature in an article picked up by the science writer of the New York Times, Jones suggests, presumably tongue in cheek, that it should be possible to weigh the soul.

By attaching piezoelectric transducers and other instruments to a dying person, it should be possible to measure the direction, velocity, and spin of the soul as it leaves the body, causing the body to recoil slightly. The change in body weight would reveal the soul's mass. "Traditional theology," writes Jones, "is silent on the spin of the soul, though it may predict that the soul of a sinner would depart downward, and might weigh less than that of a righteous believer." Soul measurements could also be helpful with the abortion debate, he suggests. By applying a soul detector to a pregnant woman, one could determine when the soul enters the embryo or fetus. "It is clearly worthwhile," says Dr. Jones, "to establish this moment accurately. If the soul turns out to enter the fetus quite late in pregnancy, the religious arguments against contraception and early abortion will be neatly disproved." He does not say what conclusion should be drawn were it determined that the soul is there from conception.

But of course all this is as silly as it is contemptuous. Although there are many people, President Clinton for instance, who continue to speak of the soul as a bodily appendage, a thing that should not be killed. Before it is appended to the baby, however, it is permissible to kill the baby's body. The President says he learned this from his Baptist pastor and, given the sorry state of catechesis in contemporary Christianity, that is quite possibly true. It is the case that the worthy Tertullian (d. 225) seemed to hold to the corporeity of the soul, and presumably such a soul could be weighed. But traditional theology has taken the soul to be a spiritual substance. Spiritual substances, being spirit, cannot be weighed.

But scientists will have their fun. Soul-weighing is but a variant on the old chestnut about scholastic theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Any scholastic theologian, indeed any literate Christian, would recognize that such a debate is utterly otiose. Being spiritual beings, angels do not take up space and therefore an infinite number can dance on the head of a pin, or any other place they fancy. Dr. Jones and his readers have their chuckle, and theologians take it in good sport instead of pointing out, politely of course, that such Jonesian bigotry rests upon the foundation of an ignorance that is quite appalling in an otherwise educated person. Many theologians, indeed, join in the chuckle, smugly observing that of course no point has been scored since when theologians talk about the soul (if in fact they still talk about the soul at all) they are employing an entirely different "language system," quite unrelated to the language of scientific discourse.

This ploy achieves self-parody in, for instance, the best-selling Episcopalian bishop in New Jersey who assures us that, although the body of the pitiable fanatic Jesus has long since rotted in Palestine, talk about the resurrection is frightfully "meaningful." Writers of more scholarly credibility also employ the ploy. They propose a neat division of labor; the scientists take the "fact" language and the theologians take the "meaning" language, and neither need step on the other's toes. Of course the scientists, with exceptions, have not agreed to this arrangement. And quite rightly so. Meanings are of interest when they explain the meaning of facts, so those who have been given a monopoly on the facts will likely end up in charge of the meaning business as well. Which is pretty much what has been happening in our public discourse over the last few centuries. Of course this does not prevent anyone from engaging in the private indulgence of religion, along with other private indulgences such as a taste for mocha chocolate ice cream or the poetry of Edna St.Vincent Millay.

Serving into the Other Court

But through the years there has been a small band of theologians and scientists who have persisted in thinking hard about the hard questions. On the theological side, one such is Wolfhart Pannenberg, 1994 Erasmus Lecturer and frequent contributor to this journal. This year Westminster/John Knox Press has brought out his Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (166 pp., $19.99 paper). This book deserving of a wide readership is enhanced by a lucid introduction to Pannenberg's thought on these questions by Ted Peters, a Lutheran theologian teaching in California.

In the last century or so, says Peters, theologians "have trod lightly on questions regarding God and the natural world, ceding to the scientific community the priestly right to dispense the graces of understanding nature. Now, however, Pannenberg seems to be profaning what Western Enlightenment culture has held sacred. He is . . . reentering the epistemological holy of holies and contending that loss of an awareness of God actually constricts what we learn about the nature of nature." For scientists who take Pannenberg's challenge to heart, "it means a return to the laboratory with a reassessment of the meaning of existing evidence and a posing of new questions for future research."

Since the consolidation of the natural sciences in the modern university, the relationship between science and religion might be pictured in terms of volleyball. On one side of the net is scientism, on the other religious authoritarianism. Scientism views religion's claims as pseudo-knowledge, and "fundamentalism" (whether biblical or ecclesiastical) views the claims of science as, at best, partial knowledge subject to correction by revelation. In recent years, a new twist has been provided by scientific creationists who contend that they are playing by the rules of science, and by those rules they have determined that the biblical account of creation is more scientifically convincing than the theory of evolution.

Peters explains how the volleyball game goes on from there, or, as is usually the case, does not go on from there:

What we would expect to find is a hotly contested game between the established natural scientists on one side, and, on the other side, any one of the three: the ecclesiastical authoritarians, the fundamentalist authoritarians, or the scientific creationists. What we would expect to find is a spirited match to settle the matter, to see who wins and who loses. Surprisingly, however, twentieth-century watchers have seen very little competitive volleying across the net. Why? Because the majority of players on both sides have adopted the two- language rule. According to the two-language theory, scientists and theologians work in separate domains of knowledge, speak separate languages, and when true to their respective disciplines, avoid interfering in each other's work. What we end up with are two teams, each sparring with its own volleyball on its respective side of the net. If the creationists who reject the two-language rule serve the ball into the scientists' court, the scientists do not bother to return it. But when the players of the fourth string made up of liberal or neo-orthodox theologians take the religious side of the court, they tout the two-language rule and send nothing over the net. This has kept the scientific team happy for most of the present century.
Suffice it to say that Pannenberg and a few others have been serving into the scientists' court for some years now, and an increasing number of scientists, especially physicists, have been returning the serves. There are not yet enough teams to form a league, but that may come with time. In his Theology and the Philosophy of Science, in his three-volume Systematic Theology (now appearing in English), and in the present book of essays, Pannenberg presses the implications of saying that nature must be understood as history, that contingent events are temporally unique, and that what we now know of thermodynamics confirms the irreversibility of time. Theology, Pannenberg suggests, is the study of the history of God, and Christian theology is such study in the light of the promised fulfillment of history in Christ and the coming Kingdom. Such seemingly exotic speculation leads to surprises. For instance, it may be that when Michael Faraday and Albert Einstein spoke of the "force field" in physics, they had in mind, knowingly or not, what theology means by the Holy Spirit.

Of course that way of putting it may suggest another version of the old two-language game. But this time, at least, scientists and theologians understand that they are talking about the same reality, how the world really is and what reasonably can be made of it. In studying the world scientists are studying God, and in studying God theologians are studying the world. Since the Enlightenment the studying and talking has been segregated, each on its own side of the net, each developing a language and habits of thought apparently incommensurable with the other. This segregation has everything to do with the marginalization of religion in public life, since it is assumed that what counts as real knowledge in public is scientific knowledge, and it is further assumed that what is scientific is separate from, if not antithetical to, religion.

Of course Pannenberg is not alone in pressing the cause of desegregation. One thinks of contemporaries such as Arthur Peacocke, Robert John Russell, Stanley Jaki, and the many followers of Alfred North Whitehead. There are big differences among these thinkers, but all are devoted to resuming a collaboration that was most unnaturally disrupted by the recent unpleasantness of the secular Enlightenment. Their project and its underlying assumption that theology and science are both dealing with the one world of the one God would hardly have surprised Christian thinkers such as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin. A good introduction to the current state of the desegregation movement is Wolfhart Pannenberg's Toward a Theology of Nature.

The Longest War

In the event that some readers have not yet read James Davison Hunter's Before the Shooting Begins, shame on you. Alright, so you can't read everything, but this is not just another important book. It is the best book-length analysis of what is meant by the culture war (the subtitle is Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War), and is made the more valuable by viewing the culture war through the prism of the abortion controversy-the most important single question in defining the opposing sides in the culture war. That we view the book as extremely important is evidenced by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's review essay in the June/July issue and our earlier comment on Hunter's argument in these pages and elsewhere.

We are regularly asked what we mean by this "culture war" we've been talking about for approximately the last ten years. The answer inevitably begins with what is meant by culture, and we will not repeat what we have said on that so many times before. Rather, let's let James Hunter take a crack at the question: "Culture is nothing if it is not, first and foremost, a normative order by which we comprehend ourselves, others, and the larger world and through which we order our experience. At the heart of culture is a system of norms and values, as social scientists are prone to call them. But these norms and values are better understood as commanding truths so deeply embedded in our consciousness and in the habits of our lives that to question them is to question reality itself. These commanding truths define the 'shoulds' and 'should nots' of our experience, and accordingly, the good and the evil, the right and the wrong, the appropriate and inappropriate, the honorable and the shameful. Accordingly, culture involves the obligations to adhere to these truths, obligations that come about by virtue of one's membership in a group."

Multiculturalism, as it is called in the academy, and moral emotivism, as it is found among the hoi poloi, inescapably trivialize culture. Multiculturalists are a group at war with the idea of belonging to a group. Hunter writes, "The bottom line is that one cannot hope to understand culture without understanding its central and commanding truth claims. But these claims imply standards, and standards imply the moral judgment that we are not the same and not on the same moral plane. Such standards and judgments violate the central lesson multiculturalism wants students everywhere to appropriate-that 'I am as good as you.'" The framework provided by multiculturalism makes it impossible to engage in reasoned argument on questions of moral consequence, such as abortion. "The reason," writes Hunter, "is that multiculturalism denies the very category of Differences that constitute the friction points between cultures-the substantive and, in this case, contradictory imperatives asserted by and embodied within different moral communities."

Hunter's extraordinary book is weakest when it comes to proposing an alternative to the culture war in terms of "the renewal of democracy." One is immeasurably grateful for an accurate diagnosis, even if the same physician is not so sure about the treatment. Hunter wants to find a "common ground" for democratic deliberation, debate, and decision that will replace the polarized and frenzied war of words that now passes for political discourse. At the same time, he knows that the differences in the culture war "go all the way down," and democratic renewal might be possible only at the end of the struggle. It is a little like the revolutionary maxim that things must get worse before they can get better. "Through a heightening of the tensions, we are continually reminded of the limitations of political action. We are reminded that politics, in the final analysis, is primarily effective in dealing with administrative tasks. It is not able to deal with the collective search for shared meanings, the formation of public philosophies of the public good, or the organic generation of civic obligation, responsibilities, and trust among the citizens who inhabit a community or society."

A Vision Wan and Wistful

Although it is not clear how that squares with Hunter's enthusiasm for Benjamin Barber's notion of "strong democracy," it is a sober and modest understanding of politics. In our political culture, it is usually conservatives who call for a modest understanding of politics and, especially, government action. Liberals typically embrace a more expansive understanding of the political and governmental sphere. (Those who style themselves radical go further, urging that "the personal is the political and the political is the personal.") The predicament, however, is that the larger the sphere of life that is defined as political the more we must deliberate in public the morality of our life together-our obligations, responsibilities, and ideas of the good. Conversely, the more limited the political sphere, the more those deliberations can be conducted in communities that are, while not private, certainly not public in the sense of being subject to government control. It is quite odd. Conservatives are ready, even eager, to engage in public discussions of morality that would not be necessary under their ideal of limited government. On the other hand, liberals are generally hostile to the public discussion of morality that is inescapable under their ideal of expansive government.

Then one is taken back to the question of whether legal protection for the unborn is an instance of expansive or limited government. We have been around that track many times, and will not take another turn now. For the moment, suffice it to note that one leaves Before the Shooting Begins and similar analyses with a very dour view of talk about "the renewal of democratic discourse and decision." Of course that is what we must continue to hope for and work for, but anything that resembles renewal will be, it appears almost certain, on the far side of some kind of resolution of the abortion question. It seems that civil discussion is precluded by the don't-give-an-inch rigidity of the pro- choice faction in refusing to acknowledge that there is any great moral question engaged in the termination of what is unquestionably human life, and by their adamantine opposition to even the most modest measures aimed at, for instance, ensuring informed consent by the woman or respecting the role of parents of minors. They seem to be convinced that any public admission that there are legitimate questions to be raised about the existing abortion regime would bring the whole thing crashing down. Maybe they're right in thinking that. One can understand why Harvard's Laurance Tribe and other abortion advocates so relentlessly insist that the public discussion be kept focused on choice, never on what is chosen.

The "renewal of democracy" part is where James Davison Hunter goes wan and wistful. Don't blame him; at this stage in the culture war nobody knows what such renewal might mean. Where there are openings for civil conversation and mutually respectful argument, we should not fail to welcome the opportunity. But in our political culture at present, such openings are few and far between. Nurturing such possibilities for conversation where they present themselves, and hoping that culture war may in time be replaced by civil engagement, in the short term we have no choice but to gird for battle. Battle is not the preferred metier of those who believe that moral truth can be ascertained through reasoned reflection. Battle is forced upon them by those who deny the reality of moral truth, or at least of moral truth that can have public standing. The culture war was declared by the nihilists, both sophisticated and raw, who declared politics to be nothing more than the contest of interests, the will to power. On the axial question of abortion, they are the ones who divide the world into the defenders of the unlimited abortion license on the one hand and everybody else on the other. They permit no consideration of alternatives, nothing that might respond to the yearning of the great majority of Americans for some kind of accommodation.

There is the time before the shooting begins and then the time after the shooting begins, and nobody knows how metaphorical that shooting will remain. But on the question around which all the other questions of the culture war gravitate, there is no alternative to continuing to press ahead on every front-in the parties, in national campaigns, in politics from counties to Congress, in the churches, schools, professional associations, everywhere. The defenders of the unlimited abortion license know that Roe v. Wade is not "settled doctrine" in American law and life, and it is the business of those who understand what is at stake to make it more unsettled every day. "Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life." That is the goal. It will never be achieved perfectly, of course, given the human bent toward indifference, cruelty, and injustice. But it can be approximated in a manner that is secured by democratic consent. This may be many years away. But only when that happens is it believable to think that the culture war might give way to something like a renewal of democratic discourse about how we ought to order our life together.

Mr. Rorty's Terrible Uncertainties

Among intellectual celebrities, Richard Rorty's fifteen minutes go on and on. In a long interview in the University of Chicago Magazine, he explains how he got to be the way he is. A red-diaper baby, he had Trotskyite parents who found the meaning of their lives bestowed by the promise of "come the revolution." Richard, however, was "a clever, snotty, nerdy only child" (his description), more interested in orchids than revolutions. Yet he wanted an understanding that was an understanding of everything. At age fifteen he came across his aim expressed in the words of Yeats-"hold reality and justice in a single vision." First in Plato, then in Hegel, then in other systems, he thought for a time that he had found knowledge that is "beyond hypothesis."

Later he discovered that there is no such thing, reality is rhetoric, things are as you describe them to be. This is the consolation and resignation of the "liberal ironist." Oh, for some people, certainty- Plato's knowledge beyond hypothesis, beyond doubt, beyond critical self- consciousness-might be possible. For revolutionaries, for instance, "who are moved by nothing save the thought of social justice." And for those Christians. "I decided that only religion-only a nonargumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure-could do the trick Plato wanted done. Since I couldn't imagine becoming religious, and indeed had gotten more and more raucously secularist, I decided that the hope of getting a single vision by becoming a philosopher had been a self-deceptive atheist's way out."

He speaks of not being able to become religious in the way that most of us cannot imagine becoming Mexican. As though "religiousness" is something that happens to some people and doesn't happen to others. Moreover, as in his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, religion (in his case meaning Christianity) appears as a guarantor of certitude, instead of being precisely a reasoned commitment of faith in a reality that will never get "beyond hypothesis" short of the coming of the kingdom of God. His flaunted anxieties about the uncertainties of truth lead him to the convenient but superficial out of deciding not to worry about truth. In the name of complexity he embraces the simplism of "redescribing" intellectual sloth as virtue. It is a great sadness, and a greater sadness that he continues to be a leading retailer of designer fashions in the university.

Along the way he says, "I do not, however, want to argue that philosphy is socially useless." He speaks of a number of philosophers who made a difference, including John Dewey and Sidney Hook. "Had there been no Dewey or Hook, American intellectual leftists of the 1930s would have been as buffaloed by the Marxists as were their counterparts in France and in Latin America." Quoting Richard Weaver, he says, "Ideas do, indeed, have consequences." The irony does not occur to him that the Richard Rorty of today would not have been standing with Dewey, and certainly not with Hook, in the 1930s and 1940s. After all, why make endless arguments appealing to truth in a tedious struggle against Communist totalitarianism when it is ever so much easier, as Rortians have learned, to redescribe tyranny as freedom, and vice versa?

While We're At It