Faith and The Cosmos: Can Catholic universities foster dialogue between religion and science?
When I started teaching in 1996, I was hired by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., to teach a course on science and religion. With degrees in both areas, I felt well prepared; but I soon learned that the amount of literature on the relationship between these two topics had swelled enormously. The growth rate of scientific progress in our time is astounding. Rapid advances in technology make it difficult to keep abreast of progress in such areas as genetics, robotics, molecular biology and neuroscience. Discoveries in cosmology, astronomy and physics continue to disclose a universe that is ancient, dynamic, interconnected and expanding.
As technology advances at an exponential rate, it drives other areas of modern life to accelerate exponentially as well. The rapidity of technological change, writes the philosopher Nick Bostrom, suggests that continued innovation will have an even larger impact on humanity in future decades. With these changes come new moral and religious questions, and the Catholic Church needs theologians willing to address them. Unfortunately, few Catholic universities have devoted resources to educating theologians willing to engage with the scientific world. This is a loss for both academic disciplines.
If the secular, scientific culture behaves like a rabbit, leaping across vast areas of discovery and invention, the Catholic Church too often behaves like a turtle, crawling up from behind, hesitant to accept new scientific discoveries. The slow pace of the churchs embrace of science is not because of a hesitant pope. Benedict XVI has worked to connect the two disciplines, establishing within the Vatican, under the Pontifical Council of Culture, a department dedicated to dialogue between science and theology. The pope has issued various statements on the sciences and their impact on humanity and the earth and has expressed to Catholic youth his support of new computer technologies, when used correctly, to connect with others. Overall, though, many theologians are reluctant to engage developments in science. It does not help that within the universities theology has been isolated from the sciences.
The mechanization and specialization of higher education has rendered the university a multiversity. Instead of educating students to know the universe and stars turning together as one, academic disciplines, including theology and philosophy, have become highly specialized, competitive fields. If the modern church is reluctant to embrace insights from modern science as integral to revelation, part of the hesitancy may be due to the place theology holds within the academy.
In his book The Soul of America, the historian George Marsden recounts how and when higher education in general became hostile to religion. By the 1920s many universities, despite their religious roots, had grown increasingly secular, sidelining or even scorning religion. The separation of science from such humanistic fields as religion, history and literature created a model of university life that did not allow any positive role for religious people, institutions or ideas on campus. One had to leave religion at the door or privatize it. As a result, students did not learn how to connect science with areas of meaning and value. Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University and the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, suggests that by separating religion from the rest of university education, the American university lost its soul.
An Uneasy Relationship
The church has been a patron of the sciences throughout the ages, although not consistently. Major events like the Galileo affair and the rise of Protestantism caused a psychic trauma for the church, write Peter Hess and Paul Allen in their excellent book, Catholicism and Science. Although the church did not shut the door to scientific research, events like these also stifled openness to scientific innovations.
Theology, however, entered the 20th century as a closed set of neo-Thomistic discourses with questions and rules set by neo-scholastic philosophy with few, if any, other intellectual or cultural sources, says Paul Crowley, S.J., the chair of religious studies at Santa Clara University, that did not cohere with existing papal efforts to support scientific research. Still, in the 1930s the Vatican had moved its astronomical observatory out of the city of Rome to Castel Gandolfo and outfitted it with modern equipment and in 1979 established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to demonstrate the churchs commitment to scientific research. The Pontifical Academy, declared Pope John Paul II, is a visible sign, raised among the people of the world, of a profound harmony that can exist between the truths of science and the truths of faith.
Some theologians have worked to connect these truths. Karl Rahner, S.J., did not shy away from exploring connections between matter and the soul or from considering the theological implications of life on other planets. Another Jesuit priest, Bernard Lonergan, drew on the scientific method to develop a method of theology. Today, some Catholic theologians (like John F. Haught) engage the sciences to illuminate areas of systematic theology like divine action; others (like Denis Edwards) are trying to deepen theological insight on questions in ecology, such as climate change. But on the whole, Catholic theology remains a product of Augustinian, Thomistic and Aristotelian ideas. Few Catholic theologians are grappling with the sciences on their own terms as a means of theological reflection.
In the late 20th century, as theology entered into dialogue with the cultural pluralities of gender, race, history and philosophy, it nonetheless settled into the university system as an academic silo, just as the sciences sequestered themselves into specialized disciplines. Religion and science grew more estranged.
Theology students are trained in departments independent of a broader integration with the sciences in the university. As a result, according to William Stoeger, S.J., of the Vatican observatory, there are few theologians or theologically interested philosophers at universities where the most significant scientific work is done. Even the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, where attention is given to major currents in theology, does not show much engagement with the sciences. Of its 16 topical areas of discussion, only one is devoted to theology and the natural sciences.
In his book Religion and Science, Ian Barbour laid out four types of relationships between science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. While scientists tend to see the relationship between the two disciplines as one of either conflict or independence, theologians, when they are interested, tend toward dialogue and integration. Undoubtedly, science and religion are independent disciplines, each with its own language, methods and tools of analysis, but the academic structure has kept them intellectually as well as spatially apart.
Reforming this structure to promote dialogue is key, since scientific language is technical and objective, and the descriptions of scientific findings do not readily invite theology-minded students into discussion without a teacher. Both disciplines present unique challenges, but it is not difficult to see why a theologian may more readily delve into the familiar theses of St. Thomas Aquinas over the unfamiliar formulas of Albert Einstein, or why the reverse might be true for scientists. Scientists who are interested in religion or express religious belief often have little opportunity in the academy to discuss religion as it relates to their work. Some universities, like Santa Clara, are making a concerted effort to engage scientists and theologians in discussion on meaning and value, but such initiatives are rare.
The Role of the Catholic University
The term Catholic sacramental imagination has long been used for the typically Catholic view that the material world can bring people into intimate relationship with God. The term captures the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which is rooted in the richness of the material cosmos as a fit dwelling for the divine. While the church recognizes the importance of science for the development of faith, it also recognizes the limits of science as the ultimate horizon of meaning. The value of science, Pope John Paul II wrote, is that it can purify religion from error and superstition, just as religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
Although the church continues to bridge science and religion, the significance of this dialogue for the life of faith cannot be left to the institutional church alone. Theologians are needed to reflect on the big questions of meaning and purpose in light of evolution, ecology and technology, as well as to comment on the moral questions raised, especially by the biomedical sciences. Science and religion make their best contributions when each can speak to the other of the truth of reality. As Paul Crowley, S.J., observes, If theology cannot engage a culture that has been framed by the paradigms of science, then theology itself risks self-marginalization. It has no voice at the table concerning the significant issues facing humanity today and becomes an exercise in history and hermeneutics. On the other hand, unbridled science can become scientism, making broad philosophical claims without the development of philosophical foundations.
Catholic universities must become leaders in integrating science and religion. John Haughey, S.J., writes that the Catholic intellectual tradition is one of making wholes. Yet few Catholic universities offer courses or programs in science and religion, and those that do attract relatively few students, not all of whom are adequately prepared for such discussions.
Several years ago, a colleague and I initiated a certificate program in religion and science at Washington Theological Union, a graduate school of theology and ministry in Washington, D.C., but the program was eventually discontinued for lack of student interest. At the Gregorian University in Rome, Gennaro Auletta and colleagues have developed a program called Science and the Ontological Quest, which is responsible for coordinating science and religion courses in six Roman pontifical universities. Although only a small number of seminarians are taking such courses, the engagement of seminarians in the dialogue between science and religion may be one of the most crucial pastoral needs of our time.
Catholic universities need an invigoration of the Catholic imagination, for which dialogue between science and religion is a rich source. Theology cannot continue to develop apart from 21st-century cosmology and ecology, nor can science substitute for religion. The dialogue between science and religion has been developing in the last few decades, but Catholic universities have been slow to support this mutual enrichment. Developing collaborative structures of interaction between science and religion on the university level can benefit students and faculty alike, not only academically but also spiritually. While the current structure of academic specialization makes dialogue difficult as an integral part of university life and thought, universities must support existing centers of dialogue, like the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Centers like these serve as bridge-builders and integrators, bringing together faculty, students and professionals across the disciplines.
To restore soul to the university may require a re-imagining of education, including a search for new ways to develop dialogue between science and religion. Development of this relationship can enrich personal life, community life and the life of the planet. As John Paul II wrote, The things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God, for it is one and the same Love which moves the sun and the other stars. Both the light of faith and the insights of science can help humanity evolve toward a more sustainable future.