The Marriage of Science and Religion

Date: October 1, 2005

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By Holmes Rolston III
I have spent my life in a lover’s quarrel, not with my wife of four decades, but with the two disciplines I love: science and religion. I once started a Science and Religion class with the claim that these are the two most important things in the world. A student promptly objected: No, professor you are wrong: that’s sex and money. I convinced him otherwise by the time the semester was over. But I was still trying to keep science and religion in dialogue, and have been ever since.

The trouble is making peace between the two; but equally I have had to quarrel with both about values intrinsic to nature. Science thought nature to be value-free.
Monotheism thought nature fallen owing to human sin. They agreed that humans were the center of value on Earth. I had to fight both theology and science to love nature.

Denied a theology of nature, I took a philosophical turn. I found philosophy of science, the only reputable kind of philosophy--so the logical positivists then said. Philosophy of nature was too romantic and committed the naturalistic fallacy. So I equally had to fight philosophy to love nature. Socrates said: The unexamined life is not worth living. I found out: Life in an unexamined world is not worthy living either.

I could put it this way: I’ve been lucky that my own personal agenda, figuring nature out, has during my lifetime turned out to be the world agenda, figuring out the human place on the planet. Living locally led me to think globally. My autobiography is “writ large” in the Earth story. I didn’t want to live a de-natured life; it turns out that humans neither can nor ought to de-nature their planet. My sense of wonder turned to horror when I encountered the oncoming environmental crisis. No sooner did I discover that nature is grace, than I found we were treating it disgracefully.

Facing the new millennium, the four principal, inter-related challenges are: war and peace, population, development, and environment. Science alone doesn’t teach us what we most need to know about any of the four. Politically and ethically we confront value questions as sharp and as painful as ever: who we are, where we are, how to value people, nature, what we ought to do.

Earth is a kind of providing ground, where the life epic is lived on in the midst of its perpetual perishing. Life persists because it is provided for in the evolutionary and ecological Earth systems. Today we say: life is generated “at the edge of chaos.” Yesterday, John said: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1.5). I think the Twenty-Third Psalm is pretty good experiential biology: Life is lived in green pastures and in the valley of the shadow of death, nourished by eating at a table prepared in the midst of its enemies.

The root idea in the word “nature” is “birthing,” of a woman in labor. “Travail” is a key to understanding these evils. What I experienced in nature is the power of survival, of new life rising out of the old. Systemically, death is not the last word--at least it has never yet been across three and a half billion years of re-birthing. Such good resurrected out of evil reveals that nature, though a gift, is also cruciform. New life comes by blasting the old. There is a suffering and resurrecting power that redeems life out of chaos.

If anything at all on Earth is sacred, it must be this enthralling generativity that characterizes our home planet. If there is any holy ground, any land of promise, this promising Earth is it.

The biblical faith originated with a land ethic. Within the covenant, keeping the commandments, the Hebrew people entered a promised land. Justice is to run down like waters, and the land flows with milk and honey. That blessing can be received only if the land is inhabited justly and charitably. No people can live in harmony with their landscape, in a sustainable relationship with their natural resources, unless there is social justice. The Land of Promise is now the Planet of Promise.

It is not simply what a society does to its slaves, women, blacks, minorities, handicapped, children, or future generations, but what it does to its fauna, flora, species, ecosystems, and landscapes that reveals the character of that society.

God loves “the world,” and in the landscape surrounding him Jesus found ample evidence of the presence of God. Not even Solomon is arrayed with the glory of the lilies, though the grass of the field, today alive, perishes tomorrow. The power manifest in the wild flowers of the field is continuous with the power spiritually manifest in the kingdom he announces. There is a bond between nature and spirit, from mustard seed to saving grace. There is in every seed and root a promise. Jesus knew that, and when I re-discovered it, I was moved to write “The Pasqueflower.”

Humans need elements of the natural to make and keep life human. A society attuned to artifacts forgets creation; maybe that’s New York versus the Rocky Mountains. What does it profit a man to gain the world only to lose it? To consume the world and lose soul in the tradeoff. Nature invites us to think of our sources, of the Great Source, more than of resources. The most authentic wilderness emotion is the sense of the sublime. We get transported by forces awe-full and overpowering, by the signature of time and eternity.

Humans do belong on the planet; we are Earth’s keepers, the salt of the earth. Nature is intrinsically valuable, but nature is not a moral sphere. Scientists and theologians are right that there is no conscience in wild nature, no compassion, charity, justice, honesty. One does not learn the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. Humans need ethics to live well on Earth.

Biologists have discovered how a first-level ethics is generated: Tribes with more cooperators do well against tribes with fewer cooperators. This produces altruism blended with enlightened self-interest - the patriot in battle. But in the global village where we must live in this new millennium, tribalism, now nationalism, even if altruistic, is the problem, rather than the answer, because we have not surpassed group competition. We need global community, solidarity.

Our planetary crisis is one of spiritual information: not so much sustainable development, certainly not escalating consumption, but using the Earth with justice and charity. Science cannot take us there; religion perhaps can. After we learn altruism for each other, we need to become altruists toward our fellow creatures. We must encounter nature with grace, with an Earth ethics, because our ultimate Environment is God - in whom we live, move, and have our being.

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