Bishop's Blog

The Tension Between Religion and Science

A little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?” The mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve and they had children and so was all mankind made.”

Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. The father answered, “Many years ago there were monkeys from which the human race evolved.”

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom, how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?'

The mother answered, “Well, dear, it is very simple. I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his.”

Nevertheless, the bottom line for many people is that evolution remains one of the tensions between religion and science.

In October, 1996, Pope John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a gathering of scientists from all over the world, who were meeting in Rome to discuss the origins of life and evolution. In his remarks to this group, the pope said that new knowledge now "leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."

Difficulties arise when people in either the areas of faith or science fail to be careful and responsible in their respective statements and claims.

The theory of evolution involves several large claims. Alvin Plantinga, not a scientist but a highly-respected scholar, identifies five distinct claims

  1. There is the claim that this earth is very old, possibly 4.5 billion years old. A huge amount of evidence supports this view.
  2. There is the claim that life has developed from simple to complex forms. Thus, species are not fixed and immutable; we should not think of them as all having been created by God just as they are today. One kind of organism can have descendants that belong to a different kind. Again, there is a lot of convincing evidence to support this claim, especially in the fossil record.
  3. There is the claim that all life on earth shares a common ancestry; all living things, the various kinds of animal and vegetative life, are related to one another by genealogy.
  4. There is the theory, first put forth by Charles Darwin, that the evolution of life from simple to more complex forms is the result of "natural selection." The "selection" takes place as follows. Individuals differ, because of different characteristics inherited from each "parent" as well as because of mutations arising from various sources. Such differences, in particular environments and among particular populations, give some individuals an advantage in the "struggle for existence." Over time, major changes come to prevail in that population.
  5. There is the theory that life itself developed from non-living matter simply as a result of purely natural causes.

The further one moves down this list of claims, the more contentious is the evidence offered in support. What challenges to faith does this scientific picture present?

First, some Christians, including some Catholics, adopt a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. The problem here is a failure to appreciate the literature of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. (cf. GENESIS by Eugene H. May and INSPIRATION AND INERRANCY by Richard F. Smith in The Jerome Biblical Commentary). In brief, the sacred stories are not “history” as we normally use the term, nor is “inspiration” the same thing as “dictation”.

The purpose of those stories in Genesis is to teach religious truths, not science. Pope John Paul II, paraphrasing Galileo, said, "The sacred writings are concerned with how one goes to heaven, not with how the heavens go."

Since the stories in Genesis are about the fact that everything existing owes its origin to God's act of creation, there is no conflict here with scientific attempts to decipher how things as we know them today came about (or how God created all things). To suggest an either-or approach—that we must either accept creation by God or evolution—is incorrect; the two positions are compatible.

Nor is there any need to appeal to something like Intelligent Design Theory (ID) in the effort to show that God has intervened in the evolutionary process at key points to bring about critical innovations.

According to ID theory, very simply expressed, the cell and several of its fundamental components are "irreducibly complex," and could never have come about simply through a process of natural selection. Some people appeal to ID theory in order to support a modified form of creationism, which envisions a series of direct divine interventions in the process of evolution. But there is no need to adopt such a view. God as the Primary Cause of all that happens is quite able to use chance and randomness in accomplishing the divine purpose.

Again, there are people who argue that evolution must be wrong because it involves saying that the higher comes from the lower, e.g. higher animals from simple one-celled organisms, and that this is philosophically impossible. But such people are thinking only of the material involved in evolution. We must keep in mind that there are also natural agents at work in the process, and above all God, the Supreme Agent, is involved.

Imagine a father is about to eat his breakfast. He sees a bouquet of dandelions on the table. If he was a physicist, he might wonder what is the wavelength of the flower's bright yellow. If he was a chemist, he would probably think of the quantity of mineral salts in the plant as a whole. As a biochemist, he would admire the remarkable efficiency of chlorophyll. As a biologist, he would remember the phytohormones responsible for the flowers' blossoming. As an artist, he would appreciate the harmony of colours and the proportions of the forms. But if his six-year-old little girl suddenly came into the room and jumped in his arms, saying,. "Happy birthday, daddy!", the bouquet transforms and becomes imbued with significance. It becomes the sign pure and beautiful love.

Scientists look to the "how" of things. Artists, philosophers and theologians, while not necessarily ignoring the “how,” tend to look to the "why" of things. They work in the realm of meaning. Obviously, these ways of looking at things are not opposite. On the contrary, they complete each other harmoniously, each projecting its ray of light onto beings. And the person who has kept his or her capacity for wonder from childhood is probably more apt to look at things in multiple ways.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs Office Bishop's Religious Education
Related Themes Religious Education Inter-Religious Catholic Teachings

Understanding Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Death threats issued to Pope Benedict XVI, Muslims burning the Pope in effigy, promises to conquer Rome and slit the throats of Christians, at least seven churches in the region of Palestine torched, a nun murdered in front of a children’s hospital in Somalia.

This state of affairs is sadly ironical - violent protests from a religion of peace! We all have to move to a position where it is not sufficient to reject violence generically, nor to attribute such violence to “a few radicals,” nor to sit back in silence. Even brothers can be wrong. Many of us cannot help but ask where is the outrage, the condemnation and apologies from Muslims?

The position of the Pope concerning Islam is unequivocally that expressed by the Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.”

The Pope's option in favour of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue is equally unequivocal. Dialogue is not an option but a vital necessity.

In his first encyclical letter, Pope Benedict defended the truth that “God is Love.” At Regensburg, he was defending the foundation truth that “God is Logos, Reason.” This is not simply the result of enculturation or the “hellenization of Christianity” but is something that is always and intrinsically true.

Pope Benedict criticizes attempts in the West to “dehellenize” Christianity by the rejection of the rational component of faith (the sola fides of the 16th century reformers); the reduction of reason to the merely empirical or historical (modern exegesis and modern science); and by a multiculturalism which regards the union of faith and reason as merely one possible form of enculturation of the faith. All this is a Western self-critique.

To highlight the inability to engage with the other in our modern world, Pope Benedict chose an example, drawn from the resources of history, which also demonstrates one of the pressing issues of our time.

It is true that one could argue over whether he should have considered how his carefully crafted prose could be misread and manipulated by the ignorant to fan the flames of religious intolerance.

Nevertheless, the dialogue between the emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Muslim scholar from Persia on the irrationality of spreading the faith through violence was not a. mere academic exercise. Byzantium was increasingly threatened in the 14th century by an aggressive Islamic force, the growing Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Emperor seems to have committed the dialogue to writing while his imperial capital, Constantinople, was under siege by the Ottoman Turks. It would fall definitively in 1453. Muslims were military enemies, engaged in a war of aggression against Byzantium. Yet even in these circumstances the Christian Emperor and the learned Persian Muslim could be utterly candid with one another and discuss civilly their fundamental religious differences. As Benedict described the dialogue, the subject was “Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”

The Emperor was able to engage his Muslim interlocutor by appealing to a shared, natural human reason and its ability to apprehend the truths of God. As the Pope summarized, the Emperor was able to articulate “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” He continued: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. … The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

I also think that his lecture ought to be read in the context of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Turkey and the absence of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians in Turkey.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Barthlomew I, invited the pope in mid-2005. The Turkish government formally invited the pope February 2006. But shortly before this, on the 5th of the same month, there was the killing of an Italian priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, in a church in Trabzon, on the Black Sea. After this, other priests were the targets of threats and attacks. For a few months, a number of the representatives of the Catholic Church in Turkey have been living under the protection of unarmed, plainclothes police officials. Their telephone conversations are monitored, and their mail is often already open when it is delivered. More than being protected, they have the feeling of being watched.

Last June, another important Church leader, the “Catholicos” of the Armenians, Karekin II, visited Turkey. A reference that he made to the massacre of Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Empire during its final phase earned him a penal trial for offences against Turkey, brought against him by the magistrate of Istanbul.

Religious liberty is largely lacking in Turkey: this is also true for the non-Sunni Muslims, the Alevi. Their places of worship are still downgraded as “cultural centers.”

There is growing hostility in the Turkish media toward everything that is Western, European, and Christian. Secular opinion is outstripped by opinion with an Islamist imprint, which is increasingly more combative. An extremely mediocre book of political fiction published in Turkey at the end of August and written by a journalist who specializes in intrigues, Yücel Kaya, has had spectacular commercial success. The title says it all: “Attack on the Pope: Who Will Kill Benedict XVI in Istanbul?”

In the view of Benedict XVI, the heart of the question is always the same one that the emperor of Constantinople and his learned Persian counterpart discussed in 1391: “Not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God.”

Sincerely yours in Christ,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs Office Bishop's
Related Themes Ecumenical Peace Inter-Religious Vatican II

Difficult Dialogues

I must be extremely naïve. Little did I realize that our Diocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs initiative, in offering an Introduction to Islam class, would provoke re-actions like the following:

I am a very active Catholic and devout in my faith and to my church. I am in shock to say the least at the idea of Islam being taught in our church... Islam is NOT peaceful! Islam is in the West, trying to put a western spin on Islam. Do Not Be Deceived!... I protest strongly an imam coming into the Church... Will you allow Middle Eastern Christians to come in and tell the truth about living under Islam? Will you speak of the girls having acid thrown on their faces for not covering their heads or for simply wearing a cross? My next letter will be to the Vatican, I am shocked and ashamed.

The author is certainly out of step with the teaching of Pope John Paul II and mainstream Catholicism which continues to urge all the children of Abraham, the biblical patriarch considered the father of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to rediscover the brotherhood that they share and that prompts in them designs of cooperation and peace.

Such inter-religious dialogue seems to be the only sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those religious wars which have so often bloodied human history.

Regrettably, Christians and Muslims often judge one another by the extremists and make the mistake of judging the other’s worst by their own best. In the western world we also tend to believe that Islamic fundamentalism is the result of alienation, social exclusion, or globalization. In short, we tend to believe that if economic development takes place, then people in the Islamic world will become “like us,” and then there will be no more threats to global security.

Furthermore, such an economic analysis used to explain terrorists attacks does not easily fit the profile of the Osama bin Ladens of this world who reject a Western modernity which many of them experienced as students.

Islamic fundamentalism is better understood as a cultural and religious response to secular materialism.

Only the foolhardy expect Muslims to exchange the beliefs, practices, and traditions which are constitutive of Islamic communities for those of Western liberalism.

Thirty-five years ago the Catholic Church took a dramatic stand to promote constructive, peaceful and religious relations with Muslims by promulgating these words from the Second Vatican Council in 1965: “The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to people. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin mother they also honour and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms deeds and fasting” [Nostra Aetate, 3]. Taking religion and culture seriously entails a commitment to form dialogues, and this can take place in many ways – living room dialogues in neighbourhoods and communities; dialogues that lead to cooperative efforts on particular projects to assist those in need; the dialogues of specialists where our religious beliefs are examined and the dialogue of religious experience, where we share more deeply of ourselves and our prayers and understanding of living a life devoted to God.

There are some who think interreligious dialogues are like other dialogues – for example, negotiations between countries, bargaining between labour and management, or any attempts to find middle ground between disputing parties. This is not the case. Dialogue in society involves compromise, that’s how we get things done, and that is good.

But when people of faith talk to one another, they are not attempting any compromise. Our goal in interreligious dialogue is not to construct one religion for the whole world, but to share and learn from one another.

Interreligious dialogue is both a process of spiritual growth and a set of experiences that can have a transforming effect on those engaged in it. Interreligious dialogue is the art of spiritual communication. The participants maintain their religious practice, they invite their partners to be present with them when they pray and they seek to understand how each of them understands what one must do to be holy. We seek to understand one another, to challenge one another to understand each of our beliefs most deeply and to grow in our understanding of the greatness, abundance and mercy of God. Interreligious dialogue has certain characteristics: clarity, an outpouring of thought, meekness, humility, kindness, patience, generosity, prudence and trust. In interreligious dialogue we are compelled to make our language understandable, acceptable and well-chosen, so that we can be both truthful and charitable to one another.

The experience of the moral life rooted in the virtues, social practices, and the traditions of our respective religious communities, however imperfectly we may live them, is where genuine dialogue between civilizations can begin.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs Office Bishop's
Related Themes Peace Inter-Religious
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