For Both Religion and Science, It’s Good To Not Know

For Both Religion and Science, It’s Good To Not Know

This piece is excerpted from a one-hour workshop with Rev. Ruth Shaver and Rev. Zack Jackson at the United Church of Christ General Synod that included a hands-on science demonstration. Listen to the full presentation here.

Ruth Shaver: Let me begin with Proverbs 8:22-31:

 The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past.
I was formed in ancient times,
at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
before God made the earth and the fields
or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he secured the fountains of the deep,
when he set a limit for the sea,
so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
I was having fun,
smiling before him all the time,
frolicking with his inhabited earth
and delighting in the human race.

My favorite line in that whole thing is “I was having fun.” Because science is fun, right? A lot of us don’t think of science as fun, because we had to do standardized tests, or write lab reports, or balance chemical equations when we had mononucleosis and couldn’t find the minus sign (true story). But most of us do science every day, one way or another. Gardening, checking the weather, cleaning, watching TV, making food. Even cooking rice is a science; If you cook the wrong kind of rice by the wrong directions, you get something that doesn’t resemble anything edible.

So there are lots of ways that we use science, but if we’re not aware of it as a fact in our daily lives, we start to be afraid of it. People wonder why it is that scientists change their mind all the time. But when you stop to think about it, a lot of it is because we’re so blinded in some ways to the fact that we use science every day, that we’re not even aware of how often it is that we use the scientific process to make decisions in our lives – even in our faith lives. So when you stop to think about it, science is a way of exploring the world to help us make sense of it.

Zack Jackson: You might start to reflect on what foundation of science as you have been taught is. We often think of it as facts, as evidence, as truth, information, data, numbers and facts and figures, technology. That’s why our science and technology networks are often conflated with each other.

But James Maxwell said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” It is not some great discovery that leads to a great advance, it’s a really interesting question. It is knowing that you don’t know something instead. Because if you know all the answers, then you have nowhere to grow. There’s nowhere that you can go next.

When CERN finally turned on the Large Hadron Collider, and smashed those particles together and found out what the Higgs Boson particle really looks like, everyone was all excited. But I read a couple of articles by some scientists who were really disappointed that it behaved the way that the models suggested that it should – because that meant there were no more loose threads. We don’t know where to go now, because it did what it was supposed to do. An answer is a closed door. Whereas when something goes horribly wrong, that’s an open door. And there are more interesting questions to be found on the other side of the door. I tell my congregation all the time that I love when things go horribly wrong in church, because then that’s a new avenue we can go through. And they look at me, and – God bless them – they go with me on these things.

Isaiah writes, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” All who think that they know the answer before they approach the problem will not actually find it. You will just find what you were looking for in the first place. That is the kind of science that was done in my Evangelical upbringing. We started with “the earth is was made in six days,” and then we looked at the fossil records and the geological records and said, “How can we prove this thing we already know using science?” That is the opposite of science. That’s starting with certainty and doctrine, and ending with the answer that you want. And that does not work.

Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion were the foundation of modern science. They changed everything – philosophy, theology. When you realize that just with a couple of letters in an equation, you could plug in numbers and determine everything from the movements of the stars to the way that an apple falls, it was like opening up a pocket watch and being able to say, “Oh, that’s how it works.” And this is when the whole deism movement started. People would say, ”Well, God is a clockmaker who put things in motion.”

And that lasted for a while until Einstein came around. The tides had been starting to shift as we realized that Newton’s laws started to change and bend when you have a lot of gravity, mass or momentum. Then Einstein’s theories of relativity changed everything. We know now that space and time are one and the same, and that objects with large mass bend space and time, and as counterintuitive as it is, no one is experiencing the flow of time. That’s not a thing, that’s just the way our brains interpret it.

About the same time, you’ve got people like Neils Bohr and Schrödinger and all of these folks who are looking even smaller. And when you look into the atom itself, the subatomic level, the new laws throw the old ones right out the window. Einstein’s relativity falls apart entirely. Gravity just doesn’t seem to exist. Things don’t exist in the way that they do in physicality, the way we imagine things, as having place and velocity and location. Everything exists in a sort of cloud of probability. Einstein was so upset by this that he spent his waning years trying to disprove quantum physics, and he couldn’t. In fact, the standard model is one of the most well-proven theories that we have out there.

So we have three theories of physics. We have Newton’s that seem to work really well in your everyday life, the way that humans live. But then Einstein’s relativity is also true, but only in a certain way, because then quantum physics is also true, but only in a certain way.

And it reminds me of this wonderful quote from the statistician George Box that “all models are wrong, but some are helpful.” Or useful. This is how I approach my theology now, too, by the way, that all that we do in churches is a model. All that we believe, all our theology, is a model. It is a way of explaining the experience that we have with the divine. And it may be helpful, but it is wrong.

On the plane over here, I was reading “Why God Won’t Go Away” by Andrew Newberg – fantastic book. And he quotes this poem from C.S. Lewis which is called “A Footnote to All Prayers”:

“Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.”

You know, C.S. Lewis was not much for mysticism. But yet even he saw that truth, that even our prayers, are idolatrous if taken at face value. How can we explain that which is so entirely different, yet so all consumed within?

Ruth Shaver: So how many of you are agnostic? Anybody who’s not raising your hand, raise your hand right now, because the word agnostic means “not knowing.” None of us know about God – we believe. God is not knowing – it is different, and part of what happens in the competition, if you will, between faith and science is that people use the wrong verbs. And so people will state categorically, “I know that God exists,” “I know that God created the earth in six days,” and “I know that humans are supposed to be at the pinnacle, and we have dominion over the earth, and therefore everything human beings do is ordained by God.” (And therefore we don’t have to care about climate change). But the reality of it is that God is not knowable. It’s okay to be agnostic when we stop to think about the power of the word “believe.”

This is a wonderful quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa: “The one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible (and lifting up their own mind as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible) believe that the divine is there, where the understanding does not reach.”

This is categorically different from how we explore science. Science is what we think we can know. God willing, there will always be more questions than answers in science, because otherwise we stop being creative and imaginative, and God, life would be boring then. But faith is something that we can’t know, so that we have to take it on faith.

So when we reach the limits of what we know in science, even scientists to start to take things on faith, which is what I like to point out. When Einstein threw in the Cosmological Constant, he was hoping that something would explain it other than quantum physics. He took it on faith that there would be another answer. Well, he was wrong, but I don’t think he lived to actually understand that, which might be a good thing.

But there are so many things that happen to us in our lives that we just can’t explain that may someday have an explanation, or at least a biological or a neurobiological explanation, but still provide us with meaning and purpose. We know things we’ve experienced and observed. We don’t believe in gravity – you know gravity. Gravity grounds us. We know what gravity exists, at least what we call gravity, because we experience it every day. And if all of a sudden gravity stopped existing, we would know pretty quickly that something was wrong, right. It’s like all those science fiction shows where they turn off the gravity generator and everyone starts hitting the ceiling. 

The other piece about knowing in the terms of scientific terminology is that what we know can be replicated by other people under similar circumstances. So when we talk about a theory being falsifiable, it means it’s possible to prove that it’s not true by not being able to replicate the data, or by having the data falsified in some way. So knowing something in a scientific form means that it’s replicable. We’re all existing forms of replicating the existence of gravity, because we’re all sitting in our chairs.

How many of you have had some kind of a mystical experience with God? We have that in common, right, for a lot of us. But each of our experiences is different, and you’ve probably never had the same experience twice, right. So that’s not a replicable experience.

So even though we have the common thread of language that we can talk about it as, and we have some frameworks so that we can say, “Yes, that was probably God” or, “No, that was probably not God,” we can’t replicate those experiences. Similarly with our encounters with whether prayer works or not. Some people will say point-blank, “I’ve never had a prayer answered in my life.” My great-grandmother would say, “Well, it’s probably true that you have, we just forget that God doesn’t always say yes.” She kept a prayer journal. Could I replicate the contents of her prayer journal and say definitively whether God answers prayers? No. But she believed that, and that’s what she taught her children and grandchildren.

All of this is to say that science creates itself as reputable information sources become a part of what we do, because the quality procedures happen, and because they can be replicated, and because the data is valid.

So the data has to be coherent. That means it has to agree with itself. The data have to correspond to each other as well. It has to work together to form the big picture. Because you may have data from separate sources, you may have data from different fields of science, and they have to work together. Like Zack was saying, those three models that are all wrong come together and make it work, because the data is coherent and it corresponds. Do three wrongs make a right? Apparently. Or it makes the wrong useful. Or it makes it workable.

Science has grown. We have Newton, we have Einstein, and we have quantum physics. They work together or they don’t, depending on the circumstance, but they’re all as valid as any other – and incomplete. Likewise, all the different faiths and religious traditions are valid and relevant, but incomplete, because we are but human beings trying to grasp the enormity of a god with the imagination to create the universe that we can explore for science.

But the less we question, and the more certain we are in our faith or in our science, the less we’re going to know in the end.

Zack Jackson: I’ll add also that Newton, in his trying to figure out how the universe works, couldn’t quite figure out why the planets’ gravities’ didn’t eventually descend in on themselves and destroy everything. Why are we still always moving? Why aren’t we going down the drain? He couldn’t figure it out, so he said, “Well, I think probably God steps in every once in a while, every 5000 miles, and does a tune-up.” And then he stopped thinking about it and moved on. And then one generation later, they figured it out.

He, unfortunately, treated God like a God of the gaps, a God of places you don’t understand, squeezing God in like mortar between bricks. Which is a terrible way to see God, because you’re always making God smaller, having fewer places to be, that God doesn’t simply explain the things that we don’t know yet, but God is that which permeates through all of those things that we understand and that we don’t.

The great divine mystery that’s pulling us deeper and deeper into understanding the cosmos, into somehow understanding metaphors and allegories that incompletely describe an infinite and ultimately Other God who somehow, for some crazy reason, also wants to be known. This is the unknowable that wants to be known, that has written eternity on the hearts of humans, but not the mind to understand it.


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