Friday 13 November 2020

Faith, Science and Contemplating Stars

Over the last fifty years of my Jesuit working life, I have been about evenly divided between secondary level and University, teaching physics and environmental science, and being involved in curriculum and assessment at both levels. As a priest, I am regularly asked about the relationship between faith and science – or more directly, how I reconcile the two central aspects of my life. Over the past few years, I have worked in a number of the Jesuit Companion schools and have visited classes, met students and answered questions. Regretfully, despite my hopes, coronavirus restrictions largely curtailed that at Riverview this year. The most common question I get asked relates to the relationship of faith and science. One of the main stumbling blocks for many students to faith is the impression of this conflict between faith and science, or faith and reason. Undoubtedly there is a perception of such a conflict. Undoubtedly many ill-informed but good intentioned individuals on both sides for the debate have exacerbated this perceived conflict. How do I respond?

I try to respond in two ways; firstly, to look at the large number of scientists over the centuries, including recently, who were persons of faith. Secondly, I try to clearly differentiate the appropriate realms of faith and science.

Charles Darwin was the author of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – probably the key text promulgating the Theory of Evolution. Was Charles Darwin an Atheist? Or anti-religion? He is often quoted in the “clash” of faith and science or reason. When he left for the famous voyage around the world in HMS Beagle, Darwin was studying divinity at Cambridge with the intention of preparing to be an Anglican priest; probably not anti-religion then. After his return, his ambition was still to be a pastor in a country Anglican parish. His interest in and fascination with biology overshadowed this. The death of Darwin’s eldest daughter, Annie, whom he loved dearly, in 1851 at the age of ten challenged Darwin’s belief in a loving God. Towards the end of his life, he described himself not as an Atheist, but a sort of agnostic – he struggled throughout his later life to reconcile a Loving God – in whom he believed – with human misery and especially tragedy. The problem of evil is a challenge for many of us.

In the past I have recalled in Viewpoint a number of Jesuits who have made very significant contributions to science. St Ignatius spent many nights sitting on his balcony in the Roman Jesuit house admiring the beauty of the night sky. Personally, my faith has strengthened my science, and my science – the beauty and wonder of creation – strengthened my faith. Like Ignatius, I love to spend time in a dark region away from the lights of big cities looking up at the night sky, at the millions of stars visible, and reflect on the beauty of God’s creation. Regretfully, this is an experience many of our students don’t have now, with the light pollution of big cities. Our country boarders are more blessed in this!

Secondly, we need to distinguish carefully the appropriate areas of knowledge and methodology of faith and science. Much of the conflict between them has come from not recognising that they are distinct areas of knowledge, with appropriate methodologies. This is a vast area, on which volumes have been written. Let me give my view briefly. The field of knowledge of science is the real physical world. The appropriate methodology of science is observation, experiment, and inductive reasoning from these. Faith is about our relationship to God. The appropriate methodology is Revelation – the Bible, philosophical reflection and deduction from these.

Two areas of conflict seem to predominate in students’ questions. Firstly, the clash between the account in the Book of Genesis and the Theory of Evolution. The second is the age of the universe. If we want to know the age of the universe we ask a scientist; it is a question about the physical world, and is answered by considering the observation of background cosmic radiation, the red shift in galaxies and similar. If we want to know about our relationship to God, then the Book of Genesis is an appropriate source.

With students, I draw the parallel of Jesus’ parables – or for that matter, Aesop’s fables. Jesus told us that our neighbour whom we must love and serve may be a stranger; not only friends. So, He told of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I ask students,”Was it a true story?” Some say yes, some say no. I point out it doesn’t matter – the point of the story is the lesson. It may have been something that actually happened; it may have been something Jesus made up on the spot; it may have been something He picked up from Readers’ Digest. Similarly, the account of the Garden of Eden in Genesis is not a scientific account of the origin of the universe. It is an illustration of God’s relationship with us – His giving to us the wonderful world; humans offending; God forgiving.

On a lighter note of the confusion between the realms of faith and science is the fable of the Russian astronaut. He came back from his time in space during the time of the communist soviet empire and was interviewed on Moscow Television. The interviewer asked him, since he had been in the heavens, had he met God up there? Politically correctly, the astronaut replied, no he had not met God there. An American evangelist responded, “He would have met God if he had opened the door of his spacecraft”.

During the week, we had a Mass commissioning the student Eucharistic ministers for the coming year, and of the two liturgy captains, Nicholas Boyer and Lachlan Walker. An email went out inviting any of their Year 11 friends to come to the Mass to be with them. I was most heartened by the huge number of Year 11s who attended. Thank you for your support. At the Mass we had a wonderful reflection by Nilanka Abbey focussing on the student theme for 2021: With Infinite Arms and linking that to the readings.

Conn O’Donovan, a Riverview staff member, died during the week. He was to me a close colleague, in our mutual interest in Bernard Lonergan SJ and Lonergan’s philosophy and theology. Conn had been at Riverview for about 20 years, and St Aloysius’ before that. He published widely on Lonergan and his philosophy, including while at Riverview, and encouraged the study of philosophy at both schools, and through the Lonergan Institute. There will be a more detailed account, focussing on his academic and philosophical achievements in an upcoming Viewpoint.

The HSC exams finished on Wednesday here – well done all – and the Victorian Year 12 exams started, in which I am still somewhat involved in Environmental Science from a distance.

Fr Gerry Healy SJ