Earth Day, Science and Religion

I spent Earth Day morning participating in one of the hundreds of Marches for Science held around the world today. I am not a scientist, although there was a time when I thought I would be. I did well in science and math in high school, and inspired by the 1960’s space race and my hometown hero Neil Armstrong I began college in a pre-engineering program. All went fairly well until I hit calculus and suddenly an earlier call to ministry started feeling like a much better fit for me.

So I mingled at the Ohio Statehouse on a chilly Saturday morning (void of any global warming benefits) with a few thousand other people of all ages feeling a bit out of my element. The speakers at the rally were all from the scientific community, and except for a few mentions of God when we sang “America the Beautiful” there were no official theological overtones to the program. I was pleased to see a couple of people from my church and a theology professor from my alma mater there.

I should say that my awareness to the issue of theology and religion was heightened by the fact that I am currently reading “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith, a very weighty tome that explores the impact of what Smith calls the Traditional and Modern worldviews. The former for Smith represents a theological/mystical perspective and the latter a purely scientific one. I readily admit it has been too many years since I studied philosophy for me to do justice to Smith’s argument, but he makes one distinction which I found very helpful, and that is when he distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” He describes the difference like this: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting truth, than at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.” (p. 64)

Theology and religion on the other hand deal with the mysterious and more ambiguous questions of meaning and purpose that lie beyond or deeper than any knowledge scientific experiments can provide. So while my co-marchers today were chanting about “peer reviewed research” and “scientific data,” my motivation for being at the rally had more to do with the Psalmist’s assertion that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2) I didn’t take time to make a sign for today’s march, but if I had mine might have had a footnote that said “marching for science (not scientism) AND faith.”

I hasten to add that scientific and theological worldviews are not mutually exclusive, even though they have often been characterized as foes. Speakers at the rally today celebrated a long list of illnesses that have been eliminated by medical science; they praised improved air and water quality made possible by environmental protection initiatives. And they legitimately, in my opinion, criticized short-sighted attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on important funding for the very programs that have given us a quality of life we take for granted.

I fully support the need for the NIH and the EPA. History should teach us that unregulated capitalism and free market motives quickly give into profit over prophetic concern for the general welfare and long-term preservation of God’s creation. So the political motives for today’s marches are grounded in the very theological issues of stewardship of what is not ours but God’s. It is good and necessary to celebrate all the advances in knowledge that scientific research has provided. But science without the safety net of theology always comes to the edge of human knowledge—the edge of mystery where we must take the proverbial leap of faith and trust in the source of being itself that some of us call God.

That partnership between science and faith was captured in my favorite sign among the hundreds held by marchers today. It contained this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

If we are going to save our planet from human foolishness we need to join hands and work together, scientists and people of faith, government and private industry, young and old, and people of every political persuasion. There is no time or energy to waste on false battles between different perspectives or worldviews. I heard an interview on NPR this week about someone dealing with working class populations that are too consumed with just staying alive to go marching for science or the environment. The reporter said, “They don’t care about polar bears, they care about jobs.” The one to whom the earth belongs and all that is in it says we need to care about both. A nation that can eliminate polio and smallpox can figure out how to put people to work. If we can send people and spacecraft into outer space we can establish social justice and turn back climate change.

It’s a matter of priority. Those urgent human problems will not be resolved by building ugly walls or more obscene methods of mass destruction. The scientific method itself is proof that our hypothesis that war will solve human differences is blatantly false. How many times do we need to run that experiment before we realize it is a false hypothesis? All of the world’s great religions are based on a better hypothesis that the way to world peace is to love our neighbors, and that includes caring for mother earth that is our common home.

On my way to the march today I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who has started a support group for people who are suffering from anxiety about climate change and what it means for our future and especially for that of our children and grandchildren. She did it because she realized that there were lots of other people like her who were feeling isolated and powerless in the face of the forces denying the very existence of climate change. I confess I suffer from some of those same feelings and if that support group wasn’t in Utah I might join up. My own personal struggle with powerlessness took the form this week of not deciding until the last minute if I was going to the march today. My skeptic voice kept saying it won’t make any difference, your arthritis won’t like the chilly temperatures, you have too much else to do around the house. But the stronger voice was the one that argued for responsible stewardship, discipleship and citizenship, a pretty powerful combination.

And I’m very glad I went. It felt wonderful to be part of a movement that stretched far beyond downtown Columbus, to feel connected with the earth and with kindred souls who share a common purpose. That sense of belonging was summed up nicely in one of the other songs we sang at the rally before the march, John Lennon’s “Imagine:”

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

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