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Introduction to "Science and the Spiritual Quest" Conference

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Introduction to Science and the Spiritual Quest" Conference
Author(s): 
Robert Russell
Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences
Berkeley CA
Volume: 
18
Issue: 
2
Year: 
1998
Date: 
March–April
Page(s): 
26–27
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Robert Russell delivered these remarks at the opening of the Science and the Spiritual Quest conference on Sunday, June 7, 1998. We reprint them with permission.

Good morning, and welcome to the "Science and the Spiritual Quest" (SSQ) Conference, drawing together 27 internationally distinguished scientists who are invited to share with us their spiritual journey. I am Bob Russell, Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. I want to start this conference, though, by inviting you to use your imagination:

Imagine the Milky Way as a galaxy so vast that all the stars you can see on a clear night are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars making it up;

Imagine a photograph of deep space dense not with stars but with entire galaxies each as vast as our own Milky Way [and] floating endlessly in the depths of space;

Imagine the evolution of life on earth stretching back billions of years, yet with all species from blue-green algae to hummingbirds linked by a common genetic code;

Imagine the brain of a child with more neural connections than the number of stars in the Milky Way;

Imagine an atom so tiny that a hundred trillion can fit on the dot of an "i";

Imagine elementary particles endlessly arising into a half-existence and the colliding and decaying back into the underlying quantum field in a foaming process happening billions of times each second at every point of space throughout the entire universe;

Imagine the entire universe in its distant past smaller than an atom, a nucleus, even an elementary particle

What we are seeking to imagine lies beyond our direct perceptions and our ordinary, everyday world, but it is nevertheless real. These discoveries are the result of centuries of pioneering scientific research. They are the gifts of the natural sciences, gifts which are our common human heritage. Without science we could never have known any of this. Knowing it all has forever changed our understanding of the universe and of ourselves. This knowledge affects us at our deepest level, leading us to rejoice in the splendor of the universe and the joy of living.

Yet it also stirs within us those ancient and always present, ever pressing questions: who are we, where did we come from, why are we here, how are we to live our lives, what will be our future? These questions are basic to what many call the spiritual quest - our thirst for the infinite, for the transcendent, for meaning and purpose. I believe the questions science raises deserve an answer at least as profound as the discoveries themselves. The answers we give, whether sublime or superficial, will mark our lives and those of future generations. We are truly at a cusp in history of extraordinary ramifications.

For some scientists, the universe as such is the answer. It alone is our source, and science offers us sufficient meaning and purpose. For other scientists, many of whom are gathered here today, science is part of the answer, but a truly adequate account requires language about the God whom Jews, Christians and Moslems praise as the Creator of the universe and the ultimate source of meaning and purpose in our lives and world. The primary purpose of SSQ is to explore this second option.

First I want to give you a brief overview of the broader context in which it is located. SSQ is part of a rapidly growing intellectual movement commonly referred to as "science and religion". We are nearly 40 years into this exciting new period of open dialogue and creative, mutual interaction. I want to note some key factors which have made this possible:

In philosophy of science, we have moved from the modern period starting with the 17th century Enlightenment and culminating in the first half of this century. Here science was portrayed as an entirely objective, rational and impersonal process - one which eventually could explain all of human knowledge and experience in terms of physics. Nature was given a mechanistic interpretation characterized by determinism and reductionism. Since the 1960's we have been moving into what many call a post-modern understanding of science, which emphasizes the historical, inter-subjective and holistic character of scientific knowledge and which sees nature in terms of unpredictability and emergence. Scientists form a community of consensus, persons with shared assumptions whose knowledge is couched in revisable models of nature which point to reality but are never able to grasp it unequivocally and in its entirety.

Likewise in the philosophy of religion we once viewed religious language as merely expressive and religious experience as strictly subjective, totally divorced from scientific knowledge. Instead, scholars now acknowledge the cognitive content of religion and its broader explanatory power. In theology, too, we are moving away from a period of isolation between religions and between secular learning and sacred teaching. Instead we are living with the possibility of a fresh, invigorating intellectual climate infused with the spirit of ecumenical and inter-religious dialog, a climate which encourages a new and vigorous interaction both with the humanities and the natural sciences. Many scholars now see theological doctrines, like scientific theories, not as rigid, closed dogmas but as hypotheses about the world which, while firmly believed to be true, are radically subject testing by the appropriate data. For at least some of these theologians, the "data" should now include the theories and discoveries of the natural sciences. They also see science as infused with concepts and assumptions whose roots, though often unacknowledged, lie in philosophy and, more indirectly, in Western monotheism, and which invite a critical discussion between theologians, philosophers and scientists.

But what is most relevant to our conference is the effect that the stunning discoveries of the 20th century sciences are having on this dialogue. Think of the discoveries I listed already. Add to them the extraordinary explanatory theories of the natural sciences: physics, with the challenge of relativity to our fundamental notions of space, time, matter and energy; quantum mechanics, with its challenge to our notions of causality and separability and locality; cosmology, with the discovery of what might be the birth of our universe 15 billion years ago and the possible "freeze or fry" scenarios for its far future; evolutionary and molecular biology, with the ethical, legal, social, and medical issues surrounding genetics and the challenge to purpose, design, directionality or trends in nature; and think how the computer, the internet, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, and all the rest are raising the key questions about self, reason, embodiment and community. In fact, more often than not, it is the scientists who are moving out from their labs and knocking on our doors, saying "Can we talk?"

In light of these factors and others, a wealth of responses have been developed over the past 40 years, so that today the "generic" term, "science and religion", points to an immensely rich interdisciplinary field. It began in the 1960s through the genius of a handful of pioneering scholars with joint training in the sciences, theology and philosophy and by a few philosophers and theologians who have taken the discoveries and methodology of science seriously. There now exist centers and societies in the United States, England, Europe and Australia which support research, conferences, courses, public fora, and scholarly and publicly-oriented journals.

The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences here in Berkeley is one such center, committed to sponsoring research, teaching and public service both at the Graduate Theological Union and through a series of national and international programs, including SSQ. This past decade in particular has also brought a rapidly growing series of outstanding lectures, books, and journal essays which are "essential requirements" for anyone seriously interested in this interdisciplinary field. One may debate the issues, but one can no longer debate the fact that "science and religion" is a field whose research and courses deserve to be part of ongoing academic life.

Today we are fortunate to see the first fruits of what promises to be an invaluable new approach to the field. Unlike most of the interdisciplinary research characteristic of "science and religion", SSQ focuses specifically on scientists at the cutting edge of their research fields who are willing to share their experience of science as a spiritual journey. Most of them come from and participate in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Most of them have had little time in an extraordinary research career to devote to extensive studies in religion and philosophy. For the past 2 1/2 years, though, they have been willing to work closely together towards a common goal, asking how the discoveries, the theories, and the practices of science both inform and are informed by their spiritual journey as scientists. Today I invite them to share the insights that journey has yielded about the presence of transcendence in their lives, about the common ground they find in the experience and practice of science and religion, about the moral and spiritual dimension of science, and, for those who find this language appropriate, about God whose creative presence is known through the Book of Nature as well as Scripture and who calls us to participate in the healing, repairing and redemptive transformation of the world.