US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The mystery of faith and science

Theologian Heidi Russell says that science doesn’t always have to shake up our core concept of God as creator.

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Heidi Russell has a dream. “I would love to see parishes get a subscription to Scientific American,” she says. “And then have a group that discusses what’s in each issue, reads about what’s happening in science, and then asks, ‘What might science tell us about our faith?’ ”

Russell, who teaches theology at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, has a special interest in the relationship between science and faith. She speaks as passionately about neuroscience and quantum physics as she does about theology and God. 

Her recent book, Quantum Shift, explores the theological and pastoral implications of contemporary developments in science, from relativity to quantum mechanics to cosmology. Russell suggests ways in which people of faith might engage these scientific developments to foster their relationship with God—and says we might be best leaving some of our traditional understanding behind.

But some of this new outlook, she says, also depends on our willingness to consider traditional metaphors for God that are just that—metaphors. God is not only father or shepherd, but also infinite mystery. To achieve Russell’s dream, parishes, clergy, and laypeople must be willing to ask: What does it mean to believe in that infinite mystery?

Do you think Christians are scared to ask what science might tell us about what we believe?

Sometimes. I think the universe-versus-multiverse question is a good example of this fear. People—not everybody, but some—have such a resistance to the theory of the multiverse, which is a theory motivated by real science that says we are part of an ever-growing number of other parallel universes. Somehow, that totally shakes up our concept of God. That always baffles me a little bit. How is thinking that God created a multiverse any different from thinking God created the universe? I don’t think that has to shift our core concept of God as creator.

People get this surface overview of the relationship between faith and science because well-known scientists such as Stephen Hawking write about scientific theories and discoveries from an atheist’s perspective. Hawking writes about the multiverse theory as evidence that there’s an explanation for how our universe came to be, therefore we don’t need God to explain our existence.

A Christian doesn’t have to look at it in the same way. But that’s not what people realize. They think, “Oh, the multiverse is used to disprove the idea of God, therefore we have to be against the idea of a multiverse if we want to be Christian.”

When a very famous scientist says a scientific discovery or theory contradicts the idea of God, you have to look at the theory itself and ask, “Does this actually contradict what our idea of God is?” In order to have that conversation, you have to first have the conversation about our ideas of God. I think that’s where the conversation has to start.

When we hear about science and religion in the headlines it’s because there’s some board of education that’s battling it out over what gets put in science textbooks or whether intelligent design theory should be taught alongside the theory of evolution. Things like that.

What people hear about is when there is some sort of battle between faith and science, and therefore their assumption is that these two things don’t go together. Good dialogue between faith and science doesn’t make the headlines of the newspapers because it’s not controversial.

Is there a pastoral way to approach that conversation?

I recently had a phone conference with three deacons from Texas. They had a pastor who was very into science and religion and very into deepening his own understanding in faith; he actually had read my book and told them they all had to read it.

They divided up the chapters and not only did they read it, but they read the background materials as well. They would go to the Scientific American articles and other resources. They had a whole list of questions for me. We talked about how to go about this dialogue in a parish. You might have 12 people who come to your book club discussion group, if you’re lucky. You might only have three or four, or nobody. But then what about the other 97 percent of the people in the parish? 

Part of what I said to the deacons is that I think one of the first things we have to do is educate people on how we read scripture as Catholics and to educate people on how we understand God as Catholics, because I think a lot of people don’t have a very deep theological background. They read scripture at face value—not much different than a fundamentalist might. Or, their idea of God may be that old man in the sky image, and even if they kind of tried to get away from that, it’s still very much the image of a big, important human being, like the CEO of the universe or something.

What are the small ways we can start to crack open this “man in the sky” being using science?

Getting people open to dialoguing with science is a good way to get away from that mythological or anthropomorphic image of God. If your idea of God is a superhuman in the sky who sat down with some paper and a pencil and planned out the universe, and then literally spoke some words and had it—poof!—come into existence, the multiverse image of the creation of the universe is going to shake that up a bit.

You could sit down and talk to somebody about the fact that there might be 11 dimensions and we only ever experience three of them. There could be, right next to us, this whole other world that exists that we, perhaps, will never be able to encounter or experience.

We can even use the multiverse as a metaphor for talking about God. Eleven dimensions are not so strange when we think about the fact that Christians believe God is around us all the time. Yet we don’t directly see God or touch God.

It’s almost as if the science itself just affirms the infinite mystery of the universe—and the infinite mystery of God—as opposed to challenging and undoing everything.

Absolutely. For me it does. You know, it’s funny: My dad read my book, and my dad taught science. My book confirms what I think my dad always felt.

I think the reason I am so drawn to the theologian Karl Rahner is that he affirms the intuitive vision of God I’ve always had. For people of science—scientists themselves or people just interested in science—who are also believers, when they study science it affirms what they already believe about God.

Why is Karl Rahner such a good dialogue partner for science?

First and foremost, he talks about the language of mystery. God is an incomprehensible mystery for Rahner. As soon as you start to try to conceptualize God, there’s that recognition that your words and your concepts are always going to fall short of who God is.

That has got to be recognized in all of our theology and our conversations between faith and science, because science also deals in mystery. I think having that common language makes Rahner a good dialogue partner.

Why is mystery common ground for science and faith? 

This was something that’s been drummed in me from my theology of Rahner classes. Sometimes, we think of mystery as a mystery to be solved; there are things like crime mystery, where there’s always an answer at the end when you solve it. But when it’s used in theology, especially by Rahner, the word I think of is depth.

It’s inexhaustible depth. It’s the infinite. It’s the idea that whenever you find an answer, it leads to a new question. It’s never-ending. For Rahner it’s the idea of the horizon. As you move toward the horizon, you never get to it. 

He talks about human transcendence and restlessness: We’ve got these restless hearts that are always yearning for something more, looking for something more. That longing, Rahner would say, is God: infinite mystery, drawing us near. He uses the word God to define that one thing we can’t transcend, the one thing that we can’t fully comprehend. Because if we could comprehend it, we could transcend it. My theology professor would always use the image of the horizon versus an island. An island is concrete. You can circle it. You can circumnavigate it. You can get out on it, walk around. You can measure it. God is not the island. God is the horizon beyond the island. God is what allows you to experience the island. 

How can we do a better job talking to people who think science disproves God?

If you’re having a dialogue with one other person, you both have to lay your presuppositions on the table. You have to start from the same set of presuppositions. If you don’t, you’re going to be talking past each other.

You need to acknowledge that you are going to be using the same word—God—but you’re going to be using it in different ways. People ask, “Do you believe in God?” and my response is, “Tell me about the God that you’re asking me if I believe in. Then I’ll tell you whether I believe in that God or not.”

Take Richard Dawkins for example. He thinks that every Christian believes in the old man in the sky who’s controlling everything and micromanaging everything and intervening all the time. I absolutely don’t believe in the God that Richard Dawkins also doesn’t believe in.

He and I could 100 percent agree on the fact that neither of us believe in that old-man-in-the-sky God. But Richard Dawkins would never have had that conversation with me. There’s a certain segment of people I would call “fundamentalist atheists,” and I would not try to sit down and have a dialogue with them any more than I would try to sit down and have a dialogue with a biblical fundamentalist. I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile for people to try to have those conversations, but our starting presuppositions are, at their core, opposed to each other. There is no common language. If they’re not willing to open up their concept of what a believer is talking about when they use the word God or, if every time you used the word God they could only hear it as a force of intervention or an anthropomorphized, mythological sort of God, then that conversation really isn’t going to go anywhere.

Do you think people are aware the Catholic Church has been historically open to science?

We have the Vatican Observatory. How many churches can say they operate one of the premier scientific observatories in the entire world? But a lot of people aren’t even aware of the relationship the Catholic Church has with science and how progressive it is.

In my book, I quote a letter that St. John Paul II wrote to Jesuit Father George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory. The pope asked Coyne: What can we as faithful Christians learn from science? What can we learn from evolution? The pope encourages that exploration. We have the support of the institution in terms of opening up that dialogue.

Most Catholics are already some-what open-minded toward science, and if they’re not, there are resources available to open up that way of thinking. The greater challenge in our parishes is to move people in their theology and their understanding of scripture.

When I was at Washington Theological Union, I went to the Kennedy Center to hear a concert with a fellow student, and we ran into a couple who were tourists from Texas. I don’t know how we struck up a conversation, but somehow we did.

The man found out that we were seminarians. He was Baptist. He said, “Oh, I used to be a Baptist minister, but I lost my faith. Do you know how I lost my faith? I started reading the Bible.”

He said, “When you read the book of Genesis, do you know what was created on the fourth day?”

I had recently been taking scripture classes, so I said, “The sun was created on the fourth day!” He said, “Right, and the plants were created before that, so how could you have plants before you had sun?” I said, “Well, we’re Catholic, and we don’t read scripture literally.”

And then I said, “The pope actually made a statement recently in which he said there is no conflict for a Catholic in terms of reading scripture and believing in the concept of evolution.”

He was floored. He said, “I think we should change our coins from saying, ‘In God we trust’ to saying, ‘In the pope we hope.’ ”

Do Christians have anything to teach scientists?

Most scientists can agree that love exists, that humans have intangible things that we call freedom, that we call agency, things that cannot be explained away by science. Maybe we can understand more aspects of them through science. Most scientists, even those who are pretty strong atheists, would agree with that. That’s a place to start that dialogue with someone.

Where Christians get tripped up is when they say scientists need to engage Christians in dialogue because we can teach them about morals. We can teach about ethics.

There are plenty of atheists that can teach Christians a lot about morals and ethics. We have to stop presuming that we have some sort of monopoly on the truth. Christians need to enter into the conversation with a whole lot more humility than we have in the past.

And scientists could enter the conversation with a little more humility, too, and say that maybe Christianity does have something to add—community. We can talk about social justice. That’s not to say that we have the whole of the truth or that our view is the whole view, but we do have a partial view. We could be a voice at the table.

Certainly when you look at the Catholic Church, there’s the fact that we are so steeped in health care, in higher education—in all levels of education, for that matter. We are a partner that science should be engaging simply because we have resources. We have lots of resources. We have something to offer. 

There are a lot of scientists, even those in the spotlight, so to speak, who are engaging theology even if they disagree with it. But scientists who are also people of faith tend to compartmentalize their faith and their scientific work, and I think the reason is because we don’t offer them a sophisticated theology. It creates a dissonance for them.

If we could offer scientists a more sophisticated theology, a deeper image of God, I think that they would be more likely to not feel like they had to keep those two things so separate in their lives.

Are there any pastoral pitfalls to coming at science and God from this perspective?

I will never forget when I was presenting on the resurrection of the body and science at the CTSA, the Catholic Theological Society of America. Elizabeth Johnson was in the room. At the end of the presentation, she raised her hand. I’m paraphrasing, but her basic question was, “This is great. So what do I tell my grandmother? What do I tell my grandmother who is facing death?”

Even George Coyne, when I talked about my concept of God as love, he said, “OK, you can’t just pray to love.”

Even he wants to hold on to the idea of God as person. People like certainty. They like concrete images of God. In my own life, I never knew how much I wanted to believe in a God who made everything come out all right in the end until I was in situations where something didn’t come out all right in the end. You pray to God and you want God to fix it. You want God to make the person you love no longer have cancer. It doesn’t happen. At the end of that, you have to step back and say, “Who is this God I believe in?”

Beginning a dialogue between faith and science breaks open peoples’ concrete images of God, and that does cause a little existential angst. But on the other hand, life causes existential angst. If we don’t give people something that is a little deeper than an old man in the sky, when they hit the existential angst of life—be it a spouse dying, disease, war, crime, whatever it is—what’s going to happen?

We definitely experience things in life that we want God to fix and God doesn’t. I think having a little existential angst before someone hits a crisis helps prepare them. I also think it takes, sometimes, those upheavals in life to shake up your image of God.

This article also appears in the November 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 11, pages 18–22).

Image: Flickr cc via Engineering at Cambridge

Published: 
Tuesday, November 8, 2016