Two years ago, ASA member Peter Hess participated in a colloquium on Intelligent Design at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He argued that science can neither discover nor rule out the existence of God. A few days later, in the online discussion sparked by this event, a blogger labeled him the Anti-Christ.
A practicing Catholic with a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford and a doctorate in historical theology from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Peter found the accusation amusing rather than offensive. As he and other ASAers are aware, those who dedicate their lives to learning about the delicate issues at the interface between science and religion don’t expect applause after every attempt to reconcile what some folks regard as approaches to truth standing in rigid opposition.
Peter works at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and promoting the teaching of evolution in public schools, so he is neither afraid to defend the Christian worldview from militant atheists nor the evolutionary perspective from anti-scientific fundamentalists.
As the resident theologian on the NCSE staff, Peter’s job is twofold: to reach out to religious groups and suggest how they might reconcile scientific truth with the teachings of their respective denominations, and to communicate with scientists — who are understandably fed up with the anti-scientific attitude of fundamentalists — the fact that most mainstream Christian denominations have already come to accept evolution.
In the course of doing so, Peter has been labeled a “stupid theist,” an “accommodationist,” and he recently received a formal denunciation of heresy (lodged with the Bishop of the diocese of Yakima in Washington).
While Peter believes that neither science nor religious belief are fundamentally threatened by either one’s constantly evolving understanding of the cosmos, he recognizes that neither side has a monopoly on good will. Numerous people he encounters for the first time would just as soon toss a verbal bomb across the fence than question their own interpretation of scripture or nature.
“The apparent conflict between the scientific and religious world views is in part a hermeneutical problem — that is, a matter of interpretation,” he says. Scientists often lack the perspective to communicate science to people of faith in a way that is intelligible and non-threatening to the spiritual truths that those people hold dear. And religious believers are often woefully uneducated in science, such that they cannot perceive how scientific discoveries offer exciting new perspectives on their faith.”
For Peter, it’s as important for religious communities to regularly re-think and re-articulate their beliefs as it is for scientists to test and re-test every emerging theory. “Both cherished formulations of faith and seemingly solid ‘laws of nature’ are subject to revision,” says Peter. “In my theological understanding, it’s not a matter of God being either always in process or always static and immutable; rather, it’s a matter of the human experience of God being constantly shifting. We humans inhabit an ancient, dynamic and evolving cosmos, and yet we’ve constructed most of our Abrahamic theologies within the rather temporary window of a very comfortable universe that is hospitable to life.
When asked to explain what comfort and hospitality have to do with theology, Peter says, “Even setting aside climate change, Earth’s future environment may be far less hospitable, and therefore less transparently reflective of the blessing of God. If humans last another few million or tens of millions of years, what will the ‘love of God’ mean when we’re suffering in a resource-degraded environment, or in a period of earth-scouring glaciation, or when the increasing solar winds begin to strip away our atmosphere? What will be the texture of our theology of creation when creation no longer seems particularly welcoming of plant or animal life?”
As a lifelong outdoorsman and mountain climber, it’s understandable why the kinds of questions lying at the interface between science and religion would appeal to Peter’s adventurous nature. “These questions probe at the heart of everything, asking not just how the universe works and how human beings evolved on earth, but why the universe exists at all — a question Steven Hawking also posed (perhaps rhetorically) at the end of A Brief History of Time.”
After earning his master’s degree in philosophy and theology at Oxford, Peter took a job teaching in an inner city Catholic high school for girls in San Francisco’s largely Hispanic Mission district. “This was a real culture shock for me, having just returned from the historic heart of the English-speaking world. I spent four very challenging and gratifying years trying to communicate global history, ethics, philosophy and theology to young women, many of whom were struggling to learn English.”
Embarking on his doctoral studies at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Peter probed more deeply into the ways in which science and religion have influenced each other throughout history. He focused on the development of natural theology from its medieval role, which at that time was essentially a preparation for the discussion of revealed theology, to a role it would assume in modernity as a free-standing apologetic.
“Before and during the Enlightenment, the impulse to demonstrate the being and attributes of God evolved into an increasingly urgent project to actually prove the existence of God, Peter says. “As one scholar once said (ironically but with some exaggeration), ‘Nobody doubted the existence of God until someone tried to prove it.’”
In his doctoral dissertation, Peter examined how Anglicans, nonconformists, and Catholics all engaged in the project of natural theology for their own confessional reasons, variously appropriating and misappropriating perspectives from the developing scientific revolution. They used these emerging scientific ideas for their own purposes, adapting astronomy and physics, natural history and geology, well into the nineteenth century to demonstrate the being and wisdom of God.
“Of course, the project of natural theology as a proof for the existence of God foundered in the nineteenth century, but the engagement of religion with science by no means ended,” says Peter.
He notes that the rift we now observe between science and spirituality began perhaps early in the eighteenth century, around 1725, when a small but vociferous faction of scientists within the Royal Society started to scoff at references to Adam and Eve, or to Noah and the flood.
The fissure grew with the gradual discovery over the next century of the ‘deep history of time,’ and with the professionalization of the various sciences. In the nineteenth century, the room for amateur clergy-philosophers in the academy was rapidly diminishing — ‘natural philosophy’ had been transmuted into physics, astronomy, and chemistry, and ‘natural history’ was becoming archeology, paleontology, and biology.
“Still, the variation in responses to Darwin’s theory of natural selection reveals that there wasn’t a clear split between scientists who accepted it and the theologians who rejected it,” says Peter. “Some scientists rejected Darwin’s theory on scientific grounds, and a number of theologians welcomed it on theological grounds as offering further testimony of divine creative wisdom. It was not until the twentieth century that an increasing number of scientists began to express either an indifference or a deep hostility to religion, and this arose in part as a result of the increasing hostility of Fundamentalist Christians to what they perceived as the threat of science.”
According to Peter, the roots of the evolution-creation conflict are multiple, reflecting scientific, philosophical, theological, academic, and cultural differences. But one of the most significant roots is epistemological — that is, it lies within the theory of knowledge and its foundations.
“The problem with Biblical literalists is that they are ignorant of exegetical history,” says Peter, “and are generally
unaware that an insistence on a woodenly literal understanding of scripture is a relatively recent invention imposed on the Church’s traditional four-fold interpretation. They’re as ignorant of theology as they are of the sciences they presume to critique…
“On the other hand, the issue with some scientists who are atheists is that they fail to see that they are actually making a theological claim by declaring that there is nothing to believe in. Scientists who feel they are qualified to comment authoritatively on religious faith because they have apprehended some of the truths of the natural world are putting on a very ill-fitting philosophical hat.”
It is this meeting of reason with faith that lies at the heart of Peter’s work with the National Center for Science Education. Leaving the immediate task of handling anti-scientific “flare-ups” (as NCSE calls them) to other experts on the staff, he regards his particular duty as endeavoring to change hearts and minds and open channels of communication between factions that are often at loggerheads.
In 2008, Peter was contacted by a theology teacher at the Convent of the Sacred Heart Catholic High School in San Francisco. Convent wanted to celebrate the Darwin bicentennial year by creating a program called “The Darwin Project,” which would integrate evolutionary thinking across the curriculum in a dozen different departments. The year involved frequent class lecture visits by Peter to the senior students and a fantastic conference on evolution to which parents and the public were invited.
Around that time, Professor Richard Dawkins happened to be in Berkeley for a lecture and came into the NCSE office for a visit. He sat through a staff meeting, at which everyone was invited to introduce themselves and describe the most interesting project they were currently working on. “When I brought up Convent High School’s ‘Darwin Project,’” Peter says, “Richard Dawkins showed moderate interest, and then remarked,
‘I imagine the religion department had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this.’
“When I told him that quite on the contrary, the religion department had initiated the project, Dawkins looked stunned — as if he couldn’t quite comprehend why a theology teacher would be interested in evolution, much less why they would accept the theory.”
It’s amazing to Peter how Professor Dawkins — who is well-known for his criticisms of creationism and intelligent design as well as for being an excellent communicator of scientific knowledge — could be so uninformed of contemporary intellectual currents within the Christian community.
“The idea that Christians as a group are opposed to science is plainly ludicrous,” says Peter. “The Vatican has had its own astronomical research observatory and has funded scientific study and discussion for hundreds of years — and Protestant theologians in most denominations both in the last century and today have been and continue to be vigorously involved in the theological assessment of the evolutionary perspective.”
While some Christians would argue that the theoretical strivings of religious communities should be toward improving and strengthening their faith, alone, (rather than on contemplating theories of the natural world), Peter feels that a theology that is not challenged and transformed as the scientific culture changes around it is not really a living theology at all, but only the fossilized relic of a once-living tradition.
“When theology fails to recognize that the contemporary scientific view of the world is in a constant state of change and development, and refuses to adapt accordingly, then it is doomed to insignificance,” he says.
When asked which side in this debate is harder to talk to — rigid atheists or fundamentalist Christians — and who loses the most from an inability or refusal to dialogue, Peter pauses. “I’m not sure,” he says. “It’s different every time. I never use the same kind of language and arguments to approach either side. I count it a success if I can at least get people to consider viewpoints that are dissimilar to their own.”
Simply talking about the pursuit of science versus the pursuit of faith is a misnomer in Peter’s opinion, since they are orthogonal descriptions of the universe — that is, one doesn’t cancel out the other. “There is a faith dimension to science, in that scientists trust that the world is knowable,” says Peter, “and there is an empirical dimension to the doing of theology, because a theological doctrine that does not in any way resonate with human experience in the world is vacuous.”
“In my classes, I frequently use an analogy to describe what I mean,” says Peter. “I hold up a grapefruit. Then I ask my students to tell me whether it is yellow or roughly spherical. Usually, a student will say that it’s both, that color and shape are not contradictory but complementary ways of describing this fruit. Analogously, creation and evolution are complementary ways of talking about the world. Creation is in a metaphysical category, and describes a relationship — but it need not imply a particular fashion or order in which the universe came to be or even a specific event in time. Evolution, on the other hand, is a theory to explain both the diversity and the relatedness of all life on earth. Properly interpreted, evolution implies nothing about the existence or nonexistence of God.”
Peter believes that when practitioners of science and religion invade each other’s sphere of competence, conflict is inevitable. While it’s challenging to constantly be caught in the cross-fire, it’s also exciting to watch when people in opposition learn to think past their own prejudices and strive towards a point where they can take in the view from every side.
Of course, for some, summiting one mountain might happily reveal just how many there are to climb.