From the Letter to the Hebrews:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV) – January 2, 2013.)
Every so often something in Holy Scripture speaks to me of something other than the “purely” spiritual or “only” religious . . . and this little piece of the Letter to the Hebrews is one of those bits: “what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Right!
One of my interests is theoretical physics; I’m interested in it but not knowledgeable of it because, quite honestly, the mathematics is way, way beyond my comprehension. But the broad outlines of the theories of quantum mechanics, gravity theory, and superstring theory I can grasp, and the latter postulates that everything that is is made up of tiny pieces of vibrating string too small to be observed by today’s instruments. What’s that sound like? Right! The Letter to the Hebrews!
Scientists of all sorts, I suspect, would bristle at the suggestion that their field of study involves anything that could be called “faith” in a religious, but the more I read of the literature of science the more it feels like theology. This convergence of superstring theory with the discussion of faith in Hebrews is just one example. Scientists all the time rely on the unseen as an explanation for the seen, just as this biblical author does.
Recently, a colleague made a distinction between a “scentific” outlook and a “scientistic” outlook. I thought it an interesting and useful distinction. Scientism (also known in philosophy as “positivism”) makes the claim that human beings can know only those things that are ascertained by experimentation through application of the scientific method. It makes the scientific method the exclusive approach to knowledge and reduces human inquiry to matters of material reality. Since the scientific method is emphasized with such great importance, scientism privileges the expertise of a scientific elite who can properly implement the method. However, such an emphasis overlooks and, indeed, devalues such cognitive tools as analogy and metaphor which help to frame the object of inquiry into familiar terms, or even mathematical models that simulate and predict the physical world. Scientism is a doctrinaire stance which leads to an abuse of reason and transforms a rational philosophy of science into an irrational dogma.
Although there are many who take such a stance, some of them well-known and popular pundits of science, it is hard to see how one could do so when faced with a scientific proposition such as superstring theory which posits that everything that is is made up of tiny pieces of vibrating string too small to be observed.
I could go on, and indeed many have, about the dangers of scientism, but that would be beyond the scope of these little meditations. Let it be sufficient today to acknowledge that both science and religion include a recognition that what is seen is made from things that are not visible. From that common ground, perhaps, a reconciliation can be forged and a way forward explored together.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.