Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Science and Religion - I
Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
Stephen Jay Gould
222 pp., Clothbound
The late Stephen Jay Gould was one of America's leading Darwinists, and in this engaging book he proposes a way for science and religion to coexist peacefully. He calls his approach "NOMA," which stands for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." What he means by this is that science and religion each has its own distinct sphere, and the two "magisterial" deal with entirely different sets of problems. According to Dr. Gould, science "covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work that way (theory)." Religion, on the other hand, deals with "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value" (p. 6). As long as each discipline does not intrude into the other's sphere, there should be no reason for conflict between them. Gould calls his approach a "humane, sensible and wonderfully workable solution to the great nonproblem of our times" (p.92).
Dr. Gould's approach is certainly appealing, and the whole book is manifestly written in an irenic spirit. He expresses his appreciation for religion, and acknowledges that science cannot provide answers to moral and ethical questions. He even paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of William Jennings Bryan (except, that is, when he calls the greatest orator of his age a "preeminent windbag")! And yet, on closer examination, Dr. Gould's "solution to the great nonproblem" offers little consolation to orthodox Christians.
Let us begin by asking what kind of religion is compatible with "magisterium of science," as Dr. Gould conceives of it. He tells us, for instance, that NOMA imposes certain limitations on our concepts of God. For one think, "science holds sway over the factual character of the natural world" (p.22). If Scripture seems to contradict the findings of science, then "we had better reconsider our exegesis, for the natural world does not lie" (p. 21). Miracles, for example, simply do not happen. Divine providence is also presumably out. God may be a loving being, "but NOMA does preclude the additional claim that such a God must arrange the facts of nature in a certain set and predetermined way" (p. 94). Moreover, man does not occupy any special place of importance in the universe. "Homo sapiens also ranks as a 'thing so small' in a vast universe, and not the nub of universal purpose" (p. 206). (And the publisher says that the book displays Dr. Gould's "passionate humanism"!) As for the cosmos as a whole, it is "a universe without intrinsic meaning" (p. 203).
It should be readily apparent that the implications for Christianity are radical and far-reaching. Because Dr. Gould conceives of nature as a closed system, and categorically rejects any form of supernaturalism, there is apparently no room in his scheme for divine revelation, prophecy, or answered prayer. It would rule out the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, and the Resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth had to have been a purely mortal human being just like the rest of us. What we are left with is a "God" completely outside of the world of space and time, and basically unknowable except in some vague, undefinable, mystical way.
In short, what we are left with is what we know of today as theological liberalism, and the case can be made that liberalism is simply not Christianity. All of Christianity's distinctive features have been bled out of it. And this, in turn, is a religion that is not likely to be of much use to anyone. It offers little hope or consolation to the person faced with the real exigencies of concrete human existence. Far from reconciling Christianity, Dr. Gould has, in effect, tried to kill it.
Next: Dr. Gould and the problem of morality.