A New Dialogue Between Science and Faith
Your Grace, Sir John and Lady Templeton, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I find the honour of these proceedings quite overwhelming, not the least because I would never have regarded myself as worthy to be amongst the chosen few who receive such an honour. I am the fourth scientist to be so honoured, the others being marine biologist, Alister Hardy, in 1985; astrophysicist, Stanley Jaki, in 1987; and nuclear physicist, Carl von Weizsächer, in 1989.
I was doing ecological research in Oxford when Professor Hardy arrived as the new professor of Zoology. When I got to know him, I found we were discovering similar relationships between science and religion. I met Professor von Weizsächer much later when I visited him in Hamburg to discuss the possibility of his taking part in a consultation on the relevance of the new genetics to the human future. On that occasion he told me he considered the new biology to be as revolutionary for the human future as was nuclear physics. That prediction is turning out to be correct.
The day after the award to me was announced, I received a telephone call from a businessman in Los Angeles who had read an article under my name in The Los Angeles Times which had been made available at the Templeton Prize press conference in New York. He said he was eager for me to send him more. When I asked how he managed to get my telephone number, he said he rang the Sydney exchange and asked the operator if she could give him the number of one Charles Birch, whereupon she replied, “Oh, I saw him on television last night!” A picture appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in which I was surrounded by models of animals, including an elephant, whereupon I got a ring from far away in Perth. The caller had noticed the elephant and surmised it indicated my interest in this animal. He was secretary of the Save-the-Elephant Fund. He didn’t know I had written an article on bioethics entitled “Salvation for Elephants.” I suggested he might like to see it though his real purpose was to request funds. These are just two examples of many I could relate indicating that one hope of the Templeton Prize award was being fulfilled – namely, to make more people aware of the work and aspirations of the recipients.
What pleases me most about the Templeton Prize is that it recognizes there is such a thing as progress in religion – that a living vital religion cannot remain static as the world around it changes dramatically day to day. To be vital, religion, like science, has to grow. The truth may have been delivered once and for all to the saints. It is not delivered that way to us. Christian doctrines are good sign posts, but they are bad hitching posts. They are good starting points for an adventure. The new adventures of the Christian religion today are first along the frontiers of modern science, second in relation to other religions and third in relation to the ecological and political problems of our time. Ours is a time of three momentous tensions, between war and peace, between social injustice and social justice and between industrialization and ecological sustainability. Our deeper understanding of both science and religion is a critical ingredient in any creative approach to these issues. Those who say that science and religion do not mix understand neither. I have, in the course of the past years, with the help of others sought, in the words of A.N. Whitehead, “a deeper religion and a more subtle science.”
Why call for a more subtle science? The worldview, which has been increasingly dominant since the 17th Century, has had a mechanistic understanding of nature. The universe is seen as a contrivance which can be reduced to bits and pieces called atoms or what you will. Everything about the universe is seen to be composed of bits of inert matter moving through space according to completely deterministic laws. “Give me matter and motion,” said Laplace, “and I shall build a universe.” In its first period, the mechanistic view of the universe was theistic and dualistic. It put both God and the soul outside the mechanism. God was omnipotent creator who had little to do with the world once He created it, but had something to do with human souls. In the second phase following the Enlightenment, it was materialistic and atheistic. The mechanistic Cartesian mind-set is enormously effective in its short-term achievement but disastrous in its long-term consequences. It is only a short step form envisaging the world as machinery to turn it into a factory. And that we have done.
The mechanistic picture of nature is now beleaguered on several fronts, particularly from the new physics, some areas of the new biology and from creative untraditional thinking in theology and philosophy, particularly process thought. But, this news has not yet reached the headlines. Even the majority of scientists still think within the constraints of the mechanical model. Professor Langdon Gilkey has recently commented that it is fascinating to see the parallel in recent changes in the understanding of scientific and religious truth and the failure in both wider communities to keep pace with these parallel changes.
We have to turn the mechanical model of nature on its head. Bertrand Russell said, either life is matter-like, or matter is life-like. The mechanical model of nature says life is matter-like. The ecological or organic view of nature says matter is life-like. There is no such thing as stuff or mere matter. There are no particles. Forget whatever you ever learned in elementary physics and start all over again. The first proposition is that if the universe is a lock, then the key to that lock is not a measure but as metaphor. The second proposition is that the metaphor is life, not machinery. Instead of taking one’s cue from the classical materialist view of a universe, built up from material atoms, the cue is human experience. It is the proposition that human experience is a high level exemplification of reality in general – that is to say, of protons as well as people. You cannot explain protons without taking account of living, feeling people. This revolutionary principle was put nicely by quantum physicist, John Wheeler, in a rhetorical question: Here is a human being so what must the universe be? People, protons and all the individual entities in between, such as molecules and cells and frogs, have both subjectivity and a degree of freedom. They feel their words, they are sentient. Sentience implies mind in some form. To be sentient is to take account of one’s environment internally – that is, as a subject. Most of the western thought about relations has focused on external relations that push or pull. External relations do not affect the nature of the things related, such as love between two people, affects the nature of what is related. Internal relations are even constitutive of the entitles, be they protons or people. We are all other individual entities such as protons and frogs are literally members one of another. No entity – from protons to people – exists independently. Each one is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach out to others. This organic view of nature is thus ecological through and through. The implications of this view for ethics are profound as I shall indicate later.
Why call for deeper religion? A deeper religion no longer envisions God as omnipotent creator outside a mechanical universe. It has two emphases; namely God’s presence in the world, and the presence of the world in God. God is present in the world as the divine eros drawing all things to him. This is the persuasive God who ever lures the world to fulfillment of its possibilities and never manipulates, leaving the entities of creation with their degree of freedom to respond or not to respond. The presence of the world in God is the divine passion that feels every feeling of every creature in its joys and sufferings from the sparrow that falls to the ground to the Christ on the cross. The doctrine of the divine passion means that God changes as God’s experience is further enriched by the creation. It is axiomatic that true lovers change in response to each other’s love. It is therefore eminently reasonable to suppose that God is also changed by love. None of this is really new. The chief novelty of the New Testament is twofold. First, this is the sort of world in which God can be and is incarnated. God cannot be incarnated in machinery. God is not before all creation, but with all creation, said Whitehead. Secondly, divine love is carried to the point of participation in all creaturely suffering and joy symbolized by the cross.
This view of the world that demands a more subtle science and a deeper religion has been called the postmodern ecological worldview. It is postmodern because it goes beyond the modern mechanistic worldview. It is ecological because it stresses relationships, especially internal relationships which are those involving feeling. It has profound implication for a biocentric ethic to replace traditional anthropocentric ethics. The Christian injunction is to love my neighbour. But, who is my neighbour? In the ecological worldview, love, compassion and rights extend beyond the human to all that participates in life. Each individual entity from protons to people has intrinsic value to itself and to God, because each is a subject. A biocentric ethic calls for a bill of rights for nature. It also has profound implication for an ecologically sustainable global society that is also just. The phrase “sustainable society” came out of discussions at a World Council of Churches meeting in Bucharest in 1974 on the role of science and technology in a world of limits. We invented the phrase as a positive alternative to phrases such as limits to growth, which were anathema to third world representatives at this meeting. The phrase “sustainable society” was acceptable to the third world representatives when limits to growth was not. Subsequently it caught on around the world with amazing speed and with some amazing consequences.
The ecological movement is not yet Christian and contemporary Christianity is not yet ecological. The explanation lies in the participation of contemporary Christianity in the modern or mechanistic worldview. The ecological movement is supportive of the emergence of a new worldview, but it needs all the help in the world to find its feet in this area. Contemporary Christianity should be at its side, showing the way to as postmodern ecological worldview. As yet the wider church is too intimidated by secular culture when it should be transforming both culture and itself in the process.
I could never have become so involved in this vast arena were it not for two people in particular. Dr. Paul Abrecht, as director of the sub-unit of Church and Society of the World Council of Churches, had charge of the WCC’s programme on the future of humanity in a world of science-based technology. This developed into the programme on the just, participatory and sustainable society. He involved me in the programme from its inception in 1970. He was the fire, the energy, the drive and the inspiration of the work, in season and out of season for over two decades. I just fitted into the spaces he created for me. He helped me to beware of utopian schemes and to look for realism in the complex and ambiguous world in which we work.
I owe to Professor John Cobb of the Centre for Process Studies in the School of Theology at Claremont in California much of my understanding of theology in the context of a postmodern ecological worldview. For a number of years I had been inspired by Professor Charles Hartshorne who knew as much science as philosophy and theology. One day I asked him who else I should get to know. He said immediately, “My most brilliant student, John Cobb.” That was how I began a friendship that became a source of deep understanding across the years. I see him, like Paul Abrecht, on the frontiers of thinking and action for a new ecological global society.
The three of us owe much of our understanding of Christianity and its place in society to having all been members of the Student Christian Movement in our student days in our different universities across the world. It does not surprise me that most of the original leaders of the Ecumenical Movement and the original staff of the World Council of Churches came out of the Student Christian Movement and the World Student Christian Federation.
It is my intention to use all the prize money for three projects: I shall establish in the University of Sydney an annual lecture to attract an outstanding scholar form anywhere in the world on human aspects of science and technology. If Sir John agrees, this will be called in perpetuity, the Templeton Lecture. Secondly, I want to support an international Christian study project to explore new approaches to ecumenical social ethics. Specifically this project seeks to contribute to Christian thinking on the ethical issues raised by the new Europe, the continuing environmental crisis and biotechnology. The aim is to enlarge and deepen the understanding of the Churches in their task in helping to work for a just and ecologically sustainable society. Hopefully this would be a contribution to the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra in 1991, and its reflection on the theme, “Come Holy Spirit – Renew the Whole Creation.” Thirdly, I want to support a very original programme on religion and the various sciences in the School of Theology in Claremont, California. This aims at a deeper development of the postmodern ecological worldview.
So it is with deep gratitude, sober humility, and a renewed hope in the future that I accept this distinguished award.