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On PBS, faith and reason get awfully cozy


There’s a story, which may or may not be true, that Jesuits tell about Jesuit physicist-astronomer George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory in Arizona, who is the central figure in “Faith and Reason,” the new PBS documentary on the emerging dialogue between scientists and theologians.

In the 1960s, in the early days of the space program, George approached his religious superior -- a man not known for the elasticity of his imagination -- and asked permission to become an astronaut. “I’d like to say yes,” the superior replied, “but I can’t. If I let you go to the moon, I’d have to let everybody go to the moon.”

On one level, the story represents a youthful visionary crimped by an older man’s caution; on another, it is a sign that the worlds of religion and science had not yet fully come to terms with each other.

The news today is that representatives of the two worlds, which share an often-misunderstood history of centuries of antagonism, have begun to talk seriously. It’s not completely clear why.

Perhaps recent discoveries in DNA and the possibilities of genetic engineering -- cloned sheep and the theoretical possibility of a cloned human being -- have given even otherwise materialistic scientists the whimwhams about going “too far.” Perhaps they are reaching out to philosophers and religious thinkers for reassurance.

More likely, the academic revolution within religiously based universities over the past 20 years has made believers more scientifically sophisticated. Forty years ago the brighter boys in Jesuit prep schools were channeled into Greek, not biology; and there was no science requirement for the A.B. degree in college. Today, the toughest courses and many of the brightest students are in science or premed.

On Sept. 11 PBS interviews the leaders of this movement in one of the more intellectually challenging hours TV has presented in a long time. (Check local listings for broadcast time.)

Science writer Margaret Wertheim leads us to the Vatican Observatory at Kitt Peak in Arizona to meet George Coyne, then to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., and the Divine Action conference at Pope John Paul II’s summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, where Coyne introduces each of his fellow scholars individually to the pope. Shortly after the conference, we see John Paul come to his balcony and admit to the crowds that the theory of evolution is “more than a hypothesis.” In other words, it’s probably true.

It wasn’t always that way. Although the church has made enormous contributions to science and learning (Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance, formulated in 1864, strengthened Darwinian theory), its public image has often been one of defensiveness.

Wertheim’s script, sympathetic to the dialogue, is also at times almost too sympathetic to religion. She reminds us that the Galileo trial in 1633 was not necessarily the terrible injustice we have imagined. His life was never in danger and he was not in jail -- only under house arrest, which gave him time to write. And Giordanno Bruno, who was burned at the stake in Rome, was burned not for his scientific ideas but for his religious heresies. Oh.

This strikes an oddly defensive note in an otherwise fairly evenhanded program. It might have been a good moment to point out, as does Fordham philosophy professor Dominic Balestra, in his essay in Philosophy of Religion, edited by Dominican Fr. Brian Davies (to be published soon by Chapman), that Galileo was in trouble partly because the church had yoked itself, including its eucharistic theology, to an inadequate scientific theory -- Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Galileo backed a Copernican world-view, which could not fit with Aristotle and led inevitably to confrontations.

“Faith and Reason” works its way through several contemporary controversies: Evolution, even though greater understanding of the Bible’s literary forms means that only the fundamentalists, or creationists, continue to see a conflict with scripture; genetics, which, with cloning, raises the issue of moral limits on research and experimentation; cosmology, which asks, if there is no moment when time began, is there a need for a Creator?; and finally, the issue of purpose in the universe.

On cloning, Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, is willing to draw the line. But Ted Peters, a theologian at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, says that if we cloned someone, “God would not reject the human being” we had created. I’m not sure what we are to conclude from that. It sounds like a go-ahead -- as if God were a grandmother, accepting, though disapproving of, her daughter’s illegitimate children. Maybe She is.

But the program is in danger of forgetting the statement of the late astronomer and TV personality Carl Sagan that now that physics had explained the universe, there was “nothing for a Creator to do.” According to Newsweek, only 40 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God.

Some of the program’s sharper moments come from scientists who simply don’t buy into the faith-reason aggiornamento. Oxford’s evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press), will have none of this guff. He respects the “believing” scientists as individuals but can’t understand “why they waste their time with this other stuff that has never added anything to the store of human wisdom and never will.”

There is something chilling in his claim that while his believing colleagues are chasing divine wisdom, the rest of the scientific community is working on “building up a complete picture of the universe, everything in it.” Stephen Hawking echoes this sentiment when he says that since there is no precise moment when time began there is no need for a Creator.

But then the religious camp reminds me of those devoted to the Shroud of Turin -- although the evidence of carbon dating denies its authenticity -- as if the Shroud somehow presents “scientific proof” of the resurrection, an event theologians say is beyond history and thus beyond scientific demonstration.

Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize winner in physics at the University of Texas, Austin, demands some rigor in how we use language. It is misguided to seek meaning in the universe and call that meaning “God,” he says, when, the more we study the universe, the more it shows itself to be impersonal, chilling and cold. God, he says, is not an abstract principle but an interested personality. If we want to give meaning to the universe, we must do that by creating works of art, loving others and making “an island of warmth and love in a cold world.”

The hour ends where it began -- with George Coyne. He agrees that the physicists’ “god” is not a personal god; it’s a cosmological model, but it can lead to a quest beyond cosmology. His own religious faith is not based on scientific proof, but his love of the world and his study of the skies help him to pray better.

“I can hold the hand of a dying friend,” he says, and see something science cannot teach about the “point” of human existence.

From time to time the camera returns to George as he offers Mass: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice of our hands, for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and that of all the church.”

Wouldn’t it be great if he could have said that on the moon?

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998