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Two unusually warm days this past week forced an explosion of spring in our little chunk of the Midwest. The deep color of the native redbuds, almost a Lenten purple, helps keep me on track amid the premature alleluia shout of brilliant magnolias and Bradford pears, of dogwood and forsythia.

It is Holy Thursday as I write this, and I admit a certain enchantment at the bittersweet mingling of the uplift I feel this time of year with the somber stories we will contemplate through Saturday night.

Religion and science have been doing this wonderfully fascinating dance of avoidance since, well, since each realized it had powerful insights into who we are, why we act the way we do and how the natural world operates. The two disciplines approach each other like an awkward couple, suspicious of each others’ intentions and not quite certain yet of their compatibility.

Certainly, there are many exceptions, as Rich Heffern writes in this week’s cover story: “hard-nosed theorists rigorously faithful to the data and willing to go wherever it leads, yet with a touch of wonder in their eye, who see the living world as though turning a child’s kaleidoscope. For them, science and religion profoundly enhance each other.”

On the religion side, some might be suspicious of any scientific affirmation that we are hard-wired to seek the divine as a diminution of our will to seek God, suspicious that scientists are saying “the brain causes prayer.” I suspect, however, that more are inclined to view the whole matter with the awe expressed by physician-author Andrew Newberg, who responds, “We’re not simply saying that the brain creates God, rather that the brain has quite naturally developed the mechanisms for religious experiences.”

Have evolution and biology given us, as Newberg calls them, “the neural paving stones leading to God?”

Heffern navigates the pathways of the latest research on the “biology of religion” in a lucid and engaging way. We don’t expect any public service ads showing up soon to balance out the old “This is your brain on drugs” ads, but the stories inside make a rather convincing case for “Your brain on prayer.”

It’s tucked away among the briefs, but deserves special notice. Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which makes him a Vatican official, recently praised the theological work of Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. Dupuis, of course, was recently investigated by the Vatican, and his work was publicly criticized as containing “notable ambiguities or difficulties.”

Fitzgerald, acknowledging the critique, expressed his gratitude to Dupuis for his pioneering work and termed theology “a developing science” in which various theories will naturally “be presented, discussed and brought into a synthesis.” Shows to what degree, perhaps, the Vatican is anything but a monolith.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001