The Banquet Where Science Dines with Religion

In the current debate between science and religion, Plato’s Symposium has a lot to offer. Not because the philosophers at the event talked about science in any modern sense (they didn’t), nor because the discussion was invested with a proper dose of academic gravitas (it wasn’t). On the contrary, it was a drinking party, and everyone was having a good time. In fact, that is what symposium actually means in the original Greek. And this has much to teach us. First of all, it reminds us that we should exhibit the good fellowship and enthusiasm of brothers and sisters (OK, they excluded women in those days) and of kindred explorers of the boundless marvels of the universe. Allied with this, it proposes that reality is a banquet (a frequent alternate translation of “symposium”)—unbelievably tasty and enormously filling. The image and implication of intoxication is a telling one since one can and should be inebriated and delighted by the splendor of the real, as opposed to sinking into the dour servitude of gouty dogmatism of whatever flavor.

If we adopt this stance, we discover that not just love but also truth is a “many-splendored thing.” That is a primary lesson we need to grasp before proceeding any further in the debate between science and religion. We need to stretch our minds and hearts and let them roam free outside of the narrow prisons and blinkered perspectives in which we tend to incarcerate them, and let ourselves embrace and be braced by the currents of reality around us. When I was in college, a little-known work by Jacques Maritain was my secular bible and vade mecum: The Degrees of Knowledge. To return to the metaphor, this volume spread out the full, sumptious repast of reality, from electrons to the empyrean, with dazzling epistemological virtuosity, illustrating in detail how each level of our experience of the real, from empirical science to mysticism, has its own rules of exploration. It taught how to savor everything on the table, and to escape the inevitable indigestion or starvation that would result from eating only dessert or appetizers.

So, as we enter the dining hall, let us begin by establishing our rules of etiquette, our epistemological table manners, so to speak. Those who prefer appetizers (science, let us say—no value judgment implied!) have every right to their tastes, and they may refrain from dessert, if they wish (religion, let us suppose). Others may leap right to the dessert, and skip the appetizers. Many will say, perhaps rightly, that both groups are missing out on something tasty; but, what they eat is their own decision. What we cannot allow is a discourse in which one group chastises the other as idiots or hypocrites because of their particular preference.De gustibus non disputandum. So, both science and religion beware!

What therefore might the intellectual gourmet’s assessment of these various courses, whether in the culinary or university sense? Modern civilization has discovered (despite its roots in Aristotle, who didn’t yet make all the necessary distinctions) the magnificence and the unimaginable fruitfulness of empirical science, and its mathematical models. The scientific method, based on observation, hypothesis, and experiment, has rightly brought untold benefits into our lives. It has its proper object—material and measurable reality—and its particular methods. Similarly, religion has brought almost unfathomable depth, excitement, perspective, guidance, and compassion into the world. It, too, has its own object (God and the spirit world, and all in relation to God) and its own methods (ultimately human spiritual experience), though often employing philosophical systems or artistic means to help express the inexpressible. Of course, since notoriously fallible and fickle human beings are the ones who actually practice science or religion, much that is nasty has been introduced in the name of both (nuclear bombs and inquisitions, for example). Yet that is not a defect of the food but of the diners and their appetites—not a fault of the field itself but of those who are walking in the field.

Still, if these various fields yield wondrous crops within their own spheres, their seeds will not sprout outside of them. Science, for example, never can nor ever should speak about God. It is completely outside its realm of competence. The existence and operations of God can never be either proved or disproved by science. The experience of God, however, or discourse about God, is certainly not outside the competence of human beings, with their multilayered reality. Thus, although science cannot speak about God, a scientist may do so, if she or he wishes, only simply not as a scientist, but as a person. For the same reasons, God neither can nor should be invoked within scientific discourse, as a cause or explanation of any sort, simply because God is not an object of empirical science, and can never be proved scientifically. It does not mean that God may not be a legitimate cause on another level of discourse (philosophical, theological, or mystical). But God should not be called in to bail out or short-circuit science in its own domain.

The problems arise, of course, when there is an apparent conflict of interests, when one seems to be treading on the other’s turf. In other words, the boundaries among these various categories of discourse, or rather, our perception and understanding of them, may often be somewhat sloppy and in need of challenge. Such difficulties have arisen quite spectacularly in history on a number of occasions (Galileo and Darwin, for example, which we can explore another time in more detail). In these instances, what seemed to have been the province of religion turned out to be the province of science. Or, to express it differently, these clashes provided an enormously exhilarating opportunity for those with open minds to re-examine their understanding of certain elements of their religious belief, and grow to a maturity of appreciation that was unthinkable before. Thus, the whole reassessment, over the past 200 years, of how to read the scriptures in Christianity—not as treatises in science or history but as bearers of spiritual insight and truth—was facilitated, and to a degree, even made possible, by the scientific revolution. To be sure, as Francis Collins rightly asserts in his Discover Interview in the February issue, St. Augustine reminded his readers 1,600 years ago that our understanding of the six days of Genesis should never be slavishly literal (in fact, Origen had pointed out the same more than a century before that), or taken to be a scientific or historical eyewitness account of how events unfolded. Rather are we dealing with a mythical and mystical treatise whose depth of truth is vastly more challenging and astonishing as a metaphor of our spiritual journey than just as an account, however glorious and poetic, of the origins of our material universe. Immense and innumerable currents of Jewish and Christian mystical writing bear this out. And, as the Dalai Lama has famously said in recent years, if other beliefs of religion were to be challenged by science, then, upon examination, we would have to humbly integrate the insights, certain that religion itself would only profit in the end.

Historically speaking, however, we know that proponents neither of religion nor of science often exhibited this tranquil breadth of spirit, this self-possessed openness to challenge and change, that circumstances genuinely required. Indeed, official positions and widespread popular understanding were often rife with fear and its concomitant dogmatism, and this remains so today in many quarters. Once again, however, this is the fault of the practitioners, and not of science or of religion itself.

Another possible area of conflict, which is considerably more contentious, is that of morality. I would propose that scientific research is intrinsically amoral; by its own rules, science would simply go out and do whatever it is capable of doing at any time. This is a limitation, but not a fault. Problems arise, however, because its object is often part of a much more complex reality. For example, not only do people do science, but people are often the object of science. What is more, they are not simply the subjects and objects of science, they are also the subjects and objects of psychology, art, ethics, philosophy, theology, and mysticism. Hence, these other levels of exploration and discourse have the right not to do science but to challenge the scientist, when a value known and embraced at another level is threatened by a science that is fundamentally without values. This is obviously the case in the life sciences: biotechnology, biochemistry, etc. Even if cloning, stem cell research, and reproductive advances represent scientific progress, are they truly and necessarily progress for the totality of the human person and for life in society? These are crucial questions that have to be faced out of respect for the complexity of our human and epistemological reality. But likewise, there must be caution on the other end of the spectrum: Are we so sure about our ethical and spiritual understanding of the human person that we would be justified in imposing limits on science in such and such a case? Humility and circumspection are needed on both sides.

Perhaps what is best in our humanity is what can likewise help reconcile science and religion in practice: the sense of wonder, of openness, of exploration, the exhilarating intoxication that I mentioned above. These sentiments are the inspiration, both Maritain and I would argue, for both science and religion—indeed for any passionate pursuit. Grounded in this sort of breadth of spirit, which is secure, serene, and confident in itself, we can hopefully learn—whether in science or in religion or in any human endeavor—not only to tolerate but to glory in the experience of not knowing. The feverish demand for instant certitude seems a Western neurosis. After all, whether we consider ourselves loyal scientists or loyal members of a religious tradition or both, an awestruck sense of respect before the unknown is the only loyal attitude towards whatever reality is the object of our exploration. As Maritain pointed out, there is more mystery in a grape between the teeth than in all of our discourses that would attempt to explain it. So, may we avoid anorexia of the spirit, and let the “banquet” continue!

Scroll to top