The atheist delusion

Theologian John Haught explains why science and God are not at odds, why Mike Huckabee worries him, and why Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" are ignorant about religion.

Topics: Religion, Atoms and Eden, Science, The Bible, Books,

The atheist delusion

Evolution remains the thorniest issue in the ongoing debate over science and religion. But for all the yelling between creationists and scientists, there’s one perspective that’s largely absent from public discussions about evolution. We rarely hear from religious believers who accept the standard Darwinian account of evolution. It’s a shame because there’s an important question at stake: How can a person of faith reconcile the apparently random, meaningless process of evolution with belief in God?

The simplest response is to say that science and religion have nothing to do with each other — to claim, as Stephen Jay Gould famously did, that they are “non-overlapping magisteria.” But perhaps that response seems too easy, a politically expedient ploy to pacify both scientists and mainstream Christians. Maybe evolutionary theory, along with modern physics, does pose a serious challenge to religious belief. To put it another way, how can an intellectually responsible person of faith justify that faith — and even belief in a personal God — after Darwin and Einstein?

That’s the question John Haught has set out to answer by proposing a “theology of evolution.” Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University and a prolific author. His books include “God After Darwin,” “Is Nature Enough?” and the forthcoming “God and the New Atheism.” He’s steeped in evolutionary theory as well as Christian theology. Haught believes Darwin is “a gift to theology.” He says evolutionary biology has forced modern theologians to clarify their thinking by rejecting outdated arguments about God as an intrusive designer. Haught reclaims the theology of his intellectual hero, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died more than half a century ago. Teilhard believed that we live in a universe evolving toward ever greater complexity and, ultimately, to consciousness.

Haught is an intriguing figure in the debate over evolution. He was the only theologian to testify as an expert witness in the landmark 2005 Dover trial that ruled against teaching intelligent design in public schools. Haught testified against intelligent design, arguing that it’s both phony science and bad theology. But Haught is also a fierce critic of hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who claim that evolution leads logically to atheism. He says both sides place too much faith in science. “Ironically,” Haught writes, “ID advocates share with their ideological enemies, the evolutionary materialists, the assumption that science itself can provide ultimate explanations.”

I talked with Haught about the new atheists, Albert Camus, and how evolutionary biology can be a complement to faith. We spoke about why Christian candidates like Mike Huckabee worry him and why science is ultimately not equipped to answer questions about love, consciousness and the Resurrection.

Your forthcoming book, “God and the New Atheism,” is a critique of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. You claim that they are pale imitations of great atheists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. What are they missing?

The only thing new in the so-called new atheism is the sense that we should not tolerate faith because, by doing so, we open people’s minds to any crazy idea — including dangerous ideas like those that led to 9/11. In every other respect, this atheism is similar to the secular humanism of the modern period, which said that faith is incompatible with science, that religion and belief in God are bad for morality, and that theology should be purged from culture and academic life. These are not new ideas. But there were atheists in the past who were much more theologically educated than these. My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.

You’re saying older atheists like Nietzsche and Camus had a more sophisticated critique of religion?

Yes. They wanted us to think out completely and thoroughly, and with unrelenting logic, what the world would look like if the transcendent is wiped away from the horizon. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus would have cringed at “the new atheism” because they would see it as dropping God like Santa Claus, and going on with the same old values. The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Didn’t they see the death of God as terrifying?

Yes, they did. And they thought it would take tremendous courage to be an atheist. Sartre himself said atheism is an extremely cruel affair. He was implying that most people wouldn’t be able to look it squarely in the face. And my own belief is they themselves didn’t either. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus eventually realized that nihilism is not a space within which we can live our lives.

But it seems to me that Camus had a different project. He thought there was no God or transcendent reality, and the great existential struggle was for humans to create meaning themselves, without appealing to some higher reality. This wasn’t a cop-out at all. It was a profound struggle for him.

Yes, it was. But his earlier life was somewhat different from his later writings. In “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that in the absence of God, there’s no hope. And we have to learn to live without hope. His figure of Sisyphus is the image of living without hope. And whatever happiness Camus thought we could attain comes from the sense of strength and courage that we feel in ourselves when we shake our fist at the gods. But none of the atheists — whether the hardcore or the new atheists — really examine where this courage comes from. What is its source? I think a theologian like Paul Tillich, who wrestled with the atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, put his finger on the real issue. How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.

But why can’t you have hope if you don’t believe in God?

You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don’t have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.

For years, we’ve been bombarded by arguments over religion and evolution. And yet you say theology has not yet come to grips with Darwin. What are theologians missing?

Well, this has been one of the most dramatic events that theology — at least in the West — has ever had to face. The Darwinian story of evolution seems to give people a whole new creation story. You have to remember that our sense of ethics and the divine came into our religious awareness fixed to a static, vertical, hierarchical understanding of the universe. The fact that there’s a special place for humans gave us the sense that we were cared for in a special way by divine providence. But if you suddenly switched to a universe that’s 13.7 billion years old, and an evolutionary process that takes almost 4 billion years to lead to humans, then it’s very difficult for many people to map this new horizontal, temporal, historical unfolding onto the static hierarchy, which was the backbone of spirituality for so many centuries.

So you’re talking about more than just the story of Genesis in the Bible. This is a much bigger issue for modern theology.

The story of Genesis has been hyped as the only problem. I think the fundamental difficulty is the new evolutionary world in process — that the world’s unfinished and still being created is so different from the cosmology that was the backbone of traditional spirituality.

I would think the biggest challenge that evolutionary theory poses to most religions is the sense that there’s no inherent meaning in the world. If you look at the process of natural selection — this apparently random series of genetic mutations — it would seem that there’s no place for ultimate purpose. Human beings may just be an evolutionary accident.

Yes, in the new scientific understanding of the universe, there are no sharp breaks between lifeless matter and life, between life and mind. It seems to many people that the new evolutionary picture places everything in the context of a meaningless smudge of stuff, of atoms reshuffling themselves over the course of time. The traditional view was that nature emanates from on high, so that when you get down to matter, you have the least important level. Above that there’s life and mind and God. But in the new cosmography, it seems that mindless matter dominates the whole picture. And many scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, have said evolution has destroyed the notion of purpose. So one thing I do in my theology is to say that’s not necessarily true.

Isn’t there a simple response to the materialist argument? You can say “purpose” is simply not a scientific idea. Instead, it’s an idea for theologians and philosophers to debate. Do you accept that distinction?

I sure do. But that distinction is usually violated in scientific literature and in much discussion of evolution. From the beginning of the modern world, science decided quite rightly that it wasn’t going to tackle such questions as purpose, value, meaning, importance, God, or even talk about intelligence or subjectivity. It was going to look for purely natural, causal, mechanical explanations of things. And science has every right to be that way. But that principle of scientific Puritanism is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose. I consider that to be a great violation.

Who are these scientists who extrapolate about purpose from science?

A good example is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. In his book “Dreams of a Final Theory,” he asks, will we find God once science gets down to what he calls the fundamental levels of reality? It’s almost as if he assumes that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like that. Similarly, Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” has stated that science has the right to deal with the question of God and other religious issues, and everything has to be settled according to the canons of the scientific method.

But Dawkins argues that a lot of claims made on behalf of God — about how God created the world and interacts with people — are ultimately questions about nature. Unless you say God has nothing to do with nature, those become scientific questions.

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call “layered explanation.” For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it’s boiling, one answer is to say it’s boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that’s a very good answer. But you could also say it’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it’s boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn’t contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They’re just different levels of understanding.

What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

Are you’re saying scientists are themselves practicing a kind of religion?

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.

Do you accept Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” — that science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the universe, while religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value?

I think he’s too simplistic. I don’t think we want to remain stuck in this standoff position. First of all, Gould defines religion as simply concern about values and meanings. He implicitly denies that religion can put us in touch with truth.

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I’m talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

We can’t get our minds around this transcendent reality because we’re limited by our language and our brains?

We have to refer to it in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor. But I still think we have the obligation today of asking how our new scientific understanding of the world fits into that religious discourse. I don’t accept Gould’s complete separation of science and faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. We have every right to ask what God is doing by making this universe in such a slow way, by allowing life to come about in the evolutionary manner in which Darwinian biology has very richly set forth. So science cannot be divorced from faith. However, I think most people do resort to this non-overlapping magisteria as the default position. It’s an easy approach. It allows you to put all your ducks in a row. But it avoids the really interesting and perhaps dangerous issue of how to think about God after Darwin. In my view, after Darwin, after Einstein — just as after Galileo and Copernicus — we can’t have the same theological ideas about God as we did before.

So if you’re a person of faith who wants to be intellectually responsible, you can’t just shove all this science into a drawer. You do have to deal with it.

Exactly. Theology has always looked to secular concepts to express, for its particular age, what the meaning of God is. In early Christianity, St. Augustine went to Neoplatonism. Later on, Thomas Aquinas did something adventurous: He went to a pagan philosopher, Aristotle, to renew the understanding of Christianity in his own time. Islamic and Jewish philosophers and theologians have done the same thing. But as we move into our own time, theology has to deal with other concepts in order to make sense of its faith. Darwin’s thought seems to be more important intellectually and culturally than it’s ever been. My view is that theology, instead of ignoring or closing its eyes to it, should look it squarely in the face. It has everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing so. In my view, Darwin’s thought is a gift to theology.

Why? Because it forces theologians to sharpen their thinking?

Yes. I came to this idea of evolutionary theology long ago when I was still a young man. I read the works of a famous Jesuit paleontologist named Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was saying in the early 20th century pretty much what I’m saying today. In many ways, my vocation as a theologian has been to expand on the work he started. Teilhard was sent by his superiors to study geology and paleontology. He was a priest at the time, trying to figure out what the evolutionary character of life on Earth had to do with his Christianity. He wrote essays synthesizing evolution into a broad understanding of his faith, including a deeper understanding of God. His religious superiors thought these essays were a bit too adventurous. So they shipped him off to China, which is the wrong place to send people who like to dig up old bones. Teilhard got involved in expeditions that uncovered Peking man and other interesting evolutionary phenomena.

During all this time, 25 or so years in China, he was developing his ideas, synthesizing Christianity and evolution, and writing his major work, “The Phenomenon of Man,” now translated as “The Human Phenomenon.” But he couldn’t get it published in his own lifetime because the church wasn’t ready for it. But after he died, his lay friends flooded the religious world with his publications, and Teilhard ended up having an enormous influence on religious thought. Some major Catholic theologians were steeped in Teilhard’s ideas by the time the Second Vatican Council came along. If you read the documents from that council, you can see the imprint of Teilhard’s attempt to unify evolution and Christianity.

Teilhard argued that the universe is still evolving. Wasn’t that the cosmic process he was trying to explain?

He put the Darwinian story of nature in the larger context of cosmic evolution. He saw the emergence of what he called “more” coming in gradually from the time of the big bang. Atoms become molecules. Molecules become cells. Cells become organisms. Organisms become vertebrates with a complex nervous system. Nervous tissue developed and eventually became complex in humans. He saw this process of growing complexity as something that’s still going on. This planet is itself becoming more complex. And the process is accelerating today at an enormous pace because of communications technology, engineering, economics and politics. The globe is shrinking. We’re able to connect instantaneously with other parts of the Earth, in the same way that nerve fibers carry an electronic message from one part of the body to the other. We should place what’s happening now in the context of the previous phases of evolution and the cosmos. And we should expect — and hope for — the universe to keep becoming “more.”

Earlier, you said cosmic purpose is a question that lies outside of science. But it sounds like you’re bringing it into science. If you want to look for purpose — whether it’s in evolution or the larger universe — you’ll find it in this inexorable drive toward greater complexity.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it’s something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that’s a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite. And what is the purpose? The purpose seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness. If you understand purpose as actualizing something that’s unquestionably good, then consciousness certainly fits. It’s cynical of scientists to say, off-handedly, there’s obviously no purpose in the universe. If purpose means realizing a value, consciousness is a value that none of us can deny.

Are you suggesting there’s some kind of cosmic consciousness — a consciousness pervading the universe that has some connection to God?

I’m looking for an explanation that’s robust enough to account for the kind of universe that is able, from within itself, to develop and unfold in this ongoing process of complexification. So the idea that some sort of providential presence is accompanying this process seems not at all irrational. And I like to think of God in these terms.

The whole question of consciousness raises all kinds of difficult scientific problems. Virtually all neuroscientists say consciousness is a direct product of the brain. As far as we know, the human brain evolved within the last few million years. This suggests that there was no consciousness before this time.

Certainly, consciousness has a physiological correlate. But here again, I would want to approach the question of consciousness in the same layered way I did with the boiling teapot. Suppose you asked me, why am I thinking right now? I could say, my neurons are firing, the synapses are connecting, the lobes of my brain are activated. And you could spend your whole career, as neuroscientists do, unfolding that level of understanding. But I could also say I’m thinking because I have a desire to know. I want to figure things out. That’s an explanation that can’t be mapped onto the first because a dimension of subjectivity enters in here. You cannot find it by the objectifying method of neuroscience.

So science as it’s now practiced has nothing to say about subjective experience, about what happens in our minds?

I think science, especially neuroscience, does a very good job of saying what has to be working cerebrally and in our nervous systems in order for consciousness to be present. And it can also do a very good job of pointing out what has broken down physically and chemically if my brain is failing to function — for example, in Alzheimer’s. But it doesn’t have the complete explanation. Many cognitive scientists and brain scientists are saying the same thing. They’re almost in despair at times about whether we’ll ever be able to jump from the third-person discourse of science to the first-person discourse of subjective consciousness.

Let me try to pin you down a little more. You’re saying the scientific method has only so much explanatory power. At least right now, it has very little to say about subjective experience. That still leaves open the question, is the mind more than the brain? Or does consciousness always have some physical correlate?

Don’t get me wrong. I want to push physical explanations as far as possible. I’m a man who loves science. I’m in awe of science. I don’t ever want theology to put restraints upon science. I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there’s something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what’s going on in the universe as a whole. So I want a worldview that’s wide enough to ask the question, why does the universe not stand still? Once radiation came about early in the universe, why didn’t the universe say, “Well, we’re just fine here. This is a pretty good universe.” Instead, there’s a restlessness, a tendency of the cosmos to go beyond itself.

We experience this in ourselves. We’re just as much a part of the universe as rivers and rocks are. Therefore, we should use what’s going on in our own experience as a key to what’s happening in the cosmos as a whole. I call this a “wider empiricism.” Most modern science has acted as though subjectivity and consciousness are not part of the natural world. It doesn’t reflect adequately on why subjectivity enters the universe at all. Why does the universe transcend itself from purely material to living and then to conscious phenomena? Teilhard himself said that what science left out was nature’s most important development — human phenomena.

You have carved out an interesting position in the debate over science and religion. You are critical of atheists like Dawkins and Dennett, who believe evolutionary theory leads to atheism. Yet you testified at the 2005 Dover trial against intelligent design. What’s wrong with intelligent design?

I testified against it because, first of all, teaching it in public schools is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. There is something irremediably religious about the idea. Try to deny it though they might, advocates of intelligent design are really proposing a kind of watered-down version of natural theology. That’s the attempt to explain what’s going on in nature’s order and design by appealing to a nonnatural source. So it’s not science. I agree with all the scientists who say intelligent design should not be made part of science. It’s not a valid scientific alternative to Darwinian ideas. It should not be taught in classrooms and public schools. It’s also extremely poor theology. What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

This becomes the “God of the gaps.” When you can’t explain something by science, you say God did it.

Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian, said that kind of thinking was the foundation of modern atheism. Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

The debate over evolution has entered the presidential campaign. Mike Huckabee, the former evangelical pastor, calls himself a “Christian leader” and says intelligent design should be one of the theories taught in public schools. But he says his personal views about evolution don’t matter because education is a matter for states to decide. Should we be alarmed by his comments?

I think so. To admit that he “personally” rejects evolution may sound harmless enough at first sight. But when any Christians reject evolution these days, one may presume that they usually, though not always, do so on the basis of a literalist style of biblical interpretation. It’s this that concerns me. Combined with the principle of private interpretation of Scripture, biblical literalism can end up short-circuiting the process of public debate, justifying almost any domestic and international policies one finds convenient. I don’t know for sure that this is the case with Huckabee, but I’m still worried.

It seems to me that we need to be clear about what we mean by “religion.” You have used that word in various ways. You’ve suggested that some scientists are inherently religious because of their quest to understand ultimate causes, even though they may not believe in God. What is your definition of religion?

There are thousands of different definitions of religion. But I like to think of three main ways of understanding it. The first way — and I think almost all of us are religious in this sense — is to define religion as concern about something of ultimate importance. This was Tillich’s broad definition: Religion is ultimate concern. Even the atheist who says that science is the only reliable road to truth, and nature is all there is, is setting up something that’s ultimate. It’s like the top stone of a pyramid that conditions everything else in the pyramid. In our own lives, we all have something like a top stone. If it were suddenly removed, it would cause our lives to fall apart. So we’re all religious in that sense. In a narrower sense, religion is simply a sense of mystery. Einstein, for example, was someone who couldn’t conceive of people — especially scientists — living without a sense of mystery. There are many scientists — sometimes they’re called “religious naturalists” — who are deeply satisfied with the scientific universe that has given us an exhilarating sense of new horizons. That sense can fulfill a person’s life.

They want to reclaim the word “religion.” And they say hardcore atheists are missing out on the sacred. But they don’t want any part of God.

Yeah, but there’s a deep division among scientific atheists on this question. People like Dawkins and Weinberg are reluctant to go along with that idea of sacredness. But let me get to my third understanding of religion. That’s a belief that this ultimate reality is at heart personal, by which we mean it is intelligent and is capable of love and making promises. This is the fundamental thinking about God in the Quran and the Bible — God is personal. Theologically speaking, personality is a symbol, like everything else in religion. Like all symbols, “personality” doesn’t adequately capture the full depth of ultimate reality. But the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal — at least capable of everything that humans are capable of — then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an “it” rather than a “thou” and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being.

But why? There are many people who lead profound spiritual lives who don’t accept the idea of a personal God. And there are entire religious traditions, like Buddhism, which don’t have a concept of God, and certainly not a personal God.

I’m not denying that they’re religious. They certainly would fit into the second, and sometimes the first, understanding of religion. Nor am I denying that they are capable of living with deep morality and compassion. I’m just delineating three understandings of faith. It’s when you come to the belief in a personal God that the question of science and religion becomes most acute.

Einstein is certainly relevant in this context. He called himself a “deeply religious nonbeliever.” He talked about having genuine religious feelings when he marveled at the inherent order and harmony in the universe. But he thought the idea of a personal God was preposterous. He couldn’t believe in a God who interfered with natural events or intervened in the lives of people.

Let’s look at why Einstein found that idea of God objectionable. Einstein was a man who thought the laws of physics have to be completely inviolable. Nature is a closed continuum of deterministic causes and effects, and if anything interrupted that, it would violate the fundamental scientific worldview that he had. So the idea of a responsive God — a God who answers prayers — would have to violate the laws of physics, the laws of nature. This is why Einstein said the problem of science and religion is caused by the belief in a personal God. But it’s not inevitable that a responsive God violates the laws of physics and chemistry. I don’t think God does violate those laws.

Let’s take the example of prayer. You are a Christian. Do you believe God answers your prayers?

Yes, but I have to go along with Martin Gardner here and ask, what if God answered everybody’s prayers? What kind of world would we have? I also have to think of what Jesus said when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. What he told them, in effect, was to pray for something really big. He called it “the kingdom of God.” What that means is praying for the ultimate fulfillment of all being, of all the universe. So when we pray, we’re asking that the world might have a future. I believe God is answering our prayers but not always in the ways we want. In the final analysis, we hope and trust that God will show or reveal himself as one who has been accompanying our prayers and responding to the world all along, but not necessarily in the narrow way that the human mind is able to conjure up.

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible — most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?

I don’t think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that’s trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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