Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Eternal Now: Science and Theology

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. 
I Corinthians 15:51

Science and theology are not natural enemies.

They work with the same subject matter. Both begin with the observation of the world around us. 

And each is focused on big ideas.

One focuses on how the world works and the other focuses on what it means. But those distinctions are not as clearly delineated as one might suppose. There is natural overlap and there is also intentional overlap. And some conflict is probably inevitable.

But lately the conflict has been fairly acrimonious. We tend to forget that although there have been many famous conflicts across the centuries, science and theology have also been understood at many points as complementary disciplines. And they ought to be complementary disciplines.

The blame for our current state is broadly shared. The present conflict began a little over a century ago when the Fundamentalists began to push back against the theory of evolution and assert that the creation story in Genesis was a scientific document. It was both bad science and bad theology, but it provided the foundation for biblical literalism and a simplistic view of the world which has been surprisingly popular. It is so popular that more people believe in creationism today than fifty years ago.

The pushback against Fundamentalism and biblical literalism has found its voice in what we call the “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. It is hard to blame anyone for pushing back against the anti-scientific (and anti-intellectual) views of the biblical literalists, but the New Atheists have been as ignorant about theology as the biblical literalists have been about science.

Given this background, I was pleased to receive an article from one of my atheist friends, written by physicists Bob Berman and Robert Lanza and titled, “There Is No Death, Only a Series of Eternal ‘Nows’.”

Berman and Lanza want to tell us what will happen when we die. 

And the good news is that we don’t. We don’t really die. 

They begin with what they call the “scientific view of death,” which they summarize as “essentially, you drop dead and that’s the end of everything. This is the view favored by intellectuals who pride themselves on being stoic and realistic enough to avoid cowardly refuge in Karl Marx’s spiritual ‘opium’ – the belief in an afterlife.”

“This modern view,” they observe dryly, “is not a cheerful one.”

But they have an alternative: “our theory of the universe, called biocentrism, in which life and consciousness create the reality around them, has no space for death at all.”

Death has no reality because time is an illusion. What is real is now. And, as the title of the article suggests, we live in a series of eternal nows.

Their argument goes deep into the realm of theoretical physics, but is written in a style that is accessible to the non-scientist.

I was fascinated first by the title. Paul Tillich wrote a famous sermon called, “The Eternal Now,” which is included in a book by the same title. And the idea is central to Tillich’s theology.

As I read the article, I was reminded of the Process Theology of Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb. 

In Hartshorne’s book, “The Logic of Perfection,” he wrote about his understanding of death in a way that complements the view of Berman and Lanza. “It is a truism,” writes Hartshone, “though one often forgotten, that whatever death may mean it cannot mean that a person is first something real and then something unreal.”

Berman and Lanza conclude by recounting what Albert Einstein wrote when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died in 1955: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

It is unlikely that the conflict between science and theology will be resolved any time soon (although I could argue that for me it is already resolved in this eternal now). But I cannot help hoping. 

And I have this image, always a favorite, from that iconic scene at the end “Casablanca.” The cynical American, Rick Blaine, links arms with the corrupt French police sergeant Renault. And as they walk off into the fog to begin their unlikely partnership fighting against the Nazis, Rick says,  "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."   

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