The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Reflections from the President of the UUA

November/December 1999

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Is science opposed to spirituality? Or does it lead to it?

One of the world’s leading cell biologists is Ursula Goodenough, whose father taught religion courses at Yale. He would begin a famous course on the psychology of religion each fall by announcing, “I don’t believe in God.” His daughter doesn’t either, yet for years she has been president of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science, which holds its summer gatherings at our UU conference center on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, NH.

In her new book The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford, 1999) Goodenough summarizes the story of creation, with chapters that cover not the seven days told about in Genesis but the origins of the earth, of life, of awareness, sexuality, and speciation—all as told by modern science. But then at the end of every chapter she puts a set of reflections on the questions that science can never answer, the questions that provoke religions and spirituality: Why is there something rather than nothing? What does it mean that life has a basic drive toward diversity? How has evolution resulted in things like emotion and meaning and religious symbolism?

More and more rational, scientific people are pursuing answers to such questions. Why? The reason is suggested by Scientific American writer John Horgan, who interviewed over 40 of the world’s leading scientists. He found that many of them sense they’ve reached the limits of the scientific method. Horgan uses the term “ironic science” for their cutting-edge work in fields from cosmology to attempts to explain human consciousness. That’s because they’re working with theories for which empirical verification is somewhere between elusive and unattainable. Horgan has gone so far as to title a recent book The End of Science (Broadway Books, 1996).

Horgan finishes that book with a striking account of a personal star-gazing experience. He was “lying spread-eagled on a suburban lawn,” he writes.

Wave after wave of acute astonishment at the miraculousness of existence washed over me. At the same time . . . I became convinced that I was the only conscious being in the universe. . . . I was filled with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to this ecstasy, it might consume me. . . .  I felt myself falling through a great darkness, and as I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves.

Afterward, Horgan became convinced that he had “discovered the secret of existence: God’s fear of his/her own Godhood . . . underlies everything.” 

Several of the scientists Horgan interviewed are, not surprisingly, Unitarian Universalists. They might have shown him how better to interpret his experience. I’m thinking here especially of physicist Freeman Dyson and UU philosopher of science and religion Charles Hartshorne. 

Unfortunately, Horgan did not listen to their reflections very deeply. Otherwise he might have heard them speak about a God who is not self-involved or fearful but creative and therefore always giving away being and power. A God who is not static but growing and changing, who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave undone in our relations with others.  Dyson speaks of a God “inherent in the universe and growing in power and knowledge as the universe unfolds. Our minds,” he says, “are not only expressions of its purpose but are also contributions to its growth.”

Or as a friend of mine put it simply after using AA for his own spiritual growth and recovery: “I finally figured out that I really don’t have to understand God myself. All I need to know is that I am not God.”

Sound doctrine, that. It’s where science, and verifiable human experience, could point us: to the limits of what we can control or measure—and into gratitude and awe toward what we can’t.

Yours faithfully,
John A. Buehrens 
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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