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Science and Religion as
Partners in Understanding

compiled by The Rev Canon Dr Paul S Nancarrow
(© Paul S. Nancarrow, 2001)

The “New Creation Story” is an attempt to bring together the best of our current scientific understanding and the best of our current religious understanding of the origins of the world. We know many creation stories today—biblical, indigenous, astrophysical — but the “New Creation Story” is somewhat unusual, in that the scientific and religious understandings it attempts to bring together are often seen as antagonists in modern thought.

Think of just a few of the familiar contradictions between religious “stories” and scientific “facts”: The Bible says that Moses split the Red Sea, but science tells us that fluid dynamics don’t work like that. Or, the Bible says that Mary gave birth to Jesus without a human father, but science tells us that biology doesn’t work that way. Or, the Bible says that Jesus was raised from the dead, but science tells us that dead bodies don’t spontaneously re-animate and go out to the lakeshore and have breakfast with their friends.

The difficulty here is that our ordinary experience of the natural world, as that ordinary experience is analyzed and described by science, doesn’t support such “supernatural” events. For the pre-scientific mind this wasn’t a problem: of course such things didn’t ordinarily happen, but in these cases God acted in an extraordinary way to make them happen. The un-ordinariness of religious experience was part of the importance, part of the point, of the religious claim. What has changed in the modern-scientific mindset, however, is to question whether God ever acts in extraordinary ways.

This is because of a general view of the relation between God and the world, common in our time, in which the world is seen as self-sufficient and complete, and God is seen as “outside” the world, maybe — or maybe not — intervening in the world for God’s own purposes. This view of the relation between God and the world is part of the “modern” understanding of reality, and has been more or less dominant in Western thought and culture for the last four hundred years.

The split between science and religion is not necessary or automatic, but developed over time and has a history. Understanding some of that history can help us see new possibilities for healing the split and reuniting two halves of the Western soul.

Modern science — by which I mean science from roughly 1600 to roughly 1920 — has tended to be reductionistic, atomistic, and mechanistic. It has tended to begin with these three working assumptions that condition its assessment of what is important and what counts as truth. The first assumption is reductionism: the belief that you get at the truth of a thing by breaking it down into its smallest component parts and then observing those parts. For instance, if you want to know what a watch is, you take it apart and see its gears, springs, etc. Or if you want to know what a frog is, you dissect it—you kill it, put it in formaldehyde, stretch it out on wax tablet, and cut it up to see what’s inside it. Or if you want to know what motion is, you roll balls down a variety of inclines, measuring how they speed up or slow down or change direction, and comparing all the measurements to produce a few simple mathematical formulae — i.e., you break the notion of “motion” down into simple single movements — and that is just what Galileo did in formulating his laws of motion at the beginning of the Western “scientific revolution.”

The second working assumption of modern science is atomism: the belief that what is real is individual, discrete, self-contained entities, or, as the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes put it, “that which needs only itself to exist.” This means that the final really real things in the universe are “atoms” — from a Greek word meaning “uncuttable,” that which is indivisible, that which has no parts but is a single, self-contained unit. If only atoms are really real, then this means that everything we see around us is really nothing but assemblages of atoms. It may look like a chair, a table, a tree, a person; but if you break it down to what can’t be broken, it’s just atoms. And this, in turn, entails the view that relationships are secondary, accidental arrangements of the primary real atoms, which have no genuine effect on the atoms themselves. It may look as though the chair or table has undergone change through time and thus has a history; it may look as though the person has affections and needs and hates and loves — but these relationships are only secondary, less real, unimportant side effects of the chance arrangements of atoms. The working assumption of atomism treats all forms of relationship as second-class citizens of reality.

The third working assumption of modern science is mechanism: the belief that the world, and everything in it, can be understood and analyzed on the analogy of the machine. Like any machine, the world around us, and we ourselves, are an apparently complex assemblage of actually simple parts. The classic example is the orrery, a kind of model of the solar system that was popular in the 18th century, in which a series of gears, cogs, wheels, levers, and such made small spheres representing the planets revolve around a larger sphere representing the sun in mimicry of the actual planets’ orbital patterns. The whole orbital activity might look complex, but it’s really just the combined motion of lots of simple parts. If it was true of the orrery, the working assumption of mechanism said, it must be true of the solar system, too.

Together, these three working assumptions led to a “modern” view of the world as a self-contained, self-sufficient system of matter-in-motion, in which every single thing or event could be exhaustively explained in terms of simple mechanical interactions of particles. This view is epitomized by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace and his “demon,” a fanciful superhuman intelligence who knew two things: the positions and speeds of all the particles in the universe at any given moment and the Newtonian laws of physics. Armed with such knowledge, Laplace said, the demon could predict or retrodict everything that had happened or was yet to happen in the world, simply by calculating the cumulative motions of the particles.

The question for religion then becomes: in such a self-contained, self-explanatory world, what is the place of God? And the answer typically given is:  None. Laplace, when asked the role of God in his analysis of the universe, is reported to have said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Another kind of response came in the form of Deism, which is the belief that God created the world and set it in motion—God built the great Orrery, the great Clock, and wound it up and got it going—but since then, God has not been involved in the working of the world in any way. God is seen as an external, analytical intelligence who has no bearing whatsoever on the day-to-day activity of the world.

Religion in the modern era, faced by these sweeping claims of science, has tended to respond by progressively shifting its attention away from the physical world and toward the personal world. Religious believers have tended to settle for the formula that science tells us about the world out there, while religion tells us about the world in here; science tells us what is, and religion tells us what ought to be; science is about facts, and religion is about morals, ethics, and ideals. Ian Barbour sums up this view very well in his comment on the theology of Rudolf Bultmann: “Theological formulations must be statements about the transformation of human life by a new understanding of personal existence.  Such affirmations have no connection with scientific theories about external events in the impersonal order of a law-abiding world.”  (Ian Barbour, Religion and Science [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990] 86.) The idea that there is “no connection” between science and religion is pervasive in our time.

The modern problem of believing in God’s action in the world—especially supernatural or miraculous action—arises, then, out of a particular view of reality fostered by modern science. But this in turn raises a new question: Is modern science the only possible view of reality? Many people today, and especially people within the sciences, are saying that a new, post-modern understanding of reality is taking shape in both science and religion.

The modernist paradigm in science began to come apart in the 1920’s, as developments within the sciences themselves challenged the working assumptions of reductionism, atomism, and mechanism. For instance, quantum physics challenged the basic notion of atomism:  as physicists broke up the atom into smaller and smaller pieces, it turned out that the most basic reality was not solid bits of matter at all, but patterns of relationships. Fundamental particles, in a very real sense, do not exist at all apart from relationships. A fundamental particle “all by itself” subsists in a superposition of states, its qualities of position and energy not fully determinate but represented by a wave function of probabilities. The particle is not “real,” but is a virtual bundle of possibilities: it could be here, it could be there, it could be moving at x speed, it could be moving at y speed. The particle only becomes determinate, it only attains definite qualities and becomes real, when it interacts with another particle or system of particles. Particles are particles only when they are in relationships. Reality depends on relationship. This discovery of physics in the 1920’s was in clear contradiction of the modern working assumption of atomism. It led the English physicist and mathematician James Jeans to comment that, after Einstein and Heisenberg, the universe did not resemble a great machine so much as it did a great thought.

Another example of post-modern science — and one less arcane and esoteric than quantum physics — is the newer science of ecology. Ecology looks not just at discrete individual organisms, but examines patterns of relationships between many organisms and species within environments. Where reductionism attempts to understand frogs by dissecting them, relational ecology says that, to really understand frogs, you must observe them in their environment: how they swim, how they relate to other frogs, what kinds of insects they like to eat, how their reproductive cycles are affected by chemicals in their pond water, and so on. Understanding the frog requires not just reducing it to its component parts, but seeing it embedded in its network of relationships.

These sorts of changes in the working assumptions of post-modern science are leading to a new view of the world as a multilayered system of systems, things in patterns and in patterns of patterns, in which each new layer of relationships adds something new that cannot be explained simply by reference to the component parts. The patterns of behavior, the “routes of becoming” or “modes of existence,” open to any individual entity change as its network of relationships changes, and those changes have a real and important effect on the being of the individual.

A fundamental particle — say, an electron — behaves in one way when it is “loose,” shooting through empty space or moving along with other similar electrons, perhaps in a bolt of lightning. That same electron behaves in a different way, and so in an important sense is a different electron, when it is part of an atom, a larger system.  Being part of a chlorine atom makes an electron different from what it would be otherwise.

 An atom behaves one way when it is loose, and another way when it is part of a larger system.  A chlorine atom that has joined with a sodium atom in a salt molecule is very different from a chlorine atom alone. Chlorine atoms by themselves, in a free cloud, are deadly poison to human beings. Likewise, sodium atoms, joined to each other in a metallic lattice, will explode in water and poison human beings. But chlorine and sodium together form salt, a substance essential to human life. The qualities of salt could never be deduced from looking at chlorine and sodium separately; “saltiness” appears only when chlorine and sodium come together in relationship. The atom in the molecule is something different from what it would be alone.

 A molecule behaves one way when it is loose, or with others of its own kind, and another way when it is part of a larger system.  A salt molecule that is part of a salt crystal in a shaker on a dinner table is behaving very differently — with a different past and a different possible future — than a salt molecule dissolved in the bloodstream of a living animal.

 We could go on up the chain:  blood in living bodies is different from blood in test tubes; living bodies in ecosystems are different from living bodies in cells or laboratory cages; ecosystems are parts of planets, planets are parts of solar systems, solar systems are parts of galaxies; and so on.

 Post-modern science is coming to view the universe as a dance of relationships in which influence and information flow up and down the scale of complexity, and in which any given thing is always more than the sum of its parts.

 In this view, the universe is not a closed causal nexus that is completely self-contained and self-explanatory. In this understanding of the universe, as distinguished from the “modern” view, it is possible to see again a concrete role for God in the activity of the world: God provides the ultimate, primary, primordial relationship in which all other patterns and systems of relationships are grounded and sustained. Every thing that exists — or, better, every moment of existence — begins with a calling-forth from God, begins as a relationship with God. God thus provides the most inclusive of all environments, whose influence pervades the world and conditions all other relationships toward divine ideals. God is like the conductor of a choir, whose tempo and interpretation and style pervade and guide the entire performance, while allowing each singer to contribute her or his own unique voice in performing. The universe is one vast song of joy and praise.

In this view, God does not relate to the world by intervening in it from without, but by including it within.

Consider again the electron in a chlorine atom in a salt molecule: imagine the salt molecule in a loaf of bread; imagine the loaf of bread on an altar in midst of the faithful community celebrating the Eucharist; imagine the celebration of the Eucharist as a moment in the ongoing life of the risen Christ. Christ provides the environment that conditions the relationships all up and down the scale of complexity. God acts in the community, in the individual persons, in the bread, even in the electron, by including them in patterns of relationships that strive to realize the divine will for justice and peace and the unity of all things with each other and with God. Each new layer of relationships adds something new that wasn’t there before, and adds a pervasive influence toward larger-scale goals and purposes, God’s own love being the most pervasive and most inclusive relationship of all.

The “New Creation Story” is an attempt to render this kind of combined scientific-and-religious understanding. In depicting a world in which God creates by empowering the universe to bring forth difference and relationship, the story urges us to see our human role in God’s world as created co-creators, creatures of intelligence, will, love, and responsibility, who are called to be God’s partners in the evolving work of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. It invites us to see God in the world, and the world in God, and ourselves as participants in God’s unfolding Peace.


Copyright Notice for this article:
Copyright © 2001, The Rev Canon Dr Paul S. Nancarrow, all rights reserved.  The information on this webpage may be retransmitted for information purposes, but may not be used in any non-MEESC publication (other than that of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota) without the written permission of The Rev Canon Dr Paul S. Nancarrow.  All retransmissions, postings, and publications or this webpage must include this notice.


The Rev Canon Dr Paul S. Nancarrow was the Rector of St. George's Episcopal Church, St. Louis Park, MN, when he originally presented this story in 2001 as part of the Deacon Formation Classes.  Subsequently he has served as the Canon for Theology of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. He and we welcome your comments.   Please address your comments or additional reflections to The Rev Canon Dr Paul Nancarrow or any MEESC member or write to:

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