Appeared in 1997-1998, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 3 & 4

Download the PDF here.

Science and Religion in Identity Crisis1

Three hundred or so years ago not a few scientists spoke of science and religion as united in a holy alliance. Two hundred years later theologians could do little about the warfare in which science and religion appeared to be locked forever. Today, many theologians and some scientists speak of the mutual integration of science and religion, these two paramount forces in human life.

From both sides all too often mere generalities rather than tangible specifics are offered. This may already indicate a lack of simultaneous competence in both fields. Actually, those generalities suggest that an identity crisis may be enveloping both science and religion, and to an extent far greater than one maysuspect.

The religious side of that crisis is easier to diagnose by a mere look at programs of instruction offered in most departments of religion and religious studies, as well as divinity schools and theological faculties. Actual exposure to what goes on in those places can readily bring into focus a feature typical of most of them. Whenever a question is posed, only a multiplicity of answers is tolerated. Even the slightest effort to cut through that multiplicity, within which contradictory stances too are acceptable, is frowned upon as judgmental. The result is the rise of that church where, to paraphrase a remark of Chesterton, each communicant is sharing the other’s unbelief.

A biting portrayal of this pathetic situation was given less than a year ago in a book, The Search for God at Harvard, written by Ari L. Goldman, religion reporter for the New York Times. It may not have been a sound idea at all on Mr. Goldman’s part to spend a full year at Harvard Divinity School to search for God there. Actually, the true target of Mr. Goldman’s search was not so much God as some experience about Him. Such a search could, of course, have ended, even if successful, only in mistaking God’s identity for some religious experience with no real identity.

The variety of religious experiences, to which Mr. Goldman found himself exposed in that prestigious divinity school, seemed to serve the purpose of concealing their true identity. Nothing has indeed changed there since William James, that legendary guru of religion as “experienced,” came up with his own theory about the varieties of religious experience.

Had Mr. Goldman thought, while at Harvard, of William James, he would not have been forced to identify the Christian religious experience as “the most elusive experience” of his early days in the “Div School,” as it is called there in a quasi-affectionate tone: “If, for example, there was a mention in class of the divinity of Jesus, the lecturer would offer an apology to the non-Christians in the room.” No wonder Mr. Goldman found shattered his expectation of encountering some religious experience which he could have identified as “old-type Christian piety.” This piety has always been rooted in clearly identifiable dogmas, but the Div School’s atmosphere was one of “religious relativity,” where “religious truth did not seem to exist” at all.2What Mr. Goldman could not find in the classrooms of the “Div School,” he also failed to find in its imposing Chapel. Whether during the daily Noon service, which he faithfully attended, or at peeks into the Chapel in between classes, Goldman “never sawanyone on his or her knees.” At most, he saw “someone sitting there meditating,” but this did not happen frequently.3

Clearly, the “Div School” at Harvard had not advanced a whit beyond the state of affairs which set the tone at Yale too, as searingly portrayed a generation ago in God and Man at Yale. Of course, that portrayal was possible only because its author, W. F. Buckley, offered an evaluation in terms of definite values, or standards. (Whether these are called dogmas or not, should seem irrelevant. They could just as well be called fishnets.) If Mr. Goldman had any standards, they were the orthodox Jewish practices to which he was viscerally attached and never cared to put on clearly definable intellectual foundations.

This is why he was torn about Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, he felt deeply attracted to the Mass. On the other hand, he could not warm up to dogmatic Catholicism. It is difficult to decide whether he deplored the present status of Catholicism, as he perceived it. Although he seemed to be upset over the Catholic Church’s loss of moral authority within society, he was ambivalent about its cause, “the internecine struggles over authority with Rome and the anti-abortion cause.”4

Only if one is wholly unfamiliar with the long-standing uncertainty of Congregationalists about their own identity, can one voice surprise over the utterly elusive identity of religion in a divinity school and university with Congregationalist roots. The doctrinal atmosphere at Harvard Divinity School reminded Mr. Goldman of that nutshell summary of liberal Protestantism which H. R. Niebuhr had given half a century ago: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Such a religion could not be distinguished from Mr. Goldman’s Judaism, to say nothing of reformed and conservative Judaism, except for his attachment to ritual laws. In all those denominations, one can freely wear the p.c. (politically correct) badge, this most effective sedative against the pressing need for trueidentification.

A p.c. religion will have no problem being integrated with science, though the relation may not amount to more than a convenient cohabitation that can be initiated, acted out, terminated, resumed, and reinterpreted on short notice. Cohabitation is always a dissimulation of the true identity of a rapport, an identity crisis in short. The religious side of that cohabitation can only function as religious syncretism. Thus no real difference will be claimed between nature worship and a worship steeped in the supernatural reality of a Creator free to create or not to create what is called Nature writ large, that is, a universe.

Within that syncretism every form of religion can be accommodated. There polytheism, with its worship of idols, will not appear too distant even from a worship that forbids the making of graven images of God. And when God and nature are fused to the extent in which this is done in pantheism, not only can one’s religion not be identified, but even one’s true identity diminishes to the vanishing point. In no form of pantheism has there ever been a place for that personal immortality which alone makes one’s identity (and one’s religion) meaningful and raises it above the lowlands of mere estheticism.

Syncretism, or the abolition of true identity, certainly foments heavy reliance on verbalism, which is in view, for instance, when pantheism is promoted in the guise of panentheism, or the idea, by itself perfectly orthodox, that God is everywhere and in everything. Syncretism, or religion’s identity crisis, is all too often couched in such noble words as ecumenism, global consciousness, and moral rearmament, to say nothing of such dubious labels as Gaia and New Age.

The so-called “mere Christianity,” first proposed around 1675 by William Baxter, a Puritan divine tired of religious controversies,6was a symptom of identity crisis. The symptom resurfaced when in 1943 C. S. Lewis resurrected Baxter’s idea in a book, Mere Christianity, that made religious history for the latter half of this century of ours. C. S. Lewis could offer but his gut-feeling as to what that mere Christianity was when he said that he meant by Christian faith that “which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”7No more clarity was shed on the subject by his equally elusive definition of Christian belief as the one “that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”8

This is not to suggest that C. S. Lewis was not aware of the problem of leaving out of “mere Christianity” all items smacking of controversy in order to focus attention on items noncontroversial. But were there such items or tenets? No less importantly, even if there were some, could they be discoursed upon for any length of time without bringing up matters not only controversial but also pivotal for the articulation and defense of points commonly held by almost all Christians?