The Matter of Matter

In one of his letters, Teilhard de Chardin speaks of loneliness: his religious friends don't understand his science and his scientific friends have small use for his theology. Teilhard was deprived of the conversation that might have improved both.

Those days may well be over, as we learn in Lyndon Harris's interview with physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne. We see it in Polkinghorne's discussion of chance and necessity and in his affirmation of a relational universe, but particularly in his motto "epistemology models ontology" and in his call for "liturgy-assisted logic." With the serenity that characterizes all his work, Polkinghorne, it seems to me, is practicing -- and calling on all of us to practice -- a mode of thinking that is in many ways revolutionary. "Science cannot tell theology how to construct a theology of creation," he says. "but you can't construct a doctrine of creation without taking account of the age of the universe and the evolutionary character of cosmic history." Science and theology, he suggests, must seek consonance. And this will be possible, as I see it, only if both answer the summons to prayerful logic.

As does Polkinghorne, Elizabeth Newman stresses being at home in the world, taking its reliability as a given. Both modernism and postmodernism participate in gnostic estrangement: the modernists believe that "the limits of our particular worlds are divisive and therefore need to be overcome through the 'disinterested spectator' of science"; postmodern deconstructionists consider such limits "hegemonic control" that "must be unmasked through the 'deconstructed self.' " The world, both say in varying degrees, is not our home but our prison.

Believers in the Abrahamic religions can escape this bifurcated gnosticism, Newman says, by turning to Genesis, the story of the seven days -- God creates through speech, beholds the world's goodness, shares his image with humankind -- and the covenant with Abraham -- God bonds to Abraham and Abraham to God "in time" and through faithfulness. In dialogue with the stories of others, they can discover points of convergence and so develop a shared epistemology that approaches reality in the spirit of trust.

Huston Smith and James Studer adopt the spirit of trust in quite different ways. Smith points to the fact that "postmodern science speaks increasingly of the unseen, and does so respectfully. It tells us that matter derives from space (which is invisible until populated), and that 90 percent of the universe. . .is invisible." Even if new instruments "bring this 'dark matter' to light," another front will remain; when we "see" protons, photons, which are only "marginally material," will remain. The unseen is, Smith says, in the end, Spirit; it is time to return to the vision of primal peoples, in which divisions are less pronounced, in which the line separating this world from God is faint, if it exists at all.

Smith finds creative possibilities in looking back in time. Studer looks forward. Smith finds hope in the most ancient but unchanging of "metaphysics." Studer finds it in an emerging metaphysics that, if forced, I would characterize this way: matter and spirit, body and soul, are not distinct; they are two aspects of a single reality, with human consciousness arising, over time, from the inner imperatives of what we commonly call matter.

Greek metaphysics sprang from what Greeks could see and was an amazing creation. Today, Studer says, through insights derived from science, we see differently and what we see must be the basis of our definitions of reality. His discussion of the new science makes difficult reading and is sure to be controversial. Humanists who take for granted the superiority of being to becoming will be distressed, as will the scientifically minded who resist speculation beyond the facts into the realm of meaning.

But Studer's bold intellectual probe must be reckoned with. It points to a new way of seeing, one that can, possibly, transform not only the way faith sees science and science sees faith, but the way that each sees itself.


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