IN SEARCH OF GOD AT COLUMBIA
by Charles Henderson

CHARLES HENDERSON is the Executive Director of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life.

On the title page of Robert Pollack's book The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith there is a charming drawing by the Professor's wife, Amy, reproduced here. The caption to this illustration reads: "Jerusalem and a cell are both busy places. Jerusalem's Old City and the cell's nucleus respectively codify and direct the comings and goings of people and molecules." As a molecular biologist, as well as an observant Jew, Bob Pollack is well acquainted with the comings and goings that take place within the sphere of science, as well as the sphere of religion. But is there any intrinsic connection between the activity of the cell and that of the synagogue? And what if one were to alter Amy Pollack's illustration so that, instead of her map of the Old City of Jerusalem, there was an overview of the Columbia University campus where Pollack is Professor of Biological Sciences? At the center of such a drawing there would be another structure, not the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, but instead the dome of Low Memorial Library, which was designed in the late nineteenth century by architects McKim, Mead and White to evoke two prior temples: the Pantheon in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens. This is the central administration building of Columbia University, designed quite intentionally as a temple of understanding to dominate the campus, flanked to the east by St. Paul's Chapel, and to the west by Earl Hall, the university's center of religious life. Across the portals of Low Library, inscribed in stone, are words dedicating Columbia College to the "Good of Man and the Glory of God."

Those responsible for the construction of Low Library may well have believed that such an inscription appropriately expressed the deepest purposes that were served by their university, but on today's secular campus, it is widely assumed that such words are an anachronism, or perhaps even a signal of dangers to be avoided. Confusing a dispassionate quest for knowledge with service to the God of any faith would be considered by many to be an error. Pollack, who has done a great deal of thinking about this topic, begins his book with these words:

The seal of Columbia College -- subsequently Columbia University -- is almost a quarter of a millennium old. It personifies all of us, faculty and students alike, as naked babies. Seated before us is the ideal Teacher, the spiritual mother of us all, Alma Mater, arms out, scepter of wisdom in her hand. Below her is a reference to chapter 2 of the first Epistle of Peter: "Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies and all slander / As new born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby." Around her shoulders is a fragment of a line in Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures, psalm 36, line 9: "By Your light do we see." Together these Biblical references are a brilliant and poetic evocation of the acts of teaching and learning.

These words are inscribed not only in the official seal of the University, but also upon the statue of Alma Mater, a goddess who sits in daily vigil, overlooking the campus from her perch on the steps leading up to the university's temple of understanding. Pollack, over the course of a lifetime of scientific research as well as religious inquiry, has come to the point where he can affirm, despite some significant data to the contrary "that there is an unknowable Deity at the source of everything to be taught and everything to be learned, (and further) that everything known to be, and everything yet to be known, is surrounded by the Unknowable."

But aside from its official seal, inscriptions carved in stone in public spaces, and the symbolism of architecture designed and constructed more than a century ago, is there any remaining evidence of a relationship between what goes on in the classrooms and research laboratories of this great center of learning and the larger purposes and meanings referenced in such markings from the past?

Bob Pollack has done as much as anyone to address such questions. Since the fall of 1999, he has been the director of the Columbia Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR). The center's programs include curricula, seminars, public lectures and forums, a website, and a series of books. In fact, The Faith of Biology is based upon the first public program of CSSR, three lectures in which Pollack addressed the questions that have come to occupy his attention more and more in recent years. To be sure, the mission of CSSR is radically different from that proclaimed so clearly on the university's official seal and upon its public buildings. Rather than the glorification of God, CSSR is designed as "a forum for the examination of issues that lie at the boundary of these two complementary ways of comprehending the world and our place in it. By examining the intersections that cross over the boundaries between one or another science and one or another religion, the CSSR hopes to stimulate dialogue and encourage understanding." There are three important points to notice in this. First, CSSR was established with the support and under the auspices of the College of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. This is not the project of a theological school or even a department of religion at a secular university. Second, it is presumed at the outset that religion and science represent two "complementary ways of comprehending the world," which are equally deserving of study and respect. And third, that there are important points of intersection where the boundaries between science and religion overlap, and where insights from both domains are critical.

As a Jew, as well as a scientist, Pollack is acutely aware of the difficulty in using such a loaded word as "God." This stems in part from his training as a scientist, but equally important from his training in the Torah. "In my religion there is a deep and ancient reticence to dare to put a name on what is for us the essence of the unknowable." Thus, Pollack uses the word "God" interchangeably with "the unknowable." In this way he hopes to avoid alienating both scientists and nonscientists whose religion is not his own. "By referring to the unknowable as an aspect of reality in this way, I am confident at least that I will not be giving anyone license to ignore what I say for semantic reasons." Or to put it another way, Pollack is not interested in defending a particular name for God, but rather in affirming the reality of "an unknowable God who cares."

In this context, Pollack points out that, simply by asserting the reality of the "unknowable," he has already placed himself at odds with some of those colleagues coming from the realm of science who have difficulty with the entire notion of the transcendent. It also places him in opposition, of course, with others coming from the sphere of faith, who believe that everything decisive to the fate of humanity can be known through an act of divine revelation. For Pollack, the apprehension of the unknowable was itself the turning point in his career. "As soon as the notion of the unknowable as distinct from the unknown placed itself before me, the shock changed both my career and the way I see the world."

Pollack briefly distinguishes his own position with respect to the relationship of science and religion from that of two prominent evolutionary biologists who have staked out a position quite different from his own, namely, Harvard's Stephen J. Gould and Oxford's Richard Dawkins. Gould's approach is to say, flat out, that science and religion have little or nothing to say to each other. "The sciences, which deal with what can be known through direct experience of the world, and the religions, which deal with what can be known by direct experience of inner feelings, are so completely separate as to be distinct and independent magisteria, with no point of contact."

Gould's formulation of the relationship between science and religion might well be referred to as peaceful coexistence. By separating the domain of science from the domain of faith, one can theoretically avoid debate over such contentious issues as the teaching of evolution in public schools. For biologists can teach evolution in school, and religious leaders can promote the view that God created the world and everything in it within their churches, synagogues, and mosques. As long as public school officials and religious leaders agree that these activities have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, there will be little problem. As we know, in practice, peaceful coexistence is not a viable strategy for dealing with potential conflicts between science and religion if only because there are many educators who feel that their faith supercedes the theory of evolution. By the same token there are many religious leaders who integrate scientific theory and theology and in so doing make conflict over both the science and the theology a very real part of the "comings and goings" within the sphere of religion itself. The boundaries between science and religions are quite simply too porous to make a strategy of peaceful coexistence viable. And there are other, equally contentious issues, in which it is even more difficult to separate the insights of science from those of religion: namely, abortion rights, civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens, stem cell research, and cloning, to name just a few.

Pollack next takes on Richard Dawkins as the biologist who "best articulates a vision of science that would abolish all religious insight" by reducing it all to the level of the meaningless. Pollack points out that while science itself cannot establish the reality of the unknowable, neither can it demonstrate that the unknowable is lacking in reality. In fact, when scientists like Dawkins insist on the meaninglessness of all religious insight absent any experimental test that might either verify or falsify it, then science itself has become mired in dogma. This is particularly true, Pollack argues, because the process of scientific research itself, while failing to offer "proof" of the unknowable, often moves forward though a process of discovery that is itself beyond the reach of human understanding.

Ask any scientist what lies at the core of her work, you will learn that it is not the experimental test of the hypothesis -- although that is where most of the time and money in science go. It is the idea, the mechanism, the insight that justifies all the rest of the work of science. The moment of insight that reveals the new idea, where an instant before there was just fog, is the moment where the unknown first retreats before the creativity of the scientist. Here, then, is the first door into the unknowable: where does scientific insight come from? Surely from someplace currently unknown. Let us consider the possibility that scientific insight, like religious revelation, comes from an intrinsically unknowable place. . . Good ideas emerge in the mind of a scientist as gifts of the unknowable. They are not, as data are, simply trophies of a struggle with the unknown.

Thus, concludes Pollack, the central event in science, namely, the insight that leads to new understanding, is so similar to religious experience "that I see only a semantic difference between scientific insight and what is called, in religious terms, revelation."

While Pollack has a great deal more to say about the relationship between science and religion generally, what makes his writing compelling are the specifics. He does not attempt to represent either religion or science in general, but rather writes as a Jew and a biologist in particular. And he quickly moves from the level of the purely theoretical, to discuss specific issues where his ideas might be applied to the practice of medicine, for example, or to the shaping of public policy on stem cell research or therapeutic cloning. The article that follows was given as a speech at a public forum sponsored by the George C. Marshall Foundation Roundtable in Washington, D.C., last October. What attracted me to this paper, in addition to the power and clarity of Pollack's thought, was his ability to draw with equal skill upon the insights of both science and religion, applying these to a problem that will surely be with us for a long time to come. From this perspective Pollack is able to critique President Bush's decision on stem cell research, while suggesting a very different course of action that would honor the beliefs of those who affirm that life is sacred (like the President), while still moving forward with research that holds significant promise of actually saving lives.

The strength of Pollack's approach to the relationship between science and religion lies not alone in the productive conversations that inevitably ensue when scientists and theologians gather to work in a collegial way on issues of concern to both. The greater benefit that may be derived from the agenda that Pollack and others are working on at CSSR is the positive contribution that such a collaboration may make to both the practice of medicine and the shaping of public policy. As Pollack puts it:

We know from a century and a half of research in ecology and evolution that as a species our future lies not in minimizing our differences but in cherishing them. We know as well from millennia of religious insight that there is no possible way to justify any ranking of one person over another on grounds of any aspect of their physical being. From these two insights we have a chance of working toward a properly informed medicine, capable of using any and all insights from science in a context derived from the insights of many religions and thereby capable of reducing all data to one purpose: to help people in need, one person at a time.

In the pluralistic setting of a modern research university like Columbia, it is highly unlikely that new buildings will be constructed or new statues erected to the glorification of God. One might even imagine a time when someone initiates a court action to remove monuments from the past that proclaim faith in a particular God, as several Columbia University buildings still do. And while many would regret the loss of such symbols, including Bob Pollack, the actual presence of an "unknowable God who cares" will be better served, in the long run, not by symbols that have lost their anchor to a living faith, but rather in efforts to mine sacred traditions as a real source of wisdom and understanding. As long as work such as that presently being done as CSSR can continue, hopefully with the active support of academic as well as religious institutions, then it is highly likely that the words of the Hebrew Scriptures will continue to ring true in the hearts as well as the minds of generations of students and teachers yet to come. "For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see."

 

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1.