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Fr Billy Swan

For many young people in particular, faith in a creator God has become more difficult to accept because of the phenomenal discoveries of science in recent centuries. It seems that events and processes that once belonged to a religious category are now removed from it because scientific explanations have enlightened us about what is truly going on. To offer two examples that seem to suggest a clash between faith and science or faith and reason. In Bible, we hear that the world was made in seven days. New scientific evidence reveals that the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago. Not so long ago, people prayed for fine weather to save the hay and harvest the corn. Now we can predict with high degrees of probability what the weather will be like for the days ahead. Not only that but we can explain how weather systems develop as they do. So is Dawkins right, who said that more and more 'God has nothing to do and nowhere to hide'?

On Saturday 24th June, I gave a talk in UCD on the topic of 'Faith vs Science or Faith and Science'. I argued that both faith and science are necessary to grasp the totality of reality. Part 1 of this talk is posted below. Part 2 will appear next week.

Dear friends. I am honoured to be with you this morning at this conference organized by Radio Maria. I am also delighted that this conference is taking place here in my Alma Mater of UCD where thousands of young people come to live and study, applying their intellects to the disciplines of science, engineering, commerce, medicine, philosophy and the arts to name just a few. Hosting this conference on the campus is a powerful sign that the Church’s place is not only in private spheres, churches or parish properties but here in a place where young people gather, where lively minds meet, where ideas are formed, values are shared and where the church has an opportunity to spell out its vision and message with clarity and conviction.

In my talk this morning, I would like to share a few thoughts on why everyone should embrace science and faith or faith and reason rather than chose one over the other. I would also like to propose how recent scientific discoveries make faith in a creator God more plausible and not less.

Science and Faith rather than Science vs Faith

Being here in UCD takes me back 36 years ago when I arrived here as a first-year science student in 1987. Four happy years later, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. I then worked for two years for a pharmaceutical company here in Dublin in Research and Development. I clearly recall how much of my time on this campus was spent going back and forth between the lecture halls, the labs, the library and to the chapel where we earlier had Mass. For me, my time spent in these diverse places was connected to a common desire for truth and the meaning of things. Back then and even still, I never perceived science as a threat to my faith. For me, I understood science as observation with a contemplative heart of all that God had made. Chemical analysis was an effort to study how different elements and compounds relate and interact and to discover what were the building blocks that made up the material world. In the labs, in the library and lecture halls, we grappled with the nature, origin and working of material reality. We wanted to know how things worked as they did. This was our work as scientists.

But then, in the chapel and in the religious sphere, a different set of questions came to the surface of my mind. My religion as a Catholic Christian, allowed me or better still, encouraged me to ask the ‘Why’ questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I here? Why is there love, suffering and evil in the world? Why did God create the universe like He did? These ‘Why’ questions that came to my mind at times of reflection and prayer were in addition to the ‘How’ questions that surfaced in my studies in science. I considered both the ‘How’ questions and the ‘Why’ questions to be equally important to arrive at truth. For me, while there were important distinctions between the two worlds of faith and science, there was also an overlap where one permeated the other. I was conscious that these two worlds of faith and science came together in me and that both were necessary. While scientific observation was good, by itself it did not take me to where the thirst for truth wanted to go.

It was only years later that I discovered with great encouragement how many mystics and theologians were also scientists who embraced both faith and reason in their quest for the truth. People like Galileo, Copernicus, Fr Francesco Grimaldi who discovered the diffraction of light, Fr George Mendel the father of modern genetics and Fr George Lemaitre who first proposed the Big Bang theory – all of them saw the need for both faith and science to grasp the fullness of reality. As early as the fourth century with St Augustine wrote about the intelligence of the Creator being inscribed in the intelligibility of the universe. For the great Augustine, creation was like a book to be read and studied for it revealed something of the God who created it: “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the Universe that you must observe” (Errationes in Psalmos, 45, 7). In the thirteenth century, St Bonaventure spoke about the two books that God has written – the first book of creation and the second the book of Scripture. Obviously, for Bonventure and others, the way of reading both books was different for the language and grammar of both are distinct. That said, the truth that both languages were revealing could not and did not contract each other. I was also beguiled by something Bonaventure wrote about St Francis of Assisi when he recalled that for Francis “contemplation of creation was like ascending the rungs of a ladder on which his spirit was lifted up towards praise of God”. Although creation contains the spirit of the living God, God is not contained by all that he has made. God is present in all he has made but is beyond all he has made. Here is the Catholic principle of sacramentality that is the feature of all creation. The natural world is not a system closed in on itself but rather points beyond itself to the One responsible for it all.

This image of the two books of revelation was used by none other than Galileo and in modern times by Francis Collins, former director of the human genome project who said:

‘I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan….I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the Cathedral or on the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship”. (Francis Collins, ‘Why this Scientist Believes in God’,, April 3, 2007).

What all this amounts to is a joyful permission for Catholic Christians to engage positively in the world of science - conscious of both its ethical limits and its own limitations in being a source of truth but not the only source of truth.

This caveat is taking on increasing importance in the face of the rise of scientism that suggests that all there is to be know, can be known through the route and tools of science. Perhaps the two best-known advocates of this ideology are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. In his classical work ‘The Grand Design’ , Stephen Hawking wrote: ‘What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Traditionally these are questions for philosophy. But philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch for discovery in our quest for knowledge”.

But is this true? Has science replaced routes like music, beauty, poetry and drama as the only source of truth? Many would disagree including Pope Francis who addressed the issue in ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ and argues for a fruitful dialogue between faith and science to arrive at the fullness of truth:

‘Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other. Evangelization is attentive to scientific advances and wishes to shed on them the light of faith and the natural law so that they will remain respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person at every stage of life. All of society can be enriched thanks to this dialogue, which opens up new horizons for thought and expands the possibilities of reason. This too is a path of harmony and peace’ (para. 242).

He continues:

‘The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 243).

Studying science is to contemplate the handiwork of God with a deep reverence and with prayerful attentiveness to what God has revealed of himself by what he has created. For in the words of St Paul to the Romans: “Since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). The love of science is consistent with a thoroughly incarnational spirituality that leads us to reverence the human body, the environment, the cosmos and to be guided by science as to what actions we need to take to address issues like climate change. For the human heart, knowing the answers to the ‘How’ questions, on its own is not enough for its leaves us dissatisfied. We want to know the answers to the ‘Why’ questions too. That is why I argue that the binary choice of Science or Faith that many young people are presented with today, is phoney and false. Only a philosophy of Science and Faith will be sufficient to take us to the fullness of truth that the human mind seeks and in which the human heart finally rests.

Part 2 next week


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