As a kid raised in a large family with what he calls “healthy neglect,” the late Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry roamed the woods and fields around his home in Greensboro, N.C. At the age of 11, he said, his sense of “the natural world in its numinous presence” came to him when he discovered a new meadow on the edge of town.
“The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.”
It was not only the lilies, he said. “It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. … This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good.”
By extension, he said, “a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being.”
Berry turned religion on its head when he said the meadow directly reveals the good, the true and the beautiful. Knowing where that meadow came from, and then letting that knowledge shape and inform our theological speculation is fundamentally important if our religions are to be a true guide for living and for making decisions about ethics, politics, education, and use of natural resources.
When Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and even the biblical authors were writing, people thought rats, mice and flies were spontaneously generated from trash and filth. When Cardinal John Henry Newman was alive, devastating cholera epidemics in London were thought to be caused by breathing bad air.
Before the early 1800s, we had no sense of the scale of time. Nothing about early humanity was known until old skulls were discovered in Belgium in 1829. It wasn’t until 1857 that it was announced that bones found in Germany’s Neanderthal Valley were different from ours, the remains of an early race.
A plethora of smudges of light in the sky that were not stars were thought to be part of a not-far-away geocentric sphere.
Science has cleared these mysteries up and gone on, delving into the heart of matter itself and the deepest reaches of space, but our values remain rooted in philosophies, religious traditions and ethical frameworks devised a millennium or two ago.
Our religious views and theologies were firmly set before anyone knew the world was a globe. They reflect how we understood the world when we didn’t understand the world. “Our economic, religious and ethical institutions ride antique notions too narrow to freight what we’ve learned about how life works on our sparkle dot of diamond dust in space,” writes scientist Carl Safina. “They haven’t assimilated the last century’s breakthroughs: that all life is related by lineage, by flows of energy, and by cycles of water, carbon, nitrogen; that resources are finite, and creatures fragile.”
We’re even slipping backwards. A 2008 CBS poll showed most Americans don’t accept science’s theory of evolution. Fifty-one percent say God created humans in their present form in a day.
A “Creation Museum” opened that same year in Kentucky, costing $27 million to build, sitting on 49 acres. The nonprofit ministry that built the museum, Answers in Genesis, claims the entire universe, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, was created in six days 6,000 years ago, and that “fact” serves as the guiding principle for the museum. Founder Ken Ham told an interviewer that the conclusions of modern science are not to be trusted, as they are biased by the fickle reasoning of humans and a modern antagonism toward faith.
Yet that fickle reasoning — science — is really nothing more or less than a kind of shrewd honesty in finding out how nature works in all its details. Science has its limits and shortcomings, but it’s still the best way we have to learn about microbes, brain cells, ancient relic bones and stars. The discoveries of modern science, one carefully building upon another, not only make possible our televisions, laptops and cell phones but have revealed to us a great deal about the physics of ordinary matter, about the planet on which we live, about the universe in which our planet is embedded and out of which it — and us — came into being.
In the last hundred years, science has provided more information on life than in all of recorded history.
Until recently — the 1920s — we humans really haven’t even known exactly where we are. We can thank astronomers Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble for giving us an understanding of the vast extent and scope of the universe, introducing us to the hundreds of billions of galaxies that are the basic entities of the cosmos. They took us to the bridge to look out from the window and see where exactly we are. It’s what inquiring minds do.
Berry proclaimed: “Although as yet unrealized, this scientific account of the universe is the greatest religious, moral and spiritual event that has taken place in recent centuries. It is the supreme humanistic and spiritual as well as the supreme scientific event.”
Famed biologist E.O. Wilson put it another way: “The evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.” This same story, he added, “retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.”
This year Terrence Malick’s film, “The Tree of Life,” brought that thought adroitly to the cinematic screen. If the movie’s universe-evolution sequence was too solemnly lofty or operatic for you, there’s a Canadian hip-hop artist named Baba Brinkman who rhymes “huge manatee” with “humanity” and concludes his “Rap Guide to Evolution”: “It’s time to elevate your mind state/And celebrate your kinship with the primate.”
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” said poet Muriel Rukeyser. We need to take science seriously, even when it forces us to re-examine Catholic theology and doctrine. Absorbing science’s stories deeply can help us to see all of us and nature as kin. It can foster awareness of the absolute necessity of preserving Earth’s life-support systems. What meaning does the Second Coming have, for example, if there is no one here for the arrival?
It can speak meaningfully to our children who now face a daunting future with a climate born in a human-rocked cradle.
Did a fuddy-duddy God create those distant gas clouds, immense spiral-armed galaxies or the fossil record here on Earth just to test our belief? Probably not.
Is the vastness of space-time just a backdrop for a salvation drama exclusively between Earthlings and God? Probably not.
Are scientists’ investigations, like the nefarious machinations of some archvillain in a superhero comic, just attempts to undermine family values, morals and faith? Probably not.
A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey found that Catholics generally accept evolutionary theory as the explanation for all life. It’s encouraging. Quaffing down the evolution Kool-Aid doesn’t mean caving in to meaninglessness. Some Catholic theologians, like St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, John Haught, or the late Dominican Fr. Cletus Wessels, are out in front in this effort to blend science wisely with religious speculation. They need the support of the whole church.
In a day when young people download Hubble Space Telescope photos of the distant beginnings of the universe onto their iPhones, we Catholics need a much more expansive and supple notion of who God is, of who we are, and of our purpose here on Earth.