According to the conventional narrative, science and religion have been at war for some three hundred years. But the reality is deeper and more complex. The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Science and the Modern World (1925) that without devotion to the God of Israel, modern science would not have come into being. When humans learned that the God of Israel was the fountain and origin of all that is, and of all the stunning intelligibility within every part of creation, they had a motive for dedicating their whole lives to unlocking the secrets hidden in creation. More important, they had great confidence that this search would not be in vain. Pursuing these convictions down the centuries, Jews and Christians expected that the Creator had paid loving attention to every detail of the inner life of the molecule, and to the giant, bursting stars of distant galaxies. In the cultures shaped by the Bible, human beings had confidence that all questions can be answered if diligently pursued. They had confidence that all those disparate answers would point to a coherence and almost mathematical beauty that is breathtaking to contemplate. Further, the Bible names this intelligent Creator Truth—the Truth that is the unifying beauty and energy that moves every entity in time and space (and perhaps, in other worlds). Those who reflected on the Bible were taught to expect that the universe of human experience may have had its origins in chaos and nothingness. They were taught to expect that this universe of space and time came into existence in one complex, unifying burst of intelligence, the logos in whom, by whom, and with whom all things were made, and that makes all things (no matter how humble) intelligible. They were taught to expect, as it were, a “Unified Field Theory.”
Of course, many today hold that all this talk about God, Creator, Prime Intelligence, and the Act of Existence is gibberish. Yet even they must admit that it was to their good fortune that, in a small family of cultures, a decisive number of inquirers, scholars, and copyists of ancient manuscripts did learn to expect pervasive intelligibility in the universe because of their faith in an ordering Intelligence. That is why they were willing to invest most of the hours of their humble lives in preparing the way for modern science.
In other words, the belief shared by (at first) a few million of the Earth’s inhabitants that a light emanates from the Creator of the world, and suffuses all things, gave them a strong motivation for devoting their lives to scientific efforts. They wanted to learn more about God by studying the world He made. (The great scientist Johannes Kepler held that two books teach us about God: the Book of Nature and the Book that reveals what we otherwise could not learn about God.) Down the centuries, Westerners enjoyed the sheer pleasure that they found in inquiring, gaining insights, and making well-founded judgments. Judaism and Christianity taught them to think of these acts as participations in God’s own inner life. Why?
At its root, the notion of one single Creator who knew what He was doing “before time was,” and then chose to do it at the time and in the way of His choosing, enabled some humans to know by anticipation that human inquiry is good. Human inquiry is noble, and just, and with high probability will be rewarded by trustworthy knowledge. If God is good (and the Torah taught us that He is), then it is good to labor diligently to deepen our knowledge of His entire created world, and all things in it.
The proposition that all things have been made by one Creator has a corollary. The Creator transcends the world. He is not identical with the world, nor with any creature in it. He actively sustains all things, but is not the sum of all things. This transcendence teaches us that no creature, no earthly thing is divine. No idol within space or time is to be put in His place.
This idea of a transcendent Creator assures us that in examining and experimenting with nature, we are violating no taboo, and not defiling God. It is through experimentation that we come to understand and to appreciate the work of His creative genius. By contrast, those peoples who identified their God with some creature within creation—the serpent, the jaguar, the rain—were afraid, lest by inquiry or experiment they might arouse His anger. It is by experiment that, today, many who do not believe in an intelligent Creator encounter the intelligibility that suffuses all things. Even unbelievers, by their actions if not their words, show their confidence in the unified intelligibility of all things. This confidence is the cultural patrimony bequeathed them by generations of believers.
Today, roughly half of all scientists are atheists. Yet, insofar as they are scientists, they share the same confidence that the sacrificing of one’s whole life to the pursuit of asking questions is a noble and worthy vocation. In this conviction, they act as if they believed in God. Perhaps some of them see this old belief in a Creator as a scaffolding that was necessary for building up the edifice of science, but that we can now safely kick away.
But they would do well to recall that poignant passage in Nietzsche, in which Zarathustra hears that God is dead. Contemplating what the death of God means for the death of reason, Nietzsche writes, “Zarathustra wept.”
If God is dead, so is reason. The ultimate meaningless of everything is assured. Zarathustra wept.
Published in First Things Online December 18, 2008