by Vern S. Poythress
[Originally published online at https://www.truthaboutangelsanddemons.com/questions-in-angels-and-demons/future-of-religion.html May 13, 2009. Used with permission.]
“Vetra was on the cutting edge of particle physics,” Kohler said. “He was starting to fuse science and religion … showing that they complement each other in most unanticipated ways. He called the fieldNew Physics.”
“Many scientific purists despised him [Vetra]. Even here at CERN. They felt that using analytic physics to support religious principles was a treason against science.” — Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, 38-39.
The dialog in Dan Brown’s book reveals a tension between two parties at CERN. The dialog is fictional, but the tension is real. Some scientists, particularly those at home within the last century of secularization, conceive of true science as firmly nonreligious. Or they may even see it as anti-religious. According to their view science pushes back superstition. It brings us into the light of truth and leaves no room for “gods.” Vetra, by contrast, belongs to a new breed that sees science as having positive religious implications. He is on the way to “fusing” science and religion.
The main issue here is the question of what to make of the relation of science to religion. Several options open up. And several fascinating trails of thought confront us.
The first option, which characterizes Vetra’s opponents, is to picture science as the opponent and destroyer of religion. Such a role for science seemed plausible to many cultural analysts who have observed the secularizing influence of popularized science in the twentieth century. But the end of the twentieth century has seen the rise of renewed interest in spirituality of various kinds. To the surprise of the analysts, spirituality has blossomed rather than withering away. It seems that the human spirit is insatiably hungry for some deeper satisfaction. Pure materialism leaves us empty and searching for more.
Science As Religion
A second option, closely related to the materialistic option, is to make science itself into a force that commands ultimate allegiance. Science and its progress becomes for some people the all-consuming goal. When it is all-consuming, it commands ultimate allegiance. And whatever has a persons’ ultimate allegiance has become his substitute god. To be sure, this new god is not a material idol nor a personal god. But the fervor of devotion that characterizes religious believers still holds sway here, and such fervor still receives in return “religious” satisfactions in the form of blessing and approval for work well done.
Vetra: the “New Physics,” the Fusion of Science and Religion
In contrast to the secularizing view of science, the character of Leonardo Vetra searches for a fusion. He desires to bring together ideas from here and there into a creative and powerful combination. The combination, stronger than the individual pieces, promises to satisfy both our desire for human mastery of knowledge and control of nature, on the one hand, and our desire for mystery and personal meaning and personal fulfillment on the other hand.
It sounds attractive. But the attraction has a dangerous underside, namely the seductive influence of human desire to construct our own religion in a manner that will leave us without any onerous obligations. We construct religion according to our own desires. Naturally, the religion is so designed that it will satisfy those desires. But it is all empty in the end, because we risk the fate of only talking to ourselves and our own desires. We are feeding ourselves with ourselves. We lack personal fellowship with a God who is there,* a God who is more than and other than ourselves.
One plank in Vetra’s new religion is “the force.” That concept deserves further exploration. Vetra, we learn from the book, is a Catholic priest. But ironically the concept of the force is at odds with the Bible and with the very nature of reality.
The final irony here is that Vetra, who as a priest should have known about the Bible, is searching for a future fusion when the Bible has already given a satisfying answer.
First of all, the Bible gives a satisfying religious answer in the form of God-made religion instead of man-made religion. Our central difficulty is that we are alienated from God and in rebellion against him. We construct our own false religions in order to evade his claim. We do not need one more man-made religion in order to outdo and out-promise the rest. We need God to come and rescue us. The story of the Bible is not the story of man searching for God, questing and finally finding. It is the story of God coming to find man and rescue him, in spite of his flight from God.
Second, the Bible has a satisfying answer concerning the relation of science to God. God made the world by speaking (Psalm 33:6; John 1:1-3). Scientific law is the expression of his speech. It harmonizes with his speech to us in the Bible, which comes to call us back to personal fellowship with him.
Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. See especially chapters 2-3 on the harmony between the Bible and God’s role in specifying scientific law.
Vern S. Poythress, “The Quest for Wisdom,” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed. Lane G. Tipton & Jeffrey C. Waddington. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008. Pp. 86-114.
*Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There: Speaking Historic Christianity into the Twentieth Century. Chicago : Inter-Varsity, 1968.