Posted by: cctracker | September 11, 2013

“Age of Denial” Also a Crisis of Faith

“My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.”              Adam Frank


When I began these reflections, I remember trying to articulate the territory I most wanted to explore . What I came to was the nexus of science, culture and religious faith.   This recent opinion piece by Adam Frank in the NYT is right in that wheelhouse.

Welcome to the Age of Denial –

His central point is right on the surface: despite 30 years of scientific progress and the urgency of issues from climate change to genetic engineering,  Americans don’t place enough trust in science .

He says the situation is getting worse and blames religion, at least in part.

But I think there is a deeper layer of meaning, a parallel crisis, he doesn’t address. I’d call it a crisis of faith.

Speaking of religion, it’s clear that Frank is, in his own way, preaching here. You can feel the religious fervor as his sermon comes to a close with a rhetorical flourish:

“Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.”

From my cyber-pew, I confess to being a willing disciple. I agree that without what he calls  the “open-ended, evidence-based processes” of science, the fragile, 200,000 year experiment of Homo sapiens is doomed to failure.

Image at E.O. Wilson's Biodiversity Website

Image at E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity Website

But while he attacks conservative politicians for exploiting vulnerable hearts and minds and mocks the silliness of Creationists, he doesn’t ask the deeper question that science, understood in its broadest sense, would seem to require: Why is Creationism hardening as a narrative today? Is the whole picture explained by the manipulation of religious and political propagandists?


Image at

He says his disciples must become  “fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.”  I’m with him, but he’s preaching to the choir. If he wants to reach the rest of the congregation,  he’ll need to think more about why they are frequently confused, scared or angered by scientists and their message. He is, no doubt, a great physicist and astronomer. But to win a critical mass of “hearts and minds”  for science he’ll need to be a better theologian, or at least a better philosopher of religion. If he thinks this would be a waste of his time, he may be guilty of the same willful blindness he finds objectionable in Creationist climate-deniers.

What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that those of us who embrace science but also affirm the authenticity of a posture of faith, could take his quote,  and with just a few substitutions, make the parallel point:

“Behind the great cathedrals, creeds and rituals,  faith is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of spirituality and religion must learn now.”

Photo at

Photo at

I’m convinced that one of the underlying dynamics driving this “age of denial” in contemporary culture–a force at least as influential as an ideologically driven campaign of sabotage–is the influence of a profoundly destabilizing chapter in human history, a moment in our evolution as a species when mass scientific consciousness has risen enough to explicitly challenge mass spiritual/religious consciousness.

Image by Lou Beach at

Image by Lou Beach at

In terms of an explicit approach to “the meaning of life,” science and religion don’t mix easily. Their competing explanatory models are extremely difficult to reconcile on an intellectual level. Only a tiny cadre of educated elites down through the ages have confronted this problem until now, though the pace has picked up some since the Enlightenment.

Many of them abandoned spiritual  practice and religion in their hearts while maintaining the appearance of faith. Others, often people of great courage, made their rejection public.

But there have also been people of faith– Aquinas, Galileo,  Darwin, Jefferson– who confronted the conflict and, thanks to remarkable gifts and rarefied communities of formation, made their way through the thicket without fundamentally closing themselves off to either model.


Even for them, it was a harrowing journey. It certainly has been for me.

But today, it seems the whole mass of humanity is beginning to glimpse the apparent contradictions between faith and science.

Image at

And while denial is certainly one of the ways we’re coping, it seems crucial for today’s educated elites to understand the conflict between faith and science on more sophisticated terms. They need to better grasp the stakes in the conflict within the minds and imaginations of individual people and within and between cultures.


My neighbor is one of the people Adam Frank is afraid of.  She is a kind person, an intelligent business woman and a deeply committed Catholic. She is also a  climate denier who is convinced there is an atheist conspiracy aimed at relativizing our core values, especially the sacredness of human life. If pushed, I’m pretty sure she’d say she doesn’t believe in evolution.

The other day she invited me to a gathering of conservatives at a local pub. She has me pegged for a liberal, but invited me anyway since the purpose of the event is for conservatives to discuss how they can, quoting her website, ” win the hearts and minds” of the liberals who disagree with them.  I’d be target practice, I guess.

Looking through the promotional material for the gathering, I found very little concrete, reasoned argument about particular issues. Talking with her, I found she knew very little about the Affordable Health Care Act she vehemently opposes. Instead, she supports broad themes: fiscal responsibility, the nobility of our founding ideals and, especially, the inherent, God-given value and dignity of human life.

Image at

Image at

My neighbor doesn’t feel like science and scientific community are her allies in defending these values. She sees them a something much closer to the enemy. I completely disagree, but, given her values, I understand how this feels to her like a coherent position.

She hears a philosophy of materialism in science. Voices that mock faith. Scientists who proclaim that our soul/consciousness is “a pack of neurons,” and that the human being is just “another animal.” Or even worse that we’re a cancer on the biosphere. To her, the perspective of science is that nothing is sacred.

Perhaps she gets that idea from reading quotes like this one from Steven Hawking , the highest of High Priests in the rising culture of science as ultimate bearer of truth:


 “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”

Though I see Hawking  and many other scientist/atheists in a much more favorable light, I nevertheless have sympathy for her perspective.

About 10 years ago, as a direct result of my investment in the scientific worldview, I collided head-on with a terrifying interior emptiness.  I hadn’t seen it coming. I came to call it “the void.”

Cardinal Fledge Photo James Burton

Cardinal Fledge
Photo James Burton

I had fantasies of becoming a scientist as a kid, but terrible failure and embarrassment in mathematics sent me into the unconditionally loving arms of the humanities in high school years and then into theology and spirituality as a young adult.

By my early 40’s though,  I’d slowly worked my way back to a passion for science. It began with watching birds.  Plants, trees, animals and the limestone layers of eastern Missouri soon followed. I began reading natural history, then biology and evolutionary theory, eventually physics. I found myself admiring the mastery and devotion of scientists like E.O. Wilson and Steven Weinberg.

Then, almost in a single moment, I not only realized they were atheists,  but I felt irresistible force in their arguments. They offered a devastating commentary on spiritual approaches to life’s meaning and purpose.  Narratives and images I’d been depending on interiorly all my life, most of which I had thought were grounded in defensible, reasonable ideas,  were crumbling.

Wilson captured the point I found so troubling this way in his book Conscilience:

“The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views? No, unfortunately, there is not.” 

Soon, I was not only in the midst of the deepest doubts I’d ever had about God, but was doubting even the coherence and meaning of human subjectivity as an article of  faith. Was it meaningful to declare that I or anyone else was really “here?” Was the sacred category of “presence”–and therefore also “relationship”–just a useful fiction to keep us from terror or despair so that our genes could survive? As you might guess, I was often moody. I talked less at the dinner table.

While I can’t say there was a single moment when some light began to penetrate that deep, intellectual darkness, there was  a moment in the spring of 2003 in my folk’s backyard that nudged me into a new mode of inquiry about the conflict between faith and science.

I was standing impassively with arms crossed as my relentlessly playful and impish niece tried to lure me into a silly game.

Now I’m one of the most spontaneously playful people you’re liable to meet. It’s a point of pride that I can coax the most sullen kid to play along with me. The idea that I would ever actively resist a child wanting to play is unthinkable.  And yet there I was, refusing to play along, on purpose. Why?

Because this was one of those moments when the intellect really does inform the soul. Playing with a child, as a child, might as well have been an official religious ritual or an article of the creed for me.  It is that essential to my view of what life is about. But I’d lost my faith. Perhaps there was no God.  And therefore no guarantor to declare that what seemed precious in life actually was.

Which was another way of saying there was no soul. No basis for love, no such thing as a relationship. No “breath of the spirit” in a living being,  nothing to be exchanged but flesh, matter itself.  Ideas and emotions might pass between individuals, but they were mere extensions of the body, ultimately defined by their support for the physical function of organ systems, cells, proteins, molecules, atoms and quarks.

I knew that E. O. Wilson was a scholar with a deep appreciation for the humanities who respected the vital contribution of faith and religion in human history. But I also knew he saw no future in it.  The only way forward, he concluded, “must ultimately be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself.”

Wilson is still one of my favorite scholars, but even back then, in the midst of my crisis, I could tell he had no deep sense of what it was like to be a religious adult. No secular epic could ever be a stand in for the place in the heart and mind where faith in the Transcendent had been. Wilson’s way forward wasn’t going to work for a theology teacher at a Jesuit boy’s high school.

Yet, I couldn’t go back. I thought about other careers for a few months, but after that day in the backyard I was also resolved that the inner obstacles responsible for my standing aloof from the joy and freedom of play had to be confronted.


I hadn’t ever expected to have a problem with science and faith. Nihilism wasn’t the voice of science I grew up with.  Jaques Cousteau was a TV hero for me as a kid. I saw him as a prophet who’d found God on undersea mountaintops.


“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

-Jaques Ives Cousteau

Jewish medical researcher Jonas Salk was a miracle worker my grandmother made sure I encountered. When asked by reporters why he refused to claim personal possession of the Polio vaccine he created,  he is reported to have replied:


“Can one patent the sun?”

What more powerful voice for humility and spiritual purity could there be?

In high school I was exposed to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French Paleontologist and Priest, who called Christ himself “The Evolver.” 6a00d8341cbf9a53ef0120a625e773970b-800wiI didn’t do any of the explicit intellectual work to reconcile the meaning models of faith and evolution as a young person,  but by the time I was a young adult I had a deeply felt intuitive sense that there was no real conflict between scientific and religious world views. When I became a young father I had no trouble explaining to my inquiring six-year old that Genesis was “just a story” and that he could safely go on counting years backward to the dinosaurs by the millions.

When intellectual disequilibrium did finally come in my 40’s, I had the luxury of time to read and think about faith and science. I took graduate courses at a local Catholic University. I was given a 6-month sabbatical to write an interdisciplinary course so that I could begin to lead high school students through questions like these. I even had an opportunity to sit at the feet of a Jesuit priest at a retreat center on the Oregon coast who’d spent his life as a particle physicist, talking with some of the very scholars who’d launched  me into my confrontation with the void.

Today, I am grateful to say that encounters with the world as it is, from stars and minerals to bird song and myelin sheaths, again call forth the same inexpressible response of humility and exaltation I felt as a youth.  The way I feel when I hear Gregorian Chant or fall under the spell of a transcendentally honest passage in the writings of Thomas Merton.

Photo James Burton

But the way I think about science and faith, the concepts, terms and angles of approach I take in order to explicitly label reality, are very different from when I was 30. It would take a longer entry to explain the model I use in my own mind to think about “God” in a way that includes what I accept scientifically about the world. Suffice it to say that I have become more comfortable with the conditional nature of everything we use to claim or represent the transcendent while at the same time deepening my respect for the way many of those  traditional forms point to an inexpressible  truth I can touch in experience.

I don’t think it is arrogance to say that most people and cultures struggling with how to reconcile faith and science today aren’t having the argument out in intellectual forums like the ones by which I have been so well-served. Explicitly intellectual approaches to reality–physical or spiritual–suit very few people. For most of humanity, the conflict between faith and science is mediated in clashing stories, images and cultural forms. Claims and counter claims that compete on bumper stickers rather than in clear and distinct ideas settled by argument.


People “feel” this crisis in their bones more than they “think” about it, though they think they are thinking about it. This is the way cultural forms work. Biblical narratives,rituals and religious icons aren’t intellectual assertions. They encode meaning and values holistically, organically if you will.

But make no mistake, underneath those forms, the “content” of faith–or its absence– is contained and communicated.

Images from works by Giotto and Cimabue 14th Century

Images from works by Giotto and Cimabue 14th Century

If you circulate in Catholic circles, you know that there is a lot of talk about the “New Evangelization” today. Evangelization is the effort to spread the “good news” one has discovered to others who need to hear it. This can be a wonderful, generous kind of service. Many people do live in “darkness” and are in desperate need of enlightenment.  But two perspectives ought to underlie any effort to Evangelize someone else:

1. The need to remember the inadequacy of your own  “good news” model for representing reality as it is in all of its complexity and mystery.

2. The complexity and mystery of the inner experience of the other person or group whose outwardly expressed words or ideas may seem erroneous or evil and in need of “evangelization”  to you, may be built upon an inner experience of wisdom and truth you do not yet see.

Can faith communities begin to steer their congregations away from a God they control to a God revealed in an overwhelmingly complex universe that reveals both our terrible smallness and our unique obligation to respond? Can scientists acknowledge that we are a meaning-seeking species?  Can they acknowledge that reason is not the primary way we have evolved to experience meaning and that reason alone cannot keep us from the abyss of despair and self-destruction?

In a previous post highlighting the work of James Orbinski of Doctors Without Borders, I reflected about what seems to me the profoundly “spiritual” posture of the devoted scientist. In short, science isn’t “all about me.”  Attention is turned to the world beyond one’s self, beyond what one prefers or clings to,  in humble awareness. Real scientists are tireless in the pursuit of truth.  And most of the time they aren’t paid much for it.

Obviously, science can go horrifically wrong, both in spirit and deed. But much more frequently, good scientific work nurtures virtues like patience and fortitude.  Virtues my neighbor seems to be arguing for.

Faith and religion do, of course,  go one step further to declare that the source of the overwhelmingly complex truths around us lies ultimately beyond us in God. But, like science, faith also says that the truth is close enough at hand that a child might reach out to touch it.

12th mystic and nature poet Mechthild of Magdeburg seems to hit the sweet spot in this proclamation of the “good news:”

mechthild_portr_01Of all that God has shown me,
I can speak just the smallest word,
not more than a honeybee takes on her foot
from an overspilling jar.

So what’s a good preacher from either the “church” of science or the churches of faith to do in an age when an aggressive scientific narrative is on the rise and many religious institutions are reacting in fear?

Is there an underlying message both can proclaim ?

What is the “good news”  that “fierce champions” of both have to share about the meaning of the universe and the value of a human being? As I’ve listened for it, the message sounds something like this:

“Be not afraid. Even in the face of the profound physical and psychological vulnerability that confronts you, choose love: a radical affirmation of all that is. Choose openness, awareness, generosity.  Life is ultimately meaningful and valuable to a degree far beyond your capacity to control or comprehend. This meaning and value is not defined or created by you. It rests beyond you, but also flows through you. You are response-able, which is to say free–an active agent in your  time and place. You have an obligation in your very nature to serve that which is larger than you, particularly the unique community of human beings who, like yourself, have the capacity to understand and respond in love and service.”


Tree of Life’ Stained glass behind the Altar in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 by Henri Matisse


  1. Beautifully laid out, James, with such intellect and heart and bare soul!

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