Science, faith and everyday miracles

I worry religious ed. can hinder full appreciation of human intellect.

By ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL
August 3, 2008 22:22
4 minute read.
Science, faith and everyday miracles

albert einstein 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy )

I think it was Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who said that one of the most religious moments of his week was reading the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times. The section, in this sense, is a weekly celebration of creation, whether you spell that with a capital C or a small one. We read of scientists looking toward the heavens or deep into the structures of biology. Paleontologists reach back to understand the human past; environmentalists worry about our future. Physicians write weekly about the possibilities - and limitations - of pikuah nefesh, saving a life. Not a week goes by that I don't read something that increases my sense of wonder. Just this week I read that California scientists have developed a mini-microscope that eliminates the need for lenses - and space. It functions at the level of a micron, or one one-100th of the width of a human hair. I doubt I will ever "use" such information, but it is the kind of fact that puts me in mind of Einstein. "There are only two ways to live your life," he famously said. "One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." And by miracle, I don't mean something supernatural (and I don't think Einstein did, either). I mean a moment that puts you in awe of the universe and its workings. That sense of awe doesn't gain or lose from the knowledge of whom or what is "behind" the miracle. But I do sense this: The wonder born from scientific exploration is less likely to hinder a religious imagination than a religious worldview is to retard the advance of science. Sure, there are scientists whose atheism is indistinguishable from amorality, and perhaps immorality. But the history of our planet provides an infinitely greater number of religious figures who vigorously denied and violently opposed what science was clearly revealing. EINSTEIN IS a good example of a scientist who probably rejected the notion of a supernatural God but nevertheless found the coldly materialistic language of science inadequate to describe his sense of wonder. An Einstein letter that sold at an auction in May leaves little doubt of his atheism. "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish," he wrote in 1954, a year before his death. And yet Einstein is famous for a number of teasingly "spiritual" quotations - "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos," for one - that suggest he is a theist. A growing body of Einsteinologists believes the physicist was using such God language metaphorically to express a human impulse for finding meaning and comfort in the clock-like workings of the universe. As he wrote in 1931: A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. In an encouraging sign of the reconciliation of religion and science, a number of Jewish day schools are boosting their science curricula. The Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Life Monument Funds has an initiative to improve science and other secular studies in yeshivot. A number of programs offer Diaspora youth an opportunity to study science in Israel, and to appreciate the religious and secular currents that flow into Israel's Jewish identity. My son is currently a participant in one of these programs, the Legacy Heritage Internships for Young Scientists, and I am eager to learn from him how successfully they integrate lab work, Jewish learning and pro-Israel advocacy. FOR THE 20 years we've known each other, my friend Elli Wohlgelernter and I have built a friendship on the opposite roles we like to play. He lives in Israel; I'm in galut. He's the mystic; I'm the rationalist. He finds deep, even divine significance in the seeming coincidences Jung called "synchronicities," which he calls "unis." I quote John Allen Paulos and tell him "a tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidence is a prime characteristic of innumerates" - the mathematical equivalent of illiterates. A few weeks back he forwarded me a news item about the huge enrollments of full-time learners in Israeli yeshivot. "If we can't bring the moshiach after 19 million hours of learning...," he wrote in the subject line. True to my role, I sniped back, "Maybe if those 120,000 students applied their learning skills to science, or medicine, or alternative energy, they'd help create a world that wouldn't need moshiach, or would at least be worthy of him/her." Neither of us is as doctrinaire as I make us sound. And I know from experience the intellectual and spiritual power of learning Torah. But I worry that a religious education can be an obstacle to a full appreciation of the human intellect, and its ability to bust through the limitations of the known to reveal the unknown. If Einstein doubts that God plays dice with the cosmos, I doubt that God would implant in us a brain of such subtlety and power, only to say this much truth and no further. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


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