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Friday, March 19, 2004

Sasha Dyck

'God's patience and persuasiveness': Questions of science and religion discussed at Goshen College conference


GOSHEN, Ind. -- Why and how did life appear on Earth? Is there room in the 21st century for a theological explanation of life and its origins? Can religion and science be reconciled?

More than 50 scientists and theologians from throughout the country met at Goshen College to discuss these and many other questions at the Fourth Annual Goshen College Conference on Religion and Science March 12-14, inspired by a series of three lectures given by guest speaker John Haught, the Thomas Healey Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University.

Haught, a renowned thinker in the field of systematic theology, presented his worldview as an answer to the question, "In the age of science, can we talk about the universe having a point or purpose?" His perspective, heavily influenced by the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, is that the cosmos "can still plausibly be interpreted as the embodiment of a transcending meaning and purpose." He proposed a model of the cosmos founded on an "aesthetic cosmological principle" that progresses towards ever more complex and intense configurations of beauty, which can be considered as the synthesis of order and chaos, or of harmony and contrast.

Haught also pointed out that this progress over the 18 billion year history of the cosmos is a prime model of "God's patience and persuasiveness."

The recipe for evolution contains accidents, natural selection and deep time, Haught said, and because the cosmos is "restless" in its aesthetic aim "thus evolution must be linked to Christianity." The Bible, Haught said, "is all about promise" and the universe "is seeded with promise." This led him to say that "providence, or God's vision for the universe, must be kept in mind as the ultimate context for evolution."

Haught also related Teilhard de Chardin's position that "any genuine planetary or cosmic advance will also require an intensification of faith, hope and love of our own species." This human communion will require turning back to -- and modernizing -- religious beliefs and dispositions, he said, or else "we cannot anticipate a meaningful future for the earth or the universe."

Conference participants from across the campus and the country enjoyed the intellectual and spiritual stimulation. Dave Lindell, a retired missionary with Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, travelled from Minneapolis to hear Haught. "My wife and I served in India for 40 years as missionaries," he said, "and I feel that the questions those experiences raised about our faith -- and the new awareness and reformulations of how to rethink faith that accompanied that -- seem very akin to the questions being raised by science today. We need to look at the world from a new point of view that will require new expressions of faith."

While the conference welcomed participants from different denominations as well as disciplines, some participants enjoyed the conference's firmly Anabaptist setting. Steven Crain, professor of philosophy and theology at the University of St. Francis, said "As a recent convert to the Church of the Brethren and a professor of science and religion, to take the discipline I care most about and put it into an Anabaptist context like this is wonderful!"

Carl Helrich, professor of physics at Goshen College and conference initiator, appreciated how Haught addressed the thorny issue of evolution. "A lot of people in the religious community duck the question of evolution," Helrich said, "But what Haught says is that God has given us this gift of understanding, and with it we need to consider the whole cosmos and all that got us here. By doing this we get a look into the patience and purpose of God, which gives us a whole new perspective. It means we can go outside and not just see 'a starry night' but be able to say 'this is God, this is creation.'"

Senior physics major Micah Rogel (Nappanee, Ind.) was one of the student participants. "I think science and religion are interconnected," she said. "All people are searching for something, some kind of God or meaning. But there's also our need, as humans, to know how our world functions. Often it seems that there should be conflict between these two needs, but I think there are more ways in which science and religion complement each other."

Throughout the weekend, Haught emphasized the validity, complementarity and incompleteness of both religious and scientific explanations of the world. "What Haught is saying, as a theologian, is that scientists and theologians are looking at creation from different ends of the spectrum. He calls the answers that both groups come up with 'layered explanations,' and I think that a good way of seeing at things," said Helrich.

"As a physicist, I can tell you that science's answers aren't complete. We're not even sure what matter is! In the same way, we know that there's a reality of human identity and self-expression, but saying 'it's all molecules' is about as helpful as explaining it in terms of 'God willed it.' Neither is in any way a complete answer, but they're both part of the overall answers to humanity's great questions. And the great thing about the conference is that we can get together and speak across these great divides."

The Goshen College Science and Religion Conference, which is supported by the Miller-Jeschke Program for Christian Faith and the Natural Sciences at Goshen College, is one of Helrich's missions. "One of the most important things we can be doing now is fostering this dialogue between science and religion," he said. "People think it is odd sometimes, because Mennonites are supposed to be the 'quiet in the land,' but we're here getting into these controversial issues! I think that the current climate has created a lot of extreme positions. This is an area where we can help find another way and to say 'let’s talk about it together.'"

-- by Sasha Dyck

Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college's Christ-centered core values -- passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership -- prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron's Best Buys in Education, "Colleges of Distinction," Kaplan's "Most Interesting Colleges" guide and U.S.News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" edition, which named Goshen a "least debt college." Visit www.goshen.edu.

Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.


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