United in Suffering, Distracted by What To Do About It (Part I)

Reading Time: 3 mins

We are all sojourners in a perilous cosmos, what is sometimes conceptualized as the theology of the pilgrim.

Let’s begin with a few quotes from well-known atheists. The first comes from the famous Oxford don Richard Dawkins. In his 2006 blockbuster, The God Delusion, Dawkins claims, “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. … If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Likewise, philosopher Philip Kitcher concluded his 2014 work, Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, with the following reflection, “the church…was a place of comfort, solace, and inspiration. … The central purpose of this book is to show how a thoroughly secular perspective can fulfill many of the important functions of religion.” Reflect for a moment on these passages. What themes come to mind? Based on the passages, how would you conceive of their views toward religion? My intuition is that your answers circle around a certain disdain for religion, yet recognition that something is lacking without religion.

I have written previously about how a Lutheran perspective on science and religion is one of dialogue in tension. That is, historic Lutheranism does not lack courage in the face of scientific discovery even as some scientific deliverances seemingly conflict with biblical and doctrinal truths. This was exemplified historically with heliocentrism. The Catholic church censured Galileo for explicating the Copernican heliocentric view and Martin Luther expressed concerns over squaring Copernicus with Scripture. However, as the Catholic church was condemning the exploration of such natural understandings, Lutherans, despite Luther’s reservations, were writing the forward for Copernicus (c.f., Osiander) and performing cutting edge research in the field, (c.f., Rheticus and Kepler).

I can not help but point to a certain irony in that early Lutherans were defending a scientific doctrine that would be questioned by Lutheran theologians in 20th century America. In his classic book on doctrine, Christian Dogmatics Vol. I (1924), Francis Pieper claims, “It is unworthy of a Christian to interpret Scripture, which he knows to be God’s own Word, according to human opinions (hypotheses), and that includes the Copernican cosmic system, or to have others thus to interpret Scripture to him” (p. 473). What a strange world in which we live!

Tension between Science and Religion

The previous paragraphs highlight that tension between science and religion is often conceived as a purely intellectual affair. Both disciplines produce propositions (sentences that are either true or false) laying claim to truth regarding the cosmos and mankind’s place within it. Books and articles struggling to rectify or exasperate the various propositional claims of science and religion to each other are legion. Dawkins’ and Kitcher’s books are representative as they open with chapters devoted to showing how science has shown religion to be folly. The contention is carried in the opposite direction in Christian writings such as Pieper’s Dogmatics as well as more recent publications from the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis.

However, allow me to draw attention back toward both Dawkins’ and Kitcher’s realization that something is missing when religion is removed. Dawkins thinks it is necessary to remind readers that they can be “happy, balanced, and moral” as an atheist. Kitcher seeks to reseed the fields of “comfort, solace, and inspiration” in his secular march to the sea. Why is this? How does this relate to my contention that a Lutheran understanding of science and religion is one of dialogue in tension?

We are all sojourners in a perilous cosmos, what is sometimes conceptualized as the theology of the pilgrim.

What if the inordinate amount of ink spilled over the propositional relationship between science and religion, while important, has distracted us to a more fundamental reality concerning the relationship? A reality that once brought to light may contribute to more fruitful conversations between Christians and outsiders to the faith, perhaps even beyond issues pertaining to science and religion. What Dawkins’ and Kitcher helped me to understand is that the relationship is only partially propositional. The more fundamental concern is ethical in nature. It is a project in figuring out how to live life well. As Aristotle argued 2500 years ago, humanity in all its affairs aims at securing happiness. Not the saccharine happiness of Valentine candies or even the more refined happiness distilled from fine bourbons, but a deep abiding peace with yourself and your place in a dangerous world. What the ancients discussed as eudaemonia—well-being.

The route to the good life is the understanding and practice of wisdom. Moreover, it is in our conceptions of wisdom that we see a tension develop between the scientific minds of Dawkins and Kitcher, with the theologically minded Pieper and ourselves. Dawkins and Kitcher are seeking for faith in a suffering world and their understandings have brought them to see the need for hope. A hope, to be sure, that remains uncertain, structured as it is in the turbulent waters of science and humanity, unmoored from the anchor of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Nonetheless, recognizing this moral framework undergirding the conversation brings into focus that Dawkins, Kitcher, and their disciples are as much suffering servants as I am, as you are. We are all united in the struggle to live life well in a world that constantly, unexpectedly, and often cruelly, upsets our expectations. We are all sojourners in a perilous cosmos, what is sometimes conceptualized as the theology viatorum or the theology of the pilgrim.

What results from recasting the dialogue between science and religion as one between pilgrims in a strange land? This is a question I intend to explore next time. Until then I leave you with Psalm 39:12 and John 14:6:

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
no one comes to the Father except through me.”