Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Religion, Ecumenical Faith and Science: Eastern and Western Perspectives

"Religion must be studied on a broader basis than formerly. All narrow, limited fighting ideas of religion must go. All sect ideas and tribal or national ideas of religion must be given up. That each tribe or nation should have its own particular God, and think that every other is wrong, is a superstition that should belong to the past. All such ideas should be abandoned."
-- Swami Vivikenanda -- 
Written early in the last century, Swami Vivikenanda's advocacy of a universal tolerance for all religions is based on a recognition that, in essence, all religions contain the same impartial truths,  truths that are not inherently conflictive with other faiths or, indeed, with science.
"Religion," Vivkenanda points out, "is the manifestation of Divinity already in man. . . . (and) the proof of one religion depends on the truth of all the rest."

"For instance," he reasons, "if I have six fingers, and no one else has, you may well say that is abnormal. The same reasoning may be applied to the argument that only one religion is true and all others false. One religion only, like one set of six fingers in the world, would be unnatural. We see, therefore, that if one religion is true, all others must be true. There are differences in non-essentials, but in essentials they are all one."
[Vivikenanda, "Teachings of Swami Vivikenanda," (Advaita Ashrama), p. 237.]
In the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in 1994, we see a similar, yet guarded, recognition of the ecumenical nature of religion expressed by what has historically been one of the most exclusionary of faiths. After acknowledging the special bonds with both Judaism and Islam, the revised Catechism acknowledges the following:
"The Church's bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race:
All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. . . .
The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved."
["Catechism of the Catholic Church'" paras. 839-842.]
And what about the relationship between religion and science? "Is religion," Vivikenanda asks, "to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other concrete science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion?"

"In my opinion," Vivikenanda observes, "this must be so, and I am also of (the) opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen. All that is dross will be taken off, no doubt, but the essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of the investigation. Not only will it be made scientific, as scientific, at least, as any of the conclusions of physics or chemistry, but will have greater strength, because physics or chemistry has no internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which religion has."
[Vivikenanda, "Teachings of Swami Vivikenanda," (Advaita Ashrama), pp. 237-238.]

For his part, roughly 100 years after Vivkenanda's time, Pope Benedict XVI has moved radically towards a resolution and reconciliation of religion and science. In addressing a Vatican conference into the origin of life in the universe (held on October 31, 2008), he made the following comments:
"(Q)uestions concerning the relationship between science’s reading of the world and the reading offered by Christian Revelation naturally arise. My predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II noted that there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences. Philosophy in its early stages had proposed images to explain the origin of the cosmos on the basis of one or more elements of the material world. This genesis was not seen as a creation, but rather a mutation or transformation; it involved a somewhat horizontal interpretation of the origin of the world. A decisive advance in understanding the origin of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participated being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence."

"To state that the foundation of the cosmos and its developments is the provident wisdom of the Creator is not to say that creation has only to do with the beginning of the history of the world and of life. It implies, rather, that the Creator founds these developments and supports them, underpins them and sustains them continuously. Thomas Aquinas taught that the notion of creation must transcend the horizontal origin of the unfolding of events, which is history, and consequently all our purely naturalistic ways of thinking and speaking about the evolution of the world. Thomas observed that creation is neither a movement nor a mutation. It is instead the foundational and continuing relationship that links the creature to the Creator, for he is the cause of every being and all becoming (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q.45, a. 3)."

"To 'evolve' literally means 'to unroll a scroll,' that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity and has been held dear by many scientists. Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author. It is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose “writing” and meaning, we “read” according to the different approaches of the sciences, while all the time presupposing the foundational presence of the author who has wished to reveal himself therein. This image also helps us to understand that the world, far from originating out of chaos, resembles an ordered book; it is a cosmos. Notwithstanding elements of the irrational, chaotic and the destructive in the long processes of change in the cosmos, matter as such is “legible”. It has an inbuilt “mathematics”. The human mind therefore can engage not only in a “cosmography” studying measurable phenomena but also in a “cosmology” discerning the visible inner logic of the cosmos. We may not at first be able to see the harmony both of the whole and of the relations of the individual parts, or their relationship to the whole. Yet, there always remains a broad range of intelligible events, and the process is rational in that it reveals an order of evident correspondences and undeniable finalities: in the inorganic world, between microstructure and macrostructure; in the organic and animal world, between structure and function; and in the spiritual world, between knowledge of the truth and the aspiration to freedom. Experimental and philosophical inquiry gradually discovers these orders; it perceives them working to maintain themselves in being, defending themselves against imbalances, and overcoming obstacles. And thanks to the natural sciences we have greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity’s place in the cosmos."
To reconcile one's religion with all "other" religions is the great task for every individual, while reconciling religion with science is the great task of all religionists and scientists alike.

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