National Catholic Register

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Science and Faith Seek Fresh Start to Dialogue

BY Gary Griffith

August 3-9, 1997 Issue | Posted 8/3/97 at 2:00 PM

 

VATICAN II'S constitution Gaudium et Spes set the stage for a renewed dialogue between the Church and science, and Pope John Paul II has actively followed the Council's lead. He has sponsored a number of initiatives throughout his pontificate to help foster this dialogue. Perhaps the most important was his commissioning of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to conduct a 10-year study of the Galileo case, which concluded in 1992. The results of this study and the Academy's recommendations have had far-reaching positive effects, especially in the field of biblical hermeneutics.

However, according to Father William Stoeger, an official at the Vatican Observatory, the Church is only at the threshold. Catholic universities and seminaries have only recently begun to study the relationship between theology and science, he said. However, there are no required courses on this subject nor is it a permanent part of the theological curriculum, the priest-official said.

According to Father Stoeger, Anglican and other mainline Protestant Churches have largely taken the initiative in this dialogue, which in many instances, includes dialogue with Catholics as well as members of non-Christian religions.

The issue seems deceptively simple: Theology must continually adapt itself to the traditions, experiences, needs, and thought forms of a particular culture the experts say, and Western culture is permeated by science. Science cannot become a theology—but theology can search for modes of expression that correspond to science.

Certain definite trends in theology seem to be emerging. Theologians are discovering “evidence” of unity, diversity, and transcendence in science—at the bottom there need not be conflict with the Christian worldview.

In cosmology, this search for unity is evident as researchers close in on what is being hailed as the first verifiable creation theory, based on research of outer space as well as within the subatomic world through particle physics.

Physicists are delving deeper into the microscopic structure of matter. They hope to someday reach the so-called Planck length, 10 to the power -33 cm, which is well beyond the 10 to -17 cm now possible with the best microscopes. Current methods of observation allow physicists to study the tiny point-like quarks within the nuclei of an atom. This is the present limit of the so-called “standard model” of research.

For physicists, greater magnification or “shorter distances” reveal a greater unity of nature and more simplicity. Shorter distances also mean that the physicist penetrates further into the history of the matter. In theory, the history of matter is also the history of the universe.

The leap from 10 -17 cm to 10 -33 cm would be formidable. However, the so-called accelerators required are expensive and use enormous amounts of energy. Physicists have no intention of waiting for technology, however. Theoretical physics is already attempting to extrapolate what lies ahead by way of the String.

Theory, developed by David Gross of Princeton University and John Schwartz of the California Institute of Technology.

The String Theory may have placed theoretical physics in the forefront. “It used to be that as we were climbing the mountain of nature, the experimentalists would lead the way,” said Gross, adding that now “theorists might have to take the lead.”

Theologian Nancey Murphy, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary, believes there are certain parallels between scientific reasoning and theology. “Theological doctrines have the same epistemological status as scientific theories…. In the philosophy of science, there is nothing you can know for certain apart from theoretical interpretation, and so the process of developing science is always a process of working back and forth between theory and data looking for consistency between those theories and the data.”

Yet the search for unity is continually confronted by the mysterious, she added. What could possibly account, for example, for the complex large-scale structures and the flows of galaxies that have been observed in the universe, and their rapid movement? Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is part of a small group of galaxies on the outskirts of the large sheet of galaxies, the so-called local supercluster. There are millions of these superclusters, with great voids between them that contain hardly any matter. Gravity alone could not account for such a distribution.

Dr. Joel Primack, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was one of the pioneers of the Cold Dark Matter Theory (CDM), which has helped to explain this mystery. Primack speculates that invisible CDM comprises 90 percent of the universe. He is currently testing a new theory, “cold and hot dark matter.”

The CDM theory led cosmologists to consider a pre-big bang event. In 1981-82, physicist Alan Guth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Russian physicist Andre Linde, currently at Stanford University, independently worked out a theory of cosmic inflation.

The theory posits a blueprint for the universe caused by an exponential expansion. This occurred in an extremely minute fraction of a second prior to the big bang, causing the enormous complexities of structures and the vast differences in density that we see today.

Linde thinks of this process as occurring endlessly, producing not a universe but “universes:” The big bang is no longer seen as a singular event, but rather as one spark in an endless process.

Theology, then, must help humanity find its way back into the center of a vast and complex picture. For starters, however, the Big Bang has affirmed one important theological truth—there was a creation event, and the universe has a beginning, middle, and end.

Does the universe suggest intelligent design? Many theologians believe so. “Fine tuning,” as Murphy terms it, shows that if the mathematics had been off just a fraction, there would be no life as we know it today. All the things that came before the earth—those stars, galaxies, and super-clusters—were vital to our creation. Science cannot prove the existence of God, but the numbers certainly make the case for it.

Gary Griffith is based in Page, Ariz.