A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the 20th Century

First of all I want to thank everyone for keeping the level of this virtual conversation so high and so philosophically minded. Now that we have opened up a discussion about Science and Spirituality I would like to add a little more historical context to frame it.

During the time of the Middle Ages Christianity grew and fought to become the dominant worldview in the Western World.  That means that the vast majority of people believed that the Bible contained an infallible recording of the Truth as God presented it to humanity. No matter what you felt about it, no matter what you thought about it, the fact always remained that what the Bible said was the ultimate Truth that described Reality.

Then in the 17th Century the Western Enlightenment erupted. The scientific and philosophical thinkers of that age began to realize that the human mind had the power to understand reality. These great thinkers began to uncover a natural order that was governed by unchangeable laws and their success led to miraculous discoveries and achievements.

Still, during this time and on into the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the Enlightenment thinkers still believed in God, but the nature of that belief changed and gave birth to Liberal Theology. The Bible was increasingly seen not as the literal word of God flawlessly recorded by the prophets (Old Testament) and the Apostles (New Testament), but now was seen as an interpretation of God’s word as created by these great figures. The Bible was then not something to be taken literally, but to be continually studied and reinterpreted so that the essential wisdom contained in the words could be distilled out.

As Science continued to triumph another interpretation of traditional religious views took a strong hold. This was Natural Theology. In Natural Theology there remained a belief in God, but now God was seen as the initiator of a mechanical process. God was the clock-maker, but once he/she wound the clock up it continued to operate with no need of further intervention. Deism was an 18th century form of faith that held this view, and most of America’s founders were Deists. What Natural Theology allowed for was a belief in God that could be completely severed from Christian dogma.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the 20th Century – Charles Darwin published ”On the Origin of Species.” Evolution was discussed long before Darwin, but it never threatened the belief in God like it did afterward. Prior to Darwin, no matter how cleverly science could explain the workings of natural law there remained a need for a Creator that had created this miraculous world.  If you look at the vast complexity and interconnectivity of our living world – not to mention our own human form – there is no way to imagine that it just appeared here this way. Just like if you pick up a wristwatch on the beach, you would never assume that it just appeared there, someone obviously made it. So to with our world, someone obviously made it and that someone was God.

But Darwin punched a big hole in that idea because he devised an understanding of the mechanism of evolution through Natural Selection that could explain how we and our world could have been created as a consequence of the need to survive and the occurrence of chance variations in Nature. This explanation was based only on simple observable “natural laws” that required no outside intelligence to guide them – and it has held up (with some modification) for over 150 years!

In our modern times Darwin’s theory of evolution frames the Science vs. Spirituality debate. In 1925 the “Scope’s Monkey Trial” pitted believers against evolutionists and although the believers won the trial, the debate cranked up the argument into high gear. American Fundamentalism with its insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible galvanized around the issue of evolution. And in response many in the scientific community veered steadily toward an increasingly materialistic and deterministic worldview.

Is there a higher intelligence than the human ability to reason in the Universe? Is there a purpose driving the process of cosmic evolution? To my mind these are the questions upon which the debate of Science vs. Spirituality rests today. Spirituality if it means anything means a belief and alignment with a universal purpose. Whether it be in a traditional religious context or not, spirituality is an appeal to some higher intelligence, not necessarily one that is separate and apart from human intelligence, but one at least that transcends (while including) our normal faculty for reason and understanding.