The Story of Science and Spirit

by Jody Bourgeois
Issue #26, Summer 1997, p 6

As a geoscientist and Earth historian, I like to think of myself as a "geologian" -- a Thomas Berry term.  I have, via my academic discipline and my vocation as a professor, been given the gift of telling the scientific cosmic creation story: a powerful story of mythical proportions which unites us all -- all humans, all creatures, all rocks, all planets, all stars -- as one tribe.  And as a geologist, I meditate on aspects of Earth's formation, coming to know the planet intimately -- an act of love, and in my mind, an act of worship, a way of knowing God.  Yet in my academic position, I almost never talk about these aspects of my profession.



     Some years ago, in a retreat setting, I narrated a rather sweeping presentation on the sacred dimensions of the scientific story of the universe.  I also gave more intimate accounts of the stories individual rocks can tell us.  During that weekend, a woman told me how excited she was to meet a scientist who would talk about the sacred dimensions of science, implying it was a rare find.  She shared with me the inspiring image that she had always thought of biology lab as "going to church."  It was clear she had not dared share this image with her biology teacher.  Indeed, no student had ever said this to me about my geology labs or classes.  How do we give students permission to do so?

     At the time of this retreat, inspired by the writings and teachings of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, as well as by my own quest to integrate my scientific and spiritual sides, I had begun to explore the sacred dimensions of science.  I found myself doing so principally alone or in groups where I was the only (professional) scientist.  There is abundant literature on the topic, and myriad theologians, philosophers and scientists have explored the issues.  But most of us scientists these days, particularly in public schools, feel constrained to limit these discussions, to keep them out of our classrooms, out of our workplace.  Indeed, the U.S. courts have ruled that science and religion be kept separate in the classroom.

    So, how and where in this modern age do we discuss science and religion? Not many places. A couple of years ago, I was relieved to be discovered by the Science and Spirituality group (sciSpi), a wonderful assemblage of folks, principally scientists, who were seeking a place to discuss spiritual dimensions of science.  In our December 1996 meeting, triggered by Brian Swimme's book, The Universe is a Green Dragon, we
asked the question: can we, should we, or how do we convey a sense of the sacred, or of "meaning," in a science class?  There ensued a lively exchange, with very diverse opinions.  Inspired partly by this discussion, I gave students in my Evolution of the Earth class last quarter as one choice among five or six questions to address in their term paper: "How can we 'do science' and at the same time respect diverse religious beliefs?"  Nearly half the class chose to explore this question.  Several came to talk to me about it, clearly grateful for the opportunity.  Several of the papers were profoundly moving.  One student wrote that not to teach the "creation story" in a science class was to profess atheism, a statement which continues to haunt me.

     In my closing lecture, as usual, I reviewed the current environmental crisis in humanity's little blip of geologic history. After thanking them for their papers, I plunged into the issues of science and meaning, as they relate to the current pathology -- the separation of science and spirit.  I made the following points:

     We have forgotten who we are.  We need a creation myth, and the scientific creation story is of mythical proportions, uniting everyone: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Native American...bird, rock, star, bacteria.

     We have lost our sense of the sacred (not necessarily as individuals, but surely as a society). All religions include a sense of the sacredness of nature; science does not deny sacredness, although these days, it rarely explicitly addresses it.

     We have become disconnected from the Earth. Science and religion both teach us we are connected, but we are too busy, much of the time, to remember.

     The Earth is not fragile, but it is precious.

     Dom Bede Griffiths, in his book, Universal Wisdom, noted the pathology of separating science from spirit: "The westem mind has concentrated its attention on the material world, to understand its working by science...But all this has been done at the cost of...using up the resources on which human life depends ....
Western science has grown up under the illusion that there is a material world 'outside' the mind.  It is now slowly learning what the perennial philosophy has known all along, that the world, which appears to be outside us, is inconceivable apart from the mind which observes it."

     Just as we don't discuss the sacred dimensions of science in the classroom, we rarely hear about science in our churches.  My dream is that, while recognizing that science is not "truth" and that religious beliefs are diverse, we can integrate these two very fundamental aspects of our existence -- science and spirituality. 


Jody Bourgeois, a Professor of Geology at the University of Washington, teaches geology and the history of geology.  Reprinted from Earth Letter, 1305 NE 47th St., Seattle, WA 98105, with permission.

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