“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”
Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.
Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.
I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.
By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.
DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.
Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen – puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.
This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.
Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”
January 20, 2010
I am usually a proponent of the separation of church and state, agreeing wholeheartedly that both government and organized religions are better off if they keep their entanglements to a minimum. I do like some common sense with my coffee, however, and I don’t find any in the case of Donna Kay Busch, the Pennsylvania woman who was barred from reading five verses from the 118th Psalm to her son’s kindergarten class.
These are the verses, from the King James Version, that Mrs. Busch proposed to read:
O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: because his mercy endureth forever. / Let Israel now say that his mercy endureth forever. / Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth foever. / … The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.
The reading was to be part of an in-class assignment in which the children were invited to present important aspects of their lives to their classmates. As part of this “All About Me” week-long assignment, Busch’s son, Wesley, made a poster displaying photographs of himself, his hamster, his brothers, his parents, his best friend, and a construction-paper likeness of his church.
One part of the “All About Me” curriculum included inviting parents to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” with the class that would highlight something about their child. Busch said her son asked her to read the Bible to the class, an activity she and her son shared together at home.
Mrs. Busch told the kindergarten teacher in advance what she proposed to read, and the building principal objected to it on the grounds that reading a religious text to public-school children who were required to be present would amount to state-sponsored endorsement (“establishment”?) of one religion over others.
A federal judge and then a federal appeals court upheld the principal’s decision, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has, in effect, done the same by refusing to hear Mrs. Busch’s appeal.
I like a dissenting opinion from one of the appeals court judges who argued that the school had invited students and their families to participate in a program by expressing what they thought was important in their lives. Barring members of this family from expressing this particular aspect of their lives seems unfair, hypocritical, and overzealous. I wonder exactly what the school system and the courts thought would be the result if Mrs. Busch had read those verses to the kids? Which does more damage – reading a few verses of Hebrew scripture to children, perhaps with an explanation that Judaism and Christianity are two of many religions in the world, or pretending that a curriculum is preparing children to live in the wider world without educating them to the fact that religious expression is a major factor out there?
You can read the Monitor’s story on this case by clicking HERE.
Bill McGraw writes in the Detroit Free Press about what seems like the increasing tendency of political figures to invoke the name of God to justify virtually anything. The immediate inspiration for McGraw’s column was a remark by Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who is in the crosshairs of a potential federal bribery indictment. “On Tuesday,” McGraw writes, “when it became clear the feds were closing in on Conyers, she described herself to viewers of her weekly TV show as ‘a child of God,’ and told viewers ‘if you’re not praying for me, then you’re just adding to the problem.’ Then she added: ‘All these things that are going on right now … I believe in my heart that God will deliver me from them.’ ”
McGraw went on to reminisce about invocations of the Diety by Detroit public figures over the past couple of decades, including former Police Chief William Hart who was charged in 1989 with using public funds to subsidize $72,000 in rent on his daughter’s former home in Beverly Hills. “With God as my witness,” Hart said, “I swear I did not do that.” He was subsequently convicted of stealing $2.3 million.
McGraw observed that few office holders have made as many public references to God as did George W. Bush while president of these United States. “I trust God speaks through me,” the president told an audience in Lancaster, Pa., in July 2004. “Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” I’ve seen that quote many times, and I’ve always suspected that the president said, or at least meant, “I trust God speaks to me.” I don’t know about George Bush, but I don’t think I would attribute to God many of the things that come out of my mouth.