Freeman Dyson and Humility Theology: Revised Editions of Some Old Ways of Thinking

It is always an inspiration to read Freeman Dyson. I have learned much from his science, and still more from his deft ability to cross disciplinary fields, his literary flair, and of course, his readiness to consider religious questions in his cosmology. Witness his excellent essay, “The Varieties of Human Experience,” in the September issue of The Global Spiral. For all his integration of fields, however, there is very little reckoning with the past. Rather than making this piece into plea for coverage of yet another field—when a more proper response would be a big thank you to Dyson for already covering so much—I frame it as a set of missed opportunities that emerge from limited consideration of the historical dimensions of the very material he and many others in the Templeton vineyards are exploring. Thomas Carlyle’s astute words, “the past is prologue,” can mean more than honorific placement in the preface to more serious, modern inquiry, which is, alas, the fate of historical coverage in much theology and even more so in science. For science and religion, the past can be an illuminator of contemporary terms and ideas, a sentry of lurking dangers, a consolation during setbacks, and a mentor to present problems.


History Lessons 

Templeton-sponsored initiatives have attempted to harmonize science and religion and to gain a firmer grasp on religious truths. There were earlier such initiatives in history. Some since the Enlightenment even sought to learn so much from science and worldly knowledge that we would answer the mysteries of religion and even altogether dismiss those unempirical fancies of the heart from the human imagination. This would bring harmony of sort, through domination by science. If that Enlightenment project had come to pass, there would be little demand for Templeton Foundation initiatives to increase understanding between science and religion. From the point of view of such robust confidence in secular and scientific possibility, these Templeton projects, for all their vital intricacy of natural scientific and theological theory, are born from a historical surprise. The present situation, with thriving science and religion, is the future that was not supposed to happen, when science, Enlightenment style, made a firmer grasp on religion. The contemporary Templeton impulse has adopted the Enlightenment path of inquiry, but without that scientific hubris; it is indeed, in John Templeton’s words, a Humility Theology, with a more humble approach to science as well.

Despite these rich, dramatic, and instructive histories, the Templeton Foundation has, with a few notable exceptions, not stressed the contribution of historical and cultural study to support its goal of improving understanding between science and religion. However, deeper grasp of the origins of our present situation will contribute to the field of science and religion in its self-understanding and its public presentation, and it can do so in at least two ways. First, the views of science and religion that most people carry with them are shaped by narratives of the past that persist as likely stories about reality—about how things came to be. The past not only establishes the prologue to present work, but in addition its study can also constructively shape the present when those stories are clarified, contextualized, and told more fully. Just as cosmology and creation stories in science and theology shape scientific and religious worldviews, so the history of science and religion shapes the present state of the disciplines in natural science and theology. These histories are the creation stories of our field. And second, most people in the general public and among specialized professionals alike—despite the best efforts of recent public intellectual work by the Foundation and by other scholars dismantling the “warfare motif” between the fields—still view the reconciliation of science and religion as the yoking of opposites. Attempts to reconcile would do well to trace those perceived polarized contrasts down to their historical roots, examine the times and settings of the advocates, examine when that opposition emerged most decisively, and even explore precedents for resistance to the polarization. The project of mediation will be greatly facilitated once common origins are comprehended and discussed. Like the pastoral work of church leaders in conciliating the fiery differences between members of a congregation, a few well-articulated history lessons can bring contestants around a common table, if not for total agreement, than at least for postures of listening—just the kind of setting that Humility Theology promotes.

Humility and Inquiry 

Dyson’s tribute to John Templeton’s impressive work and munificent drive to inspire others is a good reminder of the range of Humility Theology. It begins with humility, with recognition of our ignorance; but of course, it does not remain in that unassuming posture, which by itself might inspire despair or cynicism about claims to knowledge. Instead, the humility is tethered to a drive to understand more, indeed, an urge to model theology on scientific progress, to push for ever-greater spiritual understanding. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it Humility and Inquiry Theology. Such progress, once applied to the religious realm, promises to increase knowledge, improve understanding across different groups, and even provide a chance for scientists and religious believers to comprehend some commonality of cosmic purpose, intellectual methodology, and human limits.

Freeman Dyson supports Humility Theology, but offers the critique that its connection to science is potentially limiting for achieving its broadest goals. By suggesting that science has “recent and superficial” ties to religion, he perhaps inadvertently partakes of the tradition of conflict between science and religion or at least of the assumed tension or limited relations bordering on total separation—unproductive fighting or the bland “truce on the basis of mutual irrelevance,” as German theologian Jürgen Moltmann warned. While the professional fields of science are recent, the impulse for inquiry into the natural world has an ancient heritage, with strong links to the origins of religion. Before distinct terms and disciplines, there were human attempts to understand the cosmos; and the different tools and attitudes of inquiry would become our different fields. Science and religion share an old genealogy stemming from wonder and curiosity—a common ancestral genotype, even as their phenotype is very different indeed. Tapping these deep roots of connection between science and religion would reinforce a sense of common purpose between the fields that is so crucial to the “new academic discipline still in the process of defining itself,” as Dyson observes. With more historical awareness, science and religion could reinforce the sense that the fields are related—they could meet their shared relations again for the first time. 

William James: A Modern Mentor to Contemporary Science and Religion 

There are lessons from more modern history that could support science and religion in general and Dyson’s arguments in particular. He offers a sharp distinction: while “Sir John … hop[es] that spiritual wisdom may be found … with the tools and methods of science,” William James offers psychological reflections with “no attempt to be scientific” in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Dyson admits that the goals of each great man were similar, to encourage ever-greater apprehension of spiritual truth, but he thinks their methods were fundamentally dissimilar. However, James’s life shows parallels to the quests of Templeton and Dyson alike: a figure deeply in tune with religious questions and deeply troubled by the tendencies of scientific and secular inquiry to bypass those concerns and to leave humankind rudderless and demoralized. Also like our contemporary guides, James was immersed in science, from his earliest studies in chemistry, medicine, and physiology, to the writing of The Varieties itself.

Compared to Templeton and Dyson, however, James took on a different science, namely psychology, in his day, the new science of mind. This field, at the border of philosophy and physiology, of mind and body, was just forming at ground zero of the science-and-religion debates that emerged with modernism. Believers felt violated by the lack of sanctity in empirical and quantifiable renditions of human distinctiveness; and many scientists felt that if naturalistic inquiry could be effective here, it would be a triumph for the scientific worldview in general. James’s response to the new scientific psychology steered through the debates in ways that directly parallel the attempts of contemporary workers in the “new” field of science and religion. They face the same types of adversaries among believers and naturalists; they work and study in each field; they look for common ground; they too seek to reap the fruits of both fields without bowing to the absolutes of each. To borrow a phrase from one of James’s colleagues, they deny nothing of the work of their opponents, but only their confidence. Humility indeed.

James used his scientific training to be able to communicate with people convinced of the authority of science; he fully endorsed the clarifying power of scientific inquiry, but he also noticed that confidence in science often took on a zealous tone, with dismissal of all non-scientific thinking. In his proposed “Program of the Future of Science,” he wanted to use scientific methods and knowledge, and also use that critical edge which scientific advocates readily applied to other fields, and apply it to science itself. It was in effect, a humility science. Moreover James used his psychology to develop what he called a “science of religion.” His inquiry with humility would allow each human experience to speak for itself as data to be understood for scientific purposes, but also to be compared for religious purposes with the diversity of cultural forms that people of different societies and different temperaments have produced. James displays his psychological intent and his scientific method right on the title page of The Varieties, with his subtitle, A Study in Human Nature. Mr. Dyson and Sir John, meet your mentor.

Complementarity and Radical Empiricism 

When Dyson turns to the specific ways that theology can be rejuvenated by modern science, he cites the idea of complementarity in physics. With its study of light, which has produced experimental data showing it to behave like a particle and also like a wave, the field of physics has broken with the polarity of choice between the two. Particle or wave? The question says more about the people asking it than about the topic within nature under investigation. Instead, physics has adopted a posture presenting the light itself as both, or really something other, which our limited concepts “particle” and “wave” only partially grasp. The terms are helpful, perhaps even useful within particular research agendas, but they are only suggestions toward something we do not fully understand, because, as Dyson points out, “the nature of light is richer than any of the pictures that we use to describe it.” Dyson then goes on to suggest that this concept of complementarity derived from science could enrich many fields, including theology.

Complementarity is a very important concept, and yet here is another chance for enrichment from previous work, even in the midst of hopes for the power of science to enrich theology. In his work in radical empiricism, James developed a concept very similar to complementarity in proposing the shallowness of the choice between subjectivity and objectivity. Rather than assuming the spectator gaze of subject upon object, with the consequent debate about which is more real, James proposed that our experience is something deeper and indeed more mysterious than either one, yet it is the stuff from which our subjectivity and objectivity are formed. If theologians adopt complementarity as Dyson suggests, perusing the philosophy of radical empiricism could serve as a useful field guide.

Science and Religion Through the Disciplines—and Beyond 

Although Dyson has not tapped these or other rich histories in the relation of science and religion, Dyson offers another alternative across the disciplines: the lessons from literature, in particular science fiction—what he calls “theofiction” to highlight its theological reckoning with profound ethical and cosmological stories—for deepening our understanding of religion. While he wonders why “science should be singled out as the partner of religion in Sir John Templeton's vision,” he suggests that a look at literature would provide still richer insights. For example, he praises William Blake, whose poetry “gave us more spiritual information in a few lines than all the theologians and scientists of his time in their learned volumes.” Even Dyson would probably agree that Blake was not giving spiritual information but spiritual orientation, a sense of direction, with which we can be motivated to gain information, on which information can be placed, and from which we can use that information to make a better world. This is not literature instead of religion. For Blake, literary genres were the medium, but the message was surely religious, even if it was a religiosity not contained in the churches or recognizable to the orthodox.

In another example, Dyson quotes Olaf Stapledon, whose writing creates an imaginative world with a god-like title character, Star Maker, who judges his creation wistfully but without mercy as a flawed experiment. The Star Maker is already busy with designs for other universes in which our flaws may be repaired. The wonders of the created world?... Well, yes, … a good early draft. Stapledon’s story invites us to reconsider standard questions from the intersection of science and religion, such as creation, design, and our fit to the universe, through the lens of a universe with FD rather than ID: without Intelligent Design, but with a kind of Flawed Design.

The insights from literature that Dyson cites are all religious in character. It is the religious spirit of works of literature, their suggestion of new imaginative possibilities in our human relations or our relations with the cosmos that makes them important religiously. Dyson’s observation is most important for those who might otherwise ignore insights unless properly vetted within professional boundaries. The spirit of Dyson’s essay is the suggestion to regard science and religion as chunks of human concern, which in each generation are handled and stored in academic disciplines, but which soar across the many fields of human life and penetrate them all. God may have more qualities than we humans are capable of imagining. If we could enlarge our senses and our emotions beyond the conventional range—with literature, with religion, or with other “perishable ark[s] of human contrivance,” in the words of nineteenth-century minister Theodore Parker—we would experience a very different God. By all accounts, the deity is on a different plane, so in the spirit of Humility Theology, and of countless works of theofiction, some may launch imaginative speculations about God—She won’t mind, or maybe He will be amused; They keep such direct answers a mystery…. Such speculation is a reminder of sociologist Daniel Bell’s report of his youthful experiment with unbelief: “I don’t believe in God,” to which his rabbi responded, “you think God cares?”

Seasoned Guides Through the Trackless Forest 

Dyson supports the two major planks of Humility Theology: “God may have more qualities than we humans are capable of imagining.” Millennia of mystics would agree, hence the need for humility. Enlargements of our senses, our emotions, and our knowledge would let us learn ever more about God; hence the need for inquiry. No matter the disciplinary field one launches from, there is uncertainty embedded in our religion and our science. At this ground-floor point, Dyson could find still more support and complementary wisdom in the work of William James. In the essay he wrote as a prologue to his Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), he also referred to cosmology by acknowledging the “trackless forest” of universe around us. Also like Dyson and Templeton, James both started with such humility and would not stay there. Instead, he proposed his pragmatic method as a path through it, a philosophy to regard our concepts as “instruments” for further inquiry rather than fixed “answers to enigmas.” The universe is real; our accomplished knowledge is real; and so too are the mysteries—of the trackless forest and of our own efforts, humble or otherwise. We have a lot of work to do. We have good things to learn from the cutting-edge of contemporary science and theology, but as we do, humility helps to keep things in perspective. Stories of the past can add to that enterprise, and our precursors in attending to the relations of science and religion can also provide plenty of support along the way.

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