Musings on Science and Religion

I’ve been thinking lately about science and religion. This came up first because of my church. My church has been working over the past two years on it’s strategic plan for 2010-2015 and it was mailed out a few weeks ago (to be presented this coming Sunday). I was flipping through it at breakfast a few days ago because I’m not allowed to be on my computer until after breakfast during Lent. I read over the shared values. The first are what you’d expect: Our theology, The individual, spirituality and congregationalism, Our life in community, Inclusivity, and Our action in the wider community. All of these are fairly standard in liberal churches. The next also wasn’t that surprising: Celebration of the Arts as Sacred. This especially wasn’t surprising given that all the Lenten services are revolving around paintings and poems and Palm Sunday will also have an interpretive dance. (Last Sunday’s sermon on Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac 1965 was fascinating.) But then comes the final value: Affiliation of Compatibility between Science, the Intellect, and the Spirit.

Here’s what it says in more detail:
We celebrate the gifts of science and the intellect as well as those of the spirit, and we affirm that science and religious faith are complementary and not in conflict with one another. We honor our Congregational heritage that values life-long education and intellectual inquiry in all facets of our life together.
I read this and I got excited. I read this and I thought “my church appreciates me for who I am. They recognize my talents and are putting them forward and mentioning them.” I’m used to the arts getting called out, and much as I love that, it’s just not the same. I’ve never been in a church that devalues science. I’ve been blessed to be a part of wonderful congregations that value me and my geeky brain, but that said, none of my congregations before now has explicitly said it out loud to the world- HEY SCIENTISTS, you are welcome here. And that’s cool.
So with this on my mind, it’s been coming up in other places too. One of the things I’ve been reading every morning in place of my email is meditations by Madeleine L’Engle. This morning’s reading was an excerpt from Camilla about God. Frank is telling Camilla that we need a new God because our current God was designed thousands of years ago. And yet we haven’t changed our image of him at all. “And then the Victorians. They tried to put God back in a long white nightgown and whiskers again. That kind of God isn’t any good for today. You can’t blame Mona for not believing in that kind of God. We need a God for the atomic age.” Madeleine said it perfectly.
And then once more it came up. I’ve been watching the TV show Bones lately and it absolutely fascinates me. One source of conflict between the main leads (female lead Temperance Brennan and male lead Seeley Booth) is that Booth is a practicing Catholic and Brennan believes that religion is a waste of time. Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who believes that only facts can be believed in. In some ways, both are stereotypes of their side of the argument. But this comes to a head in the most recent episode which is centered around some core issues of faith. At the end they have this conversation:

Special Agent Seeley Booth: You know what if feels like to get your faith back?
Dr. Temperance Brennan: When I see effects and I’m unable to discern the cause, my faith in reason and consequence is shaken.
Special Agent Seeley Booth: And then what happens?
Dr. Temperance Brennan: …Two plus two equals four; I put sugar in my coffee and it tastes sweet; the sun comes up because the world turns. These things are beautiful to me. There are mysteries I will never understand… But, everywhere I look, I see proof that for every effect, there is a corresponding cause, even if I can’t see it. I find that reassuring.
Special Agent Seeley Booth: And life is good again.
Dr. Temperance Brennan: [
laughs] Life is very good.

And they understand each other enough for that to be good enough, even though for many it would not be.
I’ll close with the final thing that’s been rolling around in my head regarding science and religion, a prayer. This is a prayer by John Edgerton for Plymouth Congregational Church from November 8,2009. I don’t always pay much attention, but when I heard him refer to a variable in an equation I knew it was good. Thanks to John for this great mixture of religion and science in a single prayer.

God of Abraham, you are the light of the world and your people love you. We have tried to be close to your light for generations beyond memory. We have sought to be close to your light in our arts, our science, and we seek your light in times when we are vulnerable and alone. We find comfort in the light of a fire. The orange and yellow and red fingers lick the night air, and our hearts are filled with an ancient peace when we sit near a fire and watch it dance. We find joy in mimicking your light in our paintings. Laying colors on top of colors we emulate the first moments of your creation. trying to bring form and light into being where there had only been a blank canvas. We decise ingenious mechanisms to try and contain and trap shards of your lights. Pressing silver gelatin between panes of spotlessly clean glass we fashion an eye with mechanics and chemistry. In darkened rooms we coas images into appearing, we treasure the photographic records of your light’s presence-shadows made permanent. Light of the world, we try in our sciences to define and objectify your light. We have given it other names-lux, photon-these names express only a portion of what your light is, but the finest name we have given to your light is simply: C. The immutable speed, light moves like nothing else in all the universe, and we base our most delicate physical calculations on its constancy. Light does not change and yet it cannot be deifined. When we try to know the most basic form of your light, to isolate its elemental nature and encompass it with our minds, your light winks at us and goes on being two things at the same time. it is the pebble thrown into a pond and also, somehow, the ripples. God of Abraham, you are the light of the world and your people love you.

Madeleine L’Engle Nonfiction

If you missed yesterday’s post on Madeleine LEngle’s fiction, you might want to go check that out first.

As much as I love L’Engle’s fiction, I also adore her non-fiction. Most people would turn to her Crosswicks Journals first as opposed to her work on religion or her poetry. “A Circle Of Quiet,” “The Summer of the Great-Grandmother,” and “The Irrational Season” are great books about writing, faith, life, and family, but there’s something special about “Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage.” Part of it for me is the connection to Bach and the not-so-subtle ties between Bach’s music and the marriage of Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin. Like “The Story of the von Trapp Family Singers,” “Two Part Invention” takes you from before Madeleine and Hugh meet until “death do them part.” The story isn’t all bright and shiny, but it isn’t doom and gloom either. And L’Engle weaves in humor when appropriate.
Some examples: “When Hugh and I get angry at each other we tend to be explosive, both of us being volatile. But we never nibble and chip. And our anger never lasts beyond bedtime. When it happens, and I suspect there’s no marriage where it doesn’t, it’s a good, clean anger, clearing the air. The explosions are not physical, but they are volatility vocal. And I am reminded of one woman who, when asked if she had ever contemplated divorcing her husbad, replied, Divorce, never! Murder, yes!”
“One summer early our living at Crosswicks, a stage-designer friend came with his wife for the weekend. one morning he broke an ashtray andtried to flush it down the toilet. The result was total blockage. Hugh and I watched in awe as neighboring friends showed us how to drain the toilet, unscrew it from the floor, lift it, retrieve the china pieces of the broken ashtray, and put the toilet back together again. For a while we had a sign warning, PLEASE DO NOT PUT ASHTRAYS DOWN THE TOILET, but it was not a frequently made mistake.”
“Two-Part” also gives insight into the autobiographical portion of a number of L’Engles books, including parts of “A Severed Wasp.” I assume that the book isn’t telling the whole story, but even for a partial story, it is incredibly illuminating and something to aspire to.
A few weeks ago, at my church library, I found a book of poetry by L’Engle, “The Weather of the Heart.” It is both hilarious and heartfelt. A mix of love poems, religious poems, and science poems, as well as poems that mix some or all those elements. There’s not much else to say other than to share some poems with you.
Love Letter
I hate you, God.
Love, Madeleine.
I write my message on water
and at bedtime I tiptoe upstairs
and let it flow under your door.
When I am angry with you
I know that you are there
even if you do not answer my knock
even when your butler opens the door an inch
and flaps his thousand wings in annoyance
at such untoward interruption
and says that the master is not at home.
I love you, Madeleine.
Hate, God.
(This is how I treat my friends, he said to one great saint.
No wonder you have so few of them, Lord, she replied.)
I cannot turn the other cheek
It takes all the strength I have
To keep my fist from hitting back
the soldiers shot the baby
the little boys trample the old woman
the gutters are filled with groans
while pleasure seekers knock each other down
in order to get their tickets stamped first.
I’m turning in my ticket
and my letter of introduction.
You’re supposed to do the knocking. Why do you burst my heart?
How can I write you
to tell you that I’m angry
when I’ve been given the wrong address
and I don’t even know your real name?
I take hammer and nails
and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood:
Dear God
is it too much to ask you
to bother to be?
Just show your hindquarters
and let me hear you roar.
To a Long Loved Love: 1

We, who have seen the new moon grow old together,
Who have seen winter rime the fields and stones
As thought it would claim earth and water forever,
We who have known the touch of flesh and the shape of bones
Know the old moon stretching its shadows across a whitened field
More beautiful than spring with all its spate of blooms;
What passion knowledge of tried flesh still yields,
What joy and comfort these familiar rooms.
So that’s some poetry. I don’t like it nearly as much as the non-fiction. But in interest of exposing you to everything I thought I should show it. Plus I don’t like most poetry, so I was surprised to even comprehend any of this.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote more than one book

In case you didn’t know it, the title of this blog post is true! Madeleine L’Engle did, in fact, write more than one book. She wrote or co-wrote 63 books and plays. Of those 63, I’ve read at least 31 and parts of others.

I’m assuming that most of you know of Madeleine L’Engle and that most of you know her as the author of “A Wrinkle in Time.” Wrinkle is a science fiction/fantasy book about a pre-teen girl, Meg Murry, and the adventure she goes on with her younger brother, Charles Wallace, and a boy from school, Calvin O’Keefe. Meg and Charles Wallace are trying to save their father and all three children are being led by Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who. It’s very exciting.
If you did read more of L’Engle, you probably read the sequels to Wrinkle, “A Wind in the Door,” “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” and perhaps even “Many Waters.”
But L’Engle wrote realistic children’s fiction as well, ranging from picture books to books about the complexity of teen relationships and teen pregnancy. Just as L’Engle wrote a series about Meg Murry, she also wrote one about Vicky Austin. Unlike Meg, Vicky lives a normal life, dealing with the pressures of school, family, and relationships, while dealing with her gifts as a writer. L’Engle also has an amazing talent with weaving characters between series, so at one point Vicky’s boyfriend works for a grown-up Calvin O’Keefe as a lab technician. As a teenager, Vicky was my favorite of L’Engle’s characters.
Now….well. Now I’m conflicted. Because L’Engle didn’t stop. She wrote for adults and for adults she wrote both fiction and non-fiction. So, I’ll give you tastes of four more L’Engle books. Books that you likely haven’t heard of. (If you have, please let me know!) First, we’ll stay in fiction. “A Severed Wasp” first enthralled me because it’s told in a non-linear fashion, not a simple feat for a book. Katherine is an old woman and a young woman. She is reliving her past and living with the problems of the present. Centered around the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the present and the horrors of post-WWII family life in the past, the book deals with almost every issue you could think of. Seriously. Except monsters, zombies, and the apocalypse. Homosexuality, fertility, marital disputes, the dark arts, drugs, child abuse, cancer, prosthetics, music, concentration camps, death, pregnancy. It’s in there. And it’s delightful. Primarily because it’s not at all predictable.
“A Live Coal in the Sea” is one L’Engle book that I believe I tried to read when it came out and my mom had checked it out from the library. I was 13. My mom wouldn’t let me. Now I understand why 🙂 It’s the sequel to “Camilla,” one of L’Engle’s teen novels, but is much darker and deeper than “Camilla,” and written 41 years later. Again, it’s told by an old woman looking back on her life. But her story in the now is much less a part of the plot than in “Severed Wasp.” Instead, it focuses much more on the story of her relationships and her marriage and her family. Not at all the typical family, but in some ways easier to relate to than Katherine’s in a Severed Wasp. For Camilla is not a professional pianist in post WWII, but an astronomist in today’s world. As a mother she’s struggling with getting her Ph.D. and being a mother. With being a preacher’s wife and being a scientist, in a place where science isn’t taken seriously by the congregation. (L’Engle and her positions on church and science deserve a WHOLE different post. So I’ll save that for later.) But again, L’Engle has made a plot and characters who are not predictable. And every time I read “A Live Coal in the Sea,” I somehow think that they might change their minds and do something different, because they seem capable of that.
This post is getting long, so I’ll turn this into a multi-day L’Engle Extravaganza. L’Engle’s non-fiction is up for tomorrow. And if you’re in the Twin Cities and want to borrow any of these books, let me know. I have about 15 of them (including the two named above and three of the Austin books) at home.