Krista's Journal: Opening Up Religious Ideals Through Science

May 10, 2007

We had a lively and challenging response to last week's program with Jennifer Michael Hecht and to my characterization of her ideas as an alternative — a reconciliatory counterpart — to our culture's latest religion/anti-religion debate. This one is driven in part by a best-selling scientist, Richard Dawkins. We were delighted to find the podcast of our Doubt program posted on Dawkins.net. Take a look at the discussion there, and at speakingoffaith.org, and on Gather.com. I'm impressed — and pleased — by the substance and thoughtfulness of these strings, in contrast to the contrarianism of the usual debate. I'll be weighing in again in the days to come.

And I will continue to insist that the competing certainties of our public life do not reflect the whole truth about anything, especially the relationship between science and religion. This conversation with George Ellis is a wonderful case in point. Ellis straddles the worlds of science and religion and rich possibilities of interplay in between. With great humanity and creativity, he demonstrates how a life in science can open up religious ideas in unexpected ways.

George Ellis has had a prolific career studying the origins and evolution of the universe. He's most recently investigated whether there is one universe or many and how physics underlies the emergence of life. He made his name as a cosmologist at Cambridge and around the world, before returning in the 1970s to apartheid-era South Africa, his homeland.

There George Ellis became passionate about promoting social change. He used mathematical models — innovatively, and effectively — to critique social injustice. At the same time, he used his advanced understanding of "the cosmos" to think about the power of human behavior. He began to take seriously the way human emotions, choices, and actions drive cause-and-effect in the physical universe. And as he experienced dramatic social transformation in South Africa, he came to believe that there is such a thing as "the true nature of deep ethics."

Here is one of the most startling ideas George Ellis offers: he has concluded that there are basic ethical principles built in to the very fabric of the universe, in the same mysterious but certain way that the laws of physics are embedded. We don't invent mathematical truths, like pi or E=mc2, he says. We discover them. The same can be said of the ethic of self-giving and self-sacrifice that he experienced at the heart of radical, peaceful change in South Africa. And the fact that every major tradition embodies and expresses some version of this ethic — which he labels kenotic, after a New Testament Greek word — counts for him, as a scientist, as a roundabout form of proof.

In this way, George Ellis re-imagines religious traditions as explorers — practitioners of the science of ethics.

In this program, as in every conversation we conduct at Speaking of Faith, there are echoes of other programs. He reaffirms an intriguing sense I have gained in conversation with others — the physicist John Polkinghorne, for example, and the astrobiologist Paul Davies — that scientists have a reverence for "beauty" as strong as their reverence for reason. If a mathematical solution is not elegant and beautiful, they will tell you as a solemn point of fact, it is likely not true.

There are also parallels between Ellis' ideas about how we treat (and transform) enemies and the conclusions of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf or the Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. Now, with George Ellis' definition of ethics in mind, I can hear such echoes as a kind of "proof" that these are universal truths. As we speak of faith, we apply different words and images to postulate and describe truths people of faith have "discovered" in common.

On a hot summer evening in Philadelphia, George Ellis brought cosmology, faith, and ethics together. He sent the rest of us back out into the world to live our theologies — whatever our traditions — with new vocabularies, deeper questions, and a few surprising practical tools.

Recommended Reading

Image of On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Theology and the Sciences) (Theology & the Sciences)
Author: George Ellis
Publisher: FORTRESS PRESS (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 288 pages

This is not an easy book to read. It includes a great deal of technical language, both theological and scientific. But an intrepid reader will find great value in it. The book is a collaborative effort between George Ellis and Nancey Murphy. It is a systematic, scholarly attempt to ground some of the core ideas he presents, in a very human way, in our conversation in this program. It surveys compatible thinking among a wide variety of scientists and theologians, including the eminent late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder.

Voices on the Radio

George F. R. Ellis

is Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, recipient of the Templeton Prize, and the author of many books, including On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics.

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