Noted scientist and best-selling novelist Alan Lightman, a Memphis native, asks what are the boundaries between science and religion, the two greatest forces that have shaped human civilization. What are the different kinds of knowledge in science and in religion? And how do we come by those different kinds of knowledge? Members of the Faith in Memphis panel respond.
Science and religion are human enterprises, twin siblings born from one of the defining characteristics of our species. Each proceeds from our insatiable curiosity. Science is the response to the question of how the physical world works. Religion is the response to the question of why we exist.
Science seeks facts, laws and principles that give us knowledge about the universe we live in. Religion seeks to discover what purpose or meaning lies between the dual reality of being born and having to die. Science addresses how life began and evolved while religion addresses what the good life consists of.
There is a difference between the kind of knowledge science presents and the kind of knowing that religion explores. Science establishes the facts about a tree while religion writes poetry about its beauty or uses it as a metaphor that points to the depth of human experience.
Science has a language and so does religion. We have evolved not only physically but also spiritually. We are homo sapiens but also homo religiosus, and I use the language of the spirit. The spirit is not a thing but it is real. The spirit is our capacity for appreciative awareness. It is the human ability to see, to feel, to hear, to understand, to discern value and quality. The spirit sees things in relationship and finally in right relationship. The life of the spirit leads us to recognize that our contentment or fulfillment must be found in a place beyond earning, deserving and rewarding. The life of the spirit calls us out from ourselves to a larger life—the abundant life, the meaningful life, the aware life, the moral life, the good life or the knowing life.
Science increases our knowledge about the connections of the physical world while religion helps us to understand the connectedness of our life. Knowledge as fact is different from the appreciate awareness of knowing. Both are essential to us. One talks about the how of material life, and the other talks about the qualities of the spiritual life like humility, compassion, love, and justice. There is the poetry of how (science) and the poetry of why (religion), and both serve the sense of Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.