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.
Dr. Lightman’s illustrations of what science knows were strikingly Newtonian, the kind of examples that would have been given 200 years ago. There are millions of church-goers who are nervous about even that kind of science, but the vast majority are not. The most interesting confluence of humility between science and faith is in the public health sciences where large scale patterns of behavior create vectors that favor or impede the spread of disease, in ways that often defeat narrow minded scientists with truncated views of how humans make choices. Faith is often an impediment in the social scale deployment of science, especially when the intervention affects sex or food. But faith is also a powerful driver of innovation in alliance with science, nowhere more clear than in the ready application of science to health improvement and prevention. To understand the confluence as Dr. Lightman’s question poses, you have to look for the intersection of the most mature faith and most relevant science. Not all faith is mature; not all science is relevant. To the most pressing challenges, whether located south of Crump in our tough neighborhoods or at issues of global scale climate change force us to ask about what science might be relevant to what we need to know partly so that mature faith might be relevant to what we need to do. I see every day that the highest form of medical science is hobbled by not knowing what most pastors and church caregivers know about why people make the choices they do to seek care, take medicine, ask for help and so on. That requires social science closer to anthropology than Newton, of course. But those social sciences need to know what faith knows. When Methodist Healthcare works with the University of Memphis to map the community health assets, we use an African model of mapping that includes extensive dialogue with people outside the formal health science community not out politeness, but because they know different kinds of things. So the anthropologists and ministry students, clergy and physicians all find themselves knowing together way more than any of them knew possible. The fundamental requirement for that kind of knowing is humility and curiosity made trustworthy because it is serving the intention to act on what is known. That’s what the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health is designed to do, why it is trusted by both scientists and faith leaders and why it has shown the ability to move hard data sets describing thousands of patients’ journeys.
This is an old story, not a new one. Most of the landmark breakthrough findings of public health science — the elimination of smallpox, the invention of epidemiology with the broad street pump, the establishment of the World Health Organization– all are rooted exactly in the shared knowledge of faith and health empowered by the hope that the world could be closer to what science suggests possible–and what all the religions agree is what God intends.