I've been doing lots of reading lately on the science side of my personality. "The Violinist's Thumb," by Sam Kean, lays out our genetic history, as told by our own DNA. For instance, the surprisingly homogeneous nature of DNA from peoples all over the planet suggests that humankind has encountered several genetic "bottlenecks," one as recent as 70,000 years ag, that nearly made us extinct. The few dozen or thousands of humans (scientists disagree) who survived these events (in one case, a globe-encircling, plant-choking cloud of volcanic ash and sulfurous oxide) gave rise to every living human on the planet. Even the fact that we carry 46 chromosomes (rather than the 48 of most primates) can be traced to the chance passing of certain families of protohumans through such bottlenecks.
On the cosmic front, scientists studying the beginning of the universe continue to make amazing discoveries. We have long know that our bodies are stardust -- chemicals whose origin is in the high-pressure fiery furnaces at the hearts of stars. The nitrogen and oxygen we breathe, as well as the carbon and phosphorus in our bones, was fused from hydrogen and helium when a star ran out of those primordial ingredients.
Even the history of life on our planet shows unmistakable signs that slow, natural forces--not instantaneous divine ones--drove the development of life. For instance, while simple microbes established themselves quickly in as soon as the Earth cooled enough to sustain oceans, life was stalled there for a 1 billion years. The problem that had to be solved involved energy. Microbes could not produce enough energy for an organism to waste developing cilia or a nervous system or predation. Only when cells learned to capture energy through sunlight and store it in mitochondria, could more complex forms of life developed. Which they did, postehaste.
But where is God in all of this? The creation stories place God in the center of creation, willing its every component and movement. He created light. He caused the seas to separate from land. He caused animal and vegetable life to sprout on the Earth. Science has given God less and less to create, allowing the blind forces of chemistry and physics to shoulder the load. The atheists in the scientific community are crowing, having pushed God off his throne, and off his divine perch as Creator.
What's a believer to do?
It may be that science is doing religion a favor by becoming the chief explainer of the physical world. Religion has only become foolish when insisting it has the chops to explain thunder (the anger of gods), sickness and death (the punishments of God) or cosmic origins (creation stories). It may be that God's working in the physical world are nonexistent, or invisible to us.
But that does give God a rather wide-open field: the moral universe.
Science can inform us about the limits of our will by showing how our minds are subtly influenced by race, gender, appearance. It can provide insights into our sexual behavior by showing the differences between cultural norms or our similarities to other animals. Buts it's hard to see how science can tell us whether love of neighbor should be valued, or under what circumstances. It cannot tell us whether having a preferential option for the poor is good for the soul, even if "soul" cannot be defined.
I am more than willing to cede the entirety of explaining the physical universe to scientists. God knows, religious people have shown themselves unable to be right about anything scientific. And they should stop trying. We have built up a civilization that rides over the top of the physical universe that is
of chemicals, but not subservient to them.Our physical bodies may be clever machines that fall through space in accord with the laws of gravitational physics, but our spirits can still soar and our imaginations take off, contradicting any mere law of physics.
Our encounter with God may no longer be by marvelling at a sunset or enjoy the coolness of a waterfall's spray. but it may still come in the higher and more abstract realms -- where love and truth shall meet and justice and peace shall kiss.