Theology and the Democracy of the Sciences
John F. Hayward, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, Southern Illinois University
Berry Street Essay, 1984
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
June 25, 1984
In ancient times when art and science were not clearly distinguishable, Aristotle understood theology to be both an art and a science. Moreover, [to] him theology is the imperial Science of all sciences. I too understand theology to be an art and a science, but I give it no kingly position among the other sciences. I believe that the sciences have no king, because they are a democracy with respect to authority. Theology is one citizen in the republic of the arts and sciences.
There may be some question among you concerning the idea and functions of theology. Therefore, I turn to some working definitions. Theology is the attempt to give logical order and consistent applicability to a given heritage of history, symbols, myths and worship which serve to express the ultimate concerns or values within a given group. Traditionally theology rises only in a religion with social organization, including property such as churches or temples. Speaking more liberally, theology is the systematic study of the deepest presuppositions and values of any social group, provided that group has concrete and time-honored ways or expressing their presuppositions and values. Thus there can be a theology of a nation—Russia, Germany, the United States—or of a social system—capitalism, socialism, tribalism—or a cultural institution or enthusiasm—the university, the arts, theater, or sports. Be that as it may, my remarks will deal mostly with traditional religious theology, together with certain theology implicit in Western science.
Traditional Christian theology, because of its monarchial and exclusive claims to truth, is bound to offend all of us to some degree. Christianity, more than Judaism, developed a fanatical need for orthodoxy (literally, for right belief) as a necessary condition for achieving salvation and avoiding eternal damnation. Christianity also became involved in vast economic and political enterprises and was forced to use its orthodoxy as leverage for power, often at the expense of the well-being of its devotees. The need to be absolutely right and the need to use that rightness to defend and enhance wealth and to control governments and armies for its own purposes forced Christianity, for all its original gentleness, humility, and forgiveness, into a posture of monarchial command.
The foregoing observations are truisms which need not be elaborated. What is not so frequently recognized is that the monarchialism of ancient science gradually permeated and further petrified the monarchialism of church theology. What I propose to argue is that Christian theology and medieval science were parallel monarchies, cooperating with each other throughout the Middle Ages; that democratic elements in theology are as old as or older than democratic elements in science, and finally, that modern theology and science have each become fully democratic mainly in this century, including a pluralism of legitimate methods. We know that our age is pluralistic. We hope and trust that its pluralism is salutary. We also hope that we can do our part to prevent theology and the sciences from turning again to monarchial postures.
There is a persistent theme running through this paper, a principle of historiography which I learned from James Luther Adams, although I do not know whether he found or invented the aphorism, namely: "Nothing fails like success.” Beginning with Aristotle I want to trace key points in the history of Western science and show how its great successes also failed. The success of Western science is plain all around us in its progressive transformation of life, generally for the better. Its failure is its monarchialism, its hold, often a stranglehold, on what might have been a more humane development of culture in a technological age and a richer development in scientific methods.
Aristotle was a scientist in the broadest sense of that word. He sought to find the general operating principles and causes of any and every subject. He wanted the true "theory” ("theoria” in Greek) of mice and men, of stars and God. He boldly trusted human reason to achieve his goal or universal truth. For his age, he was both scientist and encyclopedist.
For us the subjects in an encyclopedia are arranged alphabetically, not in order of importance. Or, if we have any hierarchy or truth, we tend to favor empirical, verified knowledge of material things and processes. Aristotle’s hierarchy is the reverse of ours. Practical knowledge of materials, of human trades and skills, lay at the bottom of his scale of values. Knowledge of the heavens and God was the most important. Human ethics and politics were somewhere in between.
Corresponding to this hierarchy of subject matter was a similar hierarchy in method. The senses survey materials and the mind elicits from these surveys more general and abstract pictures of the forms and causes of material things. But when the mind surveys its own abstraction in a logical fashion, it is able to rise from visible to higher but invisible truths. In Aristotle’s scheme, the highest truths are metaphysical, truths which apply to all beings and Being Itself, truths which ultimately refer to the Being of being, the Divine.
So great was Aristotle’s trust in the powers of logical reason (what we would call supra-empirical speculation), that he saw truth as ultimately deductive. Truths about material things, like the materials themselves, must conform and do conform to truths about their invisible causes.
Given this method, what was the shape and nature of Aristotle’s cosmos? At the top is the divine Unmoved Mover. Its basic attribute is wisdom: it thinks about thinking, about its own eternal principles. It does nothing; it is unmoved. But it inspires in all the rest of reality an emulation of its unmoved, immortal perfection. Next below the Unmoved Mover are the celestial spheres. They are concentric, hollow, crystalline, and invisible to the eye, also perfectly spherical. Their nature is to exist eternally and revolve concentrically around the earth in unvarying velocities. In these spheres are set smaller spheres; the stars, sun and moon. The unvarying motion of the heavenly bodies is derived from the unvarying motion of their host spheres. At the center of all this is the earth, heavy with matter, dark within and below, bright above, full of rapid changes between being and non-being, life and death. Each thing derives its energy from the moving spheres. Humanity is caught in this earthy pageant of being, becoming, and non-being, and can rise above it only through rational effort, only by contemplating the invisible and eternal. Salvation is by wisdom.
Thus Aristotle’s highest science was theology. And the achievement of this theological wisdom was for him the highest human fulfillment. Given this value system, one must admire all the more the multiplicity of Aristotle’s treatises on various earth sciences. Yet always one must remember that what he observed and theorized about natural processes had to be deductively in accord with his fundamental theology. Nothing must be allowed to challenge his rational understanding of the Unmoved Mover.
Although Aristotle established a basic cosmological dogma which was to dominate the thinking of the Middle Ages, his authority would never have been thus monarchial without the intervening science of other Greek scientists and later Muslim translators and commentators. From this long history I select two scientists for brief notice.
The first is Euclid, the mathematician of the third century B.C. He is thought to have written a treatise on astronomy, another on optics, possibly another on theory of music. However, his fame rests on his geometry as set forth in a work calledThe Elements. He adopted a fundamentally Aristotelian method of thought. Starting from ultimate, self-evident, rational postulates, he deduced by lo0gical and numerical demonstration, all the theorems of geometric form. The historian of science, George Sarton, describes Euclid’s Elements as the only example of an ancient textbook which is still serviceable. Not until the 19th century did Lobachevsky first demonstrate the possibility of a non-Euclidean geometry.
With Aristotle as the grand model, with Euclid providing appropriate mathematical tools, Ptolemy, the Alexandrian astronomer of the second century A.D., enlarged on the details of the Aristotelian cosmos. Using actual instruments of measurement to aid his prodigious intellect, Ptolemy established that the earth is spherical, that its distances can be measured by a grid of latitudes and longitudes divided into degrees, minutes, and seconds. From these measurements of earth and time proceed his prediction of solar and lunar eclipses, and a catalogue of 1,028 stars with charts of their positions and movements. These findings and much more were compiled in a surviving work of literature with the title Almagest, combining the Arabic definite article, "Al” with the Greek superlative of "great.” In short, Ptolemy’s Almagest, The Greatest, anticipated Muhammad Ali by nearly 23 centuries, deservedly so.
In the high Middle Ages, through the help of translations made from the Arabic of Muslim commentary on ancient Greek science, the Christian world came into possession of the wisdom of the ancients. The theology of the time discovered therein a natural philosophy which perfectly underscored its concept of divine revelation.
Christianity had already located hell at the center of the earth and paradise above the heavens, corresponding to a similar Greek hierarchy of values. The Christian God was an Unmoved Mover, the essence of perfection, governing the world without needing its powers as a complement to its own divine perfection. Humanity lived in the realm of earth, far closer to hell than to heaven, a realm marked by unforeseeable changes, persistent strife, sin, and suffering. Each human soul had a natural knowledge of God’s perfection. Yet, because of the taint of sin in the mind as well as in the body, no human being could fully know God, much less mount on high into his presence, by mere human effort. Only by God’s action through Christ and the church could the gulf between God and humanity be bridged.
Aristotle’s cosmology made an ideal setting for Christian theology, with its qualitative hierarchy of up and down (the Good on high, the Evil below) and its picture of God as the perfect Unmoved Mover. Reaching its climax in St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the church’s theology based itself dogmatically on Aristotelian science, which it accepted as the only true picture of the natural world. Aristotle, aided by Euclid, Ptolemy, and others, thus became the monarch of science. Their method was also monarchial. The truths of nature are found not by careful observation and experiment, but by attending to intellectual definitions and their logical order, or at a lower level, by reading what the ancient authorities taught. Thus medieval science was speculative rather than experimental; and it was also traditional, literary, and fable-ridden, rather than directly observational. Medieval science departed from Aristotle only on the question o human salvation. Salvation was not by wisdom. Here the natural philosopher was helpless but not discredited. Completing the great pyramid of natural knowledge was the climax of divine revelation, coming through Bible and church, and giving to humanity those highest levels of truth which Aristotle had thought to be purely rational. Thus the church completed ancient science in its own Christian revelational mode, all the while depending upon the logic and substance of ancient science for its intellectual foundation. Even portions of the revelational content of medieval theology were thoroughly Greek rather than Hebraic. The idea that God is perfect, unchanging, and unmoved is far more Aristotelian than the picture derived from the Old Testament, where God reacts to human history and frequently changes his mind and purpose. The whole cosmological structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy rests on Aristotle, whom Dante reverently called "the master of them that know.” The scientific monarchy of Aristotle appeared complete.
The dethronement of Aristotle and company was gradual, despite the revolutionary intellectual shocks and throes of the 16th and 17th centuries. First, there was Copernicus.
Ptolemy would have been proud of his admirer, Copernicus, perhaps even after Copernicus had disproved in 1543 Ptolemy’s geocentric theory. In the famous Copernican treatise "On the Revolution of Celestial Orbs,” he carefully considered each proposition of the Almagest of Ptolemy, using it as a foil for his counter-argument. Following a thoroughly Euclidean geometry and without benefit of instrumental observation, Copernicus had the art to make a more satisfactory mathematical description of the planetary orbits largely by doing away with the concentric sphere theory and by locating the sun, statically, at the center of the universe with the planets floating around it. As a mark of Aristotle’s lingering authority, Copernicus retained the sphere of the so-called "fixed stars.” He also retained the notion of the planets as perfect spheres whose orbits were perfect circles. However, Copernicus launched out into a partially new theory, namely, that the order of the heavens was not due to their celestial proximity with perfect divinity, but rather to a divinely given law of gravity, or in his own words
Gravity is but a natural inclination, bestowed on the parts of bodies by the creator, in order to combine the parts in the form of a sphere and thus contribute to their unity and integrity. And we may believe this property present even in the sun, moon, and planets.
Thus the pious assumption of a medieval Christian, endowing gravity with divine significance, opened the door of intellectual change to the revolutions of the 17th century. However, the major revolution to challenge Aristotelian science was still to come.
In 1609 the Dutch invented the telescope and soon thereafter, Galileo used it to prove that the moon and planets are not perfect spheres and are of a substance similar to the earth’s. His telescope also showed him the moons of Jupiter. Although Galileo’s heresy, for which he was tried by the church, was his believe that the earth turns on its axis, his demystification of the heavens by his denial of the geometric perfection of the heavenly bodies was also a serious threat to Christian cosmological dogma. The church trembled with anxiety over the new idea that the universe is no longer a hierarchy of creations having progressively greater value as they approached the throne of God. Orthodoxy should have been even more alarmed as the habit of empirical and experimental verification slowly came to birth, in which all substances were to be understood by observation of their mechanical causes rather than by reasoning from inherent, divinely given potentialities. I believe that Christianity failed to halt the growth of modern science not because the church lacked the power, but because it did not adequately understand what threatened them until it was too late, too far into the Reformation, to do anything about it.
The details of this quiet but growing scientific revolution would constitute the major subject of any history of science from the 17th century to the present, too much for this essay. I will therefore confine my remarks to the most pivotal figure in the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton, showing how he successfully challenged the ancient monarchy of science, only to set up a new monarchy. Then I shall proceed to our own century, giving account, so far as I am able, of what I see as the current non-Newtonian democracy of the sciences.
I am describing Newton as a pivotal figure because he combined the best features of Aristotelian scientific artistry with the rising habit of direct observation and concrete experiment. Like Aristotle he had a metaphysical drive to connect all phenomena to a single basic cause for their motion and energy. Unlike Aristotle he achieved this result in part by the use of experiments conducted by contemporaries or near predecessors and principally by a formidable mathematical skill unknown to the ancient world. In 1666 he began his study of the hypothesis of the sun’s gravitational pull. Twenty years later, in 1686, he began writing his findings in a work called Principia Mathematica. He completed this task in only eighteen months. Given the experiments of other scholars whose results he used, this work is largely deductive, a creation of Newton’s own scientific artistry, fortified by mathematical proof. His findings and their proofs were astonishing to his colleagues in the Royal Society. He proved: (1) all bodies great and small have attraction for one another by the force of gravity, a power proportional to their relative mass and to the inverse square of the distance between them; (2) in the case of smaller bodies revolving around larger bodies, the pull of gravity is balanced with the pull of inertia, such that the smaller body neither falls into the larger body nor flies away from it, but maintains a geometrically calculable orbit; (3) small bodies consist of the bonding of minute particles which respond to the same forces of gravity and inertia. In short, gravity confers both the unity and energy of the universe.
Newton was responsible for many other scientific principles, notably his analysis of the sources of color in white light achieved by actual experiment and published in 1704 in his Optiks. Jacob Bronowski praises the Optiks for its experimental precision, but his no less impressed by the speculative artistry and mathematical precisions of the Principia. This is why I maintain that Newton is the pivot point between Aristotelian monarchical science and an essentially new approach to science as it is now understood. Newton was so successful in his defeat of the scientific monarchy of Aristotle that his unknowingly established a new monarchy in his own name, a rule destined to last for 200 years.
Before leaving Newton, I wish to note that he was a reasonably devout Anglican. He made no claim to understand how gravity came into being and operation, preferring rather to assert that God was the ultimate designer and creator of the whole system. To some people, including Newton, his discoveries were evidence that science and religion could be neatly harmonized, assuming that God provided the physical ultimates, while scientists describe their workings and relationships empirically and mathematically.
But to others, especially those continental Europeans who had a more advanced mathematical skill than Newton’s English colleagues, Newton’s genius opened the door to atheism. One example of this trend is the great French mathematician, La Place. In a book called Celestial Mechanics, he used Newton’s methods to account for small variations in planetary movements. This raised the question as to whether the planetary balance might not eventually fall into chaos. When Napoleon asked La Place why he had not mentioned God in Celestial Mechanics, the scientist replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis.” This reflected La Place’s supreme confidence that science is sufficient to account for all apparent irregularities in nature, that science was moving toward the goal of describing by experimental and mathematical means a purely harmonious and godless universe. La Place became famous as believing that given enough time and experiment, science would be able to predict from present mass and motion of particles, the total future of all masses and motions.
This confidence in absolute knowledge through science constituted a metaphysical postulate which has dominated much of physical science from Newton through the 19th century and, in some popular thinking among liberals, it dominates right down to the present. While La Place made no claim as to when and how his prophecy might be fulfilled, he believed it possible in principle. The consequences of such a postulate were monarchial with respect to scientific method: namely that reality exists in one fixed time and space; that its changes are subject to one overarching set of laws; that its movements are the linear result of given mechanical effects arising from given mechanical causes; that freedom and randomicity are illusions; that everything is determined by laws, which are all ultimately accessible to science.
Given La Place’s faith in science, especially a science which depends upon verifiable experiment, we can understand a sequence of scientific discovery by the Darwin family. Charles Darwin’s grandfather had proposed the theory that different animal species are derived from common ancestors through a long and gradual change. But not until the observations and experiments of the grandson had taken place, did the scientific community begin to accept this hypothesis. The first two centuries that followed Newton were increasingly frozen under the rule of mechanical cause and effect, a rule dominated by physical experiment and measured by quantifiable results. Would the social sciences, history, psychology, arts and letters, even philosophy and religion become subject to this monarchial authority of method? It looked that way.
However, from the opening of the 20th century, beginning with Albert Einstein, the nature and role of natural science and the extent of its authority have undergone considerable reexamination.
Einstein discovered that space and time are relative to each other, so that there is no one absolute linear time in the universe no single here and now, and therefore no prediction of a single future. Thereby, he cleared the way for the theory that science is in part relative to and created by the here and now of the individual scientist. He opened the door to a pluralism of scientific analysis, even though he personally continued to hold to the ancient piety that God does not play dice, that is, things do not happen by chance. Max Planck, also in the first decade of the 20th century, gave birth to quantum mechanics in which the electron is described as a particle, a quantum or given quantity of energy. Werner Heisenberg proved that if one determines the position of an electron, one cannot in principle predict its speed or track of motion; or vice versa, if the motion is plotted, no one position can be predicted. It is now generally accepted that this Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is an ultimate barrier to the so-called Law of Determinism. The universe is both lawful and random in principle.
Determinists are quick to argue that the Uncertainty Principle applies only to the smallest particles, but that the larger phenomena of nature and humanity are still subject to prediction, in which the greater the sampling, the more accurate the probabilities. Jacob Bronowski replies, yes, but we cannot forget that all large phenomena depend on the smallest phenomena. Therefore, the authority of probable predictions can never wipe out the randomicity in large events, especially the randomicity in any one large event which might fall on the unexpected side of what is predicted as probable.
To those who like to emphasize the goal of science as prediction, I would like to add a further qualification which I remember from graduate student days in a class under Charles Hartshorne. Professor Hartshorne drew a circle on the blackboard and asked us to agree that the circle’s inner space should represent what is now known about a given subject by a given science, any science. Everything outside that circle is a mystery. He added ten dots equally spaced around the circumferences of the circle, describing these dots as the particularly new findings and new questions of that science. He then drew a larger concentric circle around the first, assuming successful answers to the first ten questions. On the larger circle (larger because the fund of knowledge within his hypothetical science had not increased), he placed twenty dots, new answers, new questions, claiming that the new questions were possible only after the achievement of the previous answers. Then he arrived at a logical conclusion. First, and more obvious, the more science knows, the more it wonders and wants to know, moving from the declarative mood to the interrogative. Second, and less obvious, the more science knows, the greater the circle and the number of options for human action. This increase in options makes it less certain what any one person or group will choose to do or emphasize at any one time, thus rendering the human future less predictable. Conclusion: The more successful science becomes, the less predictable will be the human future. If the goal of science is prediction, then "Nothing fails like success.” In that very moment my 18th- and 19th-century dream of a world made progressively more nearly perfect by education and rationality fell under serious question. Gone was the motto of my childhood Unitarian Church: "the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” The sciences took their place among all human endeavors, a place of qualitative ambiguity, of evil coming out of good as well as vice versa, of the changing of everything good into bad and of bad into good, as Emerson so magnificently demonstrates in his essay, "Compensation.” Or going much further back, I found myself in the pages of Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens.”
Yet even before that fateful day in my intellectual life, I had already glimpsed its truth. In 1941 during my first year as a student at Meadville Theological School, I was invited to preach the initial sermon of my life at First Unitarian Church of Chicago in a service with Von Ogden Vogt of blessed memory. My topic was, "With Freedom and Justice for All.” My question was, How can all men (and now I would add, all women) be created equal, given the varieties of human talent or lack of talent? My answer: all people are equal only in the fact of their fallibility and therefore their need for one another’s help. Here I had based democracy on a negative principle. We are equal not as gods or geniuses are equal, but as living, achieving, failing, sinning, dying organisms are equal. Even in our greatest successes, the law of compensation will compel our ultimate sense of equality. It has taken me time, as some of my former students will attest, to catch up in action with that so very youthful insight.
Let me now summarize my conception of the democracy of the sciences. Primarily it involves the principle that there cannot be a single, progressively agreed-upon theory of reality. As science progresses, reality appears more complex and less unitary. Secondly, science must settle for a democracy of method. What is suitable procedure for physics and chemistry will not always fit history, literary criticism, law, medicine, psychology, the arts, or theology. Thirdly, as science progresses it will continually have to alternate between so narrow a specialization as to be useless for moth human purposes or so broad and synthetic a perspective as to lack the highest precision of analysis. Overall, I am maintaining that the arts and sciences belong in mutual democratic endeavor, that neither should disenfranchise the other with respect to truth.
My remaining task is to show theology’s place in the democracy of the sciences. It goes without saying that theology must forever abandon its classical authoritarianism. Also there is no place for its current fanatical forms among some Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jewish and Christian fundamentalists.
The theology I have come to know in the university and in mainline churches and synagogues has won its place within the democracy of the sciences. Theology not only makes use of many sciences; it is also tentative and pluralistic in its conclusions. Modern theology recognizes that its scope is on the one hand limited to the data of a given faith and on the other hand broadened by perspectives lying outside its traditional boundaries. Furthermore, in moving to a more universal perspective of the human condition, all of us, theologians, theologian-ministers, ministers, theologian-laity, and laity per se—all of us should by now be familiar with the evidence that human life and the human future are fundamentally ambiguous and paradoxical. Love and hate, courage and cowardice, harmony and dissonance, pride and humility, so on and so forth, are all powers which intermingle and breed each other. Success succeeds and success fails. Failure succeeds and failure leads to greater failure.
It is my contention that as of the present era, the arts and theology do a better job at symbolizing the experienced reality of ambiguity and paradox than science does. I predict that while science should continue to reduce paradox to simple declarations wherever it can legitimately do so, science must eventually also add to our understanding of the inherent principles of paradox in human experience. In this regard psychiatric science is leading the way. In his bookReligion Without Revelation, the biologist Julian Huxley charges science with the task of expressing and interpreting two basic human experiences; the sense of the inherent sacredness of reality and the sense of its ultimate mystery. The more science is content merely to try to tidy up what all of us know to be inherently if partially chaotic, the more it misses its goal of adequate description and adequate prediction.
Turning again to art and theology, let me illustrate their powers to symbolize paradox in two media, a work of visual art and a work of theological literature. My visual art example is Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night, the original of which is held in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Van Gogh is the only artist I know who dared look directly at the sun, moon, and stars as they appeared to his experience. Most artists, like most scientists, endlessly explore the effects of light. What other artist looks to its source?
Almost two-thirds of the upper portion of the painting is a view of the night sky. To the upper right, sun and moon are superimposed without either eclipsing the other. Everywhere else the stars have enormous coronas which flow from one star to another like vast silver and gold winds of light. Bordering the lower third of the picture, one sees some low mountains and below them, a tiny village with a few faintly lighted windows. The heavens seem to declare the glory of God and to shed an unearthly radiance on the sleeping village. The currents of heavenly light also mingle in a great clock-wise circle which joins with the mountains and environing trees to engulf the village. In one painting, Van Gogh has echoed the glory of the heavens and the Voice out of the Whirlwind in the Book of Job, depicting with utmost vigor the paradoxical splendor and terror of existence—that same splendor and terror which were so fatally mingled in the mind of the artist.
My literary example of the expression of ambiguity and paradox is familiar, the story in Genesis 2 and 3 of Adam and Eve. I will not analyze the text directly. Rather I will detail for you a few of the ancient responses culled from Talmudic commentary and interpreted by the novelist and essayist, Elie Wiesel, in his book, Messengers of God. Wiesel does theology in a Talmudic style, enhanced by his sophisticated familiarity with modern art and science. What follows is an adaptation of Wiesel’s method in Messengers of God, Chapter 1, either by paraphrase or direct quotation, plus certain glosses of my own reasoning.
Adam, the first man, is in God’s image, superior to us all. Yet, unlike us, Adam has no past, no memories to lean on and comfort him, no depth of human struggle to enliven his own struggle after the fall. Wiesel adds: "He wasn’t even Jewish.” After the fall, Adam had to wrestle with every human complex, inhibition, and mania "with one exception: the Oedipus complex, thank heaven.” Wiesel adds: "Born to affirm God’s glory, Adam became the incarnation of His first defeat.” Why was Adam created last on the sixth day? One answer: Man is creation’s guest of honor, for whom the world had to be fully and beautifully prepared. A second answer: Many should not boast; even the mosquitoes preceded him in the order of creation. Adam was filled with and dominated by God; he was waited on hand and foot by angels. Conclusion: He became thoroughly and desperately bored. The only thing that could really excite him was something forbidden.
Why was Eve created? To create a marriage, one of the chief functions of which is to prevent a husband from imagining he is God. Another answer: she was so much more beautiful than Adam that he became weak in her presence and he could not say no when she invited him to rebellion. You see, that marriage was never really as perfect as later piety supposed it to bed. Enter the serpent. When a third reality comes into any married couple’s life, they must for the first time make independent choices and thus get over their early infatuation with each other alone. Is Eve the real villain of the piece? Some sages say yes: she ought to know better than to talk to a serpent who is an angel in disguise, especially about theology. Didn’t the serpent know that sin would interest her more than it would Adam? And once she had eaten and knew she must die, she was jealous of Adam’s immortality and had to drag him down with her. Other sages blame Adam for the fall, rather than Eve. Where was Adam while his whole world was simmering toward a volcanic eruption? Picking berries? Going swimming? Just plain asleep? Why are men so weak and perversely obtuse about the onset of danger? Anyway, it took a skillful angel to seduce Eve to sin. It took more than a mortal woman to seduce Adam. She had the brains of the two, yes, and the power. Besides, what would humanity bed, the Talmud asks, without knowledge? What good is sinlessness if it is combined with ignorance? Eve first, not Adam, had the courage to take the risk of knowledge. She first also took the risk of freedom, in contrast to a merely comfortable bondage. What was their punishment? To see that the alternation of glory and sin is the fate of all their mortal descendents. Never again would there be perfect union with God, but always union and estrangement, virtue and sin, faith and doubt, judgment and—what is sometimes harder to accept than judgment—forgiveness. What is their glory? Not that they were the beginning of humanity—that they couldn’t help—but, having been expelled from paradise, they learned how to teach their sons and daughters to begin again, and yet again. For just as death is in the midst of life, so in death there is always life.
The scholars who finally wrote and compiled the vast rabbinic oral tradition into the many volumes of the Talmud were men of high intelligence, skilled in observation, logic, and reasoning. Theirs was the science of their day and their people. And the science of our day has no business being scornful and sarcastic of their intelligence of their methods. They were forerunners of the most skillful literary criticism. They knew how to analyze words in minute detail, how to think in long chains of logic, high in tensile strength and complex in paradoxical texture. Above all, within the borders of their science they were intensely democratic. They preserved questions like jewels, recognizing that the essence of humanity is to follow every answer with another question. They worked on an economy of abundance: in matters concerning human nature and destiny it is better to preserve many answers rather than settle for one. For is not life itself manifold and ambiguous, requiring many options rather than enslavement to one?
Criticism in the arts, letters, and theater must work within a similar economy of abundance. There is no one way to play Shakespeare, despite the need to discover the most nearly accurate text as possible, as well as the need to understand the differences between Shakespeare’s world and ours. The study of history shares the same need for an abundant interpretation of the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of human life. Although sociology and economics must be as exact as possible in their statistics, the projection of decisions for social and economic policy must remain open, various, in short, democratic. What is democracy but the realization that every discovery, every decision is not the end of questioning, but a door opening on new questions not yet formulated?
Again, I assert that the arts are the prime expressers of human ambiguity. So also should religion be. And if religion is that way, theology, the logic and systematic of religion, must make similar allowances for its data.
Generally, the sciences which seek precision and exactness must live in an economy of scarcity. No truth shall be saved if it displays so much as one exception. But any science which recognizes diversity and ambiguity must preserve any truth that correlates with some aspect of human experience; and that science should never degenerate into a foolish consistency. Perhaps correlation is a better code-word for theological truth than verification. The theologian, Paul Tillich, used what he called "the method of correlation” as his description of the method of theology. He observed that we belong to the world and therefore we are able to ask questions about the world and ourselves. But, we are also estranged from the world and therefore we must ask questions about the world, ourselves, our relationships to the world and to each other. We can find answers and we must be mystified and ask further questions. Whenever a question we ask correlates with an image, symbol, story, or answer found in a religious tradition, it is the task of theology to present and illumine that correlation so far as possible. Because of the world’s paradoxical complexity and ambiguity, no one answer will fully suffice; every answer will carry its quota of doubt; and the questioning will or should continue despite the brilliance and authority of previous correlations of questions and answers.
To my mind, this is the spirit of science in the full range of its great tradition. To the sensitive reader, the Bible, Home, Dante, Shakespeare, or the writings of great statesmen like Lincoln and Gandhi are far more redolent with questions than with answers. And this is true because answers are as much the parents of questions as vice versa. The alternation of answer and question, based on the democracy of the sciences, is the most nearly absolute truth we have about human life.
Perhaps some of you will be saddened by this judgment. In one respect I am. Is there never any unambiguous fulfillment, never any wholehearted yes, never any vision of eternity in the otherwise gray ambiguous journey from cradle to grave? Even that question can be answered and has often been answered with a yes or a no.
As my closing word for this essay, I will leave you with my own yes in answer to that question. I give it to you as a product of my own experience, not as a gesture of compulsion toward any of you. For me, the most fulfilling, least ambiguous thought, feeling, emotion, and impulse of my life is gratitude. What has so far most effectively helped me to heal endured paradoxes of good and evil, joy and grief, is the overwhelming conviction of thanksgiving for the gift of life itself. It is a gift I never could have anticipated, never contrived, and never deserved. Yet there it is. And without let or hindrance I have to say "Hallelujah! God be praised!” Or sometimes I simply acknowledge that I have been lucky. I use either phrase with full consent and am not critical or jealous of those who choose one or the other phrase: "Thank God” or "Good Luck.”
Of course there is always the question, will I be able to thank God or think of good luck if and when my luck, like my life, runs totally out? Who knows? That is why my deepest hope is to be able to have at least one brain cell capable of giving thanks to the very end, a hope for which there is no assured answer now. That hope, that resolve is echoed in the last section of Psalm 104: "I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.” Beyond the limits of life the great mystery perpetually remains.
It touched my heart deeply when I read the ending of one of Peter Fleck’s beautiful sermons in his book, The Mask of Religion. He writes:
Sermonizers…assume that the pilgrims were thankful for having survived. It seems to me that they were able to survive because they were thankful.