Misapprehensions of Reality
Ever since I participated as a witness in the creationist trial in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1981, the relations of religion and science to each other, on the one hand, and of both to a beleaguered and endangered nature, on the other, have been my nearly constant focus through speeches, articles, and even a book. But that controversy over "creationist law" was important to me not because it meant the advent of a new lecture circuit but because it made two things evident.
First, a purely "religious" apprehension of nature, viod of any influence of the scientific understanding of nature, is indefensible. Such a view is utterly antithetical to almost all that modern inquiry and modern life "know' about the nature around us. And as Western history shows, such a purely "religious" interpretation, at least in the Christian tradition, leaves nature empty of real significance, a mere stage provided for the human drama with God but a realm lacking in reality or value for itself.
Second, a purely "scientific" apprehension of nature, void of any influence of the religious understanding of nature, is equally indefensible. This side, also presented at the creationist trial, is thoroughly dominant in our culture. It won the day in court but may in its own way be helping to lose the struggle to save our natural environment. This "scientific" or "empiricist" understanding of nature is precisely what the physical sciences, especially physics and chemistry, say about nature, namely, that it is an objective, causally determined realm of external relations, of matter--energy in motin, mindlessly hurrying here and there--a realm as void of meanings as it is of any trace of inwardness. So thoroughly objectified, nature is made ready, as Herbert Marcuse said, to become mere raw material for our use, an object of dubious human purposes.
Centrally, this book is about nature. Yet, because physical science is, for us moderns, the main avenue into understanding and so into knowing nature, this book is also about science and nature. And because I am a theologian and hence a student of religion, this book finally concerns itself with some (but not all) of the many human "religious" apprehensions of nature. The themes that course through this book, therefore, concern nature; the scientific knowledge of nature; and religous, especially archaic religious apprehensions or intuitions of nature.
The search here is for some deeper understanding of reality of nature. This search is motivated by the conviction that through both scientific understanding and religious apprehension tell us much of this reality, neither science nor religious apprehension alone can provide us with a definitive or exhaustive understainding of nature's power, creativity, and mystery. Nevertheless, both science and religion--the cognitive par excellence and the intuitive--represent authentic expressions of the human response to nature. Hence scientific knowing and religious sensibility may, if taken together, usher us into a new "knowing" of natural process and a new sense of nature's reality in itself, valued for itself.
The discussion unfolds on three levels. First, I broach the subject of the knowledge of nature. This is the fundamental issue, because what we humans think that we know of any object determines for us what we believe its reality to be. A religious knowing of nature that ignores or even counters a scientific understanding (the Creationist view) is briefly discussed and rejected. The burden of Part One is devoted to creationism's opposite, that is, the scientific realism, empiricism, or positivism that claims (1)that science alone knows anything of nature's reality and (2) that nature is precisely and exhaustively as science describes it. Part One, then, is composed of a critical examination of thsese claims and an attempt to provide a more intelligible, coherent, and inclusive interpretation of scientific knowing, namely, a form of critical realism.
Part Two continues these reflections by juxtaposing what modern science says about nature with what primal religion apprehended of nature. In principle and with great profit, other nonscientific apprehensions, or intuitions, of nature could be analyzed and juxtaposed to a scientific understanding: common experience of nature, the visual arts, literature, philosophy--all represents ways through which nature has disclosed itself to humans. Anyalyses of these modes of apprehension of nature could, like primal religion, serve to enrich our understanding of nature's reality, were they also correlated in some systematic way with modern scientific understanding.
Part Three broaches the question of the religious dimension of nature. Is such a dimension possible in our modern encounter with nature? This dimension was available to primal religion and for nearly all the archaic religion that preceded modern life. Is the religious dimension, which might be termed the "sacred" in nature, still present in any way? If so, what are its forms in a scientific age, that is, in a civilization were the scientific understanding of nature (within limits) is also affirmed and the technological manipulation of nature (possibly within stricter limits!) is also accepted?