Theology & Science Are Friends: Pope Francis on the Nature of God

Many of my clients, whether Catholic, other Christian or Jewish, are people of faith, and they want to be “good.” We want to follow the teachings of our various religious traditions, but we need these doctrines to make spiritual sense, especially if they require a big commitment and personal sacrifice. I, as a pastoral therapist and lay theologian, am vitally interested in how religious leaders form the moral doctrines they do. I’m thrilled whenever someone like Pope Francis says something that suggests new thinking. Theology is not static, and can evolve, even catch up, and probably even has already surpassed (in many cases), what science knows about Life, the Universe, and Everything. I heard once that science tells how life came about, and religions tell why it did, and for what higher purpose.

Even if you are not interested in cosmology and life’s origins or evolutionary theory of the development of species, if you are a person of faith, you probably are interested in this week’s statements by Pope Francis. He implies we can be “good” people of faith as well as thinking people of faith, who live in the secular, modern world and apply science to explaining our human nature, and theology to how best to live it.

This has become important as many religious institutions have prayerfully and humanely become able to see that homosexual love, like hetero love, needs marriage. Now, as Time magazine recently pitched it, it’s transgender people’s turn to stand at the tipping point. As gender variance and transsexual transition become more familiar and less feared, religion once again will need to turn to science to believe that gender shows variance in the natural world, including human nature. This seems to be theology’s requirement before it can move on to a more gracious teaching on why and for what purpose God makes it so that there are gender-variant people. And that the discordance of gender dysphoria, when it occurs, can be made whole.

Washington Post journalist Ishaan Tharoor this week paraphrased Pope Francis as telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences there was “no contradiction between believing in God as well as the prevailing scientific theories regarding the expansion of our universe.” She quotes him as saying:

When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.

Francis goes on to say about Evolution:

God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.

The wonderful truth is, we do evolve, even within the confines of “internal laws.” Personally, and over the life of our species, we grow and change. The paradox implied in Francis’ two comments, in context, is this: that while we are governed by immutable “internal laws” like mortality and finitude, we are also inspired by divinity, which makes possible our achievement of great things and noble acts of sacrifice and service.

One of the “internal laws” of Western Judeo-Christian theology is that we are made for transcendent yearnings, in other words, for holiness, sanctity and compassion that to evolutionary psychologists are, at their base, merely self-interested acts. Theology says we are designed by our Creator to want to be more than we are, and with grace and human grit, we become more than we ever thought we could be. Gay, Lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should not be told to live as less or other than they are.

Theology’s best teaching, in my opinion, is the awe (in Hebrew yirah, translated as both awe-and-fear), that Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of, at the belief that God wants us to fulfill our longings. We are in awe at our accomplishments as a species and this awe has divine origins. Whether in this life or in an eternal one, our human, spiritual nature makes strenuous efforts to rise up and, along the metaphorical way, open to grace, returning and rejoining with God. All being must return to its Source, as all energy does, like billion-year-old carbon, before Adam was formed from mud. Back to the Garden, back to the Big Bang.

I once told a Jewish studies class of 5th graders, who asked what happens and where we ‘go’ after we die, that it was pretty simple: Just as on the First Day, when God exhaled God’s spirit (breath) out over the void, calling the tohu va vohu[i] into life and Light, so at birth, God breathes a soul into the human being.[ii] At death, I reasoned with the kids, our souls are simply inhaled back into God. I don’t claim to prove this, just to delight in its simplicity and comfort. Religion isn’t about science, but about meaning and spiritual destiny, and our preciousness to God.

It is noteworthy that this Pope repudiates “intelligent design” as pseudo-science. Catholic schools do not teach it. Also, the Church (and at times the shul) as institutionalized religion hasn’t, despite its own self-worship, excommunicated all its scientists (only to reinstate them at a later time, after its theology catches up with the scientific facts). The science building at my Catholic college was named “Mendel Hall,” after Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk and founder of the field of genetics. French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin was excommunicated in the 1950s, and later posthumously celebrated, once the Church realized the value of his theory that all creation develops upward in its potential toward, though never reaching, its fulfillment.

A decade ago, under Pope Benedict’s reign, the Vatican suppressed a ‘secret’ document condemning transsexual surgeries and transition as the morally corrupt result of a disordered psychological (and spiritual?) process, probably due to trauma. Whether this came from any Pontifical Academy of Science or a group of frightened cardinals, it clearly wasn’t based on facts. As the newest edition of the psychiatric “bible,” the DSM-V[iii] points out, what is ‘disordered’ is not patients’ belief that they have a conflict between gender and biological sex. The emotional dysphoria resulting from that mental and physical split makes for the disorder, and it has been proven healable by hormone therapy and surgery. Meanwhile, Scripture says nothing at all about medical and social transition for the purpose of healing and living in the right body.

This is why some of us find that Revelation, though completed, is always heard in new ways by ears that have grown better able to hear its deeper meaning for compassion and love. We can demand that today’s theologians and religious leaders update moral doctrines to befit the facts of life. Theology can regain its respect by learning from science, while continuing to challenge the tendency of science to reduce Life to merely biology, as evolutionary psychologists do.[iv]

Pope Francis seems to trust something about the ethical obligation of pastoral theology to learn from science that his predecessor did not. Although he has not yet addressed gender identity as he has sexual attraction, we sense he can’t avoid it for long. And he has signaled his own scientists that he will not tolerate anything less than honest investigation of what it is to live as a transgender person of faith. people of faith. Perhaps that’s why he appeals to us, heart and mind.

[i] Tohu va vohu: from Jewish sage Rashi, the wonder and astonishment (tohu) one feels when perceiving the emptiness of the void (hohu). In Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s the Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, 2009.
[ii] This is Jewish, not Catholic (and perhaps not mainline Protestant) doctrine, which holds that the human body is en-souled at conception.
[iii] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed, American Psychiatric Assn, 2013.
[iv] Refer to any issue of the pop-science magazine Psychology Today. On the other hand, journals like First Things privilege theological assumptions above biological, psychological and sociological facts when to do so is to stultify its thinking.

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