On science and the sacred

A colorized image of dust as seen through an electron microscope, including strands of fibers and some things with tentacles!
Dust, through an electron microscope.

In a comment on Fritz Bauerschmitz article a month ago on scientific language in prayers, my friend Michelle Francl challenged us,

Why shouldn’t the poetry of our liturgical language reflect the fullness of the world — in which scientists are not evil figures in secret labs hidden in volcanic craters, but in which discovering the world around us, they not only discover God, but point Him out to the rest of us?

As she pointed out, as well as a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College, Michelle is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Vatican Observatory, “a not-so-secret lab in a volcanic crater,” where liturgies are regularly celebrated by Catholics who are suffused both with a scientific worldview and with faith.

A week later, Michelle posted a longer response on Quantum Theology, her theological blog, articulating her scientific reverence for the created world and her faithful gratitude for the scientists who study it:

May we pray for “scientists,” but not for “computational chemists,” or for “galaxies” but not “Bose-Einstein condensates”?  On the telescope domes atop the old papal summer palace are inscribed the words, Deum creatorem venite adoremus, come adore God the Creator.  The laws of physics are as much God’s creation as the dewfall.  Dew and rain, bless the Lord.  Bosons and fermions, bless the Lord, too.

Science is not a merely secular pursuit, I would argue it’s very much a dialog with God about creation.  In that sense, it’s prayer.  Contemplative prayer.

Before I became a theologian, I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics and chemistry. Photons, oxidation-reduction reactions, and enzymes evoke more wonder for me than do rainbows. (Actually, in my one class on quantum physics, the Schrödinger equation caused me more wonder, and more difficulty, than anything else I’ve studied except Galois theory, otherwise known as the most tragic result in mathematics. My favorite chemistry was organic and inorganic, which rely more on geometry than differential equations.)

It seems to me that if scientific language feels irreverent and laughable in our prayer, it might be because it isn’t our native language as it is the scientists of the Vatican Observatory. But then we have a problem, because scientific language is the native vocabulary of most educated laypersons. In general, Americans have studied science and are comfortable speaking of ecosystems and atoms; they have generally not studied theology and may not be comfortable speaking of dewfall and angels. Recovering our shared Biblical imagination is only a partial solution; we also need to infuse the scientific world with our faith and gratitude to its creator.

In this respect, we would do well to listen to Michelle and to Guy Consolmagno and our other faithful scientists. As she promised, Michelle finished a book this week and returned to the question of science and prayer. In an essay for Ignatian Spirituality on dusting her office, she demonstrates how science can infuse the ordinary with sacramental, cosmological, and theological meaning:

As the dust flies, my mind drifts back to a walk along the Irish cliffs, the waves pounding so hard against the rocks the water is ground into a mist, the salty crystals of which I’d wipe from my glasses hours later….

Nelson’s poem—and my dusty office—reminds me that the unpolished and ordinary is cloaked in the extraordinary. Even as I settle back into my everyday life, in that dust, tiny tokens of the universe have settled into my office. Should I be able to sort through the motes, I expect I would find fragments brushed from the cliffs in Ireland, blown into the air by storms in the Pacific, and burnt off comets that blundered into Earth’s atmosphere. Crumbs of the infinite lie scattered across my desk. I’m suddenly hesitant to pick up my dust rag and wipe it all away.

Just as a telescope can turn reddish-white light into a message from an unimaginably large planet with four – no, five – no, thirteen – now 67 moons, a microscope can turn the mundane irritation of dust into tidings from the world across the seas and across the centuries. As liturgy proclaims the infinite in the infinitesimal, so too can science. Come, let us worship.

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25 comments

  1. “But then we have a problem, because scientific language is the native vocabulary of most educated laypersons.”

    Really? Interesting. What about the under-educated ones? Migrants and immigrants from countries who don’t or barely speak English and are fast making up the bulk of church going Roman Catholics?

    I think that your average John or Mary Roman Catholic would be perplexed if scientific language was incorporated into the prayers of the Mass, and for those who did use it in their job, career, or vocation, they’d find it amusing. I don’t think that anyone comes to church expecting to hear about physics or bosons and fermions but they do expect to hear about angels and nature, even the dewfall, blessing the Lord. And they don’t have to be a scientist or a professional churchman to understand that.

    1. @John Kohanski:
      It’s not all angels and dewfall in the current configuration, since we use technical theological language like “prevenient” in the current translation. I don’t think that anyone was worried about people with limited English language facility or education in that context. (I’m not arguing that one shouldn’t, just raising a counterexample.)

      1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay:
        I get that. I really do. Some of the language in the new English translation is way above some people’s education level. And that is a real problem. But come on, Kim’s statement: “But then we have a problem, because scientific language is the native vocabulary of most educated laypersons.” Really? That’s a privileged, first world problem of an elite few.

        Will adding scientific language (or that of other modern vocations) to prayers make the Mass more inclusive and relevant?

      2. @John Kohanski:
        Kim went farther than I would regarding the language, but I do think there are ways to make the imagery accessible without needing to much familarity with “science.” For me the question is should we (somewhere in the Church’s public prayer) access a broader array of images of the created world. It’s not about “modern” vocations, but about a particular way to see God at work that we should not push out the door because it’s nerdy or uses a difficult and peculiar vocabulary.

        Secondarily, it’s a question about the level of language in the liturgy and presumed knowledge base. Where to draw the line? At the 1000 most common words? No education, some education? What imagery is allowed inside the walls of the liturgy and where? We use a lot of language pulled from the military and royal courts that might not be familiar to many groups, too, if that is OK, why is not with science?

        I’m working on a talk for a few weeks hence on “science is not a synonym” for secular, so the conversation here is a help in sharpening what I will say, thanks!

      3. @John Kohanski:
        Hello, John. It looks like you’re new here. Welcome to PrayTell.

        I commend your interest in the liturgical participation of migrants and immigrants. Of course, it’s important that we be careful about how we think about these marginalized persons. Not being a native English speaker is far from the same as being uneducated. In many cases, liturgy in other languages would be more appropriate than changing an English translation to serve an immigrant population. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/05/todays-newly-arrived-immigrants-are-the-best-educated-ever/ Second generation immigrants are even less likely to be under the average level of education.

        The topic of this post wasn’t liturgical language, though; it was the attitude of the theologically educated towards scientific language. Many find it inherently secular and even laughable. I argued that if we read Christian scientists’ writing, we may learn that it can be a path towards knowledge of God, or even a form of contemplative prayer: “we would do well to listen to Michelle and to Guy Consolmagno and our other faithful scientists [because] science can infuse the ordinary with sacramental, cosmological, and theological meaning.” The question of what liturgists do with such insight once we have it is another question, but getting beyond discomfort is a start.

        On the topic of “the educated layperson” (not “the most educated”) – that is generally the level at which newspapers are written – taken to be somewhere in the middle of a high school education. And our public school curriculum up to that point has taught lots of science, but no theology. Hence my call not to avoid the world as painted by science, but to reenchant it with wonder.

        Let’s imagine two DACA Dreamers, children of migrant workers, students at Notre Dame. One is studying science; one theology. All I’m asking is that they both be recognized as heirs to the Catholic tradition of reverence for creation and the Creator.

  2. Maybe more visual art. Check select illuminations in the St John’s Bible. My home diocese painted the ceiling of its renovated Eucharistic chapel with stars as they would have been seen the night of the original cathedral dedication in 1868.

  3. Thought provoking post, Kim. Makes me think about The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe in a whole new way!

  4. Kim’s post recalled 2 texts, Herbert Brokering’s “Earth and All Stars” and Paul Winter’s “The Blue-Green Hills of Earth.” These are not “science” hymns as such, but they do present images of science, space, and the planet Earth that would not have been part of the human imagination in Biblical times.

    As for liturgical texts, I would think more atoms, comets, plankton, lava, engines, and silicon chips, and perhaps not so much supercolliders, ergosphere, cryovulcanism, or sexual dimorphism.

  5. As someone who reads of lot of (non-mathematical) science books, from Steven Gould to John McPhee (his geology quartet in particular) and Brian Greene and many others, I agree with the tenor of Kimberley’s post. Except the bit about scientific language being the native language of the “most educated” laypersons. Really? This is a prevalent assumption that I think can be damaging. I heard a scientist on the radio the other day who claimed that there is no such thing as nature, it’s all just instrumental ‘stuff’ to be manipulated as scientists will in order to engineer, in his example, gene altered species. In short, there’s nothing sacred about nature to keep him and others from engineering a replacement in the human image. I submit that poets, philosophers, theologians and ethicists who are, in fact, quite well educated might have something to say about this. But everyone defers to the self proclaimed ‘best minds’. Nuclear bombs? Hey, what could go wrong?

    Richard Dawkins is, umm, quite a character.I have to go to Compline soon so I can’t go on about him, but I think that his whole debate with religion is instructive about a certain kind of scientific thinking that is potentially nihilistic.

    Kimberley is herself a theologian. I bet that she doesn’t actually defer to the scientists in all matters. That said, I agree whole-heartedly with the notion that science can reveal the workings of what remains a sacred creation.

    1. @jeff armbruster:
      There may be more people in a middle-class American congregation who understand binary and coding than more classical scientific disciplines. Some argue that a failure to be proficient in coding is to make one illiterate by modern standards.

  6. I live in Berkeley, so yeah I know about this attitude. Look, maybe you can explain to me how coding will lead us to a better understanding of justice, or love, or hatred for that matter. Or ethics. Actually, coding has nothing to say about these and other vital things. My impression is that the coders, who live a privileged existence financially speaking in my area, see no need to explore the other areas of knowledge that used to be considered basic. Coding has replaced Aeschylus. It’s a complicated topic, but I don’t see this as an entirely good thing.

  7. Re: scientific language

    I believe the conversation on this topic has fallen into proof texting, as the relevant sentence has been taken out of the context of the paragraph in which it occurs.

    It seems to me that the point being made is that, among educated persons, scientific language is more familiar than theological language and that, therefore, prayers that recognize our Creator God in “ecosystems and atoms” may help such persons to connect their faith to the scientific world that they have studied since grade school.

    In fact, using more of the language of science (as studied in elementary and secondary school) in our liturgical prayer might help young people to better appreciate that the two are linked together, not in opposition to each other – thereby lessening the likelihood of them “losing their faith,” as Msgr. Mannion discussed back in September.

  8. It is good to remember that our liturgical prayer is not constituted only of official texts – we also can benefit greatly from including the wisdom and beauty of poets and musicians in well-crafted liturgical song, which can incorporate wonderful reflections on aspects of creation that intrigue and feed the liturgical and spiritual imagination in multiple ways.

    Australian writing pair composer Richard Connolly (1927 – ) and poet James McAuley (1917-1976) combined their great talents to produce a hymn of cosmic praise which engages beautifully some of the ideas Kim has raised in her post. This wonderful congregational hymn was created way back in 1976. Its poetry still resonates today, and even mentions diatoms(!) (along with a few subtle Australian allusions). (Willow Publishing, PO Box 288, Brookvale NSW 2100, Australia)

    Sing a New Song (Cosmic Praise)
    Tune: Richard Connolly, Text: James McAuley

    R: Sing a new song, sing a new song, and wait upon the promise of the Lord.

    Creation sings a new song to the Lord, the universal energies rejoice,
    through all the magnitudes of space and time, creatures proclaim the grandeur of God. R.

    The mountains and the valleys and the plains, the cattle and the wild beasts and the birds,
    the shadows and the clouds, the rain and snow, praise and reflect the bounty of Christ. R.

    The ocean deeps, the currents and the tides, the diatoms, the fishes and the whale,
    the storm, the reef, the water-spout the calm, praise and reflect the wonder of Christ. R.

    The fruit trees in their seasons and the vine, the eucalypt the cedar and the palm,
    The storm, the reef, the water-spout, the calm, praise and reflect the wonder of Christ. R.

    The eye of man, the shaping hand, the mind, with number and with symbol and design,
    In work and play and artistry and prayer, praise and reflect the wisdom of Christ. R.

    The love of man and woman clear as dawn, the will for truth and justice broad as day,
    The wisdom of the heart, profound as night, praise and reflect the glory…

  9. Jeff Rexhausen : Re: scientific language I believe the conversation on this topic has fallen into proof texting, as the relevant sentence has been taken out of the context of the paragraph in which it occurs. It seems to me that the point being made is that, among educated persons, scientific language is more familiar than theological language and that, therefore, prayers that recognize our Creator God in “ecosystems and atoms” may help such persons to connect their faith to the scientific world that they have studied since grade school. In fact, using more of the language of science (as studied in elementary and secondary school) in our liturgical prayer might help young people to better appreciate that the two are linked together, not in opposition to each other – thereby lessening the likelihood of them “losing their faith,” as Msgr. Mannion discussed back in September.

    Well put; I couldn’t agree more. sorry if I went off on a tangent.

  10. Kim, I have to admit I am a little confused about what the issue is here. What evidence do we have that theologically educated people find scientific knowledge laughable, aside from the possibility that words belonging to a specific scientific discipline seem to them out of place in our common (liturgical) prayer? Surely no one has suggested setting limits on personal prayer?

    I think there is a difference between scientific vocabulary that has passed from the realm of technical vocabulary into common usage, and scientific terms that remain mostly or entirely within the language of a discipline but not used by English speakers outside the discipline. Atom and ecosystem have entirely made that transition. They are used in analogical fashion, rather than being restricted to their precise and original scientific meaning. “There’s not an atom of truth to that statement” does not literally mean the particle defined as an atom by chemists is an ingredient in someone’s statement. “An ecosystem of catechesis” does not literally mean a biological unit.

    Precisely because theological language in the liturgy is always allusive, and very frequently relies for its power on the capacity to be used analogically, more specific words from any discipline which have not made it into the general lexicon will seem overly determinate in prayer. The perception of incongruity is one of the bases of humor.

    The question of the dividing line between theological language and theological jargon is one that can also be discussed. I’ve just used a few jargon words in this comment, and would not recommend them for liturgical prayer! But there are theological words that name something that cannot be said in other ways, and have, as a result of use over centuries, become part of the common lexicon: incarnation, resurrection, salvation, to name a few.

    I really don’t think there is so much looking down at science as you seem to believe there is among the theologically literate. I remember scorning Fred Kaan’s “Earth and All Stars” because “loud boiling test tubes” actually are not…

    1. Rita, let me take the more important point first: you have suggested that the two possible purposes of my post are to get scientific language into the liturgy, or to counter an imagined limitation liturgists are placing on scientists’ prayer. But I didn’t suggest either of these. I said we should listen to and read scientists’ prayers as exemplars of praying with a very sophisticated picture of creation. This might be thought of as a specific case of a more general principle that theologians need to hear the way that particular communities express their faith in prayer in order to facilitate the communities’ prayer. In this case, since I doubt that the (global and indeed arguably more pronounced in the developing world than in the West) push for scientific education will cease, I do think it’s important for evangelization (new and otherwise) to become conversant with exemplary ways of combining a scientific worldview and a Christian one. I’m quite surprised that this has turned out to be very controversial, actually.

      For evidence, I began with my experience that the scientific language that was laughable to commenters on the previous post isn’t laughable to me. I also have had the subtler experience that when theologians write about scientific models, concepts, and language, sometimes their work strikes me as people who are not writing in their own vernacular. That’s my take on the Daly prayer that Fritz discussed – I don’t find any of the language laughable, but it seems like science language used by someone who doesn’t talk about science very much.

      I think in the long run, it would be good to allow more modern scientific language to enter into the official prayers of our churches even as it continues to enter the vernacular of Christians. But before we can write scientific prayers, we need to be able to make scientific jokes. We need to be able to play with the language to pray with the language. I’m arguing we read some native speakers.

  11. .. are not actually loud! Neither are “rushing planets” loud. Now, if you want to tell me about loud diesel engines, I will believe you. But that hymn hasn’t been written yet!

  12. The pope has a similar background in chemistry, and I’d be curious to know
    what he thinks about the Schroedinger equation.

    The best parts of of Ps. 104 (`lions roar to thank God for their supper… You made dolphins for fun’) are not in the lectionary. Ps. 19a has the wonder of stargazing, diverted in 19b into less interesting allegory of evangelizers and law. There could be much more reflection on the wonders of nature and our improved understanding in the liturgy. You have enough science background to do that if you want.

    No, I don’t use Wigner’s ‘Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’ in personal prayer. Science has many amazing results that I take for granted, though there is plenty of good reflection (Chandrasekhar, Weisskopf, Wilczek, Raymo…). Physics revels in quantifying uncertainties, but I doubt that helps while preaching on theodicy in Job.

    It’s tricky to include bigger questions. You assess Daly’s eucharistic prayer well. Take his aside `you… created time itself.’ To which I would add ‘or maybe not 🙂 .’ Reese’s NCR article mentions how liturgists wrestled with proclaiming that sentence 🙂 but didn’t address content. We haven’t really improved on Augustine’s Confessions XI (quoted by Weinberg in Rev Mod Phys in 1989, and not just for the humour). We don’t know whether time ‘started.’ With 5 weeks of undergrad general relativity, I can see that Father Lemaitre’s GR solution identifies a t=0, OK. The GR equations are quite nonlinear, so admit other cosmology solutions without t=0, and probably fail at the high densities needed anyway. Various ways to patch in quantum mechanics produce different predictions, some even testable. (See February’s Scientific American.) Daly’s ‘quantum-cosmology’ should drop the hyphen 🙂 .

    So if someone does want to put bigger questions into formal prayer: consult your local physicist (there are 10,000 who could do better than I just did), stipulate that God may chuckle, and add smilies.

  13. Reading through this discussion, it made me think about how we easily see God as the creator of the bird of the air and the fish of the sea – things visible to the naked eye – but not of the cell, the atom, the electron, and so forth. Perhaps depictions of creation in the future, both in text and in art, could include these.

    I say this as graduate student in chemistry!

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