Science, spirituality, and depth

9 Jul


Depth” is important for us today. In our present cultural situation, pressures all around tell us that our world is one-dimensional, but we know different; we seek depth. The search for depth today is equivalent to what was called in earlier ages, the quest for God.

Philosophers say our times are marked by “the turn to the natural”: things we can touch are the world for us—surfaces, the skin of things. The empirical, natural world is understood to be all there is. When we want to explain our lives and our world, we turn first to naturalistic explanations— this includes going to doctors, engineers, and scientists to explain what is going on in our bodies and in our natural environment, what kind of cars we should buy, what kind of houses we should build, how to grow our crops, and everything else imaginable. Science enters as the premiere explainer of nature. This outlook dominates in our western societies today.

These thoughts have been nesting in my brain for a long time—this week they took flight. A well-known scientist, astronomer and astrophysicist (who will remain nameless), spoke on National Public Radio: “We don’t have to listen to priests and philosophers to tell us what to believe, because we have scientists to tell us what’s real.”

This statement touches on some thorny issues concerning science today and how it relates to religion. I’ll summarize some aspects:

1—Scientific knowledge and its technological applications are built into contemporary life. Our present world population and our lifestyle are dependent on science and technology—without them, billions of people would die. I’m not saying that I “believe” in science (as in “Do you believe in evolution?”), as if science were a religion, but it’s absurd to be “against” it. I accept science as the most successful method ever devised for gaining knowledge of the physical world—and essential for our lives today.

2—Science is under attack in our country today. Preliminary budget drafts show drastic reductions for research. Scientific knowledge is subjected to political tests and often ridiculed by prominent politicians. Many of us feel an obligation to stand up for science and reject the political attacks on it.

3— But there is more to this world and our lives than science. I take exception to the scientist saying that scientists tell us what is real, with the implication that outside of science nothing is real. Such an outlook leads to a narrowing of our experience and our sensibilities. It ignores that there is a depth to the world that science cannot take the measure of. Scientists cannot tell us what is morally right or wrong; they cannot tell us about the purpose of our lives or what vocation in life will give us the most fulfillment. We need art, music, poetry, and philosophy to help us think these things through. We also need religion and spirituality to help us understand these areas of life. It is worth noting that poetry and spirituality are flourishing right in the midst of science and the turn to the natural.

The sociologist, Peter Berger, who died two weeks ago, reminded us—when “God is Dead” was in fashion—that “except for locales like Western Europe and social groups like intellectuals, most of the world is as religious as ever.” In his younger days, Berger wrote that secularization was squeezing out the sense of transcendence. He was echoing the theory that social scientists have been propounding for two centuries or more: secularization would lead to the demise of religion. This theory has now clearly been disproven on the world scene.

But the turn to the natural is real, and I espouse it myself. What challenges us now is to understand how religion, spirituality, art, music, and poetry point to what is real in the context of the natural world that science describes—the dimension of depth. Many people devote themselves to discovering and nurturing the places of depth in life. I include these efforts in my idea of “spirituality.”

The theologian, Paul Tillich, who was pre-eminent in the 1950s and 60s, wrote about depth—God is not “out there,” but rather “in there.” He also wrote about the “mystery, depth, and greatness” that lives in all of us. “What is your mystery, depth, and greatness?” Ask that question about yourself or the next time you get together with your friends.

The scientist who spoke on public radio seriously misses the mark, she doesn’t really get the point of what is going in our world today. Rejecting priests and philosophers, in the interest of science is simplistic. The challenge is much more complex and much more exciting.

Where is the depth in your life? And how do you talk about it?

In this poem, I sketch some of my own everyday experience of depth:


. . . runs very deep

The mountain stream races
madly down the slope
through trees
that go forever.
Clear water,
you can see clear down to its bed,
there’s nothing hidden.
You can cup it in your hands
and have a drink. It
runs very deep.

Her face mirrors concentration
on agendas far away
too much hers to share,
reflecting a side of her
I must not know.
A sudden shaft of smile–
she’s reentered my world.
In that moment, I know
the foundations of her self go
down very deep.

In the making
twelve billion years
unleashed from hot simplicity
that would not be contained.
Random reaches beyond millennia
raised to light years’ pace until
a complex creature
reaches farther still.
Something about random
flows very deep.

I know it’s in there–somewhere–
of that I am convinced.
Hidden, it defies my grasping,
sneaks into a crevice–
in the bony crags of my skull.
It crawls among the folded contours
of my brain. Self eludes me
at every turn. When it does allow
me to look into its eyes, I see–
endless depth.


(c) Phil Hefner July 9, 2017



5 Responses to “Science, spirituality, and depth”

  1. Richard Busse July 10, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

    HI Phil: As always, a very insightful post. I am slowly trying to write a book called “Where did God go?”– which is an attempt to make sense of my 19th century philosophy and theology studies– Ritschl’s critique of materialism is right on point to what you mention above. A side note: A graduate student in Sweden asked for my dissertation so I digitized it and sent it to him. He may have contacted you too — his name is Leif Svensson.
    Rick Busse

  2. Liftthescreen July 10, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    Rick–a Great idea to write that book! Let me know how it goes. I haven’t heard from Svensson. We have a Friday Evening Speakers series here. The committee would like to hear about the ACLU. Or your civil rights lawyering. Would it be possible for you to do that? There’s an honorarium–free dinner for you and a guest (!). Or is it too much of a drive? September or October works for us.

    • Richard Busse July 10, 2017 at 5:30 pm #

      Phil– They don’t want to hear about 19th Century German theology? The end of October would be good– I still have Dr. Vegetable weekend festivals in September and the first part of October. I’m not a state board member any more of the Indiana ACLU or the local president but still a member and supporter of the ACLU.. I could report on Indiana and also highlight national efforts to combat Trump

      • Liftthescreen September 1, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

        I just sent you an email–hope you get it. Phil

  3. Joseph Satish July 17, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

    I like how you say that there is more to this world than science. And getting in depth requires an appreciation of why religion or spirituality is important for people: I tried discussing that here: Hope you like it!

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