The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion

  1. Review

    Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest, distinguished preacher and author, who is Butman Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. She begins her new book of essays on science and religion by saying, "I am not a scientist." She tells us that as a high school and college student she was not very interested in science. When she took the SAT’s, she found that her verbal scores were much higher than her math scores, and she began to feel that her mind was divided. Then, when she became a religion major, she learned from her professors that science dealt with the physical world and how things work, while religion dealt with the spiritual world and what it all means. With this knowledge, she began to experience "her being" as divided into the physical part (body) and the spiritual part (soul). When she entered seminary, "science dropped off [her] radar screen altogether." But through the years the apparent dualism of physical reality and spiritual reality , between science and religion, continued to haunt her . She asked herself, "But if God is one, then how can reality be two?" and "If God is truly one and truly God of all, then how can truth be divided?" These were the kind of questions that led her, some ten years ago, to begin to read science again..

    The basis of her project in these lectures, originally given as the 1998 Macleod Lectures on Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, is that while she does not believe that science and religion "can or should be reconciled." She wants to "challenge the presumed enmity between the two, especially in an age when their dialogue is more vital than ever." A continuing dialogue is vital because we tend to base our worldview on the "prevailing physics of the day" which reflects our understanding of how the world works. And she is convinced that, driven by the " new physics," we are in the midst of a radical change in our understanding, which impacts an of the institutions which frame our lives

    Tracing the radical change of cosmology from the three-story universe of the Bible that occurred with Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, she concludes that the Newtonian worldview has been the dominant model for Western culture during the past three centuries. Newton postulated that the universe worked like a machine in which the atom is the "basic building block of the cosmos" and that the whole is the sum of its parts. The implication of this model for the "human universe" is that the individual human being is the "fundamental unity of reality ."

    It is Taylor’s belief that the sciences of quantum physics, chaos theory , and the new biology are causing a revolution in the way we see our universe. It is no longer possible to see our world as a collection of individual, autonomous parts. Quantum physics . postulates that the universe "looks more like a luminous web in which the whole is far more than the parts." The implication of this model for the "human universe" is that there is "no such thing as an individual apart from his or her relationships."

    The theological implications of this revolution are profound. Taylor writes. "Where am I in this picture? I am all over the place. I am up there, down here, inside my skin and out . . Am I alone? How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born. . . Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down c here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of those concepts, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationships that animates everything that is. "

    Acknowledging that Paul Tillich’s name for this reality was "the Ground of All Being", she writes: "The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name that God revealed to Moses ‘I Am Who I Am."’ By her exposure to modem physics, Taylor has experienced a radical shift in her theology from supernatural theism, which is modeled on Newtonian physics, to what is called panentheism, which means that "everything is in God.," who is both transcendent and immanent.

    Taylor finds that the shift in her theological perspective has revolutionary implications not only for her relationship with God and for prayer, but also for government, economics, education, and our churches. She found that her new understanding rescued her "from my atomistic understanding of myself in ministry, in which I was the mechanic and my parish, the machine I was supposed to run. The new science gave me new metaphors for my life in community, which had far more chaos in it than Stephen Covey would deem acceptable, but which was also embraced by a boundary I can only call love."

    After finishing this "luminous" book, I found myself sharing a feeling Taylor expressed when she wrote, "When I am feeling positively stifled by religion’s fear of the future and suspicion of change, a little dose of the new science does me a world of good."

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