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Vol I No. 1
Science & Faith

Science as Liturgy

by William J. Martin

Recently I gave a talk at our daughter’s church that explored the relation between science and faith centered on the idea of “liturgy.” This familiar “religious-sounding” word comes from Greek leitourgía, having the sense of “the work of the people” or “what the people do.” In its broadest sense then, “liturgy” speaks of a set of disciplined practices and habits that define a community, a way of being. The author James K. A. Smith has written eloquently of the “liturgy of the mall” or “the liturgy of the stadium.” Such social structures and practices shape our lives and desires.

Our desires, or loves, are also shaped by the way we live our lives, that is, by the things to which we choose to give our attention, to orient ourselves, as we participate in various communities: family, school, church, work, the “scientific” community, etc. Each has its own form, practices, “liturgy.”  Consequently, we might well imagine a “liturgy of science.”

Many ways of knowing

“Science” as commonly understood in the 21st century is a specialized kind of “knowledge” gained via methods or practices designed to arrive at such knowledge, oriented towards the world as object, or “objective.” Yet “science” is not the only way to know all that we know. There are different kinds of knowledge and “explanation.” As all of the great scientists have known, the scientific method is limited in scope, as well as the scientific knowledge it enables.

The world is a given: we do not choose where or when we were born, nor do we “make up” the “laws of nature” that science unfolds for us. The very intelligibility of the world to the mind of the scientist is a strikingly remarkable fact upon which we would do well to reflect. Albert Einstein commented that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility. As Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart put it: “The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same.”

More than one valid explanation of a thing is possible. You may ask, “Why is the water in the pot boiling?” I could give a “scientific” explanation: heat applied to the pot causes molecular motion manifested as boiling. But I could also give an “ordinary,” or purposeful, meaning-oriented explanation: “Because I want a cup of tea.” These do not conflict, but are of a different order: one locally focused on the system of the stove, pot, and water, the other globally oriented to a greater whole of human living.

We know our family, our friends, our child, our spouse, intimately, relationally, through an “other-oriented” kind of knowing quite different from “scientific” knowing. We know others like ourselves. Yet, is not all knowledge ultimately relational, embedded in and mediated through the “way of life” of the smaller and larger communities of which we are a part?

I know from experience how science is practiced by the community of scientists. All “scientific” knowledge is embedded in such communities and what I have chosen to call their “liturgy.” Science students learn from textbooks written by other scientists and by learning from or working with scientists who have gone before, following standard practice. This is how “normal science” is carried out. My recent trips to China and Korea to teach physics students reinforced to me the truth of the reality and importance of international scientific community.

Ultimate questions

We all ask: What is ultimate? How shall I live (that is, what ought I to do)? How should we live together (that is, govern our societies)? Science, per se, does not and indeed can not answer such questions. There are many answers, some commonalities, and profound differences among the differing responses that have been given by the civilizations of China, India, the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, the modern West.

As I write this, I notice that it is the day set aside in the liturgical calendar of the Book of Common Prayer to remember former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944). Our Anglican liturgy is oriented towards worship, the ascribing of honor or worth to God (“worship” derives from Old English weorth — honor or worthiness — and scipe — to create). Temple defined worship to be “the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of the mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the Heart to His love; the surrender of the will to His purpose—and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”(From Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 1940).

Temple’s hauntingly beautiful words call to mind the worthy ideal of the selfless yet passionate pursuit of truth, perhaps the deepest aspiration of science, embodied in the community of scientists on their best days.