Science and Discernment

It’s odd what sticks with you over time.

When I was in ninth grade I wrote a paper on evolution and creation. Fundamentally my conclusion hasn’t changed: there is no conflict. Over time, I have differentiated my position, but fundamentally its clear to me that science (any form of science, not just evolution) cannot contradict faith. Truth cannot contradict truth. This means there must be a fundamental unity to truth. No matter how we discover truth; whether it is using the scientific method, literary criticism, depth psychology, economics, critical reflection, or whatever, what we discover is part of a unified whole.

In his recent letter on faith called Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Pope Francis roots this unity of truth in the light shining forth from the life of Jesus. This light is born of an encounter with Jesus. It is clarified through discernment.

The process of discernment has a long tradition. It has its own method distinct from the scientific method, but possessing its own data, criteria and processes.

In short, discernment is attempting to follow the call of God as it is heard through our own life experiences. Descriptions of the method of discernment vary, but include at least five major movements.

  1. Deliberation or information gathering. This movement is all about listening. Listening to God through prayer. Listening to ourselves, our own thoughts, feelings, and our life situation. Listening to others, especially those we trust and know will be honest with us and will leave us free to make our own decision. We also listen to other sources of information that might be relevant at this point.
  2. Reflection or mulling it over. The goal of this phase is to allow the information to sink in and to become free enough to make a decision. It is rooted in trust and surrender. It can be as simple as weighing the pro’s and cons or engaging your imagination to visualize yourself making the decision. Key questions for this movement in discernment include: Where is God in all of this? How does it relate to my life in community? How will Christian love be advanced through this decision? Can I recognize the limits and possibilities of the decision? How does the decision promote Christian values? Is this a responsible course to take?
  3. Insight or Clarifying the Decision. The above movement flows into this one. There comes a point when clarity begins to emerge from the reflection process. Key questions here include: Did I give enough time for the issue to settle in? How are my emotions influencing the decision? (if we aren’t aware of the role our emotions are playing, we will be blinded or controlled by them) How is this related to my life – my history and my vision for the future? Is there a sense of peace with the decision? Can I honestly say that this decision fits with who I am created to be?
  4. Decision and Action. At some point, we have to decide and act. This can be the hardest part of the process, but it is what moves us forward in our spiritual life. God has blessed us with the gift of freedom and calls us to use that gift wisely. Rooted in a deep desire to do the will of God, we decide and act.
  5. Evaluation. After the decision is made, discernment doesn’t stop. The process continues as we reflect on what we have decided. What can we learn from the decision? Does it need to be modified or changed? How is it bringing us closer to God in love and knowledge?

The time-tested process of discernment shows that religion has data and method, they are simply different from those of science.

A few years back I co-taught a course at the University of Wyoming on Science and Religion. We used a text by Ian Barbour that outlined four different paradigms for the interaction of science and religion (Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration). . While I believe dialogue is essential, at its deepest point, the life of Jesus integrates all ways of knowing.

Faith and reason can teach each other wonder and humility. Truth is one because God is one. It all fits together in some wonderful, mysterious way. We may not see how the wonders of science relate to the beauty of God’s Revelation, but through faith we can come to know the creator of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

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