“A little science leads away from God; a lot of science goes back to that. » Francis Bacon, English philosopher of the Renaissance, is at the origin of this thought (1) enigmatic by its simplicity and its symmetry.
On December 27, we will celebrate the bicentenary of the birth, in 1822, of Louis Pasteur, who could have taken it over. A scientist recognized worldwide for having developed the vaccine against rabies, among other major contributions to biology and public health, Pasteur was also attached to spirituality, as shown by his writings and the testimonies of those close to him.
Since Pasteur’s time, science and theology have progressed separately and sometimes through dialogue. Today, in the age of quantum computers, genome manipulation and space tourism, how can we understand that“a little science takes away from God”but that “a lot of science brings it back” ?
Fruit of science, technology is more efficient to face certain trials of daily life than the imploration of heaven. The example of the lightning conductor – which I take from recent work Science. The test of God? by François Euvé – speaks for itself: Benjamin Franklin discovers that lightning is of the same nature as electric current and invents the lightning rod which, better than prayers, protects against storms.
Scientific knowledge emancipates man by offering him mastery of the material world where divine intervention is no longer necessary. Moreover, science leads man to reason and to exercise his critical spirit, the foundation of the scientific method. In doing so, it encourages man to free himself from religious dogma and therefore also frees him intellectually.
This idea of emancipation through science was dear to the thinkers of the French Revolution. Our education system, which is very focused on the sciences, is the heir to it. The revolutionary scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace, commenting on his work in astronomy, believed that he “didn’t need that assumption (that of God) ». In short, science allows the material and intellectual emancipation of man and therefore, at first glance, distances him from God.
What still eludes science
Faced with this statement, it will be argued that science cannot explain everything, that there is always a field that escapes quantification and empiricism: feelings, emotions, love. Of course, science does not describe everything. She may not explain again everything, but it is progressing: the “frontier” of the domain of science, if there is one, is constantly receding.
For example, the feeling of love is better and better described as a complex neurological and hormonal phenomenon proceeding from biochemical processes that science at the time of Pasteur was entirely unaware of. Tomorrow, will thought, conscience, faith be explained in this way? Insofar as it is a question of understanding their physical principles – of explaining the “how” –, can’t science claim to describe all the phenomena of nature?
The watchmaker’s genius
So how does “much science” lead back to God? The experimental approach of science reveals to man the harmony, the refinement, the beauty of nature, and makes us doubt, with Voltaire, “that there is no watchmaker of this clock”. However, to see the sign of the Creator God, there is no need for science: walking under the starry sky is enough.
However, beyond contemplation, scientific activity plunges man into the heart of creation, where the genius of the watchmaker manifests itself. The discoveries of biology made since Pasteur abound in striking signs: the genetic code, the helix structure of DNA, hormonal regulation, the complex balances between species in ecosystems.
spiritual emancipatory science
The interpretation of these signs as being the work of God is a free act: that of faith. However, these signs remain of the order of the material, of the utility. How “a lot of science” does it bring back to god spiritually, how does he establish a relationship between God and man? Historically, the progress of science has called into question the literal reading of the Holy Scriptures. Thus believers were able to elevate their reading to access the spiritual message of these texts with greater clarity.
The teaching of the texts has also gained in depth and, no doubt, in fidelity. In a way, science has helped to separate the divine message – the salutary teaching – from its support – the narrative. In this sense, science also allows the emancipation spiritual of man. For example, in the Genesis account, Adam and Eve understand themselves as the first men not in the biological sense of common ancestors, but in the spiritual sense: they bear the mark of sin which all men inherit.
This way of thinking about the dialogue between science and biblical stories, initiated by the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, may seem obvious to our modern minds. It constituted, in fact, a major advance in theology that took place after Pasteur’s life. Naturally, this conception deepens the interpretation of the signs of God as creator, emphasizing the spiritual dimension of creation which is hidden between the lines of the story of Genesis: that of the act of creation as a gift to man. Finally, the fact that science guides the reading of stories towards their spiritual content does not prevent us from believing in the manifestations of God in the real material world, nor even in the supernatural manifestations that are miracles.
Moreover, there will always be material to feed this dialogue between scientific knowledge and inspired stories, because our understanding of physical phenomena will never be perfect. As a result, a biblical account that appears to agree with a scientific explanation today may not agree at all tomorrow. This precaution is essential with regard to phenomena at the frontier of knowledge, such as the first moments of the Universe.
Scientific research, a spiritual process
Finally, there is one last way science leads back to God. I mentioned the biochemical phenomena which recent research has shown provide the inner workings of the body in emotions and in the exercise of thought. However, the spiritual life is based on this capacity to feel, to be moved, to think: faith, joy, charity, recollection and prayer take the form of emotions and thoughts which are oriented towards God.
To the believer, science therefore reveals the ordering of our physiological constitution in the quest for God. This observation leads us, it seems to me, to conclude with the great Shepherd that “a lot of science” bring back to God. For the believing scientist, the object of study is the work of Godand the activity of research is also a spiritual process.
“With Louis Pasteur, we discover that ‘a lot of science’ leads back to God”