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VATICAN, Monday, December 28, 1992 – Popes rarely apologize. So it was big news in October when John Paul II made a speech vindicating Galileo Galilei. In 1633 the Vatican put the astronomer under house arrest for writing, against church orders, that the earth revolves around the sun. The point of the papal statement was not to concede the obvious fact that Galileo was right about the solar system. Rather, the Pope wanted to restore and honor Galileo’s standing as a good Christian. In the 17th century, said the Pope, theologians failed to distinguish between belief in the Bible and interpretation of it. Galileo contended that the Scriptures cannot err but are often misunderstood. This insight, said John Paul, made the scientist a wiser theologian than his Vatican accusers. More than a millennium before Galileo, St. Augustine had taught that if the Bible seems to conflict with “clear and certain reasoning,” the Scriptures obviously need reinterpretation.

The Pope’s speech was the latest episode in the age-old struggle to reconcile science and religion. The year’s most intriguing book about God was produced not by theologians but by 60 world-class scientists, 24 Nobel prizewinners among them. Cosmos, Bios, Theos gives their thoughts on the Deity and the origin of the universe and of life on earth. For instance, the co- editor, Yale physicist Henry Margenau, concludes that there is “only one convincing answer” for the intricate laws that exist in nature: creation by an omnipotent, omniscient God. While many scientists are skeptics or are still seeking their own theologies, others are true believers — not just in some mysterious cosmic force but in the God of the Bible or the Koran.

Religious leaders generally value scientists, whether believers or not, for their curious bent and careful explorations of the mechanisms behind the Almighty’s work. Though determined Fundamentalists adhere to creationism, most Christian denominations no longer demand strictly literal interpretation of – the Genesis creation account. Catholicism encourages pursuit of scientific knowledge but opposes certain applications, from artificial contraceptives to human genetic engineering.

Some scholars bridge the gap between religion and science in the mode of Gregor Mendel, the 19th century Austrian monk who discovered basic laws of heredity. Stanley Jaki of New Jersey’s Seton Hall University is both priest and physicist. He believes that science can describe the Big Bang beginning of the universe but is incapable of fathoming the ultimate origins of matter and energy, which will always come under the realm of religion. George Coyne, a Jesuit astrophysicist who directs the Vatican Observatory, warns against reducing science to religion, or vice versa. For instance, when the Big Bang theory was brand new, Pope Pius XII wrote that “scientists are beginning to find the finger of God in the creation of the universe.” Coyne thinks the Pope was wrong to “take a scientific conclusion and interpret it in favor of supporting a theological doctrine.” Working scientists “don’t need God for our scientific understanding of the universe,” he says, because “we don’t pretend to have all the ultimate answers.”

Judaism has been a fertile breeding ground for scientists, many of whom have no difficulty squaring their work and their faith. In his 1990 book Genesis and the Big Bang, Israeli nuclear physicist Gerald L. Schroeder argues in detail that there is no contradiction between the Bible’s account of creation and current science. Schroeder also notes that the Ramban, the great medieval commentator on Scripture, had the remarkably modern insight that at the moment after creation, all the matter in the universe must have been concentrated in a tiny speck.

Though Islam has factions hostile to science, it has spawned quite a few of its own researchers. Mustafa Mahmoud, an Egyptian physician, is host of the TV show Science and Religion and operates an education-and-research complex built around a mosque. In Islam, properly understood, Mahmoud contends, “if a believer ignores science and knowledge, he is not a true believer.” Sounding like St. Augustine, Mahmoud says that “God, the creator of the universe, can never be against learning the laws of what he has created.”

But he might get a strong argument from America’s Protestant creationists, who still insist that life on earth was created about 10,000 years ago and that a Flood engulfed the entire planet. In recent decades, creationists promoted their own brand of science and even persuaded a few state legislatures to decree that schools give Fundamentalist theories equal time with Darwin’s evolution. Those laws were eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opposing the creationists is a group of devout, mostly Protestant scientists who are also conservative but willing to consider evidence for evolution. They are organized into the American Scientific Affiliation, based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which counts nearly 1,000 Ph.D.s among its members. The A.S.A. has distributed 100,000 copies of a booklet urging schoolteachers to be aware of the unanswered scientific questions about Darwinism and to avoid slipping in the unwarranted assumption that evolution in effect displaces God. A.S.A. executive director Robert Herrmann, a biochemist, advises fellow Bible believers to remain open to “evolution as the process the Creator may have used to bring life and mind into being.”

For Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich, an Evangelical Protestant, the real choice is not “creation or evolution” at all, but “purpose or accident.” Like millions of ordinary folk, he says, “I passionately believe in a universe with purpose, though I cannot prove it.” Purpose, like origin, is a point where the wisdom of empirical science ends and the quest for religious faith begins.

By Richard N. Ostling, John Moody (TIME Correspondent ROME and Amany Radwan (TIME Correspondent Cairo)