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Reconciling Science and Religion: How Great Minds Do It

In the beginning, I sought out people with an overt passion to reconcile science and religion in their discipline and in their person. Sir John Polkinghorne is one of the most prominent of these globally--a Cambridge quantum physicist who also became a Cambridge theologian in midlife and has written eloquently about finding both science and religion necessary to interpret the "rich, varied and surprising way the world actually is." I found his approach revelatory as I was cautiously finding my own way back to religion after Berlin. As a physicist, Polkinghorne sees a universe that is "supple" and "subtle"--a mix of determinism and of freedom--and this informs his imagination about the nature of God, what happens when we die, and what happens when he prays.

But as the years progressed I've been equally intrigued, and driven to new places in my own thinking, by scientists like the theoretical physicist and novelist Janna Levin. She is exploring the shape and finitude of the universe. She is fascinated by mathematical insights into how we can know what is real and true and how free we really might be. She is not a religious person in any sense, but her scientific inquiry is philosophically and spiritually evocative, rich in the raw materials of theology. Albert Einstein was more like Janna Levin than John Polkinghorne. His famous quip that "God does not play dice with the universe" is often wrongly imagined as a statement of faith, when in fact it was a clever barb tossed in a strictly scientific argument. Focusing as he did on the evolution of stars and galaxies and on intangible substances of light, time, and gravity, Einstein seemed to present little to offend religion. But as much as or more than Darwin's natural laws of evolution, Einstein's laws of physics could not tolerate a meddling divine hand.

Einstein approached science itself with a religious awe, as the physicist Freeman Dyson tells us. Yet as a young colleague of Einstein at Princeton, Dyson saw him become more philosophical as he grew older, leaving behind a rich body of reflection on the "mind" and "superior spirit" behind the cosmos. And as the astrophysicist Paul Davies describes in these pages, modern imaginations have yet to catch up to the potential spiritual implications of the way Einstein reframed our understanding of space and time. Einstein's dismissal of a "personal God" might have struck some in his time as heretical, but his self-described "cosmic religious sense" is intriguingly resonant with twenty-first century sensibilities. There has simply been too little space in our public life up to now to hear such echoes.


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