Originally published here, at the Millennial Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, at Stanford University.
As viral deaths spiral heavenward, so too must many a prayer these days. It’s a behavior embedded into us by our culture. Bad things happen – let us pray, sheltered in our homes. But this time also offers an opportunity to pause in our prayers and think deeply about how we got here, and how God is really involved in this.
A key to all of this is that God, most major religions believe, encompasses everything, including physical reality, which is not affected by our feelings or emotions. So, if we step back and critically assess what we know about our physical reality, we can access an undeniable pool of knowledge about God.
That quest of understanding our physical reality and the processes that shape it, which also encompass God, is what constitutes science. Science is, in this sense, the study of God, understood well by Jesuit priests. Ignoring science ignores God. Science is an ever-evolving search for, and analyses of, physical observations utilizing all the senses we have. Scientists are the searchers and conceptual sculptors. We collect data, test out possible concepts that allow us to make predictions from that data, and use the results to cleave away at our original conceptions of physical reality and how it changes. This hones our understanding of what God is, and is not. It is a never-ending process: the universe is seemingly infinite.
Indeed, our knowledge of God has exploded over the last century alone, and continues to do so daily, most notably with the recent possible detection of a new fundamental force of nature present in the universe.
On a far smaller scale, though, we have made explosive progress in understanding how God acts in ways crucial to our survival and happiness. We understand far more about climate, and how our actions affect it. We understand far more about how our bodies and other living organisms operate, and how other organisms both collaborate with, benefit, affect and/or attack our bodies and our species. We understand that our survival depends on giant ecosystems of other creatures that supply vital services: clean air, clean water, sources of new foods and medicines, to name a few.We understand that our species evolved and prospered because we developed a vital, extensive system of collaboration. All this describes in part how God acts.
From observing the different life forms around us, we also understand that if any one species gets too numerous, and crowds its habitat, its population can dramatically die back to low levels, or even disappear, as a deadly organism spreads through it. Dense hibernating colonies figured largely in the decline of many types of bats worldwide, for example, as a deadly fungus spread through them easily. Humans, often densely crowded into cities and highly mobile; are now in a similar situation as a highly contagious, sometimes deadly virus spreads through our species.
We also know that stresses on species can induce abortion, which, in humans, occurs to roughly 50% of all fertilized eggs, before completing first month of pregnancy. This is also an inconvenient truth of how God acts.
This illustrates how God’s system introduces not just opportunities but constraints that shape how we live. We are free to make choices that will allow those constraints to either harm or help us, sometimes dramatically. Jump out of a high window, and the constraint of gravity and a soft, flexible body likely ensures a quick death. Regarding the pandemic, we can choose to use our knowledge of God’s system to survive and prevent pandemics, or ignore our knowledge and suffer greatly from them, just as our ancestors have over the past eons. Some countries are heeding science more than others, and the relative amounts of ensuing suffering reflect this.
The Bible is full of metaphorical references that reflect ancient understanding of God. For example, Adam and Eve is very likely a true story of ancient peoples discovering beautiful places to live and prosper. But if a community violated the constraints of God’s system, God would “cast them out”: Eden would disappear, and they would have to move away. This is the frequently and tragically relived human story of boom and bust that has been repeated throughout the eons – greedy people living unsustainably, and ultimately wrecking the environment that made it so attractive. What remains can no longer sustain them, forcing them to move. In our current world, we are enacting this tragedy on a global scale, violating God’s constraints by proliferating far beyond the sustainable limits of God’s ecosystems, vital to our existence. We are literally destroying God’s creations as we drive other species to extinction due to our thoughtless greed.
The two great biblical commandments also illustrate ancient understanding of God. They exhort us to love God, and love our nieghbor as we love ourselves. Basically, the first commandment is to love and honor God by recognizing and respecting what God is — and is not : God will not suspend gravity for you, for example. The second one orders us to collaborate via compassion: treating your neighbor as you treat yourself. The takeaways are to recognize the constraints under which you live, and remember that your species depends on collaboration.
Where is our personal loving connection to this realization of God? It lies in how God has acted through evolutionary selection to shape our species’ ability to survive and prosper via collaboration. The tools of that collaboration are the array of evolved feelings that drive collaboration: love, compassion, mercy. From these a communal responsibility arises, one that extends beyond local concerns to encompass the living world of other species around us, another part of God, upon which our survival depends.
As we have progressed in our understanding of God and God’s constraints, we have also developed ways to meet them, well beyond the capabilities of other species. We can plan small families. We can consume not more than necessary and ultimately increase our happiness. We can elect leaders that understand the basic concepts of living sustainably and collaborating to do so. These are all choices we can make.
Our actions, done with love, compassion, and mercy, and in accordance with the physical reality that is God, reflect the most realistic prayers we can offer for the survival of us, our families, and our future. Our prayers are our actions and our choices.
God and science presents us with choices: We can choose to prosper humanely, or to perish inhumanely.