Science of the Sacred

Their telescopes pan the starry ""heavens,'' and their theories have become ""the new Genesis.'' In the discovery two years ago of ripples of cosmic radiation left over from the birth of the universe, astrophysicists read ""the handwriting of God.'' British cosmologist Stephen Hawking ended his 1988 book ""A Brief History of Time'' with the hope that, through science, we may one day ""know the mind of God.'' For many cosmologists and their Boswells, these are merely metaphors, ways to express the astonishing and even transcendent power of their discoveries. But a funny thing has happened on the way to science's usurpation of the place of faith in the last years of the millennium. Among researchers as well as laypeople, discoveries in physics, biology and astronomy are inspiring a sense of cosmic piety, of serene holism and even a moral code. ""I see a turnaround,'' says theologian Philip Hefner, director of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, ""in which many scientists are saying we can integrate science into an existing religion, a personal philosophy of life, or New Age beliefs.''

In other words, science can nourish the spirit in wildly diverse ways. As physicist Edward Kolb of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory puts it, ""The easiest thing in science is to find what you are looking for.'' Physicist Frank Tipler of Tulane University found ""proof'' that all creatures who ever lived will be resurrected at the end of time, as he claims in his new book, ""The Physics of Immortality.'' British biochemist Arthur Peacocke found, in the intricate choreography of DNA and other molecules of life, inspiration to explore the sacred in the laws of biology. Astrophysicist Joel Primack of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his wife, Nancy Abrams, find, in the scientific story of the universe's birth, a resonance with medieval Jewish texts that say the universe began in a point and then expanded. That similarity, they write in a paper scheduled for publication in Tikkun magazine, inspires the hope that just as Jewish myth ""gave meaning and purpose to the everyday lives of its adherents, [the same] may become possible with the scientific cosmology emerging today.''

To offer meaning and purpose, any creation theory must first evoke wonder and awe, which underlie a sense of the sacred. To many people, the scientific theory of how the universe came to be does that. In the beginning, say theoreticians, there was neither time, nor space, nor matter. All that existed were the laws of physics, identical to those that reign today. These laws, even absent any supernatural agency, were sufficient to create something from nothing. Astronomer Carl Sagan says this means there was ""nothing left for a Creator to do.'' But to other thinkers, the existence of the laws outside time and space, and their ability to create the world, imbue them with aspects of the sacred. Even nonreligious scientists feel it. ""[Science and its discoveries] bring fulfillment and a great deal of reverence,'' says Kolb. They bring, too, a humbling. For science may never answer why the generative laws are what they are -- nor how they were created.

Beyond awe and wonder lies a sense of oneness with the cosmos. Although the discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin marginalized humanity -- we are neither the center of the solar system nor separately created -- recent advances return us to an integral place in the cosmos. It turns out that ""constants of nature,'' such as the strength of gravity, have exactly the values that allow stars and planets to form and life to evolve. The universe, it seems, is fine-tuned to let life and consciousness flower. ""For a couple hundred years,'' says Robert Russell, a Ph.D. physicist, ordained minister and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., ""humanity has seemed to be an isolated fact in nature. But this new work in cosmology suggests that humanity is very much a part of this universe.'' Even evolution, despite its image as the enemy of faith, shows that ""we are part of an ongoing community of being,'' said physicist and theologian Ian Barbour of Carleton College in a 1989 lecture. ""We are kin to all creatures, past and present'' -- and to nonliving entities, too. The very atoms in our bodies were once stardust, ejected when stars exploded.

Even quantum mechanics, the study of subatomic interactions, offers evidence that human life and the cosmos are an interconnected whole. The eminent physicist John Wheeler of Princeton University refers to ""an observer-created universe.'' He means that the world does not come into being until a mind interacts with it -- call it existential physics. Bizarre though it seems, for instance, measuring the spin of one subatomic particle forces a twin particle, miles away, to have the opposite spin. The observer literally creates reality, much as Eastern and other holistic faiths teach. How fitting: laypeople have to take this as a matter of faith.

Can science offer solace in the face of suffering, and serenity in the knowledge of mortality? Even here, some scholars believe that science can assuage the soul as powerfully as traditional faith promises. For instance, the laws of quantum mechanics are nondeterministic; that is, they cannot, even in principle, predict whether any particular particle in a radioactive lump will decay. Barbour sees in this an assurance that natural law and chance may ""equally be instruments of God's intentions. There can be purpose without an exact predetermined plan.'' This conclusion may offer comfort, he suggests, to a humanity vulnerable to unpredictability and chance. Science does not do as well as traditional faith, however, in inspiring a moral code (except, perhaps, that human beings are obligated to act as stewards of nature). ""I view religion as dealing with a moral dimension, and on that science is silent,'' says University of California, Santa Cruz, physicist Michael Dine, whose wife is a rabbi.

The rift between science and the sacred has not closed completely, nor should it. The deists of the 17th and 18th centuries built their theology on Newtonian physics, invoking God as a clockmaker who wound up the world and let it run. But Newton's science fell before Einstein's onslaught. Since science is ever changing, it would be foolish to use its current truths as one's spiritual North Star. But so, too, would it be foolish to ignore science, for few secular quests approach the sacred as closely.