“What a Piece of Work Man Is”: Resurrection & Scientific Positivism

Recently I finished reading through Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books.[1] Many of the essays have to do with Robinson’s understanding of the significance of Christian faith to her experience as a writer, a citizen, and generally as a human being. In fact, she returns in several to the topic of science and faith, as she did in her published lectures Absence of Mind.[2] In an essay titled “Freedom from Thought”, she makes the following observation:

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. … Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds.[3]

Later she points out:

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. Be that as it may, the effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.[4]

Here we find a powerful critique of much that passes as common knowledge not only in New Atheist circles but also often enough in wider public opinion. In particular, we’re reminded that such scientific positivism smacks of nihilism. Certainly many who hold this view would say that it is not nihilistic (for example, Sam Harris in his The Moral Landscape[5]); however, such a claim can only be legitimated if one moves beyond the “disappearingly thin slice of being” for which science takes account. Any movement beyond an explanatory account of the measurable aspects of reality inevitably entails movement beyond science. Of course, this critique is not a critique of science itself, but rather of those who misuse and abuse science. Moreover, the aims of religious texts of various sorts, especially the ancient ones, most certainly do not seem to have an account of the physical origins and workings of the world as a significant interest. It’s not that claims about creation are not made, but simply that the point is theological – not usually interested in describing the details of divine action in that process.

Most importantly, she reminds the Christian that they are not Gnostics. Humanity is created as a physical being; and resurrected, physical being is a significant part of the future hope of the gospel! Christians should avoid being duped, just as much as the non-Christian, by the false either-or of the physical and spiritual. Those with a resurrected Lord ought to know better.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

[2] Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University, 2010).
[3] When I Was a Child, 9-10.
[4] Ibid., 14-15.
[5] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).