Religion and meaning

David: Scientism, then… Taking your three: truth, good and beauty, it’s saying… it’s just basically… truth is just saying, ‘Look, the other two… Don’t listen to the other two, they don’t even exist’. And then, it’s even taking truth and saying… and reducing what we mean by truth down to just stuff that we can measure with a ruler.

JC: Okay, yes, to the quantifiable.

Ard: You’re contrasting that a little bit with truths that you have to be open to, where a spectator view doesn’t work. And you’re saying things like beauty and moral truths fall into that category. So to understand them better, more clearly, you need a certain openness or receptivity. There would be a positive spiral where you understand it better and therefore more is revealed. Do you think that is also true of religious knowledge: that there’s an aspect to that which is only accessible to you from a non-spectator point of view?

JC: In the religious case it’s clear that a lot of religions set great store by spiritual praxis.

David: Praxis?

JC: Praxis, that’s to say practices, like singing psalms, meditation, prayer. You don’t necessarily have to believe in God to believe in the value of praxis. I mean, a lot of Buddhists are atheists, but they set great store by meditation, by the right kind of practice. And the purpose of these practices, spiritual practices, is to change the person. It’s not to change the reality: it’s to change the person. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. The change is in order that that person becomes more receptive to realities that were there all along – it’s just that they didn’t see them.

I think that’s the meaning of the famous saying in the gospels: ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear, or eyes to see, let him see.’  There are truths that are not just there waiting on the table.|

Ard: You need to do work to get access to them.

JC: Yeah.

Ard: It would be strange if everything in the world was accessible to you only by scientific method, which, for it, you need to be relatively wealthy and born in the right place to have access to. But it would be strange if some of the deepest realities, like spiritual realities, were not accessible by a set of other things.

David: It’s funny, though, you turned it so that here’s, sort of, the stuff that science can reveal, but there’s a deeper reality, you’re saying – these deeper realities that are there, one of them being spiritual, for instance. But isn’t it the classic way that science always depicts it? There’s all this stuff that you might believe about beauty and morality and goodness, it’s all on the surface and you blunder around on the surface, but as scientists, we peel that back and we look down, and underneath there are rules. And you know what? The rules don’t mean anything.

So you’ve taken that scientific principle and turned it upside down and said, ‘Actually, the deep stuff is…’ So, you’re fighting over what’s deep and what’s not!

Ard: But I think if you are a religious scientist, like I am – a Christian who’s a scientist – you don’t think about science as this little thing over here and your religion as a little thing over there. You think of your religious way of looking at the world of being the totality which, within it, has science as part of that totality. So I think that my Christian faith helps me explain why science works.

David: Ah!
Ard: Yeah, I think it helps me. I think if I start from the idea that there is a god, it’s much more natural to find something like the intelligibility of the world and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as not so surprising.

David: Mm.
Ard: And so I can explain that within this bigger picture, of which science is part of the picture, but it’s not outside the picture. It’s not like God is here and science is there – it’s that my idea about God and the world is much bigger than the science. But it doesn’t make the science not very powerful or very beautiful: it just makes me realise that box is not the whole story.

JC: So, it’s not a competition for which is more real. The issue is whether reality’s more extensive, more…

Ard: I think what I’m saying is that what is real or true maybe bigger than what the methods of science can reveal to me, no matter how powerful those methods are. And I think it’s actually incoherent to think that the methods of science are the only way of obtaining truth. Mathematics is effectively something outside of science. We use it to do science, but it isn’t itself science, but it’s manifestly true.

David: And it’s in the universe.

Ard: And it’s in the universe, yeah, I don’t want to use a location analogy, but it exists.

David: Can I just ask… I want to make sure I haven’t understood. I get the sense being religious for you is not a matter of a belief about God, but more about a belief in the nature of the world.

JC: Well, again, I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about what religious people believe. Thomas Aquinas, who’s one of the most definitive theologians, actually didn’t claim to know a great deal about God. He thought there was an ultimate goal and purpose, ultimate principle, which, he says, ‘All men call God’. So, it’s almost as if it’s an unknown X to which people apply the label, God. But which, through scientific or philosophical reasoning, not a very great deal can be said.

So we were talking earlier about practice: spiritual praxis or practice, and about change – the need for change in order to open oneself so that one is receptive to richer forms of reality. So I see being religious more in those terms, of the adoption of forms of practice which will open oneself to goodness and to beauty, and change one’s life to orient it progressively towards those things, rather than necessarily signing on the dotted line of any particular sect or group of believers.

Having said that, I think we need a vehicle for our spirituality, just as if you’re going from A to B, you need to choose some car or some vehicle. So, it’s no surprise that people invariably do choose a certain religious vehicle in order to pursue this quest. You’re looking sceptical.

David: No, no, that’s my thoughtful look.

JC: So the motivations for being religious, I think, are the sense of transcendence: the sense that there are these transfiguring experiences of love, of beauty, of truth, and that our lives ought to be more richly informed by those. To think that there is some ultimate reality in the cosmos which supports the beauties we find in the world — that things aren’t just there. They’re not just meaningless, ‘brute’ contingent collections of configurations of things they have a rhythm, a harmony, a meaning, a beauty, which is not of our making and which we are made to respond to.

And goodness, again, rightness, justice: these are not just arbitrary creations of our own, values we’ve come up with, or just matters of our personal taste or preference, but they are somehow rooted, grounded in the way things are.

So there’s a kind of coherence, I think, in the religious view of reality. It sees rationality, meaning, value, purpose in things at some deep level. It’s not very theoretical. It corresponds to a way in which all of us, perhaps in principle, are capable of feeling: that we respond to a world which isn’t meaningless, which isn’t just what we put into it plus some janglings of particles or some explosions of atoms or whatever. It’s a world which is already imbued with meaning and value.