Sigmund Freud famously argued that scientific advance has led to a radical reevaluation of the place and significance of humanity in the universe, deflating human pretensions to grandeur and uniqueness. Before Copernicus, we thought we stood at the center of all things. Before Darwin, we thought we were utterly distinct form every other living species. Before Freud, we though that we were masters of our own limited realm; now we have to come to terms with being the prisoner of hidden unconscious forces, subtly influencing our thinking and behaviour. And as our knowledge of our universe expands, we realize how many galaxies lie beyond our own. The human lifespan is insignificant in comparison with the immense age of the universe. We can easily be overwhelmed by a sense of our insignificance when we see ourselves against this vast cosmic backdrop…
The Christian narrative allows us to frame these questions in a very different way than that offered by a bleak secular humanism. By allowing their personal narratives to be embraced and enfolded by the greater narrative of God, Christians see things in a new way—including their own status and identity. We are no longer mere assemblies of molecules, neutrons, or genes; we are individuals who can relate to God, and whose status is transformed by God’s love and attentiveness toward us…
Through inhabiting the Christian narrative, we come to see ourselves, as medieval writer Julian of Norwich famously put it, as being enfolded in the love of Christ, which brings us a new security, identity, and value. Our self-worth is grounded in being loved by God.
Science is wonderful at raising questions. Some can be answered immediately; some will be answerable in the future through technological advance; and some will lie beyond its capacity to answer—what my scientific hero sir Peter Medawar (1915–87) referred to as “questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer.” What Medawar has in mind are what the philosopher Karl Popper called “ultimate questions,” such as the meaning of life. So does acknowledging and engaging such questions mean abandoning science? No. it simply means respecting its limits and not forcing it to become something other than science.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) put his finger on the point at issue here. Scientists are human beings. If we, as human beings, are to lead fulfilled lives, we need more than the partial account of reality that science offers. We need a “big picture,” an “integral idea of the universe” . . .
Scientific truth is exact, but it is incomplete.” We need a richer narrative, linking understanding and meaning. That is what the American philosopher John Dewey (1859– 1952) was getting at when he declared that the “deepest problem of modern life” is that we have failed to integrate our “thoughts about the world” with our thoughts about “value and purpose.”
So we come back to that haunting and electrifying sense of wonder at the world . . . I gradually came to realize that we need a richer and deeper vision of reality if we are to do justice to the complexity of the world and live out meaningful and fulfilling lives. So just what are we talking about? The quest for God.