Photo by epsos on flickr

Sermon for Science and the Imagination

My wife and I attended a Christmas Eve service in an Episcopalian Church. We’re not religious, but we grew up steeped in various religious traditions and nostalgically love to hear Christmas carols. So we’ve gone the past few years, each time taking in the entirety of the service – the offering, communion, sermon, etc. – as a package with a haunting rendition of Silent Night by candlelight.

It may seem odd to open one’s blogging for the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) with a tale from church. But it was also a little odd to go to a church and hear a sermon about science and the imagination.

The priest, who knew his audience was larger than usual thanks to visitors like us, delivered his message in a welcoming spirit, and took the opportunity to muse on the contemporary place of God and the church. What stood out were the aspects of the contemporary world he emphasized. The quotes are paraphrased, but included:

“Where is God in a world of iPads? Of urban living, space travel and laser-eye surgery?”

“The story of Jesus’s birth was shared with shepherds. The Gospels were written for a rural audience: how does that translate to the age of the internet?”

“Science tells us more and more about how the world works. We know so much more than the people of Jesus’s time did. We know about chemistry, about DNA, about relativity. What does God have left to do? Where is He?”

The answer was stunning:

“Where is God? He is … in dreams. In your imagination. You can relate to Him because you can imagine it.”

In our contemporary world of science and technology, God lives in the imagination? Hearing the place of God identified as a place traditionally associated with fantasy was theologically bizarre. I’ll happily have that conversation at another time, but for my purposes here, what struck me was a series of assumptions:

1. Technology, science and knowledge (TSK) are antithetical to God and/or traditional views including religion. This means (for some) that TSK are Very Bad Things.

2. Expanses of time – the time of the Bible to now – disallow understanding. The world changes so drastically that we struggle to relate to times outside our own.

3. It is the imagination that can help us relate across these expanses of time. It is also the imagination that gives comfort and hope in a technological age.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the relationship between CSI’s vision and this account of the relationship of time, technology and imagination. For point one, the TSK that CSI-types find inherently cool and exciting are characterized as inherently threatening to certain traditional views. This is not a new thought – we have a historically interesting word for people professing that attitude, “Luddites” – but it does mesh well with dystopian visions of future TSK. If current TSK threatens traditional values, it’s not a huge leap to imagine that future TSK threatens current values.

(Fwiw, I don’t think TSK and religion or other traditional views are inherently incompatible or antithetical, and I think the tendency of both pro- and anti-TSK thinkers to make that claim has unintended consequences. This argument drives some of my research in science communication, and in upcoming posts I hope to explore this notion).

For point two, it seems that CSI has the same concern about relating disparate times, only CSI’s concern drives the opposite direction. We are concerned about understanding and relating to future times instead of times past. The same relationship, that the different time is weird and scary, is there. Only with the future, it is coming at us. But, we believe, we are able to change both the future and how we relate to it.

Point three fascinates me most. I don’t typically conceive of futurists and centuries-old religious bodies as sharing premises. That characterization of the imagination, though, could come from either “camp.” Obviously in practice each one uses the imagination differently and has different concepts of comfort and hope. But the emphasis that the imagination, with all its flights of fancy, is a tool of getting at comfort and truth is a powerful one. That these sides share a “faith” – sorry – and optimism regarding the capacity of humans to transcend time and complicated circumstances strikes me that CSI’s mission, while fundamentally about the future, is really a timeless one.

These thoughts of the limitless capacity of imagination inspired one more thought: we CSI-types should remain open-minded about the places, modes and communities that can inspire. I went to a church seeking nostalgia and ended up thinking about my CSI blog post. My imagination of the future may need some work, because I did not see that coming.