September 2, 1997
Volume 50, No. 2
History is littered with instances in which religion and science clashed in their views, often with deadly results. But for Hoyt Oliver, the two don't have to be at odds at all.
Oliver, the Pierce professor of religion at Oxford College, received a $10,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to teach a religion course titled "Science and Religion: Starting With Wondering" next spring. The course, which had a test run last spring, will examine how both scientific curiosity and religious beliefs spring from the same source of emotion.
"What I feel [science and religion] have in common is a human sense of wonder when we confront reality," Oliver said. "In one direction, it leads off into curiosity and is the root of science and trying to understand how. And in the other direction, it leads off into the experience of awe and of reverence, into religion and the arts.
"If you read the stories of most of the really outstanding scientists-like Newton, Galileo, Einstein-almost all of them express this sense of wonder," Oliver said. "It's a participatory, almost mystical experience. Then, of course, they had to put it into the rational and empirical framework, but the ideas themselves didn't come out of the laboratory-they came out of this sense of wonder."
The course will be team-taught by Oliver and several Oxford faculty from astronomy, anthropology, math, botany, physics and other departments. As lead instructor, Oliver runs the course and sets the schedule. The guest lecturers appear throughout the quarter and also are invited to participate in the class' LearnLink online discussions.
Those discussions should get a bit murky. Starting with aphorisms like "religion and science do not conflict except when one tries to be the other" and "creation is story; evolution is theory; both are true," Oliver plunges deeper into examining the commonalities-and fallacies-of philosophical and metaphysical thought throughout the ages from all corners of the globe.
"The big mistake most people in religion have made, particularly in this century, is the idea of trying to make the truth of religion into empirical fact," Oliver said. "I would trace that back to Descartes' split between mind and body, or between subject and object. I try to get across that religion and its stories are much more like poetry; it involves the self and its theological truth, not its empirical truth."
Oliver calls the relationship between scientific and religious thought more "complementary," as in the Taoist concept of yin and yang. "Neither can exist by itself," he said. "Each is defined in relation to the other."
Indeed, Oliver's own religious beliefs are living proof of the theory of relativity: "I'm an ordained United Methodist minister, and my metaphysics are Taoist, and my spiritual practice is Zen Buddhist," he said matter-of-factly. "I just take them all lightly."
Oliver is excited about the interdisciplinary nature of this class and is grateful to the Templeton Foundation for the grant.
John Marks Templeton, an international investment manager, founded the foundation in 1987 to encourage the discovery of scientific knowledge about God and natural laws. In the past three years the Templeton Foundation Science and Religion Course Program has awarded grants to nearly 300 courses around the world. The professor and the institution equally split the $10,000 grant.
The course will carry two prerequisites. "I want [students] to take an introductory religion course so I can unlearn them and get them thinking appropriately about religion," Oliver said with a smile. "And I want them to have had the natural science course so they can have an introduction to the scientific way of thinking. I wouldn't want anybody to come cold into it."
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