Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould

Gould’s book is enlightening and generous; and which has certainly been influential in recent discussions of science and religion. Despite Dawkins incredulity, Gould’s position does possess a certain parsimony and beauty. Moreover, those Mormons familiar with Lowell Bennion will feel a sense of déjà vu while reading Gould’s monograph. These issues aside, I want to explore in some detail the ways in which the NOMA push against each other, for as Gould argues ‘if some contradiction seems to emerge between a well-validated scientific result and a conventional reading of scripture, then we had better reconsider our exegesis, for the natural world does not lie’ (p. 21).

The problem I sense in this view is the ability to separate these two magisteria completely; primarily because of something implied in what Gould notes here. This concerns the way in which the questions which each discipline raises are interrelated with the questions and answers obtained in the opposing magisteria. Science, through studying nature, inevitably (especially if we take it seriously) raises specific questions for Religion about the nature of God and Man in the universe. Gould emphatically denies miracles, ‘operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat’ (p. 85). It is not so much that I find this idea problematic but rather this position raises very deep and specific problems for certain varieties of Christianity (as one form of religion).

Resurrection, for example, conceived in the Mormon tradition is a belief that upon death the spirit becomes separated from the body and that at some future point, as demonstrated by Jesus, God will re-embody those spirits. Though it is possible that resurrection is part of some enigmatic natural law it is rather more likely that this must be considered as a miracle. The issue here is that certain moral and ethical questions are, for Mormons, based upon this theological premise. To then argue that these magisteria are non-overlapping seems to neglect the radical implications that these scientific assumptions (and subsequent questions) have upon Religion.

Moreover, one potentially negative reading of Gould’s position is that the realm of the Religious magisteria is minimal. This is not, perhaps, what Gould intends and yet the increasing secularisation of Western Europe (cf. Bruce) which must be contrasted with the increasing religiosity in many parts of the world suggest that the relations between the magisteria is not determined by some a priori assumption about the relations between ethical and scientific questions. Rather, these processes are embedded in a variety of other social contexts.

In short, though Gould’s book captures a provocative resolution to the debates between science and religion he seems to sidestep the ways in which these magisteria are constructed and influence one another.

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