How Science Is Resurrecting the Religious Imagination?

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How Science Is Resurrecting the Religious Imagination

...Who is to say medical science should not enter the atrium between life and death as agony sets in? Why not meddle in the other end of existence, quickening? Why not pursue purity and perfection, rewrite our genetic code and reach for immortality through cloning? We stole fire from the gods. Why not the breath of life?

That we can’t answer these questions with any convincing moral authority defines today’s epochal juncture. Liberal democracy, no less a consumer society wedded to the scientific worldview, cannot offer a defense on its own terms of the person or of human dignity when faced with such questions. There is only a utilitarian reply. “Health,” “longevity” or “saving a life” are the only standards. If that is what most people want, and that is what science can do, then what’s the problem?

Science has no knowledge of being. It can only report that we are a collection of cells. A bundle of nerves. An immune system. “Being,” “the person” and “human dignity” are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination. In Islam, our body is God’s trust. In the Judeo-Christian heritage the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God’s grace, made in God’s image.

If we no longer believe in this link between the person and the sacred, as the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has reflected, the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess...
...Even that foremost European voice of secular reason, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has arrived at a similar conclusion. In a conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict, Habermas asked whether, “modern democracies of necessity must draw from moral — especially religious — sources that they cannot themselves produce.” He concludes that liberal democracies must leave a wide open space for religious expression and religious forms of life, particularly when confronting issues at the frontiers of science.

In a later book, “Time of Transitions,“ Habermas is even clearer, saying that the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy — the benchmarks of Western civilization. “To this day we have no other options,” he writes. “We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Habermas goes on to contest “unbridled subjectivity,” which he sees as clashing with, “what is really absolute; that is ... the unconditional right of every creature to be respected in its bodiliness and recognized in its otherness as an ‘image of God.’”...
...Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, was known for his study of the so-called Axial Age when all the great religions and philosophies were born around the same time over two millennia ago — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Homer’s Greece and the Hebrew prophets. Writing in 1949, he also doubted that our civilization was up to the spiritual challenge presented by our scientific advances. He, too, felt that, “the dissolution of modern thought has not been able to offer anything of real content out of its own origin, because the simplicity of depth does not exist in any new shape, and could hardly assert its new shape if it were to come into being, without having preserved the former content” of the Axial Age awakenings.

What is certain is that the faster the pace and the greater the scope of scientific discovery, the more the religious imagination will be stirred. As French philosopherHenri Bergson wrote of our technological society in “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,” “in this disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains what it was, i.e., too small to fill it and too feeble to direct it. ... this enlarged body awaits the supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical.”

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it in more definitive terms. “As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification,”...