In the fall of 2011, I was invited to give The Vivian J. Lamb Lecture on Science and Religion at Villanova University. The text of my hour-long talk ran to more than 6,000 words, and as far as I know it was never published anywhere. I’ve been publishing it here in three parts; this is the third and final part.
The fact is, the greatest creation that each of us gets to make is our own lives. We start with the cards that are dealt to us – the situation into which we were born, the talents and limitations we were each of us given at birth – and then we have the chance to form and shape them into something new, something never done before.
Our lives are our own personal science fiction novels. (Of course it’s science fiction; it takes place in the future, doesn’t it?)
Granted, there’s only so much we can write, ourselves; sometimes the other characters just won’t behave the way we wanted. Or expected. But they wouldn’t be real if they only jumped when you pulled their strings.
That’s true of characters in novels, too, by the way. More than one writer has described how the characters and plots in their books surprise them.
For example, in her journals the fantasy writer Madeline L’Engle described what happened when she was writing The Arm of the Starfish. She said, “I had the story thoroughly plotted, and there was no Joshua Archer in it. Nevertheless, when [the hero] Adam Eddington woke up in the Ritz Hotel in Lisbon, there was a young man sitting in his room, a young man named Joshua Archer, and Joshua was as much of a surprise to me as he was to Adam, and he changed the plot radically. He made me rewrite at least half the book.” Actually, he turns out to be the central character in the book… not the point of view character, but the one that everything else revolves around.
And, of course, it’s true in science. The universe doesn’t always behave the way we expect it. When that happens, it’s called, opportunity. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov is said to have said, “the most exciting thing you can hear in the lab is not ‘Eureka’ but, ‘hmmm… that’s funny…’ ”
The art – and it is an art, based on a hunch, closely related to a feeling – is knowing when to attack the funniness by assuming it’s just a flaw in your set-up, and when to admit that you’ve actually found something real and new. Faster than light neutrinos, anyone? That’s precisely the argument we’re seeing play out there, right now.
And this is a way that treating religion and science as story helps. We’ve all read enough stories to know, instinctively, when a story “gets it” right or wrong. Those same instincts help guide us into giving credence to a particular possible scientific explanation. Hearing it as a story lets us ask if we believe in it enough to spend the time looking for the data that will prove or disprove it.
It’s no accident that the Gospels, the heart of our Christian scripture, are stories and not theological discourses. Jesus taught by telling parables. We can hear a story, evaluate it against our own human experience of life, and by instinct draw a lesson from it. (Sometimes not the lesson intended, of course – like the guy who heard the story of the Prodigal Son and asked, “after the son finally goes back to his father, who takes care of the pigs?”) And you remember stories… which is more than you can say about most of the Epistles you hear on a Sunday.
But let’s not forget an important distinction between reality and story. Reality is what happened; story is how we tell it. One of the differences between story and real life, which you learn when you start trying to write it yourself, is that…
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