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Monday, December 29, 2008

Fear (and Respect) in Faith & Science

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: In our lifetimes, we have been blessed by the benefits of science and technology. Our life spans have been lengthened, and our conveniences have been multiplied. Yet, as powerful as these advances have been in providing a new type of security, the randomness of life always seems to present us with age-old questions for which there seems to be too few answers. There is no doubt that these are “challenging” times.
When everything is going well, we hardly seem to take into consideration the powerful and fear-inducing reality that randomness can create. The fear of the unknown, the fear of what will come next, is a powerful force.
One of the strengths of religion is to provide a balance in life, a sense of being rooted, especially when life throws us off course. This is not religion as a “crutch.” It is religion as a reminder that in difficult times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are part of something greater than ourselves. This is not religion as “fear” in the sense of a belief in a punishing, vengeful God that demands obedience through terror. This is the “fear” of God in the sense of the Hebrew root of the word, which reflects a sense of awe and respect (as in the commandment to “fear" one’s parents—to respect them). People do need to sense that they count for something, are part of something, and that life has meaning. In these difficult times of economic and political uncertainty, a sense of this respect for a greater meaning in life is especially relevant.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy is the editor of the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition. In the recent issue, he writes about the role of fear (as respect) in relation to science. He asks if “modern science” has actually made us feel more secure. “Can we honestly claim,” he asks, “that our lives are free of uncertainty in the areas that count?” He cites the changes now taking place in the employment field and the reality of uncertainty that pervades so many workplaces. He cites the uncertainties of contemporary family life. “Because sheer physical survival is not your primary problem in life, these anxieties and tribulations are more important to you than they would have been in another era," he writes. "No, science certainly doesn’t bestow upon you an easy mastery over your life.”
Mastery of our lives rests within our own hands and choices. Faith in oneself to make those choices sacred is supported by and enriched through faith. But faith in what? A blind faith is appealing because it may provide answers to everything. However, the operative word may be “blind.” Real faith, the kind that sustains, I feel, is faith that is open to possibilities. Doubt, questioning, and change may be the glue that binds true belief.
And at the heart of the matter may be the understanding that life is rarely a “black and white” situation. Indeed, navigating life’s challenges (be they good or less than good) requires the ability to deal with shades of gray. In all of this is the basic religious concept that we are not alone; we, as Ecclesiastes 1 reminds us, are part of an eternal flow of history. In that flow, we strive to seek our own sense of mission and meaning. Science can help us make sense of and understand the world around us, even the world within us. Yet, it will be the role of religion to help give meaning to those understandings. In the end, science and religion help create the kind of world and person that we become.